Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection June 14, 2020
The Trinity of God - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
What do we know about God? The only true answer is: not much! The only thing we can know about God for certain is that we don’t know God. Sisters and brothers, let me say this clearly: God can’t be known in any significant way. Yet we can move towards God.
Remember what the Scripture scholar, Barbara Bowe, stated in our first book study nearly 12 years ago, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality: “Speaking about God is learning to say the least wrong thing about God because anything we might say is, by definition, always wrong. Wrong because our words can never fully capture or name adequately the infinite mystery we call God.”
There we have it! But today with righteous caution, I will humbly try to paint a picture of who God is. As we well know by now, I do not speak for God. No one speaks for God but God.
All of our language about God is allegorical and metaphorical. God is like this. God is like that. God is not like this. God is not like that. But, brothers and sisters, our language will always fail us as we try to approach the ultimate incomprehensibility of God.
Let me start with a lovely quote from the Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann: “God is the water into which we launch our life raft.” (It would be good to re-read this!)
Today, sisters and brothers, is Trinity Sunday. I foolishly and jokingly promised to unfold for us the mystery of the Trinity. If I actually thought I could do this, I would be certifiably crazy. But with this caveat, let us together push out into the Deep.
Genesis 1:26 is translated thusly: “And God said, let us make a human in our image, by our likeness.” Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness. So even in this early text, we find ourselves confronting a God who is plural, a God of more than One, a God of We, not a God of “I”. Brothers and sisters, have you ever pondered this when reading the first chapter of Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible?
Let me toss in something from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church: “If it is true that God exceeds all our efforts to contain God, then is it too big a stretch to declare that dumbfoundedness is what all Christians have in common? Or that coming together to confess all that we do not know (about God) is at least as sacred as declaring what we think we do know (about God)?”
In the spirit of our common reality of being dumbfounded, let me muddy the waters. Sisters and brothers, our Christian God is a Trinity, a community, a divine weaving together of relationships.
Jesus Christ, by himself, is NOT our God. The Father, the Creator, by himself, is NOT our God. The Spirit, by herself, is NOT our God. Only all three together is who our God really IS. Of course, the Trinity of God is incomprehensible. The Trinity of God is indescribable. The Trinity of God is unnamable.
Our God is NOT some sort of divine committee of Three. The Trinity is not about 3 persons in one God. Such a lame attempt to describe the Trinity has mislead us for centuries. The Trinity asserts that there are 3 WAYS God becomes known to us.
In the formulation of the ancient Christian creeds, the Greek word translated as person is really persona. This implies the roles performed in a play. In the Trinity, God plays 3 roles.
Let me describe a metaphor that may help us. It’s a metaphor I’ve used before. This comes from Brian Wren’s book, What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: “In the 7th Century, John of Damascus used the Greek word Perichoresis (literally ’dance around’) to describe how the 3 divine persons relate to one another. Perichoresis means the 3 persons continually exchange energy, being, and power, so that each partakes of the other. It suggests a beautiful intertwining, unending dance, whose movement flows to and fro between the dancers. Trinitarian metaphors should strive for this sense of dynamic, intertwining, movement.”
Brothers and sisters, I know this may be hard for us to grasp, which is probably why many, for so long, have portrayed God in such lousy ways. We speak of God as “The Man Upstairs” which Richard Rohr claims is a pagan way to portray God.
Any image of God as some sort of monarch, some sort of potentate, sitting on a throne, carefully watching us, getting ready to hurl thunderbolts is more pagan than Christian. Our God is not Zeus. Our God is not Jupiter. Our God is not a monarch, some sort of hierarchical king, lording it over creation. Such an image is pagan, not Christian.
Relationship is the core of our Christian understanding of God. Relationship is who our God is as Trinity.
Sisters and brothers, consider the image of God you were given as a child. I was given the image of a white monarch with a long, white beard, sitting on a cloud, WATCHING everything I did. What image were you given?
I argue that racism has some of its roots in our distorted images of God and our images of Jesus. Jesus was and is a Palestinian. He was not some sort of Aryan blond, blue-eyed character. I believe the healing of systemic racism must involve our images of God. God is NOT a white male. Jesus was NOT, is NOT, a white male. And yet many cling to distorted, sexist, racist images of God.
Let me read from one of my favorite authors: ME! This is from my first book, Shaping a Healthy Religion: “God is not Catholic. God is not Christian. God is not Moslem. God is not American. God is not Russian. God is not white. God is not black. God is not brown. God is not red. God is not yellow.
“God is not what we want God to be. Yet most of us keep trying to make God our own. Those of us who are white think of God as being white. Those of us who are black think of God as being black. And so on. We picture Jesus in similar ways. But in trying to describe God in terms of our racial or national character, we distort God’s image.
“Is it possible to present God without such human colorings? It’s possible but difficult. We can use the concepts found in John’s Letters: God is light. God is love. We need to further develop our God language. God is not an old man sitting on a cloud, off in the heavens. To use such descriptions with our children can only keep them from finding God in their lives.” (slightly edited)
Perhaps it would be wise, brothers and sisters, to portray God not as The Ruler of the Universe but as The Keeper of All There Is. (One can read Psalm 148 to get a good sense of this image.)
We keep trying to name God. This is why I began (Sunday’s service) with the reading from Exodus where God reveals the divine name to Moses (Exodus 3:13-14): “And Moses said to God, ‘Look, when I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’, what shall I say to them?’ And God said to Moses: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will Be.’ And he said, ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh has sent me to you.’” (Robert Alter translation)
Alter, in his wonderful footnotes adds this: “God’s response perhaps gives Moses more than he bargained for … not just an identifying divine name but an ontological divine mystery of the most daunting character. Rivers of ink have since flowed in theological reflection on and philological analysis of this name.”
Now as I’ve preached more than once, we would do well to have a personal, intimate name we use to call upon the divine reality. Let your heart guide you in this. Let your intuition guide you in this. Let your soul guide you in this.
Sisters and brothers, is God accessible to us? Yes, but not in the usual ways we imagine. We so often pray to God, asking for things. It’s like the classic 1970 Janis Joplin song (the last song she recorded three days before her death), Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz? If we’re honest, many of us approach God in such a way.
And, yes, I believe we can ask God for things. But, by and large, we go astray asking God for things. Such a path leads to the heinous “Prosperity Gospel.”
I believe it’s much better to sit in the presence of God quietly, as our Quaker sisters and brothers do. I believe we should seriously curtail asking God for things. God is not some sort of divine vending machine.
God seeks ultimate intimacy with us. God is absolute vulnerability, not at all like some monarch. But to come to this God, we need to strip away the childish notions, the distorted God images, we were raised with.
God is not some celestial version of Santa Claus! God does not sit in judgment, watching, observing every thing we do, noting every thought that flits through our brains. God is not Big Brother writ large!
We seek God in the deepest humility, in the awareness that we know so little about the One we seek. Look at the scale of the universe! In light of the cosmos, how can we claim to be anything but really, really ignorant? As Christian seekers, we need to be content to be ignorant, to be in the dark, to be dumbfounded.
And yet there is a tendency for us to see humility as a weakness. We equate certainty with strength. To say “I don’t know!” strikes many of us as a sign of weakness. We want to claim certainty. We cling to certainty, to certitude, with a death-grip. We think doing so makes us appear strong. It doesn’t!
I’ve encountered many misguided Christians who cling to a dogmatic certitude. Yet I fear such certitude-driven Chrstians are, frankly, trying to hide a shallow, insipid faith. God protect us from those who claim to have all the answers. We have much to fear from them.
Brothers and sisters, we can open our hearts to our God by allowing ourselves to follow our in-born intuition, to allow the divine-seed, the divine-spark (both scriptural images), lead us and guide us, to allow our souls to do what they are meant to do. Thusly we can become open to the all-powerful amazing grace of the Trinity of God, the staggering mercy of the Trinity of God, the all-encompassing love of the Trinity of God.
Let me add something I came across this week regarding the Trinity. This comes from the 12th Century theologian, Richard of St. Victor. Richard argues: For God to be Good, God would only need to be One. For God to be Loving, God would only need to be Two. But for God to be Joy, God needs to be Three.
I will conclude my sermon with the ending of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The ending comes as Dante enters into the indescribable presence of God.
Now my speech will fall further short than a babe’s who still moistens his tongue at the breast … In the profound and shining Being of the deep Light, three circles appeared, of three colors, and one magnitude: one seemingly refracted by the other, and the third seemed fire breathed equally from both. O how the words fall short, and how feeble compared with my conceiving! And they are such, compared to what I saw, that it is inadequate to call them merely feeble … Power here failed the deep imagining: but already my desire and will were rolled, like a wheel that is turned, equally, by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.
Amen, brothers and sisters, Amen and once more, Amen!