Sunday, June 12, 2022

Sermon: "The Holy They", Matthew 28.16-20/2 Peter 1.16-21 (June 12, 2022)


Today is Trinity Sunday; the day that the Church sets aside specifically to celebrate and explore the beautiful mystery of God’s nature. I say “mystery” because, while we all pretend that the notion of one God in three persons is a completely logical idea, the truth is that it doesn’t actually make any sense at all. (If you think I’m wrong on this point, then congratulations; YOU get to do the children’s sermon next year.) The doctrine of the Trinity is an idea that many of us have been parroting our whole lives without really understanding it. Sure, we all have our favorite analogy to describe it (water, the sun, a three-leaf clover, an egg) but at the end of the day, there’s something heretical about every single one, leaving us exactly where we started.

It's ironic that we spend so much time trying to figure out the best way to explain the Trinity when the idea isn’t even anywhere in the Bible. Oh, the principle is BASED in scripture, but it’s never actually fleshed out with the specificity and confidence that the Church claims today. The First Testament refers to each person of the Trinity separately on multiple occasions (God and God’s Spirit are mentioned explicitly, while Christians read Jesus into several Jewish prophesies), and in the New Testament, Jesus frequently discusses the Father, Son, and Spirit in relation to one another in various combinations. But today’s reading from Matthew – what’s commonly known as “The Great Commission” – is one of the few places in scripture that we get the full “Trinitarian formula” as we recognize and use it today: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And nowhere in the Bible does it go so far as to EXPLAIN the whole “three-in-one” idea that’s become synonymous with the Christian faith. This is the closest we get.

We may think that this is simply a reflection of the Church’s youth at the time when the scriptures were written, but doctrine didn’t really become important to the Christian community at all until a quarter of the way through the fourth century. In fact, early Christians worked hard to avoid being seen as a formal institution. When Christ didn’t return quickly enough, his followers had to defend their movement against those who grew skeptical of it. Such people alleged that the apostolic teachings were nothing more than “crafty myths” created by false teachers to gain power and control over a gullible population – an accusation still leveled at Christian doctrine today. But these early Christ followers insisted that they weren’t trying to create a system of rules and beliefs to control society; they just wanted to tell the world all of the wonderful things that they’d seen and experienced.

2 Peter was written pseudonymously to defend the apostolic tradition from exactly this sort of criticism. As far as the author is concerned, Christians aren’t doing anything sneaky or underhanded; they weren’t trying to hide an ulterior motive behind a wall of doctrine. They were just passing along what God had revealed to them, describing exactly what they’d experienced, whether it made sense to them or not. Sure, they TRIED to make sense out of it, but that wasn’t necessarily the point. All they knew is that they’d seen something incredible, and they needed to share it.

We, like these early Christians, ought to put more stock in Scripture and our own experiences than in human doctrine. Scripture tells us that God is one, and scripture also tells us that God is three, so we embrace the ambiguity and the mystery without needing to understand. We can try our best to describe it, using words like “consubstantial”, “co-equal”, and “co-eternal” to get at the essence of this strange holy arrangement, but at the end of the day, we just have to accept that God doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes our minds use to make sense of the world around us. And most of us are (more or less) okay with that.

What’s fascinating to me, however, is that we’ll accept ambiguity in our understanding about God’s nature, but then we somehow struggle to acknowledge this very same ambiguity within ourselves and our human siblings – those created in God’s image. We, like God, are complex. There is so much divine variety among the billions and billions of human beings on earth that there isn’t a single dichotomy into which we can be neatly divided. God can’t be divided neatly into categories, either. It’s messy and confusing – and glorious. God is one, and God is three, and God is all at once and everything in between. Why should humanity – those created in God’s own image – be any different? God has never insisted on fixed categories, either in creation or in Godself. It’s simply not a characteristic of divine things.

Me preaching this sermon in my YCWI Pride gear
I would love to be able to come up with the perfect words to explain this idea, but I honestly can’t think of any that are more fitting, more beautiful, or more true than these words from Rev. Asher O’Callaghan, a Lutheran priest from Wisconsin:

“In the beginning, God created day and night. But have you ever seen a sunset?...Gorgeous. Full of a hundred shades of color you can’t see in plain daylight or during the night.

“In the beginning, God created land and sea. But have you ever seen a beach?...Beautiful. A balanced oasis that’s not quite like the ocean, nor quite like the land.

“In the beginning, God created birds of the air and fish of the sea. But have you ever seen a flying fish, or a duck or a puffin that swims and flies, spending lots of time in the water and on the land?...[They’re] full of life. A creative combination of characteristics that blows people’s minds.

“In the beginning, God also created male and female, in God’s own image, God created them. So in the same way that God created realities in between, outside of, and beyond night and day, land and sea, or fish and birds, so God also created people with genders beyond male and female…All different sorts of people for all different sorts of relationships. Created from love to love and be loved. In God’s image we live.

“God is still creating you. You are no less beautiful and wild than a sunset or a beach or a puffin. You are loved. You have a place here.” [1]

Perfect, no?

Jesus never felt the need to explain the Trinity. He just put it out there and let it be what it was. The author of 2 Peter didn’t need to make sense out of the mystery of the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. He just put it out there and let it be what it was. God never felt the need to justify sunsets, or beaches, or ducks. God just put them out there and let them be what they were. There is beauty in the mysterious, the complex, the different. There is holiness there.

If we’re willing to delight in the mystery of the Trinity, of the Resurrection, of the “between, [the] outside of, and [the] beyond” of God’s creation, it’s truly absurd that we would reject the same in those created in the very image of God. God is one, but also somehow three tangled inextricably together, a never-ending in-between that resists any and all separation. Perhaps it’s the parts of humanity that don’t quite fit into the doctrine of society, those boxes that our minds stubbornly insist on cramming one another into, that actually get us closest to understanding God. Those whose genders don’t conform, whose romantic partners don’t conform, whose physical appearances don’t conform. Jesus didn’t conform on the cross. The Holy Spirit didn’t conform at Pentecost. The very author of life didn’t conform in the act of creation. God doesn’t fit into boxes, so naturally, neither should humanity. There is a beautiful sacredness in those who exist in this in-between.

As much as we might crave them, explanations are irrelevant. “Making sense” doesn’t really matter. Do you need to understand a sunset to appreciate its beauty? Do you need to understand beaches to find respite there? What matters is recognizing holiness and stubbornly remaining in awe of it. Scripture tells us that God is beyond our understanding: okay, then. Instead of trying to defy this reality by forcing God to make sense to us, we accept it and marvel at the divine. Instead of insisting that our human siblings explain themselves to us, we should accept them as the gift that they are, just as they are: the chance for a fuller understanding of God, a glimpse of divine mystery, a chance to connect to the parts of God that we can’t find within ourselves. Look around: when someone doesn’t “make sense” to you, there’s a chance that they can teach you more about God than any doctrine ever could. Amen.



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