Worship ~ 26 May

There are several readings this morning to come at the Trinity from different directions.

The gospel of John stresses the one-ness of God in the Father, Jesus, and the Advocate or Holy Spirit, sent by God through Jesus.

26‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.      John 15

1After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

17Sanctify them in the truth for your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.     John 17

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, he describes the actions, the ways of being of God that later became formulated as the Holy Trinity.

Ephesians 3:14-19

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

And one more unlikely verse — from Matthew, chapter 13: Jesus said,  45“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

The gospel of the Lord…… thanks be to God

The Sunday following Pentecost is designated as Trinity Sunday. I don’t suppose it’s on your calendar or on any greeting cards, but the Trinity is an ancient doctrine of the Christian church. It is the formulation that was set out in the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as the formal understanding of the triune (three-part) nature of God that developed as the Christian church evolved into the third and fourth centuries. 

The formula of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” was primarily a teaching tool, a way of talking about the nature of God and the inter-relation between Jesus and the Spirit of God in a way that would create a measure of orthodoxy, or ‘sameness’. It was needed because, as the early Christian community grew and spread, different schools of thought developed and each had a variation. It’s like the children’s party game of telephone, where you whisper something in one person’s ear and they whisper what they think they heard to their neighbor and by the time it goes around the circle, the message is hardly recognizable. 

The variations of belief and teaching in the early church, meant, for example, that some were taught that Jesus was never really a human but just appeared to be human and so never really died, because how could God die? Some were taught that Jesus was only human, not truly God, but was adopted by God – in the same way the prophets were used for a time and a message. But then how could Jesus save?  In sorting out these and other conundrums, the trinitarian formula was developed to talk about the interpersonal nature of God, that God is one in three – three distinct, but united persons, all in one and one in all. The reason we recite the Apostle’s or Nicene creed and why they are part of the Baptism and confirmation services is to hold the community to this core of Christian faith – whatever else the pastor may say (or forget to say), whatever innovations or extracurricular songs or readings find their way into the worship service, this we hold to be true – that we worship God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord and savior through the working of the Holy Spirit; one God, one faith.

So, the creeds are the tangible result of a confounding concept, but the Trinity didn’t start out as doctrine.

It began with early Christians trying to describe and put words to their experiences of the ways in which God appeared to them — and comes to us, still.

Engaging Jesus was somehow encountering God directly — and at the same time, Jesus spoke of God as both distinct from himself (like when he prayed to God, or spoke of his Father as the One who sent him) and yet somehow “one” with him. There was in some way both a “two-ness” and a “oneness”. In the same way, the earliest disciples experienced the Holy Spirit within their own beings as an encounter with God, promised by Jesus yet separate from him.  And so over time, the church’s doctrine of the Trinity developed — the idea that God is properly conceived as Three ‘persons’ in One. Not three Gods because there is intimate unity within them, and not simply One because that wouldn’t account for the multiple ways God is revealed in creation, in the world, in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit. 

So, far from being a stogy detail of church dogma, the doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately about a world saturated with divine presence — creating, redeeming, and sustaining creation at every turn, in and with and under every unfurling leaf and fragrant blossom… and a God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” as it says in Acts (17:28).

The formulaic “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, is firmly embedded in our liturgy and hymnody, as you either know or will notice if you are being made aware of it this morning. It is so ever-present that I have intentionally veered away from it over the years, substituting other words to wake us up. There is something both comforting and numbing about rote phrases. We cease to think. My job is to comfort and afflict, and so I push against the formula, while, I hope, maintaining the doctrine, because, I don’t imagine you think in trinitarian terms when you pray, or invoke the triune name of God… I expect that you do what I do when I’m out and about on my own. We pray to or converse with some version of God, some image that connects to us personally. Having a proper orthodox teaching is important; but having a proper relationship with God most likely rules out orthodoxy. And I think that’s okay.

I think it’s okay because of Hildegarde of Bingen who was a German mystic who lived from 1098 to 1179. Hildegard has her own day in the church (which means she’s official) and she said God was Verditas, ‘greening growth’. The last two weeks of quickly bursting change from spring buds to fully leafed out luscious green helps us understand what she meant. Hildegard didn’t mean that God was responsible for the greening, or the creator of greening things, but that God is Greening. It’s an interesting image for God. So when we’re gazing out the window at our bird feeders and watching the flutter of colored wings, hearing those sweet trills and songs against the backdrop of intense green, we are not experiencing God in nature, but are experiencing the nature of God

Or there is Julian of Norwich who said love is our Lord’s meaning, all is love only for love – all love is Love. So when we love, we are knowing Christ and yes, she includes in her meaning the ‘biblical way’ of knowing. Pretty racy for a nun during the Middle Ages.

Or there is Jesus himself who said he wished he could be a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. He also called himself the good shepherd who seeks and finds and saves the lost, a vining branch producing fine grapes for fine wine, a spring of living water flowing from the heart of God.

Or Job who said God was a cheesemaker.  “Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” he asks, disgruntled, of God.

Or images in the Bible of God as a knitter, a weaver, a baker, a house builder, a woman in labor, a winemaker, an eagle, a potter, a bride. 

One of my favorite images is God as a garment. Psalm 104 begins, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment.”   Job complains, “God, you bind me like the collar of my tunic.”  Paul says in baptism we have been clothed with Christ.  Julian again: “I saw that He is to us everything that is good and comfortable for us: He is our clothing that for love wraps us, clasps us, and all encloses us for tender love, that He may never leave us; being to us all-thing that is good.”

This is probably why I like the mystics and heretics, because they have latched onto these other ways of thinking and imagining God. Their images might not be as orthodox, but I think without them we limit what and who we consider when we think about the realm and nature of God. What if we were to take these other images as seriously as we take Christ as a shepherd, for example? Where are the stained-glass widows of God at a loom weaving the fabric of life, or God as a calf kicking up his heels? I’m still hoping to discover “Christ the Hen Lutheran Church”.

My point in all of this is to say that the images and language we assign to God matter, and that the more we use, the broader the place and space we open for God in our lives. I don’t think “Father, +Son and Holy Spirit” will expand our view. Your experience of God trumps the doctrine.

God is Trinity, but it’s a big trinity. Expansive. A verb, not a phrase.  God in three persons does things — God heals, saves, comforts, prods, inspires, confounds, overwhelms, loves … us. It’s not enough to say we believe that God is, but we say, we profess, that God acts.

So, finally, to the last scripture reading.

Matthew 13:45-46. Jesus said,  “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Contrary to how we usually hear it, I’m going to suggest that this parable is not about us finding the value of the kingdom of heaven hidden in an unlikely place or form.

The parable says that it is about God – God who is like a merchant – a buyer and collector of pearls and things of value and beauty – who is searching, sifting through bins of gems, and baskets of discarded oyster shells at the rummage sale, and finds a magnificent specimen. Pearls in the ancient world were more valuable than gold. The merchant finds  –  you, a pearl of great value, and, to obtain it, sells all that he has. All of God’s godliness, power, and might were given up, and being in human form, being born into humble rank and powerlessness, even that life was given away – ransomed –  so that you, the pearl, could be obtained. 

God so loved the world, that he sent his only son. 

God acts – in three persons – searching, finding, listening, coming, comforting, saving in ways and images enough to fill our lives with hope in every dark corner. Christ in a cup of coffee? The Holy Spirit in a loon’s song? The power of God in a greening wood. God hanging on a cross, the Spirit of God nudging you in a random moment of compassion.

The mystics knew God, and knew God was all around us, and in the midst of every activity, and beyond all our imaginings, and in spite of our fears and doubts. God is and God acts and God comes. For you. Use your words. Use your experiences. Use your gifts and use your needs – describe the nature of the God you love. And come to trust that within the triune realm of Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Guide you have place of great value, you are a pearl beyond price.