Trinity A, June 11, 2017

June 13, 2017

Our Uncontainable God

Matthew 28:16-20


16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


Today is Trinity Sunday on the Liturgical Calendar. I’m sure that’s a day you all have circled on your calendars. Who doesn’t get excited about Trinity Sunday!


Being the relatively non-academic preacher that I am, I’ve never been an enthusiastic articulator of the theological concept of the Trinity. I’ve just never done much wrestling with how we define who God is and how God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are related. Creedal formulas are about as interesting to me as obscure mathematical formulas, but I do like a good story, and there’s some good drama behind the way we came to adopt the language of the Trinity. There’s also some good logic behind it.


The concept of the Trinity was first hammered out at the Council of Nicaea in 325CE under the supervision of Emperor Constantine, who called the bishops of the day together to establish a standard understanding of how God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were all related. I don’t think Constantine had an opinion on how the formula should come out – he just wanted a clear policy.


The primary debate was between Arius and Athanasius – two men who each had a significant number of followers, but who had different opinions about the nature of Jesus. Arius was an advocate of the thought that there was a time when God was God alone. God later decided to enter the world in the unique form of Jesus, but according to Arius, Jesus wasn’t a coequal partner from the beginning. Arius had an image of God that was more along the lines of a monarch who made decisions about what needed to happen in what we might call a unilateral manner. Arius considered Jesus to be above us regular mortals, but not equal to God. There was a clear hierarchy.


It’s surprising that Constantine didn’t operate as the decider in this debate and go with that model of reality. It seems like that would have been the preferred choice for an emperor, but he was willing for the theologians to make their arguments and to put it to the will of the body, and it turns out that the position of Athanasius was found to be the most acceptable.


Athanasius argued that Jesus had been coeternal with God – true God from true God, as you will find it stated in the Nicean Creed. Athanasius believed that God was best represented by a relationship and not a monarch. The power of God was not exhibited in acts of force, but through perpetual self-giving to the other. The primary debate between Arius and Athanasius concerned the relationship between Jesus and God, but of course the role and origin of the Holy Spirit was also at play, and it was equally believable to Athanasius that the Holy Spirit had been in the mix from the beginning as well.


Constantine wanted a clear policy on these issues, and the Athanasian formula carried the day. The Trinitarian language that has largely been accepted by the Roman Catholic church as well as most protestant churches came out of this 4th Century church council meeting, and we’ve been wrestling with this mysterious language ever since. Constantine was relatively kind to the losers of that epic debate. Arius and his primary followers weren’t executed. They were just exiled to a relatively remote island where they couldn’t rally much of a revolution.


As I mentioned earlier, I’m not particularly interested in theological formulas, but I must say that I’m not unhappy that we have this Trinitarian language. I’m not someone who can elaborate on the finer points of this fundamental statement of faith that we regularly make, but I’m happy that we describe God as being more like a relationship than a monarchy. By describing God as a relationship between these three manifestations of God we have a much more mysterious and dynamic image of God than as a singular figure. Our concept of God isn’t easy to comprehend, but it’s so much more interesting than the authoritarian model that the Arians promoted. As Father Richard Rohr says in the introduction to his newly published book, The Divine Dance, a mystery isn’t something you can’t understand, it’s something you endlessly understand.


In that same book, Father Rohr credits William P. Young with bringing new interest to the concept of the Trinity with his novel called, The Shack, which was published in 2007. I haven’t seen the movie that has recently been released that’s adapted from that novel, but I did read the book, and while I didn’t find it to be entirely satisfying, I appreciated the way in which he created personalities for each member of the Trinity.


It’s been a few years since I read the book, and I don’t remember many details about the book, but what I found to be the most interesting thing about that book was the very personal interest each member of the Trinity took in the main character of the book. The book portrayed God as being much more accessible than we are often inclined to think of God as being, and I appreciated that about the book.


What I found to be a little frustrating was the way in which the characters who represented the three persons of the Trinity were always surprised at how oblivious the main human character in the book was to the ways of God. The three characters who represented the Trinity didn’t exactly ridicule the mere human being for his lack of understanding, but they often laughed at how poorly he understood the mind of God. And I thought that was a little unfair. We human beings usually have a hard time getting our minds around the ways of God. I personally don’t find that to be so surprising.


But this book, The Shack, brought a good amount of renewed interest in what the Trinity is all about, and that’s a good thing. I think we would all do well to try to assign personalities to the three members of the Trinity. It begs the question of how we understand the way in which God is manifested in this world and how we relate to those various manifestations of God.


Having the right understanding of the theological concept of the Trinity isn’t that important, but I’m convinced that our image of God has a powerful amount of influence on the way we live our lives. I’m so grateful that we have this rather mysterious concept of the Trinity as our primary understanding of God as opposed to one authoritarian figure who makes singular decisions about right and wrong and saved and doomed. As Richard Rohr rightly identifies in the title of his book, our relationship with God is more of a dance than it is an encounter with an authoritarian figure who sits on the throne and judges us without counsel from those who see us from various perspectives. There is a flow that occurs between the three forms of the one God, and we can get caught up in that flow as well.


I love to think of God as being represented by a mutually self-giving relationship. That not only makes sense to me, it’s instructive. It gives me a sense of how I am to be as well. I’m not to rule over whatever beings happen to fall under my authority. I am to do as God does – which is to live in a self-giving relationship with others.


Our scripture this morning is instructive. The resurrected Jesus gave his 11 remaining disciples this instruction to go out and make disciples over all the nations, and they were to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. They were to go out boldly and with all the authority that had been given to him.


Of course what we think of as the Great Commission didn’t take place at a notable place with great fanfare. This message Jesus gave to these Jewish men who were ostracized from the Temple took place on an un-named mountain in a gentile region of the country, and this small group that Jesus addressed weren’t all convinced that the story was going anywhere. Matthew says some of them worshipped him and others doubted. Honestly, this scene would be comical if it were to be portrayed in a film.


But Jesus wasn’t being foolish or funny. Jesus spoke of the powerful authority they had to go out and spread the good news of God’s enduring and ever-present love, but his presence was the only evidence of that authority. They were without numbers, conventional resources, or even a likely story. There wasn’t any real reason they were going to be able to convince anyone to believe what had happened and what it meant for the world. But they proceeded, and they succeeded!


This business of spreading the good news of God’s enduring presence and power and love is an unusual undertaking and you just can’t predict the way it’s going to play out. The power of God doesn’t manifest itself in conventional ways. It really does get spread more like a dance than an edict.


One day in the New Vision Newport program we were shown a video of a phenomenal event that took place at an outdoor concert of some kind somewhere. It was sort of grainy video, but what occurred was very clear. It wasn’t a very high energy event. There were a few people spread out over a hillside. You could hear some music in the background, but everybody was just sitting lazily in the sun – except this one young man who was dancing very enthusiastically by himself.


He danced that way all alone for about a minute. And then one other guy joined him. And then one other person, and then a small group of people joined in the dancing, and all of a sudden people were pouring in from all directions to join in on the dance. All of this took place over the course of about 3 minutes. Google the dancing guy video. It’s a pretty remarkable piece of video that has some interesting commentary about leadership.


And I think it probably explains a lot about the way the church has grown from that feeble group of 11 men on a single hillside to a community that can be found on almost any hillside in the world. It might well have looked foolish for those first disciples who went out to share what they had experienced with Jesus Christ, but they were committed and convicted of the importance of spreading this good news, and as we all know, the power of God gets exhibited in unpredictable ways. It took a while, but the story and the community went viral. Just a few people started sharing their understanding of this divine dance between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and more and more people joined in on the dance.


The love of God is powerful in an infectious way. It’s an uncontainable presence that touches us in ways that we don’t fully comprehend but is overwhelmingly real.


We have all been invited to join in on this divine relationship that moves us in ways that heals our brokenness and brings joy to the world.

Thanks be to God. Amen



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: