Transcribed from Sermon Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Feast of the Holy Trinity
31 May 2015
Day Texts: Isaiah 6.1-8
Ascension. Pentecost. Trinity. These last three services have focused on this trio of feast days in the liturgical calendar, and together, they could be almost considered a trilogy of sorts. Let’s call the whole thing: “Birth of Church.”
In Birth of Church, Part I: Ascension, we see Jesus auditioning for the part of Thor in the next Avengers as he flies off into heaven, entrusting his disciples to remain on earth and continue the mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the nations.
Next, Birth of Church, Part II: Pentecost finds those same disciples “catching fire” (see what I did there?) as they receive the power to carry out that mission via the gift of the wild goose of the Holy Spirt.
So we’ve got the mission. We’ve got the power. Everything’s set for an exciting climax. And then, Birth of Church III: Trinity, delivers…the doctrine.
Seriously. Doctrine. No epic battle of five armies. No super team assembling. Not even a surprise “return of Jesus” moment. Just a doctrine. Like many a trilogy before it, Birth of Church just seems to come up short at the end. At least they didn’t go all Twilight and split it into two movies.
Because let’s be honest. Unless you’re an uber theology geek (like me), there’s really nothing less exciting than doctrine. And what’s more, it’s not even a very good one! It’s complicated (1+1+1 =…1 …and 3???), it’s confusing (“so you have three different gods?”) and to top it off, it’s not even explicitly in the Bible. A promising premise about the restoration of the world ends up collapsing under the weight of its own Christopher Nolan-esque complexity and navel-gazing.
If doctrine is the ultimate conclusion of this story, its no wonder it seems to continue flopping in the box office of modern religious opinion.
Thing is, though, the early church didn’t develop Trinity as a doctrine. Or rather, that’s not how doctrine worked for them. See, doctrine wasn’t really about proof-texting or mere theological calculus. Rather, doctrine was much more like blocking notes for stage actors; dance steps for teaching rhythm; a musical score for a conductor and orchestra. It wasn’t meant to replace the drama of the story; it was meant to help immerse participants more deeply so as to better tell the story.
In a sense, when we see the word “Trinity,” we should think less about figuring out a formula; instead, what if we saw a shorthand, a reminder, a guide, a particular way of telling the story of who God is and how God is for us?
Work with me here. “Trinity” is a story. The story. The whole story, of the Old and New Testaments, from Creation to Cross to Conclusion. Early Christians never really needed to make it explicit because it simply was and is the story. In their worship and in their baptizing and in their praying and in their Eucharists, they would have invoked the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” all the time. They lived the story. And so there was no need to make it explicit as a doctrine.
As an influential person in history, its natural that lots of people told stories about Jesus. In the early church, there were actually a number of different “Christianities” practiced in response to Jesus’ life. You usually read about them around Christmas or Easter time, when Newsweek or Time report on them in some special “Secret Hidden History of Jesus” report. Most of these end up being the equivalent of tall tales and folk stories. Fascinating to study. Rooted in history. But ultimately, lacking in substance or truth.
It wasn’t until one particular alternative telling of Jesus’ story rose to major prominence and influence that the early church finally decided it was time to explicitly endorse and define the story of Trinity as a doctrine. This other story was called “Gnosticism,” and while it was an ancient heresy, it’s influence continues to this day.
To understand the Gnostics, imagine a people who basically thought that the movie The Matrix was real. Ie, that the material world that we live in is actually a prison, created by an evil being (called “Yaladbaoth”) to imprison our divine spirits in mortal material bodies. In fact, all things matter were considered corrupt and defiled, and the villainous creator, equated with the God of the Old Testament, instituted all sorts of do’s and don’ts in order to keep humanity enslaved in the dark.
Enter Jesus, played by Keeanu Reeves in this movie. Like Neo, the pure spirit being Jesus voluntarily plugs Himself into the prison of matter in order to teach an elect enlightened few the truth about reality, and to help them escape their chains into the world of pure light. Jesus’ body was not a real body, but a clever disguise he put on in order to reach the chosen few and share his secret “Gnosis” with them.
And you thought the Trinity thing was complicated.
Gnosticism was a compelling story in a world full of suffering. It taught people that bodies were only temporary, and offered the chosen enlightened few the promise and hope of an escape from the messy dirtiness of physical existence. It was especially appealing to the wealthy and the elite, who naturally had more leisure time to discover the secret of escape, and because it labeled matter and suffering as unclean, reinforced their privileged status over the disease-ridden suffering masses around them.
And therein we should recognize why the “more orthodox” Christians began to take issue with their Gnostic rivals. Because if matter and suffering were considered signs of evil and corruption, and special knowledge and privilege were equated with divinity, then a large portion of the folks Jesus actually ministered to - the sick, the poor, the lame, the outcast, and the uneducated - were almost immediately excluded from this version of God’s kingdom. Which meant that Jesus did not come in solidarity with the world and its brokenness - but only to go through the motions for the sake of the strong and the few.
Ultimately, the Gnostic Gospel promised enlightenment, but at the price of escapism and exclusion. And the early Church deemed this too high a price for continued tolerance. They needed to tell a different story about a different Gospel.
And lest this seem like ancient history, if we’re honest, we’re often not too far off from the Gnostic mentality in our own day and age. Because even if we don’t believe their mythology, we can very easily fall into a Gnostic way of practicing our faith in the world.
I think we’re especially prone to this mentality when the messiness and difficulty of life in our bodies, and the reality of other bodies, causes us suffering and struggle. We act Gnostically when, confronted with the challenges of engaging with created reality, we instead readily choose escape from it into some exclusionary simulacrum of enlightenment or specialness.
So, for example, when our commitments to our friendships and our family start to take us into uncomfortable territory, well, no problem! There’s a special world called the internet, where we can disengage from the difficulty of face-to-face interactions and live a disembodied existence floating above it all while revealing in the vast feeling of connection and enlightenment that the web provides us.
Or, maybe church is your problem! Because when real-life community and spirituality forces us to face our own brokenness and selfishness, and challenges us to share life together with other broken people whose dysfunction doesn’t fix my own dysfunction, well, damn it, I’ll jettison all that “religion” stuff and just be spiritual. By myself. Alone. Where I can make the rules.
Or is the poverty and injustice and segregation of our fair city getting you down? No need to actually meet poor people and hear their stories! Simply read about social justice, allow yourself to feel really indignant about racism, and make sure to pursue an enlightened progressive awareness. Let others do the messy work, and make sure they notice you noticing them. And voila! Gnosticism provides you an easy way out from ever having to dirty your hands helping a homeless person, or even having to really give money.
In so many ways, Gnosticism is our Gospel of choice when, like those ancient Christians, we are confronted by the messiness and suffering of this world, and simply can’t handle the pain it causes us and others. Even the all-American tradition of “pulling myself up by my bootstraps” is, in its basest form, a type of Gnosticism, as it creates a sense of separation and specialness, where we rise above the common ways and rise into a higher class following our exceptionalist dreams. It’s the air we live and breathe in a culture that’s perfected the art of peddling escapism and calling it enlightenment.
Problem is, it’s not God’s story. And it’s not the story of God’s world. And it’s not
the mission we’re called to in Christ.
In response to this other story about God, the early Christians offered the story named by Trinity. Because in declaring that God is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the early Christians were essentially pointing to the story speaking from the Bible. Out of the Old and New Testament. The story that Jesus came to tell.
It is the story of the God who created the world and all of its people, and when God did so, said, “this world is good.” This God delighted in the world, made it because it was good and because God loved it. And, as our Gospel lesson today reminds us, “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…not to condemn the world, but to save it.” The same God who made the world good is committed to God’s world, such that God would rather die Himself than see it lost. The same God who made the world became a part of that world in Jesus, and died and rose as part of that world, so that that whole world might be restored, reconciled and renewed.
And, this same God that created the world and redeemed it continues to sustain it through the Holy Spirit. And through the Church. The same Spirit that breathed life into the first pile of human dust breathes life into the Body of Christ in the world, and continues to cooperate with human beings, co-creating with and through them, and making contributions to that world through the lives of God’s children.
Trinity names the story of a God who loves the world God made, and will do anything and everything that God is able to do to make sure that the world will remain a blessing for God’s beloved children.
Trinity names the story of a God who, far from withdrawing or escaping from messiness, suffering, death and despair, enters fully into them, taking them upon Godself, and transforming them into new possibilities and new beginnings.
Trinity names the story of a God who does not raise up an elite few while leaving behind the many, but rather, continues to dwell in and renew the world God loves until every single one of God’s beloved children can know herself as God’s own, as a contribution and a gift that God is giving to the world.
While in times of suffering and of disappointment, Gnosticism may seem like a promising Gospel, it pales in comparison to the story named by Trinity. Just think about it for a moment. God made the world because God loves the world. God made me because God loves me. God made others because God loves others. God created. God redeems. God sustains. And I am a part of it.
It reminds me of a famous scene from one of my favorite films, Dead Poets’ Society. The free-spirited Mr. Thomas Keating, played by the late Robin Williams, is a teacher at an elite New England boarding school. While the strict curriculum is designed to help society’s upper crust rise above the lower classes and their boorishness, Mr. Keating is determined to arouse their souls through beauty and poetry. In the midst of one class, he asks, “why do we read and write poetry?” His answer:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary for to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!…of the questions recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless…of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here - that life exists…that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
That’s the question presented by the story named by Trinity. What will your verse be? Because as part of this world that exists, that exists because God wanted it to, that is good because God delights in it, and is here because God is sustaining it, you and your life matter. You are a part of it. Your story is a verse in God’s powerful play. This existence, this creation, is no accident. It is music, and poetry, and it is good, and God has given you a part in it. You are meant to be. And God is making a contribution through you.
And not just when things are good. Trinity names the story of God’s creating you, God’s commitment to you, and God’s contribution of you. Including the messy times. The broken times. The failing times. The times when life seems overwhelming and we want nothing more than to hide away or escape. God wants to take the lowest moments of your life and transfigure them into the very stuff that will enable you to love and serve others. God wants all of you. And God wants to give all of you. What will your verse be?
Which means that God also wants all of this world. And wants to contribute all of this world. To those who the world believes are unenlightened because they are shackled by poverty and oppression, or by failure or by class, or by the opinion so others or the judgements of their own egos, God says, I created you; I am committed to you; I want to contribute you. What will your verse be?
God has created. God is committed. God is contributing. Like the prophet Isaiah, God wants to touch your unclean lips with the burning coal of God’s delight and love, and wants you to speak forth your life into the world. God doesn’t take away those unclean lips - God touches them. And speaks God’s contribution in and through us into a world that god loves. What will your verse be?
Trinity means that your life has a purpose. You are intended. You may not believe you have a purpose. You may not want a purpose. If you’re like me, you may not really know what that purpose is. And that’s ok. Because you don’t need to have it figured out for God to be contributing you into this world.
What we are called to is simply to believe this Good News, and receive the gift of our lives with gratitude, from the God who created, who is committed, and who desires to contribute you. In a world where the Gnosticism of enlightened escape and avoidance of reality’s brokenness is the spirituality of choice, this story is more vital than ever. We’ve been given the mission of proclaiming God’s love for God’s world. We’ve been given the power to do so through the contributing Spirit. Now we are given the story that ties it all together.
Maybe the trilogy didn’t end so badly after all. Maybe it hasn’t ended yet at all. The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
What will your verse be?
Afterword: For Open Space, members of the Mission were invited to take up a practice from Upstate NY Synod of the ELCA's Synod Assembly, whose theme was "God's Story, Our Voices." Using a simple line on a page (see below), they were invited to map their personal story. Above the line, they were invited to depict the high points of their life. Below, they were invited to place the low points. At the end, all were asked to circle the entire timeline and write "God's story." They were also invited to consider: perhaps the lowest moments, as much as the highest, are the places God is calling you to minister from - the places where, far from being evil, compassion and the possibility of healing and serving others is most likely to arise. The places we may very well discover our truest vocations. All of our story, from top to bottom, is part of the verse God is contributing to the story through our lives.
Click on the image of the timeline below - and try out the practice for yourself if you feel so led!