Monday, June 17, 2019

Sermon: "Trinity Trouble", John 16:12-15, Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 (June 16, 2019)


This week, an acquaintance of mine found herself faced with a dilemma that I’m sure many of you are familiar with: her son came home from camp saying that an older kid had told him the Tooth Fairy isn’t real, and he wanted to know if it was true. Now, obviously, having never met the Tooth Fairy personally, his mom couldn’t answer with any real authority, but she did her best to help her son think through the issue. They agreed that sometimes older kids say things that aren’t true just to bully younger kids. They also noted that her son didn’t know this older kid well enough to know if he’s trustworthy or not. And they acknowledged that SOMEONE had been taking his baby teeth while he slept and leaving money behind in its place. They ultimately concluded that, while the non-existence of the Tooth Fairy is certainly a startling possibility, there simply wasn’t enough evidence to prove one way or another. Her son decided to give the Tooth Fairy the benefit of the doubt and keep believing in her. After all, it wasn’t worth losing the extra income over something that he couldn’t really know for sure.

When I heard this story, it got me thinking…why are we, as human beings, so concerned with understanding everything completely? Sure, no one wants to feel like they’re being misled, but shouldn’t we be humble enough to accept that there are some things we just can’t know? Besides, the fact that we don’t know or understand something often doesn’t change how it works, anyway. Believe in the Tooth Fairy unquestionably? Money shows up under your pillow when you lose a tooth. Not quite sure if you believe in her or not? Money still shows up under your pillow when you lose a tooth. I think this kid had the right attitude: no matter who or what the Tooth Fairy is, and no matter your understanding of her, SOMEONE cares about you and your teeth enough to leave that money under your pillow. And that’s the part that really matters at the end of the day.

Too often, the Church gets hung up on a similar question, obsessing about getting the “facts” right: “What’s the correct understanding of the Trinity?” By 325 C.E., Christians were already engaging in high-stakes theological arguments about the nature of the Trinity: in particular, the question of whether Jesus WAS God or was merely LIKE God. Today, there’s equally heated debate about the Trinitarian formula used in baptism—is it imperative that we always say the exact words, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” when referring to the Trinity? Or is it acceptable to reflect God’s nature using other metaphors, like “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer”? Certainly, there are “orthodox” answers to these questions (namely; that Jesus is indeed God, and that a baptism must refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be valid). And as clergy, I fully believe and endorse these theological positions (honestly). But just because I believe them doesn’t mean I can’t question whether orthodoxy should be the Church’s top priority when it comes to the Trinity.

I mean, really—if we understand God as “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” instead of “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” does that change who God is at all? Does it change how God feels about us? Does it make it impossible for God to accept us into God’s family? I’d argue that the REAL heresy is answering yes to any of those questions. As with the Tooth Fairy situation, the end result doesn’t change just because our understanding does. God is, by God’s very nature, far too great for us to describe or understand. Why should we put so much energy into “proving” that the Trinity exists, or explaining it “correctly” with our human words and concepts? It’s a futile effort. The important part isn’t to comprehend WHAT the Trinity is, but to know WHO the Trinity is—not what God’s made up of, but God’s personality and inner nature.

I think our John passage represents this idea pretty well. If we’re looking to figure out WHAT the Trinity is, we certainly shouldn’t start here. It’s not a particularly coherent reading—maybe that’s why the Revised Common Lectionary only burdens us with four verses. It’s confusing! “The Spirit will say whatever he hears, but he won’t speak on his own, because he’ll take what’s mine and declare it to you. Oh, you want to know what’s mine? Whatever the Father has.” It’s not super clear how everyone’s involved here…we know that there’s a Father and a Jesus and some sort of Spirit, and apparently they share what they have (what is it they have, anyway?), and they declare what they have to us…or something like that. This section isn’t particularly helpful if we’re trying to figure out Trinitarian logistics.

But through its meandering, indirect explanation, this passage does a fantastic job helping us to get away from the WHAT questions and move towards the WHO. This description of the Trinity illustrates the necessity of thinking outside the box, letting go of the WHAT, if we want to know WHO the Trinity is. By giving us the absurd idea of a monotheism where our one God is also somehow three-in-one, Jesus helps us to understand that if we truly want to know God, we need to let go of our insistence on intellectual understanding.

Passages like our reading from Proverbs and other “Wisdom Literature” are important tools for getting us outside of that box. Biblical “Wisdom Literature” was never intended to be historical or factual—it’s more or less useless when it comes to formulating orthodoxy or doctrine. It was never meant to satisfy our lust for certainty and answers. Its purpose is to help humanity gain deeper spiritual, moral, and divine knowledge. More than any other genre, Wisdom Literature speaks to the WHO, rather than the WHAT, of God and humanity.

In Proverbs 8, our typical idea of God as self-reliant and all-powerful is challenged by a description of God as collaborative co-creator alongside Wisdom. God created Wisdom to assist with creation and to help guide humanity throughout history. As a master craftsperson, Wisdom took part in creation, laughing and rejoicing and participating with God as the universe came into being. So, what can this unconventional passage tell us about WHO God is? It’s simple: God is indeed sovereign and almighty, and yet God chooses not to be alone. God first chooses to be in relationship with Wisdom, and then alongside Wisdom, God chooses to be in relationship with creation and humanity. THIS, I think, is the most important thing that the Trinity can teach us—that God is not a God of isolation and independence, but of relationship and interconnectedness.

As confusing as the passage from John may be, it too demonstrates this same relational nature of God, both among Godself and with humanity. Whatever the Father is, it gives what it has to Christ. Whatever the Spirit of Truth is, it glorifies Christ by sharing what is his—which is also of the Father. But this interconnectedness isn’t restricted to these divine participants. All of this, all that belongs to the Father and the Son and the Spirit, is offered and proclaimed on behalf of humanity, EVEN THOUGH GOD KNOWS WE CAN’T COMPREHEND IT. The understanding isn’t the important part here. The Trinity may be three-in-one, orthodoxically speaking, but they’re not alone—we’re necessarily a part of the equation, too.

In fact, Athanasius, the chief defender of Trinitarianism at the first ecumenical council, believed that we’re the whole reason for the Trinity’s work. He insisted that as the Spirit moves, she creates an intimate communion between the faithful and the Father and Son.[1] God could decide to “be God” in any way that God wanted to…but God chooses to be Trinitarian for the sake of relationship, both in principle and in practice. Our understanding of God’s specific form and function is of secondary importance. Ultimately, what matters is that the Trinity’s primary characteristic is God’s insistence on existing in the context of relationship. If anything should be doctrine, that’s it.

And speaking of doctrine…we also believe, without fully understanding it, that God created us in God’s image. This doctrine, too, is often interpreted as focusing on the WHAT of God—that our spiritual substance is somehow similar to God’s. And this very well could be true. But I’m inclined to think it more likely that we’re created as a reflection of WHO God is…which means that we, too, are created to be relational. We, too, are created to love and be loved. We, too, are created to connect and cooperate and comfort and care for each other. No matter how badly we may want to go it alone, remember that even God didn’t want that for Godself. That’s not who God choose to be, and that’s not who we were created to be. Let’s stop pretending that we don’t need one another, and start acting more like the interconnected, kindred beings that the Trinity teaches us we all are.

We may not have ALL the answers we want to our questions about the Trinity, but we know what we need to know. We can still be people of God even though we can’t be experts. And we can still accept the idea of the Trinity even though it doesn’t all make sense to us. If we’re willing to give the Tooth Fairy the benefit of the doubt, why shouldn’t we do the same for God? Whether or not the Trinity exists, what it is, how it works—these aren’t the important questions. It’s not worth losing our faith over something that’s literally impossible to know for sure in this life.

So, let’s trust God to be God, however the logistics work out, knowing that the important part—God’s hunger for relationship—is the simplest thing in the world to understand. Let’s stop trying to reflect WHAT God is and start striving to be more like WHO God is. None of us know how to do that perfectly…but the whole point is that we’re not doing it alone. All we can do is try, and trust that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer—Lover, Beloved, Love—the Trinity, however you understand it—will be faithful in their promise to be with us. Amen.


[1] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, p. 1042.

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