Text: John 16:12-15; Romans 5:1-5
I’ll be honest: Trinity Sunday is not my favorite Sunday nor favorite theological topic on hich to preach. I don’t claim to understand the Trinity and for the most part have a healthy skepticism for those who say they do. It reminds me of a childhood experience that I would watch play out every year, just about this time of year. In the summer months, my great-grandmother and grandmother would sit on the front porch of my great-grandmother’s small farmhouse and shell butter beans and shuck corn. That time of year, the flies were at their worst and, it seemed, they loved to be around people shelling butter beans and shucking corn. So my grandfather would buy those yucky hanging fly ribbons and hang them from the ceiling of the porch. You know the ones I’m talking about. They came in a small canister and when you twisted it, it would open up and a long, yellow, sticky-looking ribbon would unfold and hang down about two feet. I found one at the hardware store recently and the package read: “The generations-old, proven, effective fly trapping ribbons. No vapors or mess to clean up—simply throw away when full. Special long-lasting adhesive can catch many other flying insects, including moths and mosquitoes. Thumb tack included.” I would sit on the porch and watch the flies swirl around those ribbons unable to resist whatever that yucky sticky stuff was that attracted them to the trap. At the moment they could no longer resist, they would land on the strip and that sticky stuff rendered them unable to fly away. I always felt sorry for the fly but the memory of the trapped flies would fade as I sat at my grandmother’s table eating those butter beans and corn.
For me, the Trinity is a bit like that long yellow sticky ribbon, and I am the curious, hungry fly. The idea of the Trinity hangs in my theological presence, and I am drawn to circle around it—to try and figure out just exactly what it is that draws me time and again to try and understand its purpose and meaning. What does it have that I need or am looking for? What about it can’t I resist? And so, over the years I have circled around it and eventually land with what I think it means only to find myself trapped in its mysterious stickiness. The Trinity is, at heart, our best – if noticeably inadequate – attempt to capture in words the mysterious nature of the presence of God. It has something to say about both the unity and diversity of God’s presence in our lives and world, and about the importance of community to God and all those whom God has created and loved. As a people of faith and as seekers of God’s presence, it seems to reason that we would spend at least a bit of time asking questions about the Trinity. And so, for two reasons, I am, this morning, circling the Trinity fly ribbon again: to understand it historically and to reimagine its purpose: for how we experience God and God’s work in our lives and our world today.
The two quotes on the front of the worship guide, one by Anne Lamott and the other by Karen Armstrong begin to hint at the basic problem of the Trinity: its relevance or irrelevance to living a life of faith. One theologian wrote: “The basic problem with the doctrine of the Trinity, medieval and modern, is that it seems to be totally isolated within the general body of Christian doctrine, unconnected with other areas and practically irrelevant to living a life of faith.” Theologian Karl Rahner sums up this odd situation even more directly. He writes:
We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged…
If this is true, and I believe it to be so, how did the Doctrine of the Trinity come to be and what was its purpose? While there are instances of church founders referring to the Trinity, or naming the members of the Trinity as early as the end of the first century, it was not until the 4th century at the Council of Nicaea that the creed spelled out the nature of the Trinity as we know it. And as many of you know, all good doctrine gets decided NOT because everyone already agrees, but because there are significant disagreements, in this case about how Jesus the Christ can be divine without somehow ousting God or undermining the one God claim of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Nicaean Council was faced with three competing, controversial interpretations of the trinity. The first camp believed that Jesus was a human man, born to Mary and Joseph, but that he became the Christ and son of God upon his baptism. The second camp posited that the father, son and holy ghost were all one and the same – just different names for the same deity. And finally a third camp argued that God existed before Jesus, and that Jesus was granted the dignity of becoming the “Son of God.” Well, in true Pullen tradition, the council did not adopt any of the three “controversies” as they were known – rather they crafted a doctrine that explained “three in one” – a clever and mysterious mash up of the prevailing wisdom of the day that could bring these factions under one large tent of Trinity.
I often get asked if the concept of the Trinity is biblical. The truth is that scripture contains neither the word Trinity, nor an expressly formulated doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, according to Christian theology, it “bears witness to” the activity of a God who can only be understood in Trinitarian terms. So the next time your dinner conversation turns to the Doctrine of the Trinity (and I’m sure it will) you can, with confidence, say that it’s not a biblical concept; and that it is simply a framework the church fathers devised to talk about the nature of God’s presence; thus the purpose of the Trinity.
For some of us, other than the seemingly irrelevance of the Trinity, there has been another basic problem: the Trinity has been interpreted as all male: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“In recent years it has become increasingly fashionable in liberal theological circles to envision the third person of the Trinity as feminine…It can be argued [and is argued] that the Holy Spirit is really identical with Sophia, the wisdom of God, personified as female in the Old Testament…Certainly, from a practical standpoint, this gender corrective yields tremendous gains. If, as seems sadly true, the church’s exclusively male representation of the inner life of God laid the theological groundwork for an exclusively male political hierarchy that has systematically devalued the place of both the feminine and women in Christianity, then an authentic female representation among the persons of the Trinity would seem a graceful way to redress the grievance and correct the imbalances that have distorted so many areas of the church’s life.” (Cynthia Bourgeault)
But as theologian Cynthia Bourgeault explains, by simply making the Holy Spirit feminine we are “doing the right thing for the wrong reason.” She writes: “However laudable the attempt to secure a feminine presence in the Trinity, the present strategy leads to a serious confusion of metaphysical systems whose long-range effect will be to leave Christianity adrift…” What we are feeling she argues is the need for a more comprehensive re-visioning or reimagining of the Trinity.
Bourgeault has named what has always bothered me about the Trinity and why, like those flies, I keep circling around it getting caught in its stickiness. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, I think, tries to contain and tame a truth about our faith that cannot be contained or tamed, most especially when we try and make it look like us—father, mother, son, daughter, male or female—instead of us molding ourselves in its image—radical love and grace, hope in the face of despair and suffering, a movement that welcomes all.
Remember the story I have told you before about how Mahan summoned me to his office not long into my ministry with you and told me this: that ministry, no matter how hard I tried, was not something I could put in a box, neatly wrap it up and stick a pretty bow on top. Mahan’s words remain a valuable and defining lesson in my life— not just for ministry or for thoughts about the Trinity but for everyday living. Things that are real and have meaning and have relevance in our lives are messy and mysterious, sticky and most often elusive of our understanding. Things that are real and have meaning and relevance for our lives are always changing and evolving. They are often multi-dimensional, holding in tension opposing truths. They are NOT contained nor tamed by our need to keep things simple and tidy and easy.
So why spend this time asking you to think about and ponder the Trinity? Because while religious literature might go virtually unchanged if we dropped the Trinity as false, the question of how we experience God’s presence in our lives and in the world would still exist. And that is something that we need to never stop pondering. Our spiritual fathers and mothers gave us their spiritual insights not to simply protect and defend but rather to nurture and reimagine for our lives and for the world we live in. So, my invitation today is not to just reimagine the Trinity but to reimagine and ponder how we are experiencing God today.
For me, the days of imagining God and God’s presence as Father or Mother, Son or Daughter, or three persons in one or as one in three person is irrelevant. What feels real to me, what holds meaning to me, what has relevance is to pay attention to where we are experiencing truth in the world and in God’s activity in the world and in our lives. Truth not so much with a capital “T” but truth with a little “t.” Truth in your story and my story of where we see God working. Truth in your story and my story and our story of where we feel and sense God’s presence among us. John reminds us that the story of God’s presence in our lives is ongoing. He writes: “I still have many things to say to you…when the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” John reminds us that God is still speaking. Truth is still being revealed. And whenever and wherever we experience truth, God is present.
Paul in his letter to the Romans also helps us imagine and reimagine God’s presence in our lives and world. He reminds us that it is in our sufferings that we know and come close to the presence of God. If you have ever suffered through the dark night of the soul, if you have ever watched someone you love suffer through the dark night of the soul, if you have loved and been hurt, if your eyes are open to the suffering of Syrian refugees then you know how far away and yet how close God’s presence can be—not simply as Father or Son or Holy Spirit. But as despair and longing and hope.
Yes, hope. To imagine or reimagine God’s presence in a way that has meaning and relevance we must imagine HOPE. It’s important to know that talk of hope in Paul’s age was revolutionary, even scandalous. The Stoics warned against hope because it might disappoint. Hedonists scoffed at hope because it meant delaying pleasure. Today’s stoical pundits often scoff at Christian faith as a “false hope.” But if we are going to imagine God’s presence in our lives and in our world, we can’t give up on hope—a hope that sanctifies our daily labor, ordinary relationships, and our everyday struggles and sufferings, both routine and monumental, as the places where God shows up and meets us.
For those early church fathers, and mothers, the importance of and meaning of the Trinity was to try and explain God’s presence in our lives and world. I, for one, think it is still imperative for us to pay attention, to envision, to imagine, and reimagine how and where we see and feel and taste and experience the presence of God. Unlike those before us, we will need more than a Trinitarian view of God. We will need to reimagine God’s presence as more than something that looks like us—a father or mother or son or even a feminine Holy Spirit. We will need to see God’s presence in our truth, in our suffering, in our hope. But in more…through our justice work, in the way we love the stranger, in creatures big and small, human and non-human, in the very energy that flows between us, that is in us, among us and infinitely beyond us. The idea of the Trinity may be dead, useless, irrelevant. But the question that shaped the Trinity from those early church people – “How we talk about God’s presence in our lives” – is very much alive and still at the center of our faith.
There is one difference in me circling that yucky, yellow fly ribbon and those flies. For the flies, there is no good ending. For me, even if and when I get caught in the stickiness of fly ribbon I call the Trinity, I can trust that the sticky goodness I am drawn to is real, that the twisting ribbon holds me in community with a long line of believers, and that I will find myself eventually circling again and again, to taste, however briefly, the mystery that the Trinity represents—the presence of God in our lives and in the world.
I invite you to circle with me that sticky, mysterious, yellow ribbon.