And that’s about it, friends. Be cheerful. Keep things in good repair. Keep your spirits up. Think in harmony. Be agreeable. Do all that, and the God of love and peace will be with you for sure.
-2 Corinthians 13:11
(Preached on Sunday, June 11, 2017)
Roy Lloyd, a Lutheran minister, once interviewed Mother Teresa. He said that one of his questions and her answer stands out in his mind as “a bright sun burning in my mind.” He asked her, “What’s the biggest problem in the world today?” And she answered, without hesitation, “The biggest problem in the world today is that we draw the circle of our family too small. We need to draw it larger every day.” In a world that continues to be torn apart by violence, Mother Teresa’s response is a clarion wake-up call. She is saying that the problem is not so much with the world as it is with us. We need to see more people in our family than we are currently doing.
Just imagine what would happen in Israel is the Israelis and Palestinians could truly see themselves as members of the same family? How great could our nation truly become if Republicans and Democrats truly understood themselves as members of the same family together? What ancient wounds might be healed if black people and white people truly embraced as sisters and brothers, together all children of the same family? Would the man who slashed three men who intervened as he was verbally abusing two young women on a train in Oregon have done so if he had been able to understand that these were his sisters and brothers? Or could the shooter at the Pulse nightclub a year ago in Orlando have opened fire on the patrons if he understood he was shooting at his own family members? If all people could grasp the realization that our destinies are wrapped up in each other, that we are in this together, and we really cannot survive it alone.
We, as Christians, more than any other faith, should understand this truth and be able to draw the circles of family wider each day. I say this because of our unique understanding that God, in God’s very essence, is all about community. That is what this strange and confusing doctrine of the Trinity communicates.
That’s right: I am going to try something risky this morning. I am going to try to explore Christian doctrine with you; the thickest, most challenging, and mysterious of all doctrines, the doctrine of the Trinity. I do this, not only because this is Trinity Sunday, but also because we are gathered together r in the name of a specific, unique God whom we have come to know in this strange, heady, and marvelous manner.
This doctrine did not develop as a “doctrine.” It developed because the early followers of Jesus were first and foremost, Jewish. The core, critical statement of faith for Judaism is the Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. This was central to their identity as people of faith. But, they had come to know God in a new and powerful way through Jesus; so much so, that they spoke of Jesus as Lord. Then, on Pentecost, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and in all the days to follow, in all their work and ministry, they had come to know God as ever-present through the Holy Spirit. So, those early followers spoke of God as Creator and Father; and they spoke of God in Jesus; and they spoke of God in the Holy Spirit. But they also still held central and core their belief in God as One.
Now, this all becomes very confusing for us, modern people. We define ourselves as individuals, over against everyone else. We want to do our own thing. We want to find ourselves. Others begin to be viewed as just things to be used for our own pleasure. We speak endlessly about “my rights.” Rank individuality reigns supreme.
Teilhard de Chardin, the French, Christian mystic of the 20th century, a Jesuit/scientist/theologian, wrote about the flaw in the way the modern world saw things: Its mistake is one which causes it to aim in exactly the wrong direction. It is to confuse individuality with personality … If we are to be fully ourselves we must advance in the opposite direction, towards a convergence with all other beings. He is suggesting that the highest form of personal life is not individual, but communal. He is suggesting that we need to draw our family circle wider and wider until we have taken in all of the created order – all life, not just all other human beings.
The mystery of the Trinity presents us with an alternative view of reality. It points us to that communal personality which is the absolute Highest State of Life. The Trinitarian nature of God demonstrates that life is not to be lived for the self alone. Life is to be “life-for-the-other.” God’s life is the life of the Source whose Spirit flows out and is Another who returns in the same Spirit to the Source. Sound abstract enough? Try it this way: God so loved the world that God gave the Son. The Son so loves the Father that he believes in the Father’s love despite all evidence to the contrary: rejection by family, betrayal by disciples, imprisonment and torture by enemies, death on a cross. Despite all this, the beloved Son commends his Spirit back to its Source. Life is Life-in-relationship. All life from Life is life in relationship.
Fellowship belongs to the very nature of God. When we are incorporated into the church we are sharing something of the true nature of God. We are delivered from the stark, solitary ways of individualism. Through God, we are linked to each other, members of the one body.
Because we have met a God who is complete, mutual, self-giving love, we become more loving in our relationships with others. This is what we mean when we say, “God is love.” We do not just “have” relationships, relationship is who we are. One of the most ethically formative things that a church asks you to do is to be a Christian in community with people whom you did not even know before you joined this church and people who, when you get to know them, you don’t particularly life!! We really believe that there is no way for you to grow as a follower of Jesus when you are alone. You need relationships with other Christians in order to grow in your faith in God and in your following the way of Jesus. Christianity can never be a solo experience because we are Trinitarian.
The Quaker educator, Parker J. Palmer, writes of the important value of community with these words:
Community life, like marriage, usually begins with romance. But when the romance fades, as it must, community becomes a labor of love requiring simple tenacity. So difficult is community that it often has a brief and inglorious lifespan, a fact that can be observed in the local church where people either exit altogether when the honeymoon is over or withdraw their souls to create the kind of church the Book of Revelation calls “luke-warm.”
The function of community is to disillusion us about each other and ourselves, remembering that “disillusionment” is a positive process in the spiritual life: It means losing our illusions so that we may come closer to reality. The human failures of community teach us to put our trust in God, where it belongs, and not in our own skills and charm. As we learn this lesson, the paradox ripens. In trusting God we become more trustworthy to each other, more available for the authentic community that is grounded in God’s power and not our own. The renewal of the church depends in part on finding ways to be in community without being in each other’s hair, ways of offering each other challenge and support without violating each other’s solitude or presuming we can save each other.
Again, our experience of God as Trinity, offers a way toward this sort of community. What Palmer is calling us to is community not so much as relationship but as participation. In our modern world view to speak of relationship suggests the manner in which independent, discreet entities come together. But God is not first three independent realities who eventually decide to come into relationship with one another. This three-ness has always been the reality of God’s nature. All three aspects of God’s nature have always and forever been mutually, equally, constantly present and engaged with one another.
As modern people we want to there to be a hierarchy to the persons. Someone, please, be in charge! But God does not operate in that manner. The conservative Christian speaker was talking about marriage. “Marriage is based upon a definite plan and structure. At the top you have Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Under him is the husband who is assigned the head of the household by Jesus. Then you have the wife, who loves her husband by submitting to him in love. Then under the mother are the children.” Wherever this divinely given “structure” came from, it’s safe to say that it didn’t come from a God who is Trinity because that God’s inner nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is characterized not by hierarchy and domination but rather by mutuality, relationship, and equality. These “three” are “one.”
This is what we were created for: community. We were created for community by community: by the God we experience in at least three ways. That God can exist as one in three persons teaches us that true community can exist as a unity that embraces the marvelous diversity of the world around us.