Friday, June 17, 2011

June 19: Trinity Sunday: Commissioned by the Trinity

Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Our gospel lesson is the last five verses at the end of Matthew, the final words of Jesus to his disciples. We call these final words the Great Commission. The commission includes our using a new name for God. Now, you know that God has several names. In Genesis 1, God is Elohim, the plural form of El, or Al, or Allah. In Genesis 17, with Abraham, God used the name El-Shaddai, or God Almighty. In Exodus 3, God commissioned Moses to use a new name, Yahweh, or Adonai, the Lord, the Eternal. In Matthew Jesus commissions us with a new name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three names together, always together, the name in which we are baptized, the name which defines how we relate to God.

Three discrete names means three discrete persons, one of them being Christ himself. He is God, but a different person than his Father, as is the Holy Spirit. Three names, three persons, and yet one God. The unity of the one God has a texture which Jesus opens up to us by means of this new name. Not that he explains it, but he commissions it. We accept the commission, though it is challenging. It’s not for convenience that we confess the Holy Trinity, but from obedience.

The doctrine of the Trinity has tested the church throughout the centuries. It’s been the cause of conflicts and an excuse for wars. Our original conflict with Islam was because it was Unitarian, not because it was violent—Christendom was just as violent. Our supposed rationale for persecuting Jews was the crime of Unitarianism. To be a Unitarian of any sort was punishable by death. Such defensiveness of a doctrine suggests a fragile doctrine.

The presenting problem of the Trinity is the status of the person of Jesus: how can Jesus be God, and not his Father, and we still say that God is One? It is a stretch. It took the Apostles years to work it out. Well, it took years for Columbus to work out that he landed in a new world, not the Orient. It took rethinking everything. The resurrection forced the disciples to rethink everything they knew of God. I suspect that even Jesus, before his resurrection, did not fully comprehend his status and identity.

The status of Jesus is the problem for Jews and Muslims and Unitarians, but the problem for many Christians is the status of the Holy Spirit. Last month some of us were discussing the difficulties of the Christian faith, what we found problematic, and two of you said that you didn’t get the Holy Spirit thing. God the Father, yes, God the Son, yes, but why speak of the Holy Spirit as a separate person? The Spirit is an energy, a force, a power, a wind, a breath, a fire, a dove.

Well, I am commissioned to teach it to you as best I can, though no one fully can. The Trinity is unique, incomparable, incomprehensible, as it must be if it is God. If I said I had it fully figured out and I could neatly explain it, that would tell you not to believe me. We only have analogies and images, which all break down.

Let me use the image of a tree. God the Father is the trunk of the tree. God the Son is the branches and the leaves. And God the Holy Spirit is the seeds. If you look at a tree you see the trunk and the branches and leaves, but not the seeds. A seed falls to the ground, and it is hidden in the earth. But the seed is the concentrated essence of the tree. More so than the trunk or the branches or the leaves. The seed at one point is a tree in full. No matter how tiny, the seed has the soul of the tree in it, all the concentrated tree-ness of a tree, which will open up with all the textures of a growing tree. You could say that a tree is one seed’s strategy for making other seeds. Which would be wrong. A tree in its reality is the dynamic movement from the compact unity of a seed into the textured richness of the tree and back again into the seed.

The Holy Spirit is the soul of God and the concentration of God. The Holy Spirit is more purely and essentially God than are the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is not an add-on, but the deepest self of God, the deeper personality behind the majestic personality of the Father and the comely personality of the Son. The Holy Spirit is the most essential God because that is what God is, pure spirit, the purest spirit that there is, the great spirit, the original spirit, without limit, without boundary, unconstrained and uncontainable, without sex or gender, neither male nor female. If God is anything, God is spirit, purely and wholly spirit, God is the holiest of spirits.

It’s a common mistake to think of the Father as the essential God, that the Father is the one God we believe in with Jews and Muslims, and then we add Jesus, so that we have God and Jesus. That mistake is rightly criticized by Jews and Muslims. The God of Abraham and Moses is not the first person–God the Father–to which we Christians add a second. No, the God of Abraham and Moses is the undivided Spirit who is holy, holy, holy.

We didn’t see the Father in God until Jesus spoke to God that way, and we didn’t see the Son in God until the resurrection. We began to see their distinctive personalities, the Fatherly personality of one and the child-like of the other, which we can relate to, because of the way God made us. But both their personalities express the hidden personality of the Holy Spirit, which is going to be harder for us to relate to, because it is purely spiritual. The personality of the Holy Spirit has to be hard for us because it’s not like a parent and not like a child, it has no human analogy, it has a personhood which is purely God and a personality absolutely unique, which must of course remain a mystery to us. It is the point that we might not see the need of it, because this third person is absolutely God without clear reference to our human experience. And it’s the character of this personality to be hidden. Not absent, but hidden, as hidden as a seed, as hidden in you as the life that fills your body, which no scientist can isolate.

We are told enough about the Spirit’s personality to know that the Holy Spirit does love fellowship. Look, just as the seed loves to open up into the fulness of the richness of the tree, so the soul of God loves to open up into the fellowship of three persons. And this same soul of God wants fellowship with us. The Holy Spirit comes to us. It enters us and is hidden in our lives. For love. The Spirit is so loving that it keeps saying “you, you, you,” not “me, me, me.” And it keeps pointing away from itself to the persons of the Father and the Son. But it is a person who does that, who enters you, with preferences and initiative, it is the Lord, the Lord in your life and the giver of your life.

The take home today is your commission. Let me set it up. You have two commissions: the one from Jesus in Matthew and the one from God in Genesis 1:28. God commissioned the male and female to fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over every living thing. But we executed our commission sinfully, filling the earth with violence and subduing it with greed and with the dominion of our misery. Thus all of God’s investment in salvation from Abraham to Moses to Israel to Jesus and his death and resurrection, for his teaching and his authority, for the salvation of the world and all the nations of the world, by means of us who are commissioned by our baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are Christians in order to be proper human beings, not the other way around. Salvation is not against creation, but for the restoration of creation, only the new creation will be richer and deeper and more lovely from the sadness that it knows.

You need to have power in the world. According to Psalm 8:6, that’s what it means to be a human being. But your personal power must always be under the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Your power must always serve the glory of the Father, not yourself and nothing else. In the name of the Son, your power is humble and repentant, seeking reconciliation. In the name of the Holy Spirit, your power is always exercised in fellowship and love, never on your own, and never for yourself. That kind of power is the hidden power of the soul of God in you, a power which must always feel like Love.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.


Andy Bachman said...

Thanks, Daniel. Honest and deeply searching. The analogy of the tree is, frankly, better than Buber could have put it! Your depiction of Holy Spirit seems to *contain* Father and Son, making the case for unity. I'm still left scratching my head at distinguishing Father and Son.

Old First said...

That's high praise. Deeply searching. "Can we by searching find out God," goes the line of a hymn. And a commission, next, to work on distinguishing Father and Son. I suspect it's possible only from within Christianity, which is circular, I know. I wonder if the burden (and joy) of the Trinity is something like the burden (and joy) of being born a Jew. My rabbi and I will have to talk about this.

Lauri Miller said...

Trinity Sunday is an opportunity for some really deep thinking and our relationship to God.

Until studying your sermon, put simply I thought of ONE but THREE different roles to play: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Holy/Sacred part within each of us. I am ONE but am a Mother, Daughter, Wife, Grandmother, Sister, Aunt, Friend but am still ONE PERSON. THE catch is "different persons"--three persons--ONE God. Okay, I get it. OR do I?

Loved the tree analogy and also your belief that Jesus may not have comprehended his full status and identity before his resurrection.

Must continue to ponder this challenging concept,
but obey & believe as part of the mystery of our faith.

Old First said...

That's right, Lauri, and thanks. You used to hold to the "modalist" attempt to understand the Trinity, which is considered almost heretical (pace!). So yes, as you see it, the catch is three persons. That's the mystery. My experience is that the more you accept the challenge of this mystery, living with it instead of trying to streamline it or sand it down, the more joy it will give you, even as you still don't fully understand it. I love the Episcopal collect for Trinity Sunday. You can find it on line.