Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
During my time in seminary, I had the opportunity to join a seminarians’ trip to England. The itinerary was idiosyncratic: the student who organized it made sure that, in addition to visiting cathedrals and meeting dignitaries, we would visit every single church in southern England in which his ancestors had been buried. Perhaps that’s why we found ourselves, one gray day, in a small, fourteenth-century church somewhere in the countryside. The church itself was unassuming: a simple structure of gray stone, distinguished only by the presence of a drum-set in the corner. It might even have been dreary, except that, at some point in the past, the ladies of the parish had crafted a set of hassocks, those funny, cubic pillows which you can pull out from under your seat if you wish to kneel. Contrary to convention, the women had chosen to needlepoint them in mod patterns from the 1960’s, each one distinct from all the others, a blaze of color and texture and light. I loved them. I loved their quirkiness and creativity, they way they said, “We in this church may look stodgy, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.” And I loved their theological implication: that even when your life seems dreary, dull, and sad, all you need to do is kneel down in prayer to encounter a God who is wild beyond your imagining.
That is the message of Trinity Sunday, the most feared preaching day of the year, when clergy are supposed to help us wrestle with the doctrine at the heart of our faith — the one no one understands. So often, it feels as if our world — the tangible, created world, is the place of color and light and wonder, while the life of prayer seems cold and intangible and gray. But the mystery of the Trinity teaches otherwise. Over the first five centuries after the death of Jesus, Christians struggled to understand, and then to find language for, what was being revealed to them in prayer. What they eventually claimed was that God was three Persons, each identical in substance to the others, but distinct in its ways of being. And each involved in what any of them did. Our God is not a static, solitary figure seated motionless on a throne, but is Godself a community, a community bound in perfect love.
Every attempt to form a metaphor around that falls short, but…I’m going to try. Think of a woman — any woman — who is a daughter, a wife, and a mother. Each of those identities is fundamental to who she is. Unlike God, she did not have each of those identities for eternity, but once she had them, they became integral to her being. She cannot just take them on and off; they are who she is. When she is acting as a daughter, she probably acts in different ways than when she is mothering her own child, but she is still the same person. And each of those identities informs the other: the love she learns as a wife shapes how she loves as a child and and as a parent, and vice versa. She is one human being who can live and express love in more than one way. Indeed, she has to: falling back on any one of those identities would reduce her to a fraction of her humanity. To be whole, she has to love, and she has to love in more than one way.
So it is with God. God is love, and love needs someone or something to love, and so, before God sang creation into being, God loved Godself, Father, Son, and Spirit. The teaching speaks of a world that is fundamentally dynamic, a world in which giving and receiving are fundamental, and in which relationship and connection are not optional. (There’s a reason the isolation of the last year has been so hard.) If there is anyone equipped to understand this today, it may be not the theologians, but the physicists, who teach that within our tables, our chairs — the seemingly-solid surfaces of our world — is a great, mostly-empty space in which strange particles approach one another, entangle, and dance away, and yet are so marked by their encounter that even if two particles which have ever circled the same nucleus find themselves a universe apart, each will still resonate to any change in the other. (Did that just blow your mind? It blew mine!) Or, as we learned on Friday, that bridges of dark matter connect the galaxies — that beyond our sight, there is a web of connection we cannot begin to perceive or understand.
But what if not understanding is the point? (Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus might suggest that.) What if the mystery exists, not to be comprehended, but so that, in wrestling with it, we will see afresh that the world is beyond our understanding, and can be pushed over the threshold from reason to love? If that were the case, then we would move from analysis to reverence, from control to adoration.
And isn’t that what life is about, in the end? After all, even in our merely human relationships, no logic, no algorithm, no matter how carefully crafted, can fathom our hearts. Two people can be ever-so-carefully matched by a dating application; they can share interests and goals and hobbies, only to find, when they are seated at the same table, that the elusive spark just isn’t there. There is a spirit in us which yearns to meet another spirit. How much more when we move beyond the human realm? Thomas Berry writes, “The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.” Subjects are not meant to be used, but to be engaged, to be approached with reverence and humility and awe.
The desire to use what was meant to be engaged is the original sin of our time. It marks everything from the abuses of slavery to the distortions of capitalist economics to the continuing degradation of the environment and the poor. That’s why I want to draw our attention to one quirk in our doctrine of God today; the fact that when Christ ascended back to heaven, he did so as an incarnate man, bringing our flesh with him. And in each of his resurrection appearances, the disciples knew him by the marks of the cross on his hands and his feet.
Christ bears our unhealed wounds back to the heart of God. Think about that! At the dawn of our faith tradition, the patriarch Jacob met by night with an angel and wrestled with him until dawn. And even though Jacob prevailed, he walked for the rest of his days with a limp, because his hip had been put out of joint. He was marked by his encounter with God, marked in his very flesh. Even so, Jesus carries our wounds in his flesh, God marked by God’s encounter with us. The theologians speak of perichoresis, the divine dance in which the Persons of the Trinity constitute a dynamic unity, moving together, moving toward and around and away from one another, joined not by unfreedom, but by their choice to love. Imagine with me: What if one of the Persons in that dance is dancing wounded, hobbled by chains of human bondage? What if that dance were continually re-worked to embrace our faltering (marked in his flesh), so that nothing that is broken in our lives can ever cast us out of God’s pattern, so that no wound we have received can ever remove us from God’s love? If that were true, then we would be talking about a God who might go to the cross for us, a God whose redemption encompassed every place and time and injury. A god whose name was both “I am what I am” and “God with us.”
What I’m trying to say, I think, is that even in the life of the Trinity, the flesh plays an essential role. That is one reason I continue to harbor significant doubts about online worship as a continuing practice. If the central mystery of our faith is that the Word became flesh, worshiping in a form which makes that flesh intangible again is a fundamental contradiction of our truth. Particularly when it comes to Eucharist, which is all about making God tangible. Which is meant to involve taste and touch and smell. It is true that, during the Middle Ages, people used to run or ride on horseback from church to church to look at the moment of consecration, but that was because laity were not urged to consume Communion each week. Watching Communion was one of the practices which were discarded with the Reformation, with its emphasis that holiness was not the purview of priests and monks, but was available to every Christian as an act of divine love. In the words of the 39 Articles, which formed the basis of the Anglican tradition, “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” (Article XXV)
We embraced online worship as a crutch, because it was the only way to gather our community in prayer during pandemic lockdown, and it has sustained us at a hard time. I am grateful for that. However, its theological implications are unsettling to me, and, in human terms, it reconstituted hierarchies: between clergy who can be in the church frequently and laity, who have to wait for a place; between able-bodied and frail; between those who are vaccinated and those who are still waiting; between those who are tech-savvy and those who are not, and those who are too poor to have access to the internet, and who could not worship with us when we were online-only. Once we are out of the pandemic, live-streaming may still be helpful for those who are truly shut-in, although we will have to avoid the temptation of things that seeing worship could replace the need for the in-person visits by which we show that they are valued members of our community. (It will not.) But for the rest of us, the call is to return in person when we can. Like those whom Jesus healed, when we become well, we throw away our crutch, and walk.
Or, perhaps, we choose to join the dance. The theologian John Zizioulas writes, “True being comes only from the free person, from the person who loves freely …by means of an event of communion with other persons.” 1 And whom we choose to love matters. When we choose to love only as biological beings, our love naturally turns to our own — our own family, our own nation, our own blood. But when we are touched and transformed by the Spirit of God — in other words, when we are sanctified — we are made capable of transcending these biological limitations and are freed to love “without exclusiveness.” 2 That sounds great on paper, but love is a costly choice. Just as Jacob was marked by his encounter with God, and Christ by his encounter with us, so we will bear in our flesh and in our hearts the wounds of those around us, restoring the broken relationships of this world and lifting them into Christ by our free choice to engage and to love.
This is where the doctrine of the Trinity confronts us with the reality of what it is to believe. Over the last few decades, people of good will, faced with the challenge and gift of living in communities enriched by people of many faiths, have often slid into a somewhat lazy stance: “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as it works for you.” The technical name for this is “therapeutic deism,” and it implies that the main purpose of faith is to make you feel good about yourself and able to function in the world (whether or not that comfort is rooted in any kind of reality). In other words, it places each individual person at the center of their own universe, and makes everything else our servant.
But Christianity rests on the idea of truth: that in loving and serving Christ, and, through him, loving and serving the rest of creation, we are restoring the world — broken and distorted by lies — to relationship with what is real and what is true. This does not give us any excuse to look down on those from other faith traditions, but to love them fiercely as fellow-seekers, knowing that our own individual understanding is also incomplete. But accepting the truth of our faith opens us to full union with Christ, the union in which we take part in the restoration of the world. Like survivors of a great disaster, sifting through the rubble to find people who need to be healed or treasured things which can be restored, we seek out what is lost and bear it home. I’ll leave us with words from Zizioulas: “If [humankind] does this, then truth takes up its meaning for the whole cosmos, Christ becomes a cosmic Christ, and the world as a whole dwells in truth, which is none other than communion with its Creator. Truth thereby becomes the life of all that is.”
- Being as Communion.