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What's your favorite way of talking about the Trinity? Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer? Presence, wisdom, power? Womb of life, word in flesh, brooding spirit? Almighty God, incarnate word, holy comforter? Or my personal favorite: primordial nature, consequent nature, superjective nature? All of these phrases have been used to refer to the Trinity. And just in case you couldn't tell from all those phrases, when we refer to the Trinity, we're talking about God.
Have you ever tried to explain the Trinity? Or even to understand it? God is one and yet we've got these three, what? Persons? Spirits? Beings? Things? So what is God? A triangle, maybe a prism whole, but with three sides? Maybe God is like the Greek God Janus, the one with two faces, except that the Christian God has three faces. Or maybe God is a shape-shifter, one minute holy parent, another holy child, another holy spirit. "God in three persons," ...or per my theology professor's tweaking: "God in three hypostatic modes of being..."
Talking about the Trinity is not easy, so I went to the other theologian in our house - no, not the cat. Our cat doesn't study God; he thinks he is God. No, I asked my kind, thoughtful and very smart husband, Allen, how I might speak about the Trinity. His response? "What's the point of talking about the Trinity? It's the most useless doctrine in all of Christianity."
Which, on the face of it, sounds pretty cynical. But this side of writing this sermon, I'm almost inclined to agree. Jesus didn't talk about the Trinity; neither did Paul, not really. It wasn't until the fourth century “ 300 years after Jesus “ that Christian leaders formalized the idea of the Trinity. They did it at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The result? The Nicene Creed. Then some more Christian leaders in the fifth century wrote another creed trying once again to clarify the Trinity for folks, particularly the Jesus part. That Council resulted in the Apostles' Creed.
And all of that is well and good. But what do these old councils, creeds, and conflicts have to do with how we live our lives today? Not much, my husband would say, not much at all.
So maybe we should just ditch it. The idea of the Trinity is relatively new, it's hard to understand and nearly impossible to explain, so maybe we should just chuck the whole thing.
That might be exactly where Nicodemus' thoughts were headed that night on the roof with Jesus. He'd just come for a little dialogue, but he ended up with lots more questions than answers from Rabbi Jesus. Born from above? Hadn't Nick already been born once? Why be born again? And how does one get born again? And what's this business about being born of the Spirit? "If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?" "Exactly!" I would have said. "Forget this heavenly stuff. It's too hard to understand. I am out of here!"
Frustrated though he might have been by these mysterious things Jesus was saying, Nicodemus stayed. He stayed on that roof and listened to everything Jesus said. In the end, he was rewarded by being the first person in all of Scripture to hear that gem of Jesus' teachings, the kernel of the Gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life." If he didn't understand anything else Jesus had said, surely, he could understand this bit about God's love being for everyone. Whosoever, Jesus said. Whosoever.
What kernels of truth might we glean from staying with this notion of the Trinity? I can tell you what insight Allen gleaned from staying with it. Dissatisfied with his initial response to my query about the Trinity, I chased -- I mean followed -- him around the house asking my questions. In the kitchen: "If the idea of the Trinity is so useless, why has it stuck around so long?" In the den: "Useless? Totally useless?" In that tiny corner in the basement he thought I didn't know about: "Father-Son-Holy Ghost? Creator- Redeemer-Sustainer? I end all my sermons with that Trinitarian formula! Has it all really been for naught? Surely there's something helpful about the idea of the Trinity!"
Maybe it was having his back to the basement wall that did it, but as my last question hung between us, I saw the light bulb click on. His eyes widening, Allen said: "The Trinity reveals the creative, the ethical, and the mystical." In response to my theologically astute "HUH?" he went on, "The essence of God is creative. That's what God does, God creates. And Jesus' whole thing was doing good; God sent Jesus to show us how to live; that's ethics. And the mystical? The mystical is all that Spirit stuff “prayer, meditation, being fully present with God, with ourselves, and with others."
By this time, Allen was so excited that he was chasing -- I mean, following --- me- around the house. "And the important thing about the Trinity," he said, "Father-Son-Holy Ghost, creative-ethical-mystical, however you name it, the important thing about the Trinity is that all three partners go together, all three are equal, mutually-related, interdependent." At that point, he took a breath, which I took as my cue to make a run for it.
"And tell them about the image of God!" he yelled after me. (You tell them about the image of God, I thought.) But I asked sweetly: "What about the image of God, Honey?" "Well, the image of God," he said, "is this mutual balance of creative, ethical, and mystical...and since we're created in the image of God..."
Then I got it. Since God's essence is this three-way dance of creative, ethical, and mystical and since we are created in God's image, then we are whole, which is to say, most God-like when the creative, ethical, and mystical dance interdependently in our lives. And when the creative (our imaginative thinking), the ethical (what we do and how we decide to do it), and the mystical (how we pray) when the creative, the ethical, and the mystical dance interdependently in our lives, then we are dancing with the Trinity.
So what does this Trinity dance look like? It looks a lot like the Stations of the Cross wall hangings in the chapel at the Sisters of Zion hostel in Ein Karem, Israel. The Sisters of Zion established the hostel specifically to minister to Jewish people. "We are here as a sign of God's love for the Jews," one of the sisters told us. In the hostel, the sisters play host to Jews and to anyone else who needs a place to stay. That's how I came to be there.
In their continuing efforts to establish relationships with and minister to Jewish people in the community, the sisters once commissioned a local artist to create a plaster set of the Stations of the Cross. Once the beautiful abstract paintings were completed, the sisters proudly displayed them in the chapel. Then the bishop came to visit. Saying that it was disrespectful for a Jew to create artwork depicting the Stations of the Cross, he ordered the stations removed. Sadly the sisters took them down.
"But when the bishop died," one sister told us, smiling broadly, "we put them back!"
Through their life of prayer, the sisters opened themselves to the creativity of God's spirit a Jew to create Christian art? Who would have thought it? And not only did they think it, they also acted on it. They did something to demonstrate God's love for the Jews. And even when thwarted by an uncreative bishop, the sisters' creative-ethical-mystical dance continued, even though it had to go underground for a while.
What does your Trinity dance look like? What happens when your creating or imagining, your doing, and your praying all get going at the same time? What might that dance look like? How might that dance help us live into the reality of that famous verse from John 3:16
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
What might happen if we lived truly trinitarian lives?
Shall we dance?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2006
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