7 June – Trinity (Psalm 8, Matthew 28:16-20)
Twenty one and half years ago – I know this because I was pregnant with Miriam – I was invited to help organise a ‘Baptists Today’ conference, a gathering of Baptists from all over Australia – many of you know them well – which explored, in the words of our church goal, ‘what it means to follow Jesus today…’ And I was a little overawed by the august company I found myself in! I knew Andrew Curtis, the director of the Baptist inner-city work I had been part of previously, but there was Valerie Cox, a director of Baptist Community Services and passionate feminist, Paul Turton, an edgy young urban pastor from Melbourne, Tim Costello, who may not actually have been there, but I picture him being there. And, of course, the eminent scholar and pastor, Rev Thorwald Lorenzen. And me, a pregnant theology student.
The main item of business for this first session was to choose a topic for the conference, so we went around the room.
“It has to be the environment,” said Paul Turton, diving in early, “how we think theologically about the environment is one of the most pressing issues of our time.”
“That’s true, “ said Tim, “That’s true. But how we treat the poor is where we should direct our focus.”
“No, it’s not just about poverty,” said Andrew Curtis, “It about marginalisation. It is about being denied the rights and freedoms, the respect that all people deserve. Think of our Aboriginal communities!”
“All that’s very well,” said Valerie, “but the fundamental issue of the relationship between men and women has to be addressed before anything!”
Now at this point I was sweating a little. What would I say when it was my turn? But fortunately, Thorwald was next.
“No, no,” said Thorwald. “You are all wrong. These are not the main issues of our time. The main issue – the thing we must understand – the thing we must address is the Trinity! If we do not address the Trinity, it is pointless addressing anything!”
I can’t remember what we decided on in the end, but I do remember that stunned silence.
But I was reminded of Thorwald’s words and came a little closer to understanding them, as I read writer Debie Thomas’s lectionary essay for this week.
Even at the best of times, [she writes] it’s hard to get excited about Trinity Sunday…. Needless to say, we are not living in the best of times. As I write this essay, several American cities are descending into chaos as citizens protest the horrific murder of George Floyd…. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to devastate our planet. All over the world, catastrophic headlines darken our days. Many of us are tired, heartsick, anxious, and overwhelmed…. Some of us are facing economic uncertainty or ruin…. Some of us are devastated by the divisions and inequalities that infect our communities…. Some of us are barely hanging onto belief in one God. Now the Church wants us to contemplate three? Why? …. The deeper question [is]: Why should we care? What difference does the three-in-one make? Fine, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So what? Given the state our world is in right now, why should the Christian doctrine of the Trinity matter?
And she goes on to talk about why the Trinity matters. Why in Thorwald’s words (which I may have badly misrepresented 21.5 years later – my apologies, Thorwald) the Trinity is the main issue we should address.
So, taking their lead, I want to address three aspects of the Three that speak to us this morning.
Firstly, the Trinity reveals that the God we worship and serve is dynamic – unchanging and yet constantly changing, revealing Godself to us in a range of different ways. Franciscan writer, Richard Rohr puts it this way, “God flows and God is flow. God dances and God is dance.” Pastor and author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “..the doctrine of the Trinity.…is our confession that God comes to us in all kinds of ways as different from one another as they can be. The other mystery is that God is one.… All we can do is decide whether to open ourselves up to a God whose freedom and imagination boggle our minds.”
Boggle our minds and also help us to find a way forward in a time that requires us to be dynamic, to use our freedom and imagination to respond in all kinds of ways to changing times, and yet to stay centred on the mission Jesus gives us to make disciples, to create community in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; community that reflects the nature, the dynamism of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Secondly, the Trinity reveals to us that God is a community. God is communal. In God’s diversity, God is also unified. As the Athanasian Creed, that John quoted in ‘Sunday to Sunday’ this week says, “We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence… Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other.”
Richard Rohr makes this point. “Goodness isn’t sameness….Goodness, to be goodness, needs contrast and tension, not perfect uniformity.” Perhaps, as our passage says this morning, we need both worship and doubt; doubt that keeps us open, that challenges narrow and arrogant conviction. Rohr goes on, “If God can incarnate goodness through contrast and tension, then it’s worth asking why we can’t. Or won’t. Why do we fear difference so much when difference lies at the very heart of God’s nature?”
It is easy to see, particularly at the moment when the pain of decades and decades of racism is spilling onto US – and Australian – streets that we struggle with difference; that we try to clamp down on it with force or with sameness – rather than taking the path of reconciliation – that leads us to the kind of communal diversity within unity represented in the Trinity.
At the ACT Churches Council this week, David Campbell from St Andrews told us of an encounter he had back in Northern Ireland with a rather outspoken church member furious that the then moderator had taken ‘reconciliation’ as his theme. I can’t do the accent (apparently this man had a very broad Belfast accent) but he bailed David up in the lobby of the church and said, “Why, David, why does Rev So-and so, keep carrying on about reconciliation.” And David, in the annoying way of ministers said, “It’s not Rev So-and so. It’s the apostle Paul. It’s the apostle Paul who keeps carrying on about reconciliation!”
And it is our call as the church, too, said David. We must keep working for and carrying on about reconciliation, about diversity within unity if we are to reflect a God who is communal.
Finally, the Trinity reveals to us a God who is invitational.
Perhaps, here, I will do what others have done and refer you to a picture A picture tells a thousand words, they say, even a thousand theological words or creeds or textbooks, and that is certainly true of this well-known and much loved icon of the Trinity painted by Russian Andrei Rublev in the early 1400’s.
Here we see three figures seated around a table. They are distinct and yet their positioning and their gestures towards each other create a circle, a unity. The Father, dressed in gold, gazes at the Son. The Son, in blue and brown, the colours of divinity and humanity, returns that gaze while gesturing towards the Spirit. The Spirit looks to the Father while pointing to the Son. The attitudes of all three indicate respect and yet their equal placement symbolises equality.
And at the centre of their circle is a chalice holding a calf’s head, a traditional symbol indicating that the relationship between these three is not one of domination or aggression or manipulation, but of self-giving, sacrificial love. Also striking is the larger image of a chalice formed by the outline of the figures of Father and Spirit.
As a whole,” Debie Thomas writes, “the icon exudes adoration and intimacy… But it also exudes openness. There is space at the table for the viewer of the icon. For me. For us. …the point of the great Three-in-One is not exclusivity…but radical hospitality. The point of the Three is always to …extend the invitation, to make the holy table more expansive…. Likewise, the closer we draw to the adoration of the Three, the wider and more hospitable our hearts must grow towards the world.
‘As you go,’ says Jesus, ‘make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’ And so we go, exploring what it means to be as dynamic as our God in our world today, building inclusive and caring and diverse community as God does, and sharing the invitation of God – reflecting the self-giving, sacrificial love of God – in our words and our actions – in our lives – and together as a church. Amen.