Today is Trinity Sunday, and I had to make a decision whether to mention that or not. It’s the only designated Sunday of the year that is based entirely a church doctrine rather than an event like Easter or Pentecost. Here at CUCC, we’re not that big on doctrine, let alone dogma, so a day devoted to a historic belief of the church that has been preached dogmatically and used by many as a test of faith is by nature problematic here. I have no interest in pushing a doctrine, but hopefully we can reflect a bit on the concept of the Trinity and what it means or does not mean to us.
I think I might have mentioned in the past my experience with snake handlers in West Virginia. Almost twenty years ago, while completing my Doctor of Ministry coursework, I was required to prepare an ethnography on a religious group that was very much unlike my own. I attended a homecoming weekend at the “Church of the Lord Jesus with Signs Following” and got to play my tambourine and dance on the platform with the men and women who held rattlesnakes and water mocassins. I didn’t touch the snakes, but I did learn a lot that weekend about the beliefs of this odd mountain sect. They are a “Jesus Only” church. When they baptize coverts (and I can’t imagine there are many), they baptize in the name of Jesus only, rather than baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit like other churches. They are proudly non-Trinitarian, which is why one of their songs confused me when I heard it. One of the best things about the snake handlers is their music. A reporter for a New York magazine attending the same service described the music as a cross between Salvation Army and acid rock. An older gentleman with an electric guitar stood up to sing and I wrote down the words:
Now, God, he’s the Father,
God, he’s the Son,
God, he’s that Holy Ghost,
You know those three are one!
That made no sense to me, considering the sermon I had just heard denouncing the Trinity. When I inquired, I was told that they believed in a three-dimensional God, but that “Jesus is God’s name.” Jesus only. Since the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible, they adamantly refuse to use it, and they refuse to use a Trinitarian formula in baptizing or otherwise blessing people. I guess it makes sense that if you are not going to acknowledge something that’s not in the Bible, you are also going to be serious about practicing something that IS there, namely picking up poisonous snakes like Jesus talked about in Mark 17 (unless that was added to Mark later, which is another story.)
The Gospel text for today is a snippet from Jesus’ lengthy discourse in the upper room on Thursday of Holy Week. In John’s gospel, Jesus washed feet there but didn’t serve bread and wine. He comforted his friends and encouraged their unity and he promised the Spirit who would come and live in them always. Specifically here in John 16, Jesus was speaking and talked about his relationship with the Father, meaning God, and he said that the Spirit would lead them into truth. There are only a few places in Scripture where references to God and Jesus and the Spirit are found in one paragraph, which is why it is a Lectionary text for Trinity Sunday.
The doctrine of the Trinity was not nailed down by the church until the ecumenical councils of the fourth century. By then, the church had already spread to numerous parts of the known world and had taken on regional distinctives. It’s not surprising, given the passing of time and the variety of fledgling leaders who were unable to communicate with one another due to distance, that the simple message of Jesus got more and more complex and varied as people pondered and theologized about what it meant and who Jesus really was. The divergence of thinking became significant enough that eventually representatives from various segments of the church gathered to hammer out the differences and agree on some basics. Church leaders debated and politicked and voted and ultimately created the doctrine of the Trinity contained in the historic creeds of the Christian church.
For many Christians, for many centuries, belief in the concept of God eternally existing in three persons or beings has been a requirement for belonging to the church and identifying as a Christian. Pretty odd, I think, for something that is not at all clear in the Bible itself. I think it’s good to know that not all theologians of the church have insisted on using the traditional or male-specific language used to describe the Trinity, and St. Augustine himself was fond of the words, Lover, Beloved, and Love, rather than “Father, Son, and Spirit.”
For most of my life, I have been told that the Trinity is a mystery. In one sense, that is helpful since it’s pretty hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that something can be one and three at the same time. Accepting that it is a mystery in one sense resolves the logistical issues. On the other hand, saying that something is just beyond our comprehension and should be accepted by faith can be manipulative. In my mind, it’s not OK to tell people they need to just accept things by faith and that believing in a mystery that is counter-intuitive is required of them.
Regardless of whether we believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, we can see in the Bible how people have used different words and metaphors to describe their experience of the divine. Some who wrote the Scriptures we use understood God to be like a father. Others saw the divine spark in Jesus’ life and ministry. After Jesus was no longer physically present, they felt his influence and the power of God in what they described as the Spirit. If we believe that Jesus was divine, then the Trinity is an important concept that helps to explain his divinity. If we believe Jesus was not divine but was a wise teacher whose message revealed the nature of God, then the doctrine of the Trinity will probably have little value for us.
Those who created the concept of the Trinity did so by piecing together clues that they found in Scripture but which were not intentionally put there for that purpose. Those clues might be called circumstantial evidence. There is no way to really prove that God is triune, but for church leaders of the fourth century there were enough pieces to assemble the doctrine and then make sure that it was set in stone in the form of the creeds and catechisms.
As I look at our text from John, I don’t see a puzzle with pieces that need to be pressed or manipulated to support an historic dogma. Instead, I see Jesus sharing quite poignantly the fact that his life is about to cut short. He knows that God isn’t going to abandon his followers, so he assures them that a Spirit of truth will keep nudging them in the right direction. They won’t be left alone in their quest.
I like that wording: The Spirit of truth. That’s really the point of everything, isn’t it? Finding truth. We want to find truth about the earth; how old it is, why the atmosphere is depleting and what can be done about global warming. We want to know truth about our bodies; how we can eat well and fight cancer and live longer. We want to find truth about the world; about other religions and people groups and political parties. And we want to find truth about ourselves; why we do things and why we don’t. We delve into psychology and sociology and anthropology, looking for clues about what is true.
The Buddha said, “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; one is not going all the way, and the other is not starting.” I think Jesus is saying much the same in John 16. He’s urging us to not get stuck, to not give up, to keep moving forward until we receive all of the truth that is possible. Jesus said here, “I have much more to tell you, but you can’t handle it all at once.” And that’s not a problem since God will keep revealing truth in many, many ways.
I was meeting with a group of clergy this past week and we were reflecting on how much of our theology has changed in the course of our years of ministry. We realized that we had gotten large doses of theologizing and doctrine in seminary and assumed at the time that we were just absorbing truth that we would always affirm and hold on to. Then life changed us, and we became open to challenging prior beliefs and adjusting them or adopting new ones altogether. I heard recently someone say to clergy that if the you of five years ago wouldn’t consider the you of today a heretic, then you’re not growing.
I’m not too concerned about whether people believe God is a Trinity, but I’m very interested in how people are experiencing God and following in the way of Jesus and being guided by the Spirit of truth. And while I don’t believe that affirming the truth of the ancient doctrine of the Trinity is necessary, I don’t want to dismiss the importance of mystery. God is ultimately a mystery and is beyond our limited ways of comprehending.
A friend wrote this prayer for today:
Dear God, what better time than Trinity Sunday to confess we don’t know everything? That in itself is not a problem; after all, we are only human. But it becomes a problem when we act like we do, when, faced with the mysteries of the universe and the human heart, we pretend like we get it, we’ve got it, and it’s all good. Help us to admit our limitations more freely; to own up to our confusion and doubt; and to learn to ask for help, from our neighbors near and far, and from you, O God. In all your holy names—the ones we know and the ones we don’t—we pray. Amen.