Sunday, May 22nd

The Holy Trinity

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Prayer of the Day:  Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Does any of this stuff matter anymore?” That question was raised by a lay theology student in a class I was teaching on basic Christian Doctrine during a discussion of the Holy Trinity. This individual was not alone in her sentiments. More than a few of my congregants and even some of my colleagues question whether the assertions hammered out in the church councils and given expression in the Ecumenical Creeds still matter. “All that matters is that we follow Jesus.” This student went on to say.

In a way, I agree with her. Following Jesus is everything. Preaching, Bible Study and catechesis are not worth spit if they don’t lead us deeper into worship and discipleship. In a world threatened by war, famine, ecological destruction and gross injustice, how can we justify time spent obsessing over abstract doctrines of God? One colleague of mine jokes that you can question the Nicene Creed with impunity in my denomination, but God forbid you should be caught serving bottled water at a church event or using the wrong pronoun for the deity. We mainliners are not alone in this indifference to doctrinal precision. Christians who characterize themselves as “conservative evangelicals” seem far more interested these days in defining marriage, regulating sexuality, policing public lavatories and keeping “god” in the Pledge of Allegiance than defending central tenants of the faith set forth in the creeds. If John Shelby Spong and Franklin Graham seem to agree on anything, it is that doctrines like the Trinity are not particularly important to Christian faith and life.

Saint Augustine would take issue with us on that score. Augustine was no ivory tower theologian. He was about as immersed in his own contemporary culture as a person can be. He had lived his life under numerous doctrines about the nature of God and learned from bitter experience that it makes a huge difference what we say and believe about God. This is so precisely because the heart of the creator determines the shape of creation and dictates how we treat the earth and our fellow creatures both human and non-human. Christians confess that God created the world “ex nihilo,” that is, out of nothing. Strictly speaking, that is true, but in a larger sense we must say that God created the world out of love. The world exists not to meet some divine need. God was not lonely. It is because God is not a monad having only God’s single self to love that the world is not simply God’s ant farm. Because the love of God the Father has always had an object distinct yet within God’s self, namely, the Son, and because the love between Father and Son is a spiritual projection of God’s self, “the universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but the Three in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” by Richard Leach, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 412.

Augustine’s Trinitarian arguments have often been criticized as mere word games. Yet I believe that there is a substantive basis for his insistence on the necessity of God’s being Triune. If God were merely one, could it still be said that God’s nature and character is love? Without an object, love can only be self directed-which is not genuine love at all. Consequently, if God were one and not Triune, love could not have preexisted creation as it would have had no object. The essence of God would then have to have been something other than love. Rather than God’s very being, love would be only an acquired divine attribute, a creature of God’s making rather than the essence of who God is.

Because God is Triune, love, faithfulness, obedience, friendship and community are eternal. They pre-existed creation in the being of the Triune God. That is why they require our witness, but never our defense. God’s will must be done and God’s kingdom must come because the forces resisting it are not within God and thus not eternal. Sin has no staying power. Evil cannot go the distance. Violence cannot silence the Word. Death cannot keep Jesus in the grave. Our hope for a new heaven and a new earth, says Augustine, is based on the conviction that the essence of the Triune God is love between the persons of the Trinity, love that God desires to share with all humankind. If God were less than Triune, God would be other than love and love would be less than eternal. If love matters to you, the Trinity should matter too.

Here’s a poem by Ariana Reines that speaks of love as a disruptive force that just “is.” I think Augustine would agree.

[Love]

Is an interruption or an aberration, a force in opposition to the ultimate inertia
of the universe,
 
Wrote Marguerite Duras.
 
Whether or not it is worth it it occurs. Whether or not it is to be believed it is.
 
The wind moves us without a frond being needed to be held by a slave girl.
 
The rudiments of sentences are ancient without a mouth needing to remember
what it is losing as it lets those words out, something eviller than what they
even mean right now, something too evil to be known right now
 
Or ever.
 
I feel sure that even the most culpable people have other qualities secreted
away
 
Adjusting their garments in light of fate
 
He turned his head upward, he looked up the white wall. The light from the
lamp could be light coming from a great distance, it could be a great distance
away, and the wall could be snow it is so beautiful, he said. His head looking
up the wall, his eyes looking up it, he said, that nail in the wall could also be
beautiful, for so far away.

Source: Mercury, (c. 2011 by Ariana Reines, pub. by Fence Books). Ariana Reines was born in Salem, Massachusetts. She is a poet, playwright and translator. She has taught at Columbia University and the European Graduate School. In 2009 Reines was the Roberta C. Holloway Lecturer in Poetry at the University of California-Berkeley, the youngest poet to ever to have held that distinctive position. She is deeply committed to humanitarian causes and has often traveled to Haiti to take part in relief efforts there. You can read more about Ariana Reines and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

I am not at all sure why this reading is included among the Holy Trinity lessons. It just happens to be one of the texts that the Arian heretics cited in support of their claim that the Son was a creature (albeit an exalted one) and in no sense true God. In this particular text, wisdom is not a pre-existent divine being distinct from God, but an aspect or characteristic of God who is poetically endowed with speech. Thus, it is largely irrelevant to the dispute between the Arians and the Orthodox Trinitarian believers. Still, it is a wonderful text testifying to the beauty and order of creation and the glory of its Creator.

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of poems and short sayings dating from as early as the tenth century B.C.E. to as late as the fourth century B.C.E. Unlike the Psalms which are for the most part expressions of prayer, praise, and lament within the context of worship, Proverbs is concerned with universal and pragmatic “wisdom” and the means by which it is acquired. Though clearly influenced by Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom literature, Israel’s understanding of wisdom has its own unique flavor. Though it shares with these foreign sources a humanistic focus on reasoned inquiry into the natural world, Israelite wisdom identifies the divine will and purpose as the ultimate human good wisdom reveals. Truth acquired through reason is open to the whole of humanity. Still, for Israel wisdom is subordinate to Israel’s God. It functions within the context of Israel’s covenants and the Torah.

In view of all this, it is not surprising that the particular poem in this week’s lesson affirms that wisdom, as wonderful as she is and though accessible to all willing to submit to her instruction, is nevertheless God’s creation. The human mind can do no more than appropriate what already exists by virtue of God’s creative activity at the dawn of time. Wisdom therefore necessarily takes the shape of Torah. It is not that Israel forsakes reasoned inquiry for blind adherence to law. Nor can it be said that Israel’s keen spirit of inquiry runs contrary to Torah obedience. Rather, Torah both shaped Israel’s questions of the natural world and informed her conclusions. Perhaps the clearest case of incorporation of wisdom into Torah is found in the very lengthy Psalm 119. Though the psalmist praises Torah as the source of all wisdom, it is obvious his/her own wisdom has been forged in the furnace of experience where Torah meets the challenges of everyday life.

Psalm 8

This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.

The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware of it when asking “what are human beings and their descendants that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.

It is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth]look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. Ecology is very much a biblical value!

Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.

Romans 5:1-5

For Paul, the Holy Spirit is the animating force for the church which he regards as the Body of the resurrected Christ. As such, the Spirit’s primary concern is the health of that Body. Gifts of the Spirit given individually to members of the church are intended to “build up” the Body of Christ. Thus, it matters not at all which particular gift one has, but how one uses his or her gift. Whether one speaks in other tongues, prophesies, works miracles or exercises leadership, the net result must be that the church is strengthened. If leadership divides and alienates rather than unites or if miracles draw attention to the miracle worker rather than to the mercy of God in Christ, then these gifts become tools of Satan to break down the Body. Paul lays out all of this very succinctly inI Corinthians 12. Put differently, spiritual gifts must be exercised under the gentle reign of love. Of all the manifestations of the Spirit within the church, “the greatest of these is love” I Corinthians 13:13. That should help us understand what Paul is saying here in Romans.

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Vs. 5. Recall Augustine’s assertion that the Trinitarian character of God is revealed in the love between the Father and the Son which is the Holy Spirit. Genuine love, however, is not exclusive. It “overflows” the bounds of the relationships that give rise to it. Perhaps that is what we mean when we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. Love is ever seeking new objects. It is precisely because the one God is also three and because the relationship between the three is characterized by their mutual love and because love by its very nature makes room for the other, the Spirit of God, which is love, broods over the waters at the dawn of time seeking that other. The Word beckons the other into being and the Father blesses what comes to be. Again, this is not to say that the universe was the work of a committee. Rather, creation is a singular act of the Triune God which bears the stamp of that God’s innermost Trinitarian being.

It is perhaps clearer now why Jesus could say that the two greatest commandments are first to love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Such love is grounded in the innermost being of God.

John 16:12-15

In this tightly packed paragraph from John, Jesus speaks of the interaction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth will be given to the disciples and will lead them into “all the truth.” Yet the Spirit speaks not on its own authority, but on the authority of the Father. However, the Spirit imparts “truth” to the disciples by “taking what is mine [Jesus’) and declaring it to you.” The disciples are recipients of the Spirit who comes from the Father and whose sole job is to impart Jesus to them. Once again, the sending of the Spirit is a unitary act of the one Triune God by which the disciples are drawn into the heart of God’s Trinitarian life of mutual love. Not surprisingly, this section of John was a favorite of our friend Augustine (on whom I have perhaps gone a little heavier than I should have!).

 

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