Debra Murphy of the Ekklesia Project in writing to clergy persons trained and able to elucidate the fine distinctions between, say, Augustine and Origen or Moltmann and Marshall suggests that they may not be up on the latest treatise on the Trinity to capture the popular imagination: a little self-published book called The Shack. She suggests, they should be, not because it’s a good book— that’s debatable. But because its sales are in the stratosphere and it is loved—fiercely loved—by an astounding number of Christians of all stripes. She believes The Shack has struck such a chord with people because most people have not learned much about the Trinity from their participation in church life. This may be particularly true for we Quakers who seem to be, at least by other’s standards, liturgically deficient
thus not finding much opportunity to use the Trinitarian formula. For denominations that use water baptism as a sign of inclusion, whether with adults or infants, the essential words are: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirt…” Those who use the sacrament of Holy Communion it is pretty typical that the wafers and wine or the saltines and Welchs grape juice are offered after being somehow consecrated by the intonation of that same formula. It is voiced over and over by clergy and heard repeatedly by congregants – Quakers being one of the few exceptions. It is such a common piece of worship that we can easily miss the fact that the justice, equality, freedom, and generosity that Christian communities seek to embody in our common life all have their source in this complex, Trinitarian, understanding of God; a view of God in which “none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal and co-equal.” That’s how the Athanasian Creed explains the Trinity.
One of the primary arguments used by Islamic clerics to dismiss Christian missionary efforts is to point to the trinitarian formula as proof positive that instead of being monotheists we have three distinct gods in our pantheon, There are times when listening to popular gospel music that I think the Muslims have a point.
For those who love systematic theology—it’s beauty, order, symmetry— The Shack’s popular treatment of the Trinity can be critiqued without breaking a sweat. Maybe it has been due to our reaction to traditional patriarchal theism but we, and by that I mean theologians, pastors, preachers, and religious educators, have done a poor job of communicating how it is that all we do as Christ’s body, the Church, is shaped by this pattern of love-in-communion that exists among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Because we haven’t communicated this in imaginative, engaging ways—that is, given our failure to help others see in worship, in preaching, in missions, etc. that they already “know” what the Trinity is, people have gone elsewhere for their theology; they always do. Those are the ones reading The Shack.
Today is Trinity Sunday, a time for us to celebrate the great mystery that our understanding of God holds. Throughout the centuries, theologians have sought to define just how it is that the Creator God, the incarnate Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit dwell together and with all of creation. Symbols of the Trinity abound, evidence of our desire to describe a being that comprises a community within itself. Trinity Sunday is a day in which we praise and adore this infinitely complex and unfathomable mystery of God’s being to which we point when we speak of the Trinity. For half a year, beginning in November, we have been invested in the seasons of the church year; Advent, Epiphany, Lent and the Easter all based on the mighty acts of the triune God. We are about to enter the second half of the year, the season after Pentecost, when each Sunday is also based upon some particular act of God. On this transitional Sunday it is appropriate that we pause to give ourselves over to the adoration and praise of the being of God as distinct from the acts of God. It is always difficult to separate the doing from the being, especially so for it is part of the very nature of the God to be in action, to work in relationship within itself and in cooperation with creation.
In our Gospel reading for today we read the words that are, according to Matthew, Jesus’ final words to his disciples.
Matthew 28: 16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
His words here are about the closest thing we have to an articulation of the Trinity in scripture. In this passage that we often call the Great Commission, Jesus tells them to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Jesus never uses the term “Trinity,” that is our word, and he offers nothing like a doctrine of its nature. But he lets us see that the ways in which we have perceived God at work exist in an inextricable relationship that propels us to be in relationship with the world, to live in service and to cultivate community. “And remember,” Jesus tells them at the last, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” I am with you, he says: that being thing again, invariably bound together with the doing thing, an endless spiral of action and existence in which it dwells, and calls us to dwell as well.
In order to impress on the Israelites the importance of a particular way of life, Moses reminds them of the extraordinary character of the God who calls for this commitment. This is not a deity who simply seeks to control lives; this is the source of life itself. This God took personal interest in a relatively insignificant people and continues to show interest in us today. To use the words of the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, this is a God who is not only with us, but who is for us as well.
Paul makes an astonishingly bold statement, telling us that we have “received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” Romans 8:12-17
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. We are not only a chosen people, “we are children of God.” As a metaphor, “father” signifies source of life, loving protector, attentive guide. These relational attributes are profoundly intimate. Furthermore, as heirs of God we are “joint heirs with Christ.” We enjoy a relationship that is both with God as father and with Christ, who is now our brother. These relationships are anything but impersonal.
What we know about God’s nature, we know from Jesus. He it is who told us that he proceeded from the Father and that the Spirit is his own Spirit. It is through Jesus that we were brought into the intimacy of the divine “family,” baptized into its threefold name. His life, death and resurrection shout to the heavens the extent to which “God so loved the world.”
We may know about the mystery of God from Jesus, and our own experience tells us that God is indeed with us and for us. We know that God creates, because we are immersed in creation; we are in fact a marvelous example of God’s creative artistry. We know that God sustains, because we are cared for by the very world within which we live. We know that God saves, because even now we are being freed from the bondage of our addictions, from the tyranny of our demons. Whether or not we understand the Athanasian Creed or can make much sense of the Trinitarian formula we can live assured that we live in the embrace of the loving God.
Holiness, majesty and mystery characterize Isaiah’s God. The people of Judah needed a God of such dimensions in order to find their way. We too need such a God if we are to find our way through the transitions we face. For we cannot understand how an indulgent God can be present amid discomfort, dislocation and despair nor how a God of bland acceptance can exhibit the righteous wrath of a prophetic call to change. And we cannot live graciously and peacefully with each other in the face of tragedy unless we have a God who is complex and resilient. Although high and lofty, our God is not distant. The God Isaiah saw touched his lips and sent him forth to speak. This holy God was and is still Immanuel, God with us. God’s revelation is a profound disclosure of character and purpose. But even amid such self-disclosure, the majestic strangeness and otherness of a holy Lord inspires awe.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”