Journeying into Utter Darkness: Trinity Sunday Sermon

Journeying into Utter Darkness

Sermon preached at Church of the Holy Nativity, Clarendon Hills, IL
June 11, 2017
Trinity Sunday

Lectionary texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a, 2 Corinthians 13:11–13, Matthew 28:16–20

A friend of mine who is a professor of theology in Australia, Benjamin Myers, recently posted on social media that the church should “abolish Trinity Sunday, that fateful day on which preachers think they have to explain it.” Now since I am not in a position to abolish the day in our church calendar, my only hope is to redeem the day by refusing to explain the trinity. So there will be no clever analogies this morning—or any other morning, for that matter. If you ever hear someone say, “The trinity is like . . .” the best thing would be to run away as quickly as possible. You can be fairly certain that person has not understood the trinity.

Perhaps the most common pitfall when it comes to the trinity is the attempt to explain how one can be three and three can be one, as if understanding the trinity involves learning some new-fangled mathematics. But the trinity is not an example of #alternativefacts. When theologians call it a mystery, they don’t mean it is irrational. God doesn’t demand that we turn off our minds when we serve God, and that goes for how we think about God too. But God does demand that we not make idols, that we reject the human impulse to capture God as an object we can possess and manipulate, and the doctrine of the trinity is a fancy way of saying that God is not an object and we don’t believe in idols.

So how should we think about the trinity? When we confess that our God is triune, what exactly are we saying? What positively can we affirm beyond the rejection of idols?

Rocking the wireless mic at the park
Let’s put ourselves in the place of the disciples of Jesus. Even on the most charitable interpretation of the disciples, it is clear they did not view Jesus as God in the flesh during his life. They disbelieved until the very last moment, despite all signs to the contrary. The resurrection overturned their expectations about God and overthrew their flawed understandings of Jesus. According to the book of Acts, some did not get it even after watching Jesus ascend to heaven! It was only very late in the game that the apostles came to the startling conclusion that the Jesus they followed was more than a mere teacher, that he was—in some obscure sense—truly Immanuel, God with us and among us.

Still later the early Christians came to view the Holy Spirit in the same way. Whatever the Spirit is, she/he/it is also the presence and power of God with and among us. And this too was thoroughly unexpected. Pentecost came as quite the shock—a violent wind shaking the foundations of their existence, a tongue of fire in the midst of the depressing aftermath of Jesus’ absence, igniting their lips and compelling their bodies into action. It was perplexing then, and it should still be surprising to us today.

While it took a few hundred years for most of the church to agree that “trinity” describes this mysterious and unpredictable God, the point is that the doctrine of the trinity is not a logic puzzle meant to confound us. It is an attempt to say that the God we worship is a God of infinite surprises, a God of unceasing wonder. Doing new things is not just a human experience; it is a divine experience. Newness belongs to the very life of God.

The great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, once said that if Jesus is truly God—if God is really a trinity—then we have to say that humanity is part of God’s own eternal life. Karl Barth says we have to talk about the humanity of God. We are often accustomed to thinking of God as the opposite of humanity, so distant from us, so above us in every way. But the trinity says something truly radical: not only is God near to us, but we are included in God’s own life, made to be participants of God’s very being—a being that is constantly in motion, always pressing ahead. We are thus given a share in the perpetual novelty that characterizes God. Newness not only belongs to God, but it belongs to us as well. To be a Christian means to be one who believes in fresh possibilities. To be a Christian means to live constantly in wonder—to live in expectation of something surprising.

I had to learn this lesson the hard way. Some of you know I grew up in a very conservative—some might say fundamentalist—home, where I was taught that women should be subordinate to men, evolution is a lie of the devil, people who baptize infants aren’t really Christians, sexual orientations are part of the “gay agenda,” Christians have to support the Republican Party, and God always blesses America. I went to Wheaton College in part because I thought I knew this was a place that wouldn’t challenge my beliefs. I didn’t want to learn anything new when it came to my convictions. I can pinpoint the date of my “conversion” to July 2002, the summer before my sophomore year. I had heard that the Bible classes at Wheaton were too liberal—and by “liberal” I mean they taught that men and women were equal partners in the church—and so I decided to take my class on the New Testament at a conservative Bible college in Portland, my home town. One day in class—to my utter astonishment—the professor at this fundamentalist school explained how our English translations misrepresented the Greek, and that men and women were indeed fully equal.

I remember the moment vividly; it was a life-altering experience, though no one else in the room would have had any idea. While the lecture continued as if nothing unusual was happening, my world was being turned upside-down. It was the closest thing I’ve experienced to having God speak to me, and they were not pleasant words of affirmation but the harshest words of divine wrath. How dare I, an arrogant and ignorant mortal, presume to control and limit God? For all my knowledge of the Bible, I in fact had no knowledge at all, because I had failed to see that the God described in scripture is never content with staying put but insists on saying and doing surprising new things. The god I claimed to worship was not the trinity but a dead idol, an idea I had learned or constructed, but which had no living power. This false god was unmoving, static, fixed, incapable of being present with me, and unable to give people a share in its life.

It took me a long time to realize that Christians serve a living God, and that’s what we claim when we confess belief in the trinity. When we say the Nicene Creed, as we do each week, we are confessing that the God we love and serve is a God of life—of new life, new realities, new ways of being.

Each of today’s readings bears witness to this truth. The reading from Genesis tells the creation story. What better example is there of God doing something radically new? Here is a God who is so full of life that even God cannot contain it and so overflows like a cup running over into the cosmos. The reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians refers to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit in the context of his closing appeal to the church to “live in peace.” Here is a God who is trinity in the midst of the community’s life in the world—a God who is present in the midst of sharing greetings and holy kisses. Finally, our Gospel reading this morning is the famous Great Commission, in which the risen Jesus tells his followers to go and make disciples of all nations. If Genesis tells us about the newness of creation, then the Great Commission tells us about the newness of new creation. God’s desire to see new things happen never ceases; God’s mercies are new every morning. If the trinity tells us anything, it tells us that God is open to being surprised. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the disciples being sent out into the wild unknown. Where they will go and what they will do is anyone’s guess. All we know is that the Spirit of God has been given to empower them, to guide them into all truth—truth that remains to be discovered, explored, tested, and shared.

David Congdon (left) and Josiah Daniels (right)
Five years ago this month, Amy and I set out for the wild unknown of Illinois. I had been surprised by a job offer that I had not expected, about which I had a number of reservations. But we made the journey from Princeton to Downers Grove, in anticipation of many exciting developments—a new home, a new job, a new child, and a new church. We came to Church of the Holy Nativity on a Sunday in late June 2012 and we’ve been here ever since. You have been our church family for these past five years, and in so many countless ways we have been blessed by your love, generosity, and hospitality. After leaving behind a bitter church experience in Princeton, CHN was a healing place for us—a reminder that, sometimes, by God’s grace, Christians really do live out their faith in community. Here at CHN we have experienced what it means to participate in a living trinity that says and does new things.

Five months ago, however, we were surprised yet again. I found myself, quite unexpectedly, out of a job, and where we were headed next was at the time anyone’s guess. Last month I accepted an offer to become the new editor at the University Press of Kansas and this week my family and I will be traveling to our new home in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Once more we head out into the wild unknown. Like God we open ourselves yet again to being surprised.

This is rarely easy. Waiting in hope for something new can be a dismal experience. The Psalmist cried out, “How long?” The disciples retreated into their locked room. In the void of the unknown, the promise of Jesus to be with us to the end of the age is often drowned out by the cry of Jesus on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” Our lives feel as dead as the idols we sometimes worship: unmoving, static, fixed. There are days when I have wanted to grasp the future the way I sometimes try to grasp God, to make the future something secure and clarified, as opposed to the obscure, impenetrable shadow before me.

This is why Martin Luther, whose Reformation we celebrate this year, speaks of “the darkness of faith,” for we step into this wild unknown in trust, believing what we “neither see nor feel nor comprehend.” And yet faith, he says, “is able to see even in darkness.” This is the mystery of the trinity: we journey forward with the triune God into the utter darkness of the future, and yet we journey in faith, seeing what we cannot see, believing what we cannot comprehend, reaching out for what we cannot grasp. Walking in faith means that we hope against hope that something radically new will happen, that life will rise out of the terrifying chaos of this world, that we will live again in peace and fellowship with new neighbors, that God will be with us to the end of the age, though we do not know where that will take us or how we will get there.

If we are going to have an image to help us understand the trinity on this Trinity Sunday, then I suggest leaving behind all clever analogies and sticking with the one that the New Testament gives us, namely, enjoying table fellowship with each other and with God. In the Gospels Jesus welcomes all people to sit and eat with him, and the visions of the kingdom of God are of a feast where the “least of these” are ushered in to share the blessings of God. Sharing food with one another does not explain the trinity, but it represents what the trinity means for Christian life, which is that God has space within God’s own life for others—for all others—to live in peace and love together.

In her recent work, theologian Linn Tonstad calls this a “banquet without borders.” There are no limits to God’s generosity and hospitality to the world. She writes:
The aim of the trinity’s action in the world is to give human beings a share in the life of God. What such a share in the life of God looks like is best seen in New Testament passages dealing with food and banqueting practices. Salvation entails “fellowship with God . . . which also embraces a renewal of fellowship with others.” What is promised in the life and ministry of Jesus is a reality . . . that will one day culminate in God’s making God’s home among human beings. . . . It is . . . the promise and reality of . . . table fellowship in friendship with each other and Jesus, as adoptive children of God all seated around the banquet table enjoying the overflow that characterizes the life given by God. (God and Difference, 238)
Taking this all to heart, we can say that the trinity sets a table for us—a eucharistic table where all are welcome to share what we have been freely given. In setting this table God welcomes surprises. God invites new conversations, new experiences, new friends. God’s table always has open seats. There is always more room in the trinity than we imagine. God’s cup never stops overflowing.

I do not know what lies ahead—for me, my family, this church, this country, or this world. But I know that, wherever we go, in every moment of this journey into the darkness of the future, there is a table waiting for us with open seats for every person. A table for me and for each one of you. May we meet there again as friends and children of God. Amen.

Thanks to @josiah_Rdaniels and @Rediet for the photos!