Posts Tagged ‘Trinity’

Love, Laugh, Sing

June 10, 2017

Trinity Sunday – 2017

Matthew 28:16-20

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, three in one, one in three. Amen.

Every now and again one comes across an image or a phrase that brings utter clarity to an idea that until that moment had been clouded or obscure. Such was the case for me when I read a poem by William Paul Young (author of The Shack). In the foreword to Richard Rohr’s book on the Trinity The Divine Dance[1], Young has written a poem that, for me, shone a light on the Trinity in a way that nothing else has. It goes:

ONE alone

is not by nature Love

or Laugh

or Sing

ONE alone

may be Prime Mover

Unknowable

Indivisible

All

and if Everything is All and All is One

One is Alone

Self-Centred

Not Love

Not Laugh

Not Sing

TWO

Ying/Yang

Dark/Light

Male/Female

contending Dualism

Affirming Evil/Good

And striving toward Balance

At best Face-to-Face

but Never Community

THREE

Face-to-Face-to-Face

Community

Ambiguity

Mystery

Love for the Other

And for the Other’s Love

Within

Other-Centred

Self-Giving

Loving

Singing

Laughter

A fourth is created

Ever-loved and loving.

The contrast between One alone and three in community spoke powerfully to me. A God who is alone could be aloof and unapproachable and, without others, may not laugh and sing. A God who is two has the potential to be divisive – one pitted against the other, each competing for attention. A God who is three yet one is a God who is community – loving, playful and joyful, inviting relationship, inviting us into that relationship.

It is easy for us to imagine that a Triune God is the invention of the Christian church, that God who was one, suddenly became three when Jesus entered human history. That, of course, is nonsense. God is God. God doesn’t suddenly morph from one to three just because, in God’s great love for us, God entered into the stream of human history.

God has been in relationship from the very beginning: creating humankind in God’s image, choosing and speaking with Abraham, communicating directly with Moses and with the prophets. God the Creator gave Godself to humankind in revelation over and over and over again long before God gave Godself to us in the form of Jesus. At the same time over and over again, God has created a response from humanity, working within us in Spirit so that we might know and respond to God.

From the beginning of time then God has been known and expressed as Godself, as God’s self-communication and as God’s presence within us enabling us to respond to God. It is only since Jesus’ presence among us that we have named God as three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – only since the early days of the church that we have struggled to form a doctrine to express in words something that we have always known in our hearts, that God is Creator, Revealer and Enabler.

As the poem suggests, this is important – not least of all, because a Trinitarian God is a God in community. A creative, energizing force is not alone or competitive, but is a divine dance of love that knows no division or separation and creates, sustains and embraces us. The relationship between the Father and the Son, the Father and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit, the Son and the Father, the Spirit and the Father and the Spirit and the Son is such that none are separate, but all three together incorporate the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Spirit.

A God who is relationship both demonstrates relationship – a relationship that is inclusive, self-giving and open – and invites us into that relationship so that as God is one, so we are one with God.

The Trinity is a gift and not a burden. Instead of trying to get our head around the doctrine, the how and why of it all, let us simply rejoice in a God in whose being is Love and Laugh and Sing and who includes us in the loving, the laughter and the song.

[1] Rohr, Richard with Morrell, Mike. The Divine Dance:The Trinity and your Transformation. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2016, 19.

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God is relationship – Trinity Sunday

May 21, 2016

Trinity Sunday – 2016

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-giver[1]. Amen.

Whilst in the process of thinking about today’s sermon, I was reminded of the debate around alternate Trinitarian language – in particular the arguments against using the expression Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier in the place of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The heart of the argument is this: that the relational nature of the traditional language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is lost when Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier are used.

Language is important because it both describes our reality and defines our reality. That is, we use words to make sense of the world around us and those words then take on a meaning of their own, which in turn affects how we see the world.

A good example is the use of language to label other people – especially those who are different from ourselves. Up until the 1980s it was not uncommon to refer to a person by their disability. No one thought twice about referring to a person as “a spastic” or “a mongoloid”. In that way a person was defined more by their physical condition rather than by their personality or by their ability. Thankfully that use of language is by and large in the past. Today we might refer to someone as a person with cerebral palsy – acknowledging that they are a person first and foremost. The change in language use helps us to see people differently and helps them to have a self-identity that is distinct from their disability.

Despite dictionary definitions, words do not carry the same meaning for everyone. For example our experience of “Father” or “Dad” can vary from that of a loving, interested caring man, through that of a distant, indifferent man to that of an overbearing or abusive person. Our experience of our own father may determine our own understanding of what a father is. If our experience of “Father” has only been of someone who hurts or belittles us, we might find it hard if not impossible to apply that terminology to God. A woman who has been raped or sexually abused, might have the same difficulty relating to the maleness of Jesus[2]. It can be hard for such a person to believe that a man – even a man such as Jesus can really identify with the experience of a violent or unwanted sexual attack.

A greater understanding of issues such as domestic violence and rape has led the church to embrace a greater variety in the language we use for God and to a lesser extent for Jesus. This has two benefits. First of all it recognises that the bible itself refers to God in more than one way; that God cannot be confined by language; that God is neither male nor female and that while we might attribute human characteristics to God, God is anything but human. An examination of the Old Testament reveals that the language for God is not restricted to Father, but includes feminine and even inanimate language to try to capture the grandeur and ineffability that is God[3]. Secondly, broadening the language for God enables those for whom “Father” does not bring to mind images of gentleness, love and encouragement, to use language that does encompass those characteristics for them.

Of the three-persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the least bound by gender-defining language. This might be because the Spirit is the most difficult to conceptualise and also because the Spirit is never named other than by its nature.

The issue of language is more complex when it comes to the Trinity. An important aspect of the Trinity is the relationship between the three-persons, a relationship of inter-connection that is both a model for and a reminder of our relationships with one another. As members of the Body of Christ, we are invited into relationship with one another and more importantly into the relationship shared by the members of the Trinity.

There are many who argue that if we are to change the language of the Trinity from Father, Son and Spirit we will lose the sense of relationship, mutuality and intimacy that this formula implies.

I am a biblical scholar, not a theologian, but it seems to me that if we understand the nature of the Trinity to be relational it is not impossible for terminology such as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier to take on a relational aspect. Surely we understand that the Creator is the person within the Godhead to whom we attribute the creation of the world, that the Redeemer is the one who entered the world and was crucified and restored to life for our salvation and that the Sanctifier is the person within the Godhead who enlivens and sanctifies us in the present moment and until eternity. It is not the language that we use so much as the understanding of that language that gives it meaning[4].

In the final analysis, the Trinity is a glorious mystery that invites us into a relationship with a God who is beyond description and of whom we only ever glimpse the smallest detail. The Trinity is a wonderful gift extended to us through the church. It is a shame to waste time arguing over words when we could be letting ourselves be caught up into an experience of God that is impossible to capture and even more impossible to describe.

 

[1] From a version of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Zealand Prayer Book.

[2] There is a powerful poem written by a survivor of sexual abuse who, when confronted by the image of a woman on the cross, was able to understand that Christ knew her own experience and had been with her in her suffering.

[3] God is depicted as midwife (Ps 22:9), as mother (Is 49:13-15, 66:13, Ps 131:2, Is 42:13-15) and as giving birth (Is 42:15, Jer 31:20, Is 14:1, Ps 77:10; 79:8) not to mention as a “rock” and a “fortress” and other inanimate images in the Psalms and elsewhere.

[4] Attempts to develop inclusive language Trinitarian formulae that are also relational leads to such clumsy language as, “Parent, womb, birth-giver” or “The Parent, the Christ and the Transformer”.

The Trinity and Paul – some thoughts

May 30, 2015

Trinity Sunday – 2015

Romans 8

Marian Free

In the name of God who created us, died for us and enlivens us. Amen.

The Apostle Paul gets a lot of bad press. From the time the author of 2 Peter wrote: “There are some things in them (Paul’s letters) hard to understand”, there have been those who accuse Paul of being difficult, culture bound and chauvinistic. As a Pauline scholar I would of course, contest all such negative comments and claim them to be misrepresentations at worst and misinterpretations at best by those who have not taken the time to study and understand the genius that is Paul[1].

I am not saying that the letters of Paul are immediately transparent, or that there are not some parts that require a certain amount of effort to understand, but I would claim that what Paul has to say is absolutely essential for our understanding of the gospel and that he says it in a way that is quite masterful and compelling.

One of the difficulties that we face when we read either Paul’s letters or the gospels is that they were written in the first century for a first century Mediterranean audience. The letters are even more specific. Paul was not writing for our edification. In fact I think that he had no more idea of his letters being turning into Holy Scripture than we would imagine that our assignments in theology would one day be accepted into the canon.

Paul was writing to specific situations that had arisen in communities that had come to faith as a result of his teaching or, as is the case with Romans, a community that he wished to visit. His intention was not to write theology but to set the recipients straight on matters of faith or behaviour. The communities to whom he wrote consisted by and large of people who had had no grounding in the Jewish faith and who therefore had considerable catching up to do in order to begin to understand the gospel.

What I find remarkable is, that in this context and within twenty years of Jesus’ death, Paul – who never met the earthly Jesus – was able to distil the significance of Jesus’ life and teaching and to give them a meaning that continues to inform us today. The gospels give us the story of Jesus (albeit with interpretation). Paul, writing considerably earlier, tells us what it all means. In so doing he foreshadows ideas which later scholars turned into theology and into doctrine.

Take the notion of the Trinity for example. Over the centuries much ink has been spilt in trying to elucidate the nature of God and what it means for God to be both one and three. Paul simply assumes a Trinitarian God – Creator, Son and Spirit. This is particularly evident in Romans 8:9-11. “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Paul is making an argument about life in the Spirit, but in order to do so he also speaks of God and Christ as if they were all one God.

In verse 9 Paul speaks of “being in the Spirit” because the “Spirit of God dwells in you” and adds “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. He goes on to say “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you”, “the Spirit dwells in you.” The Spirit incorporates believers into the life of Christ that in turn incorporates them into the union between Christ and God. It seems that it is perfectly natural for Paul to think of God as the one who raised Jesus from the dead, as Jesus and as Spirit and that as a result he is able to use the expressions interchangeably.

The notion of God being known as God, as Spirit and as Word is not new to Paul. Genesis 1 introduces the Spirit in the form of ruah or breath and in Ezekiel (37:5) it is God’s ruah (breath) that brings life to the dry bones. The same Spirit animates Ezekiel, transports him to the valley of bones and will give life to the people of Israel. (This is not dissimilar to Paul’s idea that it is the Spirit that gives life to the believer (Rom 8:11)). Proverbs introduces Wisdom (sophia or logos) as co-creator with God. So in the Judeo-Christian from the beginning of creation there has been an implicit notion of the complex nature of the One God.

It would be the Incarnation that would give this idea flesh both literally and figuratively. God in human form proved much more challenging than the less concrete ideas of God as breath and wisdom. How could Jesus be both human and God? How could Jesus be pre-existent? Where did the Spirit fit in all this? It would take the church close to four hundred years to express the idea of the Trinity in theological and doctrinal terms that were universally accepted[2] and many more centuries for scholars to continue to explore and name what it means for God to be both one and three and how to express this without diminishing one of the persons of the Trinity.

For Paul and the early church the nature of God was not something to be intellectualized or argued. It seems to have been taken for granted that God could be known as Father, Son and Spirit, the one who sent Jesus, the one sent (Jesus) and the one whom Jesus sent (Spirit), the one who raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus who was raised from the dead and the Spirit.

Instead of worrying about how the Trinity works and which analogies are heretical or not, let us take a page out of Paul’s book and assert that God simply is – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] When I speak of Paul’s letters I refer to the seven letters that are considered genuinely Pauline – Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.

[2] Some would claim imposed was a better word.

The Trinity – heresy and orthodoxy

June 14, 2014

Trinity Sunday 2014

Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

 My childhood memories of Trinity Sunday are of my Father returning from church complaining about the sermon and in particular the use of bad analogies to try to make the Trinity more accessible for the lay people. Of course, as a child, I never really understood my Father’s problem. I liked the idea of tricycles and other tri-fold objects being used to help us get inside the concept of a God who was both three and one. As I preacher, I find it tempting to use simplistic images, but I am saved by my Father’s voice in my head and – from now on – by a humorous look at the problem as presented on Youtube by TheLutheranSatire.[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw

As the clip points out, the best way to speak about the Trinity is that established as long ago as 381 in the form of the Athanasian Creed[2] that explicitly states that God is both three and one[3]. Trying to oversimplify the issue leads to misunderstanding, confusion and even “heresy”. At its heart the doctrine of the Trinity tries to come to grips with the biblical language for, and understanding of, God. It is a difficult and even dangerous exercise because as Thomas Aquinas stated: “we know that God is, but not what God is”. What we are doing in creating any doctrine is trying to find human language to describe what is utterly unknowable. As a result any attempt to describe or to capture God will always be finite and limited. In fact, if God could be captured by human thought or language, God would not be God. That said human beings, however limited and finite have, from time immemorial, experienced something completely other, something outside this physical and material world that somehow is engaged with and impacts on the created world. In the Judeo-Christian experience the relationship with and impact of the utterly other is related in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – the Bible.

It is from this record that theologians have found the raw material for the Trinitarian expression/experience of God. It is true that the Old Testament does not provide any evidence for plurality in the Godhead and would have utterly rejected any suggestion that God was other than one. The Old Testament does however use language that is later used by the New Testament writers to capture their experience of God. For example, in the Old Testament, the language of breath, or Spirit, occurs in the very first chapter when God’s spirit moves upon the waters (Genesis 1:1). In fact the spirit of God plays a large role in the Old Testament – it comes on Moses and Saul, Elijah and Elisha and on the prophets. It is never a separate entity, but always the spirit of God. Other “Trinitarian” language that is found in the Old Testament is that of God as Father (albeit as Father of the nation of Israel). Word and Wisdom are said to be present with God at creation (Proverbs) and even though they do not indicate plurality, they open the way for such language to be used of Jesus and to suggest pre-existence (John 1 for example).

Turning to the New Testament, the conclusion of 2 Corinthians provides evidence that Trinitarian language was applied to God as early as the fifth decade of the Common Era. Similar language is found in the “Great Commission” at the conclusion of Matthew, which was written probably in the 80’s. Paul regularly uses different terminology for God interchangeably. So, for example in a few verses he can speak of the law of God and the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 7:25, 8:2). Shortly afterwards he speaks of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God who raised him from the dead (Romans 8:9-11 – God, Christ and Spirit).

Long before theologians put their mind to discussing the nature of God, the early church seems to have had an experience of one God in three persons. Long before the Council that produced the Athanasian Creed, early believers were using language that implied that they thought of God as both one and three. In those early years of the church, there appears to have been no attempt to create a doctrine or a creed to defend this understanding of God, nor is there a clear line of development of the idea. The simple fact is that the early church was convinced that Jesus was God and that the Spirit was God and that they could hold this belief without damaging their confidence that “the Lord our God is one”.

There will be those among us who will struggle to read theology and to come to terms with non-heretical ways of speaking about the Trinity. Most of us will be content to accept the unity and Trinity of God as a part of the incomprehensible mystery that is God and we will be satisfied that the God whom we know and relate to as Father, Son and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier is both one and three –“yet there are not three Gods, but one God.”

 

[1] The fourth Lateran Council put the problem in this way: “Between God and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying greater dissimilitude.” In Hunt, Anne. Trinity. New York: Orbis Books, 2005, 3.

[2] p 487 of the Green Prayer Book

[3] Council of Constantinople

Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver

May 25, 2013

Trinity Sunday 2013

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Romans 1:1-5, John 16

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver. Amen.

The MIddle Ages was a time in which there was a great flowering of spirituality.  After the morbidity and fear of the Dark Ages, in which judgement and hell were predominant religious themes, the spiritual tenor of the Middle Ages was an understanding of God’s love and Jesus’ saving passion. The spirituality of the time was more intimate and forgiving. God was not envisaged as a distant judge but a close and familiar friend.

Many of our favourite and most well-known saints belong to this period of history – Francis and Claire of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Sienna – to mention a few. The spirit of the age was such that it not only saw the emergence of mystics and saints, but also the renewal of faith of much of the general population. This was demonstrated by the number of people in all walks of life who went on pilgrimages and by the groups of women (Beguines) who, while not entering a religious order, lived together in community.

One of the expressions of spirituality at that time was that of anchorite. Men and women had built for themselves single rooms attached to churches or Cathedrals in which they confined themselves for the remainder of their lives – praying, meditating and reading their scriptures. Julian of Norwich was one such person[1]. Little is known of Julian except that when she was thirty and a half, in 1373 she was ill to the point of death. During this time she had a series of revelations (Showings in her terminology) which she recorded in both a shorter and a longer account. It is through these writings that she is known to us.

The church emerged from the bleakness of the Dark Ages with an image of God that was less distant and wrathful, more forgiving and understanding, full of tenderness and compassion. Julian’s experience of God reflects this trend. Perhaps the most powerful illustration of this is the illustration which imagines God as a mother who may sometimes allow a child to fall, for its own benefit, but who can never suffer any kind of peril to come to her child because of her love. On the other hand, the child, when it is distressed and frightened, runs quickly to his mother (300).

Even though Julian claims to be uneducated, the style of her writing and her knowledge of scripture indicate otherwise. For example, though her language is vastly different, her theology is not too dissimilar to that found in the readings from Proverbs and Romans today (the presence of Wisdom, or the second person of the Trinity at creation, the delight that the Trinity takes in creation and the notion that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit).

Julian’s homely and familiar relationship with God embraces her understanding of God as Trinity which is expressed in such language as God’s courtesy, that God loves us tenderly and that there is no wrath in God only endless goodness and friendship. The relationship is mutual. Just as the Trinity rejoices in humanity, so the Trinity fills our heart with the greatest joy (181). In fact joy, bliss and delight are words that are repeated in Julian’s description of the relationship between God and humanity. Her experience tells us of God’s confidence in and presence in us: “we are in God and God is in us” (286). When the Trinity created us, he “joined and united us to himself and through this union we are kept as pure and as noble as we were created” (293).

The Trinity, a concept that many of us tend to make hard work of, seems to have been as natural as breathing to Julian. That God is one and God is three, is the basis of her faith. She doesn’t labour over the nature of the relationship, but it is clear from what she writes that she did not think of God in any other way. While she speaks of the individual persons of the Trinity, it is clear that her concept of God is primarily Trinitarian.  For example, she can say: “the Trinity is God and God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker, our protector, our everlasting lover, our endless joy and our bliss, from our Lord Jesus Christ and in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (181)

All members of the Trinity are all engaged in our creation and all take delight in humankind and “it is their greatest delight that we rejoice in the joy which the blessed Trinity has in our creation.”(286)  “God the blessed Trinity, who is everlasting being, just as he is eternal from without beginning, just so was it in his eternal purpose to create human nature, which fair nature was first prepared for his own Son, the second person, and when he wished, by full agreement of the whole Trinity he created us all at once.” (293)

Interestingly, though Julian refers to Jesus as “he”, she constantly refers to the second person of the Trinity as “Mother”.  This was consistent with the spirit of the time which, in reaction to the harsh and distant God of the previous generation, discovered in Jesus the love and compassion often attributed to a mother. So for example, Julian can say: “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother. Our Father wills, our Mother works, our good Lord the Holy Spirit confirms. In these three is all our life: nature, mercy and grace (296).” “And so in our making, God almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving Mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit, which is all one God, one Lord” (293).

It is too easy to dismiss the Trinity as difficult to understand or explain. Mystics like Julian remind us that it is not a concept to be feared, but to be embraced; to know ourselves known and loved by God – Father, Son and Spirit, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.  Three persons, one God whose creative power breathed us into being, whose saving power restored us and whose in-dwelling presence continues to fill us with love and joy.


[1] Colledge, Edmund, O.S.A., Walsh, James, S.J. Julian of Norwich: Showings. The Western Classics of Christianity. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978.


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