I was the architect at his side. I was his constant delight, rejoicing always in his presence. And how happy I was with the world he created; how I rejoiced with the human family! -Proverbs 8:30-31
Jenny pleaded with her father, “I’m scared in the dark, Daddy. Please come sit with me until I fall asleep.” “But Jenny, God is there with you even in the dark,” he said. “I know that, Daddy, but I want someone beside me with skin on.” Jenny expresses in her own way what we all desire in our relationship with God. We need images, a fleshing out of abstract language about God who is wholly Other, genderless, “skinless,” remote from our experience. This, believe it or not, is actually what the Christian language about the Trinity is trying to do.
Today is Trinity Sunday on the Church calendar. It is a unique Sunday, for it is the only Sunday that celebrates a specific doctrine of the church. Without a doubt it is one of the most abstract, mind-bending theological concepts not only in the Christian faith but in any religious tradition. You may be wondering why I would bring this topic up. What practical difference does the doctrine of the Trinity make in my life today? Well, if you will hang with me through this sermon, I hope to provide an answer to that question.
All our language about God is appallingly inadequate. The mystery we call God is truly beyond all our images, all our words, and all our understandings. This is true not just for Christians, but for all religions. Jewish believers maintain their awareness of the wholly other nature of God by refusing to use the name of God, or any name for God. The followers of Islam believe it to be blasphemy to create any image of Allah and precede and follow any mention of Allah with the phrase “praised be his name.” Nor is Trinitarian imagery unique to Christianity. Hinduism has a Trimurti, a three-fold understanding of divine functioning expressed through the gods of Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver or maintainer, and Shiva, the destroyer or transformer. Not quite an understanding of God as Trinity, but more a Triad of gods. For Christians, Trinity is our way of imaging the unimaginable, naming the unnamable, speaking about the ineffable; or, in Jenny’s words, of putting skin on skinless spirit.
Various Christian believers through the centuries have attempted to put some “skin” on this concept of trinity as well. One well-known image is an icon painted in 1425 by the Russian, Andrei Rublev. It shows the three angels who came to visit Abraham and Sarah seated at a table. Traditional understanding is the icon represents the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The arrangement of the icon is such that the viewer is invited to become the fourth member of the circle around the table. It is a visual invitation to communion with God.
Another image for the Trinity is that of a dance. The theological term to describe the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the Greek word,perichoresis which actually describes a dance between these three persons, a graceful movement of love, attentiveness, and acute awareness of each of the others.
What we begin to understand is that Trinity is not a static concept but rather an audacious symbol about the inner life of God. It is trying to convey that within God’s self, God is always in relationship. This passage from the Book of Proverbs describes another image for the idea of God being in relationship from the very beginning of creation. Here the image is of Lady Wisdom, the first creation of God which then became the guiding principal for God in all of creation. All of these images for the doctrine of the Trinity try to express that the nature of God is closer to that of a loving community than to a lofty individuality. The highest form of existence – God – is communal. A choir singing at perfect pitch and in perfect harmony is a fuller description of God than a lone soloist singing his heart out.
Now, if this is the God we worship, then true greatness lies in the direction of community rather than in self-sufficient individuality. We will find the true meaning of being a person in fellowship. The church community reflects God (or should!) far better than a lone minister or priest, no matter how gifted that pastor may happen to be. Individualism is the way of limitation, diminishment, and death. Growth takes place when we give to others and receive from others; when we know we need them and they need us.
Community as a value is at the heart of the universe. Just look at the way nature functions. The majority of species are clearly social species. The very names for their collections illustrate this truth: a colony of ants; pack of wolves; pod of porpoises; pride of lions; convocation of eagles; parliament of owls; and caravan of camels. We of course know all about some of the communal behavior of animals, including pecking order, alpha males, and group mind.
Group mind is one of the most amazing realities. You have observed it in the pandemonium of parrots winging their way overhead, sometimes as few as 15-20, sometimes as many as 50, wheeling this way and that, enjoying the early morning sunshine. How do they know which way to turn? How can they perform such a perfectly choreographed aerial ballet? Or perhaps you have been snorkeling, or boating, or standing on a dock and observed a large school of small fish, in the hundreds, moving in harmony through the water just like the birds. They zig and zag, moving in perfect, instantaneous synchronization as though they were gloriously choreographed and had rehearsed for hours and days just to perfect this show for you!
Research scientists are learning about the biology of community. They are identifying that sociability is a need among human beings as powerful as hunger and thirst. In fact it can determine our individual health and happiness. Using monkeys, early findings suggest that a stable community enhances health, helps fend off infection, alters relationships, and promotes a spirit of friendly play. They have even found that shifts in the larger community can change one member’s biochemistry, right down to hormone production and immune response.
There is a traditional Navajo belief that physical and mental illness arise from being torn from the fabric of being. Restoration of the individual to health requires a community effort with elaborate rituals that can take from two to nine days. During the healing process there is much interaction between healer, patient, family, and community. This is a significant time commitment that goes far beyond the two-minute consultations of modern medicine. The love, peace, support, and unity of the experience are powerful elements that help the patient rally healing resources and put his or her life back in order. Some of their healings are deeper and more lasting than those effected by antibiotics or years of psychotherapy. There is power when people gather in unity to support each other.
This illustrates the communal nature of “tribe” which journalist Sebastian Junger explores in his most recent book entitled Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger takes a critical look at PTSD and the many challenges today’s returning military veterans face in modern society. He illustrates how there are ancient tribal human behaviors – loyalty, inter-reliance, cooperation – that flare up in communities during times of turmoil, disaster, and suffering. These are the very same behaviors that typify good soldiering and foster a sense of belonging among troops, whether they’re fighting on the front lines or engaged in non-combat activities away from the action. Drawing from history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger shows just how at odds the structure of modern society is with our tribal instincts, arguing that the difficulties many veterans face upon returning home from war do not stem entirely from the trauma they’ve suffered, but also from the individualistic societies they must reintegrate into.
God did not create us to go it alone through life in the world. God did not go it alone, but from the beginning, has always found community, with Lady Wisdom, with the Word, which eventually became flesh, and with human beings. God created us for community. When we seek our place in relationship to God and in relationship to one another, when we engage fully in the life of community, we will then find the strength, energy and power to live in difficult times. God wants to use us to bless others, to help others heal, and to let others see God through us.
This is what the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity is trying to express: that God is communal in nature. This is what the Church is intended to be: a community of support that functions very much like a tribe. What kind of wonderful creatures we might become if, in the fellowship of the church, we begin to truly live not as separate individuals each doing our own thing, coming together for what we might get from worship, but instead as members of God’s tribe, God’s family, interrelated and interdependent on God and one another. Just think how we might find true healing, true meaning and purpose for life! Just think what we might accomplish together. This is the dance of the Trinity. This is the power of community. It really is all about community. Let me close with one final thought, a quote from theologian Jurgen Moltmann: “The ritual of domination is subjugation; the ritual of community is hugging.”