Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Pentecost ~ Trinity Sermon

“Why are you Christians polytheists?”
That was a question my ninth graders often asked me, back when I taught in a Jewish school.  “Why are you Christians polytheists?”
Polytheism, the belief in many gods, was a standard ninth grade vocabulary word.  In ninth grade world history, we studied world religions, and so the students needed the vocabulary that would enable them to discuss the different ways in which people around the world experience faith.  The word "polytheism" most often came up in connection with Hinduism, since many Hindus believe in multiple gods – quite different from Buddhism, which for most Buddhists does not involve a belief in a god, a supreme being, as we understand God.
It’s the three Abrahamic religions – Judasim, Christianity, and Islam – the three religions which trace their ancestry to Abraham, which are monotheistic: religions of one God.  And yet, so often my Jewish students asked me, “Why are you Christians polytheists?”  And Muslims, who interpret our belief in Jesus as a belief in a “helping God,” think the same thing – that Christians do not believe in one God. 
That should give you some idea of how confusing the Christian concept of God as a Trinitarian God is.  The other monotheistic religions don’t understand it – and guess what, neither do we! 
We talk about the Trinity– we baptize, for instance, as Jesus instructed us to do, “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  That’s why our Affirmation of Faith today comes from the Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith” – because that rather lengthy brief statement – we seldom use all of it, and today’s no different – affirms our faith in a Trinitarian formula.
We sing about the Trinity --  that’s why we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” this morning.  “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”  The naval hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” Is a Trinitarian hymn.  “Eternal Father, O Savior, O Holy Spirit, O Trinity” – those are the first words of its four verses.
We pray with the Trinity.  Catholic Christians end their prayers with the words, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  We often address prayers to one or the other of the persons of the Trinity. 
So the concept of a Trinitarian God is one that we accept – but do we understand it?  Not so much. 
I tried explaining to my Jewish students that a God who is three-in-one resembles something that we understand about ourselves – that different facets of who we are appear in different situations.  You’re one person on the soccer field, I would tell them, and another in the classroom, and another at home with your parents.
Then I got to seminary and discovered that that was a totally wrong explanation.  It isn’t really true of humans, and it definitely isn’t true of God as Trinity.  My only solace lay in discovering that it’s the most frequent “totally wrong” explanation given by Christians.
I’ve heard others say that the Trinity is sort of a hierarchy of command:  God is in charge and gives orders to Jesus, who then transmits them to the Holy Spirit.   Nope.  That one’s also totally wrong.
It’s been popular in recent years to explain the Holy Spirit as a dance.  There’s a Greek word, perichoresisperichoresis, and one of its meaning is “dance.” Maybe.  Or maybe not.  Some of the earliest Christians described the Trinity as a perichoresis, as an eternal dance  of each of the two persons around the third, and many preachers have picked up on that description in the last decade or so.  I think it’s delightful – but my seminary professors didn’t like that one either.   I won’t ask you to struggle through the explanation of why not –  let’s just say it has something to do with the Greek language.
So what is the Trinity?   It might be wise to say, “It’s a mystery,” and leave it at that.  But one thing we do know: It’s about relationship.  From the very  beginning, from before the very beginning as we know it, God was about relationship.  And we can detect that relationship through the winding journey on which Scripture takes us.  There’s no textbook definition in Scripture.  There’s no book in the Bible entitled An Explanation of the Trinity.  But the hints run throughout the narratives and poems and teachings and events.  The hints run through the great conversation about God and God’s creatures that we call Scripture.
Episcopal bishop Charles Robertson tells us that “a[] twelfth-century scholar, Richard of St. Vincent  . . . spoke of God in terms of shared love, a community in which that love is expansive and generous. It is love that cannot be self-contained. It overflows from Parent to Child to Spirit and back again. The love of God, the love that IS God is like a divine Dance [there’s that dance language!], a dynamic and graceful and deeply intimate movement. In this movement, the God who is "I AM" is not alone, never alone, for the very essence of God is relationship. . . . [W]hat we see in the Trinity is a dance of Persons who are mutually affirming, mutually caring. For the very essence of God is relationship, community, unconditional love.

“The very essence of God is relationship, community, unconditional love.”   What does that mean for us?

Most of us probably focus on one person of the Trinity, although that focus may change from time to time during our loves.  I know that for many people here, God is encountered and understood most often as a loving Father.  There are many others throughout the Christian world for whom God is a tender Mother.  For others, Jesus, the revealed face of God, the one who walks with us, converses with us, challenges us and cares for us, is the person through whom we know God.  And, as I’ve recently learned, at least several Nankin folks turn first to the Spirit, or understand God through the workings of the Spirit. 

And yet all of us are talking about and engaging with the One God.  The God who is three distinct persons and yet one person.  One God  -- not many gods, but one God. One God in relationship with all of Godself.

Last week, we celebrated Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons of God/  I was over at Red Haw, and Pastor John was here,  and so I’m going to extend that celebration today so that we can ponder the Trinity, and especially the Holy Spirit, together.  Why?  Because I think that maybe we need to consider together God’s interruptions through the Spirit.
What happened at Pentecost? 
The disciples were waiting – waiting and waiting and waiting for they knew not what.  Jesus had promised to send the Spirit, but they had no idea what that was going to mean.  And then – woosh! Like the wind, and flames! of fire!  And suddenly, they could speak so that all could understand.  There it was, time for a big festival with people from all over the place pouring into Jerusalem, speaking all sorts of languages – and the Holy Spirit created new possibilities, made it possible for all to understand the words from God. 
All.  Everyone included. 
The Creator God who made all, the Son of God who came to redeem all, and now the Spirit of God who speaks to all.  In languages that each of them can understand. 
It’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it?  It’s one thing for the Trinitarian God to be in relationship among its own three persons, but it’s unsettling and distracting and downright troubling when the Spirit pulls all of us into the orbit of the Trinity.
Because we’re all different.  Each of us brings into the community of God who we are and who we are becoming.  We have different ideas.  We have different priorities.  We speak different languages.  And yet we are called to be in relationship.  In community.
One of the things in particular that I, and some of you, have learned is that we speak different languages about God.    We use different words for salvation.  We have different ideas about what’s important in the life of faith. 
And it’s not nearly as easy as it might seem, from the story of the first Pentecost, for us to deal with our varied points of view and our different jumping off spots and landing places, and to give one another the benefit of the doubt.  When the Holy Spirit interrupts – by bringing us together in challenging relationships, by introducing new ideas into our lives, by asking us to grow in ways we hadn’t been planning to grow – when God interrupts us through the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit, it can be mighty uncomfortable.
But let me tell you ~ there aren’t a whole lot of things I know for sure, to use a phrase that Oprah seems to have coined ~ but there is one: when life becomes challenging in unexpected ways, when people make surprising statements, when we find ourselves invited into places we had no intention of going: then the Holy Spirit is at work, just as it was on that first Pentecost morning.
On that first Pentecost morning, Jesus’ followers got their first taste of the Holy Spirit at work.  
It probably wasn’t what they were expecting.    It was probably a most unsettling experience.  Wind!  Fire! Speaking words they didn’t understand!  So dizzying in its effects that people watching them thought they were drunk.   And so dizzying in its message – this is for everyone!  This is what God’s grace looks like ~ extended to everyone  ~  that they must have been filled with questions and wondered how in the world their Christian faith was going to encompass all peoples.  All peoples, with our different languages and backgrounds and understandings.

How in the world indeed?  It’s an unsettling question, and the answer is unsettling as well.  Because the answer is that God, our creative, redeeming, and sustaining God, our Trinitarian God, is going to rush in like the wind to interrupt us in whatever we think we are doing and is going to light the place up with the fire of new questions, new possibilities, and new hope ~ always, always, always, with new hope that we will love God and that we will love one another across barriers that at first seem impossible to surmount. 

Remember  ~ it’s the sense of interruption, the sense of the unexpected, the sense of surprise ~~ and sometimes even the sense of confusion and dismay that everything won’t be exactly as it always was ~  which tell you that the Holy Spirit is at work.   And what is the Holy Spirit doing?

It’s telling us, egging us on, surprising us with the news that we, like our Trinitarian God, are designed for relationship.  That we are called to be in community.  That the very things with which we struggle are the things with which God works best.  That God creates unity ~ not sameness, not rigidity, not identical little automations, but unity in love ~ out of diversity, because God as Trinity is unity in diversity.  

So let the winds of the Spirit blow!  Let the flames of the Spirit burn!  And embrace the interruptions of our Three-in-One God!  Amen.


  1. Very cool, Robin. You're makin' me think....

  2. That is one very excellent sermon! The Holy Spirit interrupts but the results are amazing when we are open to God's love and grace. Thanks very much.