Preaching on Trinity Sunday is the domain of all unseasoned preachers. It is the ultimate hazing rituals; the job each preacher with any seniority whatsoever wriggles out of as best they can, because who wants the job of having to explain the mystery of the Trinity?
Me, that’s who. I’ve preached on Trinity Sunday since I was 21 years old. It’s grown on me these many years. I cannot lie and tell you that I’ve figured out the nature of the Trinity, or how to explain it to anyone, but I do like explaining why this is important.
As opposed to when to properly celebrate Ascension during the week before Pentecost, this IS a ditch I will die in.
Bad theology kills people. It literally kills people. The words we use about God matter immensely, and in a world where dangerously misguided people dare to think God condones the sort of hate and violence we’re seeing, I can’t imagine what could be more important.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
June 11, 2017
Trinity Sunday, Year A
John something or other
My liturgics professor in seminary had an expression. Whenever we were asked to discuss some vast theological concept in class, like the ontological change at ordination, or the nature of transubstantiation, or something like that, and a student would try to get out of it, he called it ‘hitting the mystery button’. Inevitably, the student would try to dodge giving a straight answer to a straightforward question like “What happens to consecrated bread and wine at the Eucharist?” by saying “I don’t know; it’s a mystery.”
Professor Farwell maintained that this was a dodge, and beneath us. If, he said, we wanted to be taken seriously as clergy, we needed to be able to say something substantive about our faith; the way it fit into the world, the way it fit with other aspects of life and belief, and not just wave off questions by claiming that EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE WAS SO MYSTERIOUS, OMG WHAT.
So, please keep that in mind as I tell you that today is that most special of days, that feast most cherished by all preachers: Trinity Sunday. The one day we set aside to again attempt to understand the Trinity.
To recap: the Trinity is that confusing idea that God is three-in-one, and also one-in-three. That God is simultaneously God the Father, creator of all that is, also God the Son, Jesus the Christ, and also God the Holy Spirit, who animates and flows through creation working to redeem it. That these three persons are neither separate, nor overlapping, in any way.
We’ve had this general idea about God for a long time, since about 350 CE. And it has been super-confusing from the get go. It was this doctrine that sprouted most of the early heresies, as people tried to figure out how to explain it.
Well, some said, God was like an apple: there were different parts, skin, seeds, core, but one whole. Nope! Said the church–that’s partialism. That’s not quite right.
Well, ok. Maybe it’s that God is experienced in different ways at different times. Like someone can be a mother, a sister, a wife but still the same person. Also, nope, said the church. That’s modalism. That’s also not quite it.
Well, fine. So maybe it’s that God functions in different ways at different times? Like water, ice, and steam? Also, sort of no. Said the church. Still modalism. And still no.
Part of the problem is that it’s not like Jesus ever held lectures on systemic theology while he was on earth. And even if he had, it’s highly doubtful that the disciples would have managed to retain much of it either. Jesus and the disciples, instead, focused on the experience of God, rather than the rules of God. Jesus focused on showing, who God was, and how God was–and that was how we learned instead.
Jesus healed the sick, and so we learned that God wants us to be whole and healthy. Jesus cared for the poor and the outcast, and so we learned that God cares for the lost and the least. Jesus loved and forgave and showed mercy, even when it seemed impossible, and so we learned that God did the same.
Theology for Christians is less about coming up with rules, and more about describing this experience. We try to work backwards from our experience of God, and our experience of Jesus, and put words to that experience. We try to find words to tell that story.
This means two things:
–Both that words matter
To choose the wrong words leads to wrong actions and harmful assumptions. Even though what we are ultimately doing is describing an experience, the words we choose matter, because other people hear our stories. For people who don’t have direct experience of God, our stories, and the stories of the disciples, these words matter, because they’re largely how people learn about God. And we want them to know the same loving God we know, and not a cheap imitation.
— But it is also true that words ultimately fall short. As in the case of the Trinity. We have words, we have stories, but all words ultimately pale before the experience of God. All the stories all the words in the world can’t fully explain or capture God. So even we find our best words, and all of us bring our stories, our different stories, and we tell them together like a crystal scattering sunlight, but it still cannot fully describe the reality of God. And that keeps us humble. Because there’s always more for God to do. God meets people in our stories, but God is never confined to our stories alone. God will always flood out of our mere words to Greet his creation. So while we try our best to find the right words, we can also trust God not to be limited by our mistaken words.