An important part of my training to become a minister was a semester I worked as an intern at a lively suburban congregation.
The church stood matter-of-factly, holding its own among the Jiffy-Lubes and KFC’s that lined the margin of a busy thoroughfare, smack in the middle of Connecticut, an hour or so west of New Haven, and about the same distance to the south of Hartford.
It was here, in the basement of Terryville Congregational Church, that I was asked the question.
I don’t know that I had been asked before, and I don’t recall having been asked since – but I remember, like it was yesterday, being asked the dreaded question there – in the function hall of that church.
I was still wearing my liturgical robes – maybe that was my mistake. I’d preached that morning – about what, I have no recollection, but it seemed to have gone over well – people were praising me. Let’s just say that I was feeling pretty good about myself, as I set to dispatching a cup of coffee and a paper plate stacked with slices of cheese, a snatch of grapes and a couple chocolate chip cookies. I was not yet “Reverend Mark” but I was very much in my element. Happy and… unsuspecting.
A very sweet older woman kind of sidled up to me.
We spoke idly for a minute or two about this and that, and so my mind was engaged in nothing more profound than the very real virtues of chocolate chip cookies, when she cleared her throat..
“You know…” she said. She took a moment to wrinkle her brow, and I had a vague premonition that something was coming down the pike at me…
“All these years,” she said “I’ve been coming to church, and I still don’t understand the Trinity! Can you explain it to me?
Yikes! The Trinity?!!
Needless to say, I was more than a little intimidated. I have no memory of how I responded, but I imagine it consisted more of um’s than anything else. I tried in vain to recall the interminable classes I’d sat through, when high-powered theologians waxed eloquent on the subject, but all of the mysterious and complicated doctrine about the Trinity eluded me in the moment. One thing’s for sure, I certainly didn’t clear things up for her.
The Trinity just isn’t a subject that one can approach casually, like the fortunes of the Red Sox this season, or the gas mileage of a new car. As well as being downright confusing, it also has a kind of intellectual barbed wire fence around it, like it’s not meant for regular folks like you and me to think about. There is a particular brand of elitism that has developed over the centuries around Christian doctrine – we are all supposed to “take things on faith” and let old men in pointed hats do all the thinking.
Well… as you can imagine, that idea doesn’t sit well with me.
So I suppose this sermon is my redo – the things that I wish I’d said to that lady in the basement of the Terryville Congregational Church. However, I doubt that my ruminations will meet with the approval of those who protect traditional doctrine. That is, I’m afraid, what you signed on for, when you took me on as your pastor. I prefer the imagination over the institution. I am of the opinion that institutions that do not accept the nourishing input of the imagination get useless and die. This is why doctrine makes me nervous. Doctrine assumes there is ONE right answer. The ONE right answer institution is allergic to the nourishment of the imagination.
The basic problem with the Trinity, as an idea – the problem, no doubt, that was bothering the woman in Terryville – is a mathematical one…
Our religion, in keeping with its roots in Judaism, insists that there is only one true God. And yet, at the same time, Christian doctrine has evolved around another idea – the idea that the Divine is expressed as Trinity –
The Holy Spirit.
Which is it?
Christian tradition has grown around a “have our cake and eat it too” sensibility around this question. We don’t want to give up either idea, and so the philosophers, theologians, Mother Superiors and Popes throughout the ages have contrived all manner of systematic gymnastics to resolve the problem.
This problem has rattled around in my head too, and I’ve had a few ideas. I don’t pretend to be a Systematic Theologian so I doubt I will offer an authoritative solution to the problem, but if I manage to wrestle the idea of the Trinity away from protectors of doctrine and bring it into our everyday experience, even for a few moments, I will feel like I’ve done my small part in giving you a little spiritual gift to chew on.
I remember watching my daughter Isabel play soccer when she was young. She distinguished herself, early on, as a good soccer player.
She had something.
What was it?
As our imaginations zoom in on that youth soccer field, where I am standing on the sidelines, and young Isabel has just been passed the ball, let me press pause for a sec to set this up for you.
With this story, I hope to demonstrate that it is not absurdly complicated, but in fact perfectly natural, in our everyday life, to watch three things become one. For the purposes of this story then, we will designate Isabel’s foot as“thing number one,” and the soccer ball as “thing number two.”
Thing number three? Well, you’ll see…
Thing number two – the ball – has just been passed about five yards in front of thing number one – Isabel’s foot – and it (the ball) is in the act of rolling toward the out-of-bounds line. If she can just overcome those intervening 5 yards, before the ball rolls out of bounds, Isabel knows that she has an opening to make a break for the opposing goal.
At this instant, “thing one” and “thing two” collaborate to create conditions for the appearance of something powerful. This new creation is in the air, as it were – you cannot touch it. If you were standing in the right place, you might catch a fleeting glimpse of it, as a glint in Isabel’s eye.
It is real.
It is essential.
And in that moment, when she achieves extraordinary focus and catches the ball just shy of the line – her foot, and the ball, conspire to create a new thing.
Three resolves into one – a pure determination, that is
untouchable, yet crucial.
A few days ago I went for a walk with my brother Jim. As you know, Jim is also a minister, and since Trinity Sunday was coming up, the subject came up. He said something that I thought was very interesting, which I’d like to share with you. So, at least for a moment or two this morning, the United Church of Jaffrey and the First Church of Montague will be hearing a little of the same message.
Jim noted that last Sunday, on Pentecost, the central message was unity – the idea that we might all speak different languages, but the Divine influence has the capacity to intervene and create understanding.
In contrast to this, Jim noticed that the passage from the first chapter of Genesis, which is presented for our consideration this morning, involves a God who creates through the process of separation.
Before God’s intervention, the “earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” With God’s creative word “Let there be light” God separated the light from the dark. God looked at the resulting separation and pronounced it “good.”
The essence of God’s creation – the very “goodness” of it – consists in the process of separation – the purposeful invention of diversity from uniformity.
I love this! I don’t know what Jim intends to do with it – but for my part, I want to highlight two implications – one, that diversity is divinely affirmed to be “good” and two, that, originally, we came from, and will, no doubt return to, an essential, primordial oneness.
We are many, and we are one – at the same time.
This principle – that one is not just one, but many – and that many is not just many but one – is built into the origin of the universe itself.
We move back and forth between a separation that is good, and moments of sublime transcendence when we are given flashing glimpses of our original unity.
The Trinity, perhaps, is this idea as it achieves perfection in the highest state of being.
God cannot be one without being many, and cannot be many without also being one.
God then, as an expression of unity, and an expression of diversity, is, ultimately, an expression of community.
I love this! I have always believed that Christianity, as a religion, becomes most fully itself in community.
Trinity, in this sense, becomes an affirmation of Christian life, as it is expressed in the church community.
Community, as it shifts back and forth between unity and diversity, is a reflection of God’s essential nature.
How cool is that?
To illustrate this notion, I asked Helen to read one of my favorite passages this morning – Paul’s salutation to the faithful who are part of the early church in Rome. See how, in this passage, the God’s threefold nature finds expression, not in high-falutin doctrinal speculation, but in the life of the church.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
For the Apostle Paul, God through Jesus (thing one and thing two) conspire to create in him the spirit to serve the people. This spirit that makes Paul want to pray for the well being of the people in the Roman church, is, itself, an expression, in the life of the church, of God’s Triune nature.
And, finally, Paul affirms that the church community is all in this together. The expression of God, in community, is not a one way street, in which one person distributes pearls of wisdom and everyone else sits idly by. The Trinity, as an expression of church life, is a dynamic one that involves the hearts and minds of all:
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.
Let us, here at the United Church of Jaffrey, join in this journey, and be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.
God is community. When the church reflects that community through mutual encouragement our Christianity comes alive.
untouchable, yet crucial.