1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. ~ Romans 5:1-5
12 "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. ~ John 16:12-15
Before Sue Monk Kidd wrote The Secret Life of Bees, a wondrous novel that everyone should read right away if they haven’t already, she wrote a book that is not as well-known, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. Kidd was already well-known for her writings on faith and spirituality. She was a regular contributor to “Guideposts,” and eventually, a contributing editor there. But The Dance of the Dissident Daughter was the story of the opening up of Kidd’s evangelical faith. It is the story of how she became acquainted with what she called “the divine feminine,” and began to feel that the orthodox Christianity of her youth and childhood was not open to the fullness of God.
She started doing speaking engagements, including one that took place at a conference center run by Catholic nuns. She talked about this particular experience in an interview:
A lot of controversy got stirred up. One afternoon while seeking refuge in the library, I was summoned to the office of one of the sisters and found myself standing before an elderly nun in full habit. She had her arms crossed over her chest. She did not look happy. She said, “I understand you’ve been speaking about the Divine Feminine.”
I said, “Yes, ma’am.” Then she said, “And I also understand you’ve kicked up quite a hornets’ nest.” I nodded.
“Well,” she said, “I just wanted to tell you that it’s high time people realized that God is more than two men and a bird.”
Then she gave me the most wonderful, subversive smile and sent me back into the fray.[i]
And so I say to you: Welcome to Trinity Sunday, a day also fondly known among ministers as “Heresy Sunday,” when we get into the pulpit and try to say something meaningful and helpful about something none of us, really, fully understands.
That’s how it can be when you talk about God.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. (John 16:13).
A little background… some of which will be familiar to you, and some, not.
Just about 2000 years ago this year, a young Jewish man who lived in Nazareth in Galilee was growing up. By the time he was 30 years old, he had an experience of God’s presence as he was baptized in the Jordan River, gathered a group of followers around himself, and set about a ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, and feeding people. Eventually his movement attracted the attention of both religious and civil authorities, all of whom were threatened by the radical simplicity of his call: love God with all your heart, soul, and might, and love your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:31). The movement of Jesus was interrupted in the most terrible, violent way: He was arrested, tried, and executed, by crucifixion.
Something interesting happened, though. Jesus’ movement did not end. His followers started telling stories of seeing him again—they claimed that he was raised from the dead. His message continued to spread, like a brushfire during a drought. And then his followers, too, had an experience of God, one we all celebrated last Sunday (though, admittedly, some of us celebrated at home). Jesus’ companions gathered on Pentecost Sunday—which was already a Jewish festival celebrating God giving the law to the people through Moses. And as they were gathered together, God came again—not exactly as on Mount Sinai, but now, in a fresh breath of energy, a fire kindled within and among them, to go, go out, and keep telling this story. And the Jesus movement continued.
Here is where the story gets complicated and painful. Jesus was a Jew, and his companions and followers were Jews. At a certain point, Jesus’ companions found that their experience of him—the things he said, the things he did, the powerful presence he exuded—started to jostle and collide, to come into conflict with, their Jewish faith. It probably started with disputes in the synagogues. Jesus’ people had been continuing to faithfully attend services. And when the time came to open the scrolls of the Torah or the prophets, and Jesus’ people started naming their experience of Jesus… a profound disconnect began to emerge. A crisis, really. People who believed themselves to be faithful Jews were told they could not claim that any longer. They were told that the things they were claiming about Jesus disqualified them from Jewish identity.
Never forget: this was a family fight. It’s so important to remember what the historic context was. This was all boiling over at exactly the same time Rome was tightening its grip on its occupied lands through persecution and taxation, and Jewish revolutionaries were fighting back. It was an incredibly dangerous time, and it culminated with the siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, when the city and the temple were utterly destroyed. Part of the backlash against Jesus-followers within the synagogue may well have been the desire to be safe—as safe as possible, anyway, from a government that was all to happy to crucify anyone whose beliefs were threatening. The people in the synagogues may have felt the Jesus-followers put them in jeopardy. They were probably right.
Whatever the reasons, followers of the Way of Jesus were faced with a time of great and deep soul-searching, and asking themselves: Who are we? What do we believe the God of Israel has done in Jesus of Nazareth? How do we account for what we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, lived… our own real experiences of God?
What does it all mean?
When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth.
I’m not going to go into the Councils of the Church… they came later, at any rate. But by the year 360, the Council of Constantinople, after a spirited debate between groups historians call the Heteroousians and the Homoiousians (you can’t make this stuff up), the church had finally defined what was meant by a word that had been thrown for a couple of centuries already: the Trinity.
So here we are, on this day on which much of the Church Universal pauses to take note of it, this doctrine of Three-in-One, or One-Yet-Three. Here we are, we who claim, along with Judaism and Islam, to be a monotheistic faith, we who claim—there is just one God, God is One. In your worship bulletin, you have a short list of Trinity words, as I’ve called them, some traditional and some very non-traditional words to help us think, connect, imagine, what, exactly this is, that we are trying to talk about.
Father, Son, Holy Spirit…
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer…
Mother, Maiden, Crone…
Lover, Beloved, Love…
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver…
God Who Creates, God Who Saves, God Who Guides…
Source, Word, Wisdom…
And all of it leads me to ask you a question: What difference does it make? How has the Trinity made a difference in your faith, in your life?
When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all truth.
One of the marks of mature faith is the realization that we can’t just stop with the words or creeds or formulations we have been so lovingly given, precious gifts though they may be. Every creedal statement—from “I believe in God,” to “Jesus is Lord” to “the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets”—every one of those claims is the result of mighty personal and communal wrestling with the lived experience of God. Not one of those arose in an abstract, theoretical realm. People of faith experienced God in their lives, and they strove with all their might to speak it, to say, “This is how I experience God. This is how we experience God.”
We can sing about the “faith of our fathers,” and we can remember with love our Sunday School teachers, but unless we appropriate the faith for ourselves, it is not a living faith; it’s only stories on pages.
What say you? How have you experienced God in your life? There is no wrong answer to this question.
Maybe you were a little child, looking up at the stars, and you realized that Someone must have made them. Maybe when you look up at the stars that still happens.
Maybe you experienced someone else’s sacrifice on your behalf, and connected that with the self-giving love shown in Jesus. Maybe you, yourself, have lived sacrificially, on someone else’s behalf.
Maybe you were taking a walk when the answer to a long, hard, complicated problem settled in your heart like a swallow on a branch, and you felt that somehow the Holy Spirit had touched you. Maybe you feel the Spirit touch you every time you hear a certain hymn, or read a certain passage of scripture.
Maybe you like to make things with your hands, and you remember with some pleasure, Jesus was a carpenter.
Or maybe, like Paul says in his letter to the Romans, you realized that the peace you have with Christ enables you to get through any difficulty, any pain, any hardship. Maybe it is helping you right now.
There is no one, right answer to this. There is only your answer. How have you experienced the presence of God in your life? Don’t be afraid of this question, or of the struggle it represents. When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all truth.
This Christian faith of ours allows for an expansive, relational understanding of who God is and what God does. No explanation in a book (or at a Council) of One God in Three Persons can substitute for our own engagement in the big questions, or our truly trying to train ourselves to notice how God is active in our lives. As the nice nun said to Sue Monk Kidd, two men and a bird doesn’t really cut it. Our God cannot be reduced to such an impoverished understanding. Rather, as another writer suggests, God is Majesty, and Mercy, and Mystery,[ii] and that God invites us to enter in. To open our eyes and ears and hearts. To be still, and know that God is God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Interview with Sue Monk Kidd on her website, http://suemonkkidd.com/books/the-dance-of-the-dissident-daughter/10th-anniversary/.
[ii] The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, “Naming and Numbering: God of Many Names on Trinity Sunday,” http://www.wilgafney.com/2016/05/17/naming-and-numbering-god-of-many-names-on-trinity-sunday/.