Sunday, May 30, 2021

Sermon: “Beyond Our Ken; Within Our ‘Can’”, Isaiah 6:1-8/John 1:1-5, 9-14 (May 30, 2021--Trinity Sunday)


Today is what’s affectionately known by many preachers as “Heresy Sunday”. Devoting a week’s worship to the Holy Trinity SEEMS like a great idea in principle, but if you’ve ever attempted to explain the Trinity to anyone unfamiliar with the doctrine, you can understand why this is actually one of the most challenging Sundays of the year to preach. The Trinity is such a strange concept—three equal and unified persons of the same substance contained within a single God—that humanity has yet to discover an analogy that doesn’t accidentally slip into heresy in one way or another.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t strictly scriptural. I mean, the Church didn’t come up with the idea out of thin air; references to the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and even all three together are sprinkled throughout both the Old and New Testaments. But generally, they’re mentioned without any explanation as to their nature or relation to one another. Whenever we consider whether a particular statement about the Trinity might be “orthodox” or “heretical,” we’re actually leaning heavily on the work of the Church in the 4th century, rather than on Scripture itself. It was the Council of Nicaea in 325 that established “The Father” and “The Son” as separate persons of the same substance, and the 381 Council of Constantinople that elevated the Spirit to the same status within Christian belief.

After almost 400 years of living in ambiguity regarding the Trinity, these official ecclesial bodies finally gave the Church some answers! …Except that, 1,640 years later, we’re STILL struggling to understand this strange quirk of our faith. It turns out that these assemblies were the very first examples of a Church committee taking a long time to deliberate, only to ultimately decide something divisive and confusing. For all their debate and controversy, the councils really clarified very little for us.

Maybe, though, that’s not necessarily their fault. Maybe we’re not meant to understand the Trinity. Maybe it’s something so far beyond our ken as human beings that we’ll only understand it when we encounter God face to face in the life to come—if even then. Maybe that’s why Scripture doesn’t even attempt any sort of explanation: one isn’t possible.

Consider what the members of these councils had to work with. The closest thing I can think of to a scriptural description of the Trinity is the beginning of John’s Gospel, and this passage makes it clear that God is not meant to be pinned down by our mortal minds. God, the Word, and the Light aren’t direct parallels to the three persons of the Trinity, but through these lyrical words, we’re able to see the faintest glimmer of what the eternal, playful dance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit must be like, still without gaining any real intellectual understanding: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was WITH God, AND the Word WAS God…What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people…” No logical explanation, no clear analogy, no precise definition can come as close to capturing the essence of the Trinity—somehow both/and, God with and through and as Godself—as these enigmatic words do. And maybe we just have to be content with that.

I think that this might be why I’m so often drawn to the Old Testament readings in the Lectionary. The disciples are always nagging Jesus for explanations in the Gospels; Paul is always trying to offer them through his letters. But the Old Testament doesn’t really seem to have this incessant lust for understanding. It rarely attempts to assign explicit meaning to its stories. It just presents them as they were handed down through the centuries and allows the reader to hear whatever it is that the Spirit is trying to communicate in the moment.

While appealing to my theological side, this can sometimes makes preaching the Old Testament a frustrating experience. The Lectionary’s choice of Isaiah’s call story for Trinity Sunday is a strange one. God’s question in verse 8, “Who will go for US?” is the only apparent reference that could be even vaguely interpreted as alluding to three persons in one God, and that connection is tenuous at best. But if we let go of our obsessive need to understand WHAT God is, the mechanics of the Trinity, if we can step back and try to see through Isaiah’s eyes, maybe, like him, we can begin to see what it is that we REALLY need to understand.

When Isaiah sees the Lord in his vision, the dramatic scene doesn’t suggest anything about the confusing nature of WHAT God is. No mention of a son or a spirit; not even any inkling (aside from the angels surrounding the throne) that Isaiah is in the presence of anything even remotely difficult to understand. In fact, Isaiah sees God in a context that’s not innately divine at all: if you cut out the Seraphim and replace the word “Lord” with “King,” this passage could just as easily be describing any earthly ruler.

We usually read God’s divinity into this passage, attributing the mysterious, immortal, somehow-one-but-also-three substance to the Lord that we’ve been conditioned to assume ever since the first time we walked into a sanctuary. We allow that idea to color how we imagine God in every context. But while it’s not wrong, it’s also not what Isaiah’s vision describes. He doesn’t spend any time attempting to explain God’s material substance. Instead, he focuses on the QUALITIES of God’s nature rather than its composition.

THIS he has the language for; THIS is something that the human brain can begin to comprehend. Isaiah sees God as a king not because God literally sits in a throne the sky all day, making royal proclamations. Isaiah sees God as a king because that’s an image within his ken to which he could refer to try and understand what it was he needed to know about God in that moment. He had no frame of reference for “three persons in one God,” but he had encountered a king before. It was a simple matter to imagine God as a superlative king, one with the highest throne, the largest robe, the loudest admirers, and the greatest authority and power. Through the lens of his preexisting human knowledge, Isaiah finds that he can describe some of God’s qualities. Although no metaphor (heretical or otherwise) is sufficient to precisely convey the full concept of the Trinity to the human mind, at least this vision is able to get Isaiah a little bit closer to the knowledge of God that matters.

Instead of doing mental gymnastics to try and understand WHAT God is, maybe we should take a page out of Isaiah’s book and spend more energy trying to understand WHO God is. In Isaiah’s context, his country was beset by the threat of foreign invasion and impending exile, so his vision of God as the most powerful of all rulers spoke directly to the aspect of God’s nature that he most needed to know. In our context, a mighty king might not be the aspect of God that WE need to recognize at this moment. Perhaps if we were to see a divine vision of God today, we would see an empathetic therapist, helping us to examine our own flaws while still feeling heard. Or maybe a peacemaking diplomat, creating compassion and compromise out of hostilities and hatred. Between the escalating aggressions between Israel and Palestine right now and the bitter division afflicting our own country, God knows that we need to understand THIS particular character of the divine far more than we need to agree on the semantics of what God is “made up of”.

After all, the one thing about the Trinity that we can know for certain is that God exists in relationship…and wants us to exist in relationship, too. Faith isn’t just about who or what God is; it’s about how and why we respond to God. We don’t need to have a solid intellectual grasp on the concept of the holy three-in-one to live this way. Although neither of today’s readings do much to clarify what God’s made up of, both offer a description of the human reaction to God’s character. In Isaiah, the prophet responds to God’s clear power and majesty first by repenting of his own iniquity, then by volunteering himself as emissary to the people. In John, the people who understand God’s nature as the giver of life and the conqueror of evil respond by welcoming the divine and choosing to join God’s family. An understanding of the Trinity may be beyond their ken, but they CAN understand God’s nature, and they CAN choose to respond in faith.

When we’re granted insight into God’s character, how do we respond? When we hear about God’s mercy, God’s inclusion, God’s peace, God’s justice, do we seek to take part in it in whatever way we can? Or do we push aside what we DO know and what we CAN do because we’re determined to first find the “right answer” within an incomprehensible mystery? Do we place orthodoxy above orthopraxy—“correct” belief over a faithful response? Are we unable to recognize and welcome God’s light because we’re preoccupied with the wrong thing? Even if we COULD understand the mechanics of the Trinity, that knowledge probably wouldn’t be able to give us much more than a smug sense of self-satisfaction. But when we instead seek to understand God’s nature for the purpose of informing our faithful response, we gain so much more: connection, hope, purpose, and a glimpse of God’s Kingdom.

Scripture doesn’t place an emphasis on understanding the Trinitarian mystery, and neither should we. That’s why we baptize infants before they even have a concept of God, and why we offer Communion to anyone, regardless of their level of understanding: it’s not our knowledge of God’s substance, but God’s character that compels our response. And our response is the whole point. Otherwise, why would God send prophets to guide the people towards redemption? Why would the Word become flesh and dwell among us? Let’s be satisfied with the brilliant glimpses of the divine that we CAN perceive. Let us be humbled by the mysteries beyond our ken, and let us respond in faith in whatever way we’re able—the ways within our “can.” Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment