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Sunday, 18 May 2008

Living the Trinity

The sermon on Trinity Sunday this morning reminded me of how difficult it is to preach about an abstract doctrine which is what "the doctrine of the Trinity" has become.

Trinity as it emerged as a doctrine, comes across as an attempt to set fences around the embers of the explosion, the excitement, the wonder, the awe that lay behind the socially and politically subversive and transformative Jesus movement, lest the flames begin burning again and upset the emerging applecart of Christendom and the accompanying use of the church for the purposes of stabilising the empire.

The Trinity, like the Creeds emerged in a particular situation, as an attempt to achieve an understanding that could inform teaching and evangelism and respond to the questions that were being asked in the intellectual, political and religious context of the time. It is not a timeless abstraction, but you would never guess that from most of the preaching tht I have heard.

Simon Barrow in s sermon from last year's Trinity Sunday, see the link below, is a little more generous than I was inclined to be in responding to the preaching this morning and helpfully reminded me that Trinity can be understood not as belief in an abstract sense as giving assent to a rational formula but arises from the dangerous experiment of living as a Christian in a community shaped by the remembering of Jesus life death and resurrection.
God, in other words, is now and forever the transcendent mystery of the world, the 'Word' (or reason) of God expressed through flesh, and the energy of God continually inviting us into the ritual of life and equipping us to dance. ... what we are talking about here is three irreducible and mutually interdependent ways of believing in one God – belief, in this case, residing not in a proposition, but in experimental living. How do we touch God’s creativity? By developing and celebrating each others’ creativity. How do we touch God’s love for humanity? By refusing all that imprisons human beings in themselves. And how do we touch God’s spiritedness? By nurturing the everyday gifts of the Spirit – not abstract or 'religious' virtues, but love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5.22). This happens personally and corporately.

... 'Trinitarian language' is about several very important things. First, holding together elements of God’s life which superficially appear in contradiction (transcendence and embodiment, say) and which we would otherwise be tempted to separate, to turn into a hierarchy or to ignore. Second, discovering the nature of God by learning to re-order our lives according to the promise of God’s endlessly hidden appearances beyond, in and between us. Third, constantly repeating (in speech, sacrament, song, deed and thought) the figurative grammar which goes on linking us to the modes of God’s life and God’s modes of living to us. In this way we "become Christians".

The chief difficulty we have with all of this, I suspect, apart from the fact that it demands our lives not merely our assent, is that the components that make up this all-embracing 'traditional' Christian speech about God have come to us in abstract Greek metaphysical categories - ones which address questions and formulate responses that seem remote from our habits of thinking. Our task, then, is to so inhabit what our predecessors were trying to say that, discovering its fruitfulness, we can say "if they put it like that then, how would we put it in our language today?" ....

How would we put it in our language today? What are the questions that trouble us as we try to speak of God and live out our discipleship?

Simon rightly draws attention to the fact that the technical language used at the time the doctrine was formulated, "persons" and "substance" for example, meant something quite different then to what they mean in contemporary usage.

For example, I once heard a well-known theologian wrily observe that grasping Trinitarian language is not too difficult... once you realize that ‘one’ and ‘three’ aren’t numbers in a sequence (but rather ways of speaking of a singularity embracing beyond the merely numerical); that ‘persons’ in the Trinity are not human persons (the Greek means something like dramaturgical ‘masks’ or ‘appearances’, and was deliberately chosen to avoid what we now denote by ‘personalness’); and that ‘substance’ applied to God doesn’t mean ‘stuff’ (but true essence beyond our knowledge of ‘thingness’)!

In other words, Trinitarian doctrine is not trying to describe God as you would a person or an object. But nor is it simply a mirror held up to our nice ideas about God. Instead it refers to what we can know by participation, rather than 'forensic examination' or speculation, about the life and affection of God encountered through the excess of the world, the unrestrained humanity of Jesus, the limitless donation of the Spirit, and the outstretched community of the church. It is therefore about image and relation, not some silly empirical claim to see into the very core of God when, frankly, most of us couldn’t claim to have much of a clue about what makes our spouse or neighbour’s cat tick – let alone the giver of the universe!

Further comment
On the Ekklesia Project blog on Trinity Sunday some comments by Debra Dean Murphy that makes a similar point:

The doctrine of the Trinity is foundational for Christian discipleship and for the ongoing shaping of Christian community. And yet our grasp of this doctrine is not merely a mental operation by which we give intellectual assent to the historic claim that God exists as one ousia and three hypostases. The truth of this doctrine is not available to us outside of our own participation in forms of life that bear witness to God as triune.

Earlier this week I attended a seminar on immigration sponsored by the North Carolina Council of Churches. The title of this event was “From Hostility to Hospitality: Immigration and People of Faith.” In listening to several presentations, I thought about hospitality in relation to immigrants in relation to the Trinity.

In Rublev’s famous icon we are invited to “see through” the art itself (something every icon asks us to do) and to recognize that the divine life is one of eternal communion in which we are invited to dwell.

Hospitality is the nature of God’s triunity and is the call of the Church in the world.

Indeed, it is the work of God as Trinity to make icons of us—to conform us to the image of the crucified and risen Jesus (image= eikon).
It is Jesus the Son, our hospitable host, who, through the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit, meets us at the table and transforms us into icons of Trinitarian hospitality in and for the world. When we offer such welcome to others—to immigrants, beggars, strangers of all kinds, we “entertain angels unaware” and we practice the Holy Trinity.
So no clover this year, please.

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