One day when my son Nate was about three, he and I were in the parking lot of a Target store in California, where we were living at the time. I was intent on accomplishing some errand or another, but Nate was a curious child, full of questions, which meant that a short walk from the car to a store could be a long and interesting journey.
On this particular day, he stopped to pick up a little white rock used in landscaping the cement “islands” in the parking lot. He proceeded to ask me where it came from—where rocks in general came from. So, I knelt down and tried my best to give a basic geology lesson, but it will not surprise you to know that I quickly ran aground. When his questions persisted, I finally resorted to “Well, I guess that’s just the way that God made the world.” Nate stopped, looked at me quizzically, and then said, “But why would she do that?”
It was the pronoun in his question that struck me. We talked about God a lot with him, but Nate’s Dad and I had been pretty careful not to use gendered pronouns. We just referred to God as “God.” Nate’s question taught me the limitations of that approach.
Nate’s working assumption seemed to be that if God was a powerful, loving force in the world, then God had the qualities of a person. What other way could there be to talk about God than in the language of personhood? “Why would she do that?”
You may or may not like Nate’s choice of pronoun, but one thing he nailed. The God we worship is not distant and abstract; this God beyond all naming is personal. In Jesus, God came to us as a person. And the Spirit of this God that blew through Jesus’ band of followers on Pentecost, inhabited persons. It seems that God will be whoever and however God needs to be in order to be for us and with us and in us.
God’s people have acknowledged that sovereign capacity in God at least since the time of Moses. Do you remember the exchange the ancient prophet had with God as he stood next to the blaze of a bush that burned but was not consumed? On that holy ground, God gave Moses a hard task—to help liberate God’s people from slavery. But Moses was scared to claim that mantle of leadership. He resisted, saying, in effect: “What if it’s not good enough to say ‘I know an old story,’—to say ‘the God of your ancestors sent me’? What if they want to know who you are now? What if they want to know your name?” God replied to Moses: “This is my name forever: I am who I am—I will be whatever I will be. Say, ‘I AM,” the God of your ancestors, has sent me to you.”
This God who encountered Moses and still encounters us is self-defining—consistent with the story we know and the word we trust, yes; but always in motion, always becoming. It follows, then, that human descriptions, human labels, will never fully satisfy. You and I are called to speak, to put words to this mystery, but we must do so with a constant awareness that none of our theologies—our words about God— will ever be sufficient.
One of the ways that the church has attempted to put words around God’s mysterious nature is by talking about God as Triune—a God who is, simultaneously, both one and three. Let’s begin with the One. To say that God is One was Israel’s primary statement of faith. The words of Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema, were so precious to the people of Israel that they were intended to be the first words taught to a child, and the last words spoken before death. These are the words that were intended to begin and end a faithful Jew’s day and a faithful Jew’s life: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. In the midst of cultures that proclaimed allegiance to many gods, Israel chose a singular path.
So it was very confusing when Jesus appeared and did things that only God was expected to do: he healed the sick and raised the dead. He claimed the authority to re-frame notions of holiness and the practice of the Sabbath, which the people believed God had sanctioned in their present forms. And Jesus dared to forgive sins. It is no wonder that some of his neighbors found Jesus blasphemous. But others saw God’s will and reign embodied in the person and work of Jesus in such a way that God seemed present in their midst when he was with them. Faithful Jews had to find a way to talk about that.
Further complicating the landscape were the enigmatic things Jesus said to his friends before he died: promises about a Spirit that would come to comfort and teach, to equip the church to continue the work of Jesus. When that Spirit blew through Jesus’ followers on Pentecost and left a braver, bolder, more diverse community in its wake, the fledgling church needed new language to frame that experience. She needed language that spoke both of the unity—the oneness, and the diversity—the Threeness—of the God who gave her life.
The word Trinity does not appear in scripture. It became useful to believers because it described the God they had come to know through the scriptures: a God who is, in God’s essence, relational. If you take one idea away home to ponder, this is what I hope it will be: Divine Life is shared life—it was shared life even before human beings made their entrance on the stage. And if God, in God’s essence, is life in community, then there are dramatic implications for what it means for us to bear the image of God in the world. It means that we, as members of Christ’s body—the church, don’t have the option of rejecting relationship. We are made for life together. To live apart from God, from our neighbor, from the world God made, from the depths of our own interior life—to live isolated in any of those arenas—is to be less than who God intends that we will be. To shine with the image of the triune God means we are called to live with and for each other, with and for the world. It means that we are called to vulnerability even as we are called to a confidence born of dwelling in God’s love.
No language, no metaphor, can describe the fullness of God—but language has the power to include or exclude, to bless and to curse, to comfort and to challenge—so it matters what we say and how we say it. Language connects us to those who came before us, and it will be a bridge to those who will follow. We form words, but words also form us, so we need to keep talking about language.
A few years ago our denomination commissioned a study of the doctrine of the Trinity in Presbyterian theology, worship, and life. One of its foundational claims was that the doctrine of the Trinity is not an abstract theory but a practical part of our life together. The more I ponder that statement, the more I find it to be true.
The benediction with which I often conclude services uses quite particular Trinitarian language. The God who blesses is “the Giver of life, the Bearer of Pain, the Maker of Love.” I’ve adapted the blessing slightly but it came in its original form from a British community in the 1980’s—a community of persons afflicted with and dying from AIDS. Those were the years before there was effective treatment for this horrifying disease. Some of you remember how persons with AIDS were feared and ostracized—in the early days no one knew how the disease spread. Families sometimes turned their backs on dying loved ones, landlords evicted, doctors refused treatment, churches condemned.
It goes without saying that no one who is dying has time for a dry theological debate or empty theological constructs, but these same afflicted persons used Trinitarian language to describe their encounter with God. Persons who found themselves rejected by so many, discovered that they were welcomed into God’s life-giving commonwealth. They drew Trinitarian strength from the discovery that God’s creative power continued to call them to life even as their bodies withered, that they did not bear their pain alone, because they worshiped a God who knows in God’s own bein, the pain of death and loss; and finally, that a promise of invincible love and community embraced them on both sides of the threshold that lay before them. They were held by a love that is stronger than death.
Friends, the life we share together—the life we share with the world—is made possible by the life that spills from the God who is love in constant relationship. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us, and pour from us, everywhere we go.