by Daniel Harrell
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy Father’s Day. Happy Son and Holy Spirit day too. Today is Trinity Sunday, always the Sunday after Pentecost, always the last of the special Sundays between now and Advent.
One of the interesting things about my former church in Boston (Home of the Stanley Cup) was the sign out front. Of all the adjectives that could have been placed on it, on that sign was the descriptor “Trinitarian.” Although “Trinitarian” smacks of polytheism to Jews and Muslims, and of celestial mathematical nonsense to others, being Christian generally equates with being Trinitarian—so much so that putting “Trinitarian” on your church sign seems redundant. However it wasn’t always this way. Long before Unitarians took over many New England Congregational churches and before Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on doors disputing the divinity of Jesus, well-meaning and faithful Christians fought over how it possibly could be that the God who is One is at the same time Three. It got so hot that it caused the first major church split in 1054 between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Trinitarian controversy fractured Protestantism too. There are still debates over the Holy Spirit and the divinity of Jesus and whether God should be Father or Mother or the more Generic Creator.
Most preachers know better than to spend a whole sermon on the Trinity. Seriously. Why pick a fight? Besides, what is there to say? Even if you believe it, it’s not like you can explain it.
Unlike the other sermons I’ve preached since Easter from John’s gospel on the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, this one comes from a passage just prior to Jesus’ death. The context is the Last Supper, which in John does read like a Last Meal. Judas has just bolted to commit his treason, and now Jesus is talking about leaving too. The rest of the disciples are all in a dither, wondering what in God’s name was going on. Jesus assures them, but then confuses them. He does that a lot.
He starts by saying “trust me,” and then goes on about being in the Father and the Father in him and going to the Father and being glorified by the Father and then sending his Spirit from the Father. It was enough to make any monotheist lose his religion. And then to make matters worse, Jesus piles on a trinity of other perennial problems that have plagued believers ever since: housing in heaven, Jesus as the only way to God, and how using Jesus’ name will get you whatever you want. Trust me, he says.
The promise of Jesus saying there’s plenty of room in “his Father’s house” isn’t really a problem. The question over the centuries is more over what Jesus is talking about. Is his “Father’s House” heaven? Elsewhere in John’s gospel his “Father’s House” is the Jerusalem Temple. But Jesus also said his body was the Temple. Is his body a house too? If you grew up on the King James Version, you’re familiar with the promise of “many mansions” and have sort of been banking on that. To have the your pew Bible translate “mansions” as mere “dwelling places” or even as “rooms” elsewhere is a serious downgrade. Bad enough that the recession caused serious downgrades on your earthly house here, do you lose your mansion too? But then again, maybe this is what happens when you pray “on earth as it is in heaven” week after week.
As for the problem of prayer, this wouldn’t be a problem either had Jesus never said, “If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.” But he did, here in John and in Matthew and Luke too. “Ask and ye shall receive,” he said. So you ask, but then you don’t receive. What happened? Elsewhere Jesus adds the proviso: “If you believe then you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Which makes sense. So you believe, then you ask—but still, nothing. “Have faith in God,” Jesus insisted, “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done.” All right. Believe without doubt. Though that one’s a lot trickier.
Maybe I don’t get what I ask for because I’m not truly a Christian. Or at least not a good Christian. “Strive to enter through the narrow door;” Jesus said in Luke’s gospel, “Many will try to enter and will not be able.” Here he’s more explicit. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” The “exclusivity of Jesus” has been a hot topic of late due to the popularity of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Rob Bell writes “Jesus is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every particle of creation.” Does this include everybody? Jesus did say there is plenty of room. But he also said “If you love me you’ll keep my commandments.” If being a Christian has anything to do with loving Jesus, then I’m in trouble. I don’t keep his commandments. Which means I don’t really love Jesus. Do I still get my mansion?
If all of this sounds a little irrational, it’s because Jesus is irrational. What am I supposed to do? A friend suggested in a recent blog post, entitled Worshipping the Irrational Jesus, that basically I have three options, two of which are honest, and the third of which is popular.
First, I can decide that my rational thoughts and the rational thoughts of others should guide me rather than the words of Jesus—and I can stop calling myself Christian. Many people I like and respect have made this choice, and it is an honest one. They call themselves atheist or agnostic or Ethical Humanist or Unitarian Universalists.
Second, I could decide that I will set aside my own conclusions (and those of mainstream society) and follow the irrational teachings of Christ. This is an honest choice too, but a very difficult one. It is profoundly humbling, hard to explain to others and may even seem anti-intellectual, if not downright foolish.
The third (popular, but dishonest) option is to somehow convince myself that Jesus agrees with me, even when he taught the opposite. Under option three, I call myself Christian while putting my own reasoning above the plain teaching of Jesus. Sure, Christ said that he is the only way to God, but what he really meant was that he was only the best way. There are many good people out there. God will make another way for them. For Jesus to be “the only way” just doesn’t make any sense.
But then neither does the Trinity—which may help explain the irrationality of Jesus. After all, wouldn’t it make sense for a God who abides in ineffable mystery to say things that leave us scratching our heads? If you can’t explain the Trinity, how can you expect to explain everything the Trinity says? The good news is that Jesus promises help: an Advocate, a Comforter, a Counselor, the Spirit of Truth. Later in John, he’ll promise that the Spirit of Truth will guide us into all the truth. Yet here he describes the Spirit of truth as one “whom the world cannot receive,” an admission, perhaps, that Jesus knows all this sounds irrational too. No wonder theologians struggle so to make sense of the Trinity.
That we embrace the Trinity (despite its irrationality) derives from Jesus’ teachings but also from the understanding of the earliest Christian communities. In Romans 8, the apostle Paul describes our new life in Christ by speaking of God the Father, Christ, the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ interchangeably. He writes, “If the Spirit of God lives in you, you are controlled by the Spirit. If Christ is in you, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, God, who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his spirit who lives in you.”
Infused by the Spirit at Pentecost, the first believers discovered spiritual gifts for strengthening and growing the church. These spiritual gifts bore spiritual fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control—evident to all whom came in contact with them. This fruit is meant for the sake of others--which makes sense given that the chief commandments Jesus calls us to obey are to love God and love our neighbor—including strangers and enemies too (neighbor means anyone “near by”).
The Trinity’s three-in-oneness stresses love as God’s chief character trait. God is love, but not by himself. To only love yourself is narcissism. We all need somebody else to love. But why three rather than two? St. Augustine argued that because God’s love is perfect love, it rises to the level of personhood, personally binding Father and Son together in perfect unity. But God’s love is not constrained by the Trinity. It unavoidably and lavishly overflows in search of more to love. This is why creation happened. God so loved that he made the world. And then he so loved the world that he sent his Son to save it and then his Spirit to make it new.
The great 18th century New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (after whom we’ve named our former Youth Ministry offices down the hall) put it this way: “Love is the principal thing that the gospel dwells on when speaking of God, and of Christ. It brings to light the love eternally existing between the Father and the Son, and declares how that same love has been manifested in [most every] thing.” From quark to quasar, from bacteria to baboons, everything comes from the same place and is related to everything else. Creation is a Trinitarian portrait of both unity and diversity. Spread people onto the canvas and God’s relational character emerges in even stronger relief. As God exists in face-to-face relationship with himself in community, so he crafts people in his image to enjoy relationship with him and each other.
The Bible describes humans as created in God’s image, which from very early on was understood as humans in relationship (it was not good for man to be alone). This is why the church is so important (and why we’re called the bride of Christ). Nobody can be the image of the Trinitarian God by his or herself. God is love, and thus the same Spirit who unites God to himself in Triune love is the same Spirit who lovingly unites God to us and us to each other as participants in the Trinitarian dance. Because love is of God, it should look among Christians on earth as it does within God in heaven. And it should show itself not just in the ways we love each other, but in keeping Jesus’ commandments, it must show itself in the ways we love God and in the way we love strangers and enemies too. To refuse to love, to neglect to welcome the stranger or seek peace with the enemy is to refuse to love the Spirit—a move some might call blaspheming the Spirit—which Jesus labeled the unpardonable sin.
While I don’t want to go that far (and I’m sure Jesus agrees with me—option three), I do want to suggest this: If we do not love—tangibly, demonstratively, hospitably, affectionately, compassionately, sincerely, sacrificially, and mercifully as Jesus loved—then we really shouldn’t be so bold as to call ourselves a church. A social organization or a community group or a country club, perhaps, but not a church. Or at least not a Christian, Trinitarian Church.
During his day, Jonathan Edwards witnessed entire communities transformed by a wave of the Spirit historians refer to as the Great Awakening. But even then, Edwards grew suspicious whenever people attested to individual conversion experiences but failed to exhibit any change in disposition toward other people. Edwards cut against these personal, individualist tendencies by denying that any individual had privileged access to God. Jesus may be the only way, but that makes Jesus special. Not you. You might say you’re a loving person, but who you are is not what you say. It’s what you do. If others don’t experience you loving them, then you’re not a loving person. Unfortunately, such stern talk got Edwards fired. So I think I’ll stop now.