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About ten years ago, The Telegraph newspaper in London ran a story with the headline, “The 50 Most Confusing Things in the World.” The list is a bit dated now. For instance, right next to no. 2 on the list, algebra, is, “what women see in Russell Brand.” He was an actor and comedian who was briefly married to pop singer Katy Perry. This particular poll was conducted by who else, the website www.confused.com. Other notable answers on the list included: buying a house, why and how Stonehenge was built, the laws of cricket, and of course, religion. Although that last one is a pretty broad category. If you were to drill down into that particular answer, I suspect one of the more confusing aspects of the Christian tradition would be the way we talk about God as Trinity. That is God historically understood as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And if simply trying to unwind that Celtic knot weren’t difficult enough, concerns about overly gendered language in the traditional formulation have given rise to alternate expressions of the Trinity like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
One of the things that you have to do when you join a Presbytery as a minister member is to present a personal Statement of Faith. This exercise was pretty exciting for me coming out of seminary. I was so eager to share all that I had learned over the last three years. And as a conscientious student I was mindful of those gendered pitfalls of the traditional trinitarian formulation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so I opted for Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Well, there was a certain minister in the presbytery I was entering for my first call to ministry who took something of an issue with the elimination of Father from that formulation. I later learned that it wasn’t personal, he went after anyone who neglected to name God as Father. So he asked me about it at my first presbytery meeting, in front of all the people who would soon be my new colleagues. I was caught a bit flat-footed, but managed to pull out something about Karl Barth and how we know who God is by what God does. But it raises an interesting question, and maybe the most important question on this Trinity Sunday: what does it matter?
What does it matter what we call God? And what does it matter that we name God as three, in addition to God as one. Let’s be honest, naming God as one is not all that ground-breaking. The central confession of Judaism, the Shema from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, is pretty emphatic. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. One God. Along comes the prophet Mohammed and the practice of Islam, and they affirm the same thing. One God. In fact in interfaith dialogues between the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it’s the Christians who stand out as the odd ducks with our insistence that God is also three. And why do we do that? What difference would it make if we stopped?
To be fair, not all those who claim to be Christian affirm a trinitarian God. The Latter Day Saints do not. Nor do more fundamentalist Pentecostal traditions who contend that since the word ‘trinity’ isn’t found in the bible, such a belief is not, strictly speaking, biblical. While you can see their point. there is certainly evidence, like these words Jesus speaks from John’s gospel, suggesting a relationship between God as Father, Jesus as Son, and the Spirit. But what does that really mean? As Presbyterians we would never do anything quite this quick and comprehensive, but say it was decided tomorrow that we were no longer going to believe in the Trinity as a way of talking about God, would anyone notice the difference?
I’m inclined to think they would, if only because when the General Assembly received a paper from a Theological Task Force titled “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing,” it made the news. No, really, it did. Maybe not the front page, above the fold or anything like that, but still it made the news nonetheless and became fodder for a few syndicated columnists. I remember that was the year I had taken some youth from the church that I was serving on a mission trip. One day, an adult chaperone from another church group at the mission site sidled up to me and said, “so Presbyterians don’t believe in the Trinity anymore?” Of course that wasn’t at all what had been presented by the Task Force, but it was what got picked up by the press because what was in the paper were other formulations for articulating and understanding the inner relationship at work in this confusing way of talking about God, who we say is one, but then also say is three. Apparently, my presbytery critic wasn’t the only one who was vigilant against deviations that failed to name God as ‘Father’. I got a phone call from an older member of my congregation. A friend of hers who had his suspicions about us Presbyterians and our ways had been poking her, telling her we’d done away with the Trinity. She was pretty upset about the whole thing.
On the night before his own death, Jesus is talking to his disciples, his friends, trying to prepare them for what would come next. In the middle of this farewell discourse, we have the words that we heard this morning, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus understood way back then that there are some things that we aren’t ready for all at once, that all the words we’ve recorded him having said are not all the words that he would have us hear and know. That is extraordinary if you really sit with it. Because what it means is there’s more to the story. Right? There’s more to unfold, more to say, but we aren’t always ready to hear it. So Jesus talks to them about God as the Father, because that is how they were used to talking about God. That is how they had always talked about God. But just because that is always how they had talked about God, it doesn’t mean that is always how we will talk about God, or how we have to talk about God.
Today is Father’s Day. Instead of flowers and brunch that mothers tend to get on their day, fathers get cookouts and maybe golf. But like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day isn’t a neutral holiday for everybody. There are a lot of great dads out there, and it’s nice that we want to celebrate them. It’s also true that there are a lot of not so great dads; distant dads, disappointing dads, abusive dads, absent dads. By all accounts Jesus had a pretty good relationship with both of his dads; his heavenly Father and the earthly one who adopted him as his own. But our experience of our own fathers can make the idea of calling God, “Father,” downright difficult, if not impossible. Furthermore, because as John Calvin observed, the human heart is a factory for idols, we have to be careful about how attached we get to the ways we talk about God. When the majority of our images and pronouns for speaking of God are male in nature, the effect is to elevate the male in our thinking, and by extension in the way we interact with the world. Isn’t too far to go from “This is My Father’s World,” to, “it’s a Man’s World,” thus subordinating the gifts, stature, and dignity of women. Not only does insisting that God be named almost exclusively as ‘Father’ limit our experience of the divine in our lives and in the world around us, it is an exercise in missing the point of a Triune God. How we talk about God does matter because the words we use to name the one in whose image we are made shape our self-understanding as well. The words and names we give to God invariably give rise to how we live in response to those words and names.
To talk about God as Trinity is to recognize that while God may be one, God is not singular, or monolithic. There is also differentiation in the life of God. God is not so much an object to be worshipped as the movement of a subject who is beyond us. In that denominational Trinity paper that some of our best theologians worked on, they suggested some other ways we might think about the dynamic life we are baptized into. They include: the One to whom, the One by whom, and the One in whom we offer our praise; Speaker, Word, and Breath; Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child, and Life-giving Womb; our Sun, Ray, and Warmth. In each of these, the three images evoke a generative, interactive, integral relationship between the three in which each is an expression of the other two.
That may be the most compelling reason for people of faith to trust in the triune God. Because faith is not an intellectual exercise in which we agree to some idea about a man in the sky so that we can be with him when we die instead of going into some fiery pit . Faith is the trust we put in the dynamic, life-giving flow of love that can only be known and experienced as it is shared in relationship with someone else. The actor and storyteller Stephen Tobolowsky has said that all relationships are like a time machine, in that they contain a past, present, and future. These three are present in Jesus’ words to his friends as he describes their relationship with God. The God who is Source is the memory of what is past that informs each moment. Jesus, the Christ, is the present one who meets us in each moment, as one of us. And the Holy Spirit is the future that beckons us to the next moment, guiding us forward into a world that is being made new, bringing us along into the new thing that is generated by the never ending flow of love within the life of God.
Instead of being confused by the mathematics of it, or which words to use for it, in the end we are invited into its movement, into the endless ebb and flow of love that we receive, and give, only to receive it back once more. Now, and forever more.