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Ask Us Anything 1: What are we talking about when we talk about Trinity?

Are Christ and the Holy Spirit the same reality? Or does the name Christ encompass all that is Spirit embodied or materialized?
Ask Us Anything 1: What are we talking about when we talk about Trinity?
Andrei Rublev's Trinity

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
August 14, 2022
Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Matthew 28:16-20; Colossians 1:15-20

Our three-year-old, Eliza, is in that incredible phase of life in which she asks a new question every ten seconds or so. When the ice maker drops another load of ice in the freezer or when she hears the Amazon truck backing out of our driveway, she’ll ask, “Where’d that noise come from?” Anytime she’s in the car with me, she’ll ask, “What’s this song called?” She’s realizing that there are words she knows and that these words can describe what’s happening in her world. The other day, I got back in from a run, and she walked into the room and her first question was, “What’s that smell?” (It was me.)

For Eliza, and so many others, the questions are not an end, but they’re a beginning — an opening to even more questions. Each question peels back a new layer. Invites a new understanding. Reveals a more profound truth. Helps make sense of the world and our place in it.

And this is what our new series kicking off today is all about. We’re calling it “Ask Us Anything,” and it’s about creating space for conversation to hear what’s on your mind. We want to allow you to speak your deep wonderings into existence — and know you’re not alone in them. Because questions are at the heart of faith. Like oxygen to a flame, questions are the life force of a meaningful existence. Questions fuel us into a deeper and richer theology, a more wholehearted life, and, just as Eliza is discovering, a more vibrant understanding of the world and our place in it.

We’re in good company. Scripture records Jesus asking over 300 questions. Who do people say that I am? Which of these three was a neighbor? Do you want to be made well? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And there are so many more. So we’re following his lead.

We’ll get to today’s questions in just a sec, but first, I want to set expectations and lay a foundation for our work together with three ground rules. First…

These aren’t answers. These are responses.

That distinction is important. Theologians have been wrestling with many of these questions for a long time, so to say we’re going to answer them in the brief time we have together each week would be foolish. It would be arrogant. So these are responses — not answers. And this brings us to number two:

This is one perspective, and you don’t have to agree.

There’s no way we can say everything that needs to be said, so we’re just going to be scratching the surface, and then we’ll try to resource you with other perspectives and resources to keep the conversation going beyond Sunday morning. This is not meant to be a period at the end of a sentence; it’s meant to be a semicolon or an ellipsis. And we’re coming at this with humility. We might be wrong.

Finally, our third ground rule:

This is not about information; it’s about transformation.

We’re not just responding to these questions, so you gain some more knowledge. It’s so that we might receive this knowledge and these understandings and apply them to our lives — that they might, by God’s grace, transform how we live and move in the world. This is not a seminar; it’s a sermon, and it’s meant to transform us.

Okay, you ready? Let’s get into it.

This was the very first question we received this week:

Are Christ and the Holy Spirit the same reality? Or does the name Christ encompass all that is Spirit embodied or materialized?

We wanted to honor this question as being the first one asked, so this is the one we’d planned for this week. And then, on Thursday, this question came in:

Please explain the Holy Trinity; especially the Holy Ghost/Spirit. If the divine exists in each one of us, would it be inaccurate to say that we are God?

Softballs. Is this the best you got?

Obviously, I’m kidding. These questions are amazing! But sheesh.

They’re so good that we’re taking them and smushing them together into another bigger question, in which we’ll hopefully respond to each, and that question is this:

What are we talking about when we talk about Trinity?

And while on its face, this may seem like a boring theological question, this way of understanding who God is — God as Trinity — actually has some profound implications for us as people of faith. But as we get into it, I want to share two quotations that might help. The first is from St. Augustine, who said this:

If you can understand it, it’s not God.

In other words, because God is so big and beyond our comprehension, if we can explain it, then we’re not there yet. There’s still more. But we don’t put our feet up and surrender. We instead keep going. Keep peeling back the layers with more and more questions.

And here’s the second quotation from one of Leah’s professors in undergrad. She mentioned this to me this week. I love this. He said:

If you try to explain the Trinity, you’ll end up a heretic; if you’ll participate in Trinity, you’ll end up a saint.

Man, I feel super optimistic about this morning, don’t you?

This quotation, though, actually serves as both a challenge and a spoiler—more on that in a bit.

But first, I want you to take a moment to put yourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples — his closest friends and followers. You’ve been journeying with Jesus. You’ve witnessed firsthand the miracles. The feedings. The healings. You’ve seen things you can’t explain. You’ve heard Thomas call him Lord. You were there when Peter called him the Messiah — the anointed one, the Christ. Or maybe you watched him die but then heard the stories that he was raised to new life. Perhaps it was you whose eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread on the way to Emmaus. Maybe you heard his command to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, and you’re curious about what that meant.

Perhaps you were also there at Pentecost — or maybe you heard about it — when there was the sound of a violent wind and tongues of fire descending. Perhaps you were able to understand and could feel that something new was happening when Peter stood up to preach. Maybe you’ve felt a peace that surpasses all understanding, a fleeting comfort you can’t explain amid unimaginable grief, and then perhaps remembered Jesus’ words that the Holy Spirit would come as an Advocate. A comforter. You ask yourself, “Is that what this is?”

Stay with me.

But let’s say you’re also coming from the Jewish faith. And if you’re not, you know enough to know that Jesus was Jewish. So you’d either know the Shema by heart or have heard about it. Jesus would’ve known it, too. It’s the prayer that Davis read this morning from Deuteronomy, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” In other words, you know that yours is a monotheistic religion. There’s only one God. And yet, how do you explain Jesus, the Christ? Jesus, the Messiah? Isn’t he God, too? And what about the Holy Spirit — the presence and power of God in your midst? Isn’t the Holy Spirit also God?

How do you affirm that there’s one God while your experience leads you to believe that there’s a God who is Creator, and also a God personified in Jesus the Christ resurrected, and a God manifest as the Holy Spirit in our very midst?

How do you explain this — especially when you realize that the word Trinity is never found in the Bible?

This is the same conundrum that theologians have wrestled with for generations. And the short answer is… you can’t. You can’t explain it, and yet you know deep down that it’s true. And so you try on different ways of thinking about it — different images like a three-leaf clover or the different states of water, and yet for reasons we don’t have time for, none of these gets us all the way there. They don’t quite allow that God could be one God with one nature, one essence, existing in three distinct yet co-equal persons: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer or Father, Son, and Spirit. In many cases, they either create too much distinction, not enough distinction, or deny Jesus’ divinity. Remember, if you try to explain the Trinity, you’ll end up a heretic.

And many did. Yet, they kept trying. The early church wrestled with these questions for the first few centuries after Jesus. And it got ugly. We’re talking hands thrown. Excommunications. Charges of heresy. You name it.

But then, in the 4th century, over two gatherings (or councils), bishops convened together and argued it out and, at long last, found a consensus that has pretty much held ever since. They settled on language that distinguished the three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit — while maintaining the unity or one-ness of the divine. In other words, God is one substance, homoousia, and three persons, heteropersona. It looks something like this.

That pretty much clears it up, right?

In this way, in response to the first question, we can say that, yes, we affirm that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the same. I remember one of my Divinity School professors saying, “When you’re talking about the Father, you’re also talking about the Son, and you’re also talking about the Spirit.” And yet, Christ and the Holy Spirit are also distinct.

Got it? Does everybody understand?

That’s a trick question. Because back to Augustine, remember, if we can understand it, it’s not God. Because God is mystery, and I love how Father Richard Rohr defines mystery — not something that can’t be known, but something that is endlessly knowable. And that’s unfortunate for us who like our nice, neat explainable answers tied up in a tidy. Bow. We can’t reason our way to Trinity. There’s no mathematical formula. All we can do, as so many have done before, is rely on metaphors and analogies and images to help us get a little closer.

And there’s one image, one metaphor, in particular, that has persisted for centuries — initially put forth in about the seventh century to help wrap our minds around Trinity.

In Greek, the word is perichoresis, and it literally means “to dance around.” Peri, like perimeter, is around, and “choresis,” like in the word “choreography,” means dance. To dance around or “circle dance.”

And this gets us about as close as possible to articulating the ways that the three persons of the Trinity can be one and yet distinct. In a dance, as in Trinity, there is a giving and receiving. There is a constant invitation and constant including, sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow — a constant widening and opening of oneself to another while also surrendering. It’s dynamic. Perichoresis allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained while insisting that each person shares fully in the life of the other two. In this way of seeing, God is both the dancer and the dance itself.

And while this may still be difficult to get our minds fully around, I think what’s important to take away is that ultimately God as Trinity, three-in-one, and one-in-three, implies a relationship. The heart, the essence of God, is relationship. This is where the rubber meets the road. Pay attention here: This is the big “so what.”

I like how Richard Rohr puts it in his book, The Divine Dance, which is a great place to start if you want to dig in some more on Trinity. He writes:

The principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional and moves you toward preference; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic, and generative.

In other words, a God who is three-in-one moves us beyond a single isolated power to whom we cater to its every whim. And it moves us beyond dualistic, either-or, black-and-white thinking. But a Trinitarian God reveals itself as community. And — don’t miss this — in this God, we can begin to see what it looks like for there to be unity in diversity. Three distinct persons in one essence. It doesn’t have to be uniformity. We can see with greater clarity that the life God wants for us is one lived out in relationship — in which there is a constant giving and receiving, a mutuality, a continuous generosity in making space for the other.

And as those made in the imago Dei, the image of God, which we talked about two weeks ago, if the very nature and being of God is community, is relationship, then we are most at home, most fully alive, most fully living into that image, when we, too, are found in community. When we are with one another, our community, and the world. It’s why “with-ness” is one of our core values at The Local Church. It’s why Local Tables are so vital to our functioning. It’s why we’re hosting a Racial Equity Fundamentals workshop and why we do things like the Localympics and serve with CORA and why we gather once a week on Sundays and receive Communion every time we come together. It’s all because of who God has revealed Godself to be in Trinity.

This is why, in the words of Dr. Green, when we participate in Trinity, we end up a saint. God is inviting us to get caught up in this dance — to share our lives, to open ourselves up to another, to see the beauty of particularity and diversity, a unity that doesn’t equal uniformity, to delight in the dance and find the life that really is life. That’s the good news here.

Before we wrap this morning, I want to tie up some loose ends from the earlier questions briefly.

Does the name Christ encompass all that is Spirit embodied or materialized?

Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It may seem common sense, but we tend to use them interchangeably. Christ is Greek for the Hebrew word Messiah or Anointed One. So Jesus Christ is a way of saying Jesus the Messiah or Jesus the Anointed One. That said, Richard Rohr, in his most recent book, The Universal Christ, makes a compelling case that Christ implies that the divine is found in all created matter. Honestly, I dig it, but I’m not entirely sold yet, either. We can talk about it if you’re curious.

And finally, if the divine exists in each one of us, would it be inaccurate to say that we are God?

Yes, I think it would be inaccurate to say that we are God. We are limited and contingent beings. This week, I got a weird pimple on my pinky. I’m still losing hair on the top of my head. I’m sadly susceptible to temptation and sin. So I don’t know about you, but I can’t say that I am God. But what we can and do say is that as those made in God’s image, we carry the spark of the divine within us. It’s been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as Paul says in Romans. And yet, as we grow in the knowledge and love of God and as the Holy Spirit continues to work within us, by God’s grace, we’re growing in the likeness of God day by day — to the point at which our wills and affections and all of the things are in perfect alignment with God. That’s what we call sanctification. But that’s a sermon for another question on another day.

Y’all remember that time I said you couldn’t explain Trinity, you can only participate — and then spent 20 minutes trying to explain Trinity? Me too. So I guess now the only thing left to do is dance. Join the movement. Get caught up in the flow.

In the name of our Trinitarian God, who is constantly creating, redeeming, and sustaining, Amen.