You may have seen in the news that the Southern Baptists have been meeting in Baltimore, and they are worried. They’re especially worried about their efforts in “evangelism,” or more specifically, the lack of their success in evangelism. At their convention, the outgoing president, Fred Luter prayed, “God, please forgive us for not being obedient and sharing the good news of the Gospel with those in our community.” Eighty percent of Southern Baptist churches baptize only one person between the ages 18 and 29 per year. Luter said, “If we were working in a secular job with these kinds of reports, many of us would have been fired a long time ago” (Washington Post, June 23, 2014).
The Baptists are worried that they have failed to carry out today’s Gospel. The reading we heard from Matthew is nicknamed, “The Great Commission,” and its mandate can sound clear enough. Clear enough, that is, until one begins actually to ask, “How are we to create new disciples?” What does it mean to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit? And, exactly what does it mean to pass along all that we’ve learned from Christ in a way that shows love for God and all God’s creatures?
Trinity Sunday, the day we celebrate today, is often thought of as a very “in-house” kind of thing to talk about. The Trinity is sometimes perceived as a kind of advanced topic for Christians. If we were to think of Christianity itself as a kind of curriculum, then maybe Bible stories and teachings of Jesus would come in the first few sections, but sure something as abstract as the Doctrine of the Trinity would only come in an advanced course of some kind, right?
Wrong, I think. The Trinity is not so much an intellectual explanation of the nuances of God, but rather, the Holy Trinity is based on the experience of people who have actually been doing the Great Commission. In the first few centuries of the Church and as the Church developed its theology, people who sought to live out the gospel experienced God in three persons, in three ways, in three modes. And I think this still happens today.
Traces of the Trinity are found in today’s scriptures. The first reading form Genesis gives us the great story of creation. It is not a reporter’s eyewitness account. It is not the official document of a historian. It’s not a journal entry recording the creative act of the great artist who is God (though to think of scripture itself as God’s Holy Journal might be a fun image to explore some time.) What we have in Genesis is myth at its best: “Myth” being a story told to explain something, a story that while perhaps not being factually true, nonetheless conveys truth. The creation myth conveys truth that informs our relationship with the rest of creation and names God as the creator, the author, the source. But also, in this early story of the creation of all things, there is a force of God there at the very beginning. The version we read today names this by saying, “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The King James Version names this aspect of God more directly, “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” In the contemporary translation of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson puts it in his usual poetry, retelling the story, “Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”
The Hebrew word in the opening passage of scripture is ruach, which means wind, breath, mind, and spirit. In a living creature, ruach is breath. That wind/spirit/breath/mind of God blows through the other stories of scripture. God’s spirit parts the waters of the red sea, dries the earth after the flood, and then gets still, and small, and almost secretive to blow in the ear of Elijah when he’s doubting the very existence of God. In the Wisdom literature of the Bible, God’s Spirit takes on the form of Lady Wisdom, a feminine form that woos and counsels those who are wise enough to draw from her knowledge and judgment.
Theologians (who are really storytellers of God) see this same ruach, this same life force of wind and breath in Jesus. The Spirit is symbolized by the dove at the baptism of Jesus, and also shows itself as tongues of fire in the story of Pentecost. On the cross, Jesus gives up his spirit, as the breath of God briefly withdraws from Christ, withdraws (it seems) so as to gather more strength so that after three days, the Spirit of God can blow open the tomb, raise Jesus again, and unloose the Spirit on the world. Remember that part of the Pentecost story involves Jesus appearing to his disciples and breathing on them—the Spirit of God. This is what we pray for when we sing the old hymn, “Breathe on me, Breath of God; Fill me with life anew; That I may love what Thou dost love; And do what Thou wouldst do.”
I would disagree with our Baptist friends’ perspective on today’s Gospel, on the way in which we are called to carry out the Great Commission. The command to go into the world in the power of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is not a mandate to be followed slavishly, keeping data along the way, trying to measure success as though these are quarterly sales figures. Instead, the Great Commission is a part of the storytelling about God, as if to say, if we are alive in the world—alive to God and God’s movement—then we will live God’s presence out in at least those three ways of God as parent and creator, God as Christ, and God as Holy Spirit.
Theologians have differed in their understandings. One (Karl Barth) imagines God as speaker, since in the beginning God spoke creation into being. With God the Speaker, there would be no voice or sound. The Word that was spoken is Jesus, and the spirit is the meaning of both the speaker and the word.
But perhaps a more basic and easier-to-hold-on-to definition of the trinity comes from someone (George Handry) who has put it more simply: in Christ we have God with us. In the Spirit we have God in us. But while we have both of these, we also and always have God over us.
God the parent is over us, Mother, Father, the author of all life, the one who holds us, cares for us and sets out the plan in which we find our way.
God the Son, Jesus, is God with us, walking before us and beside us as an elder brother, a friend, a companion, a shepherd, a guide, and a support.
God the Spirit is God in us, giving us strength, probing our conscience, showing us where the world most needs God, which is to say, where the world most needs us to show God and be the love of God.
Some might wonder why a doctrine of the Trinity matters. Theologian Catherine La Cugna argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is not “about the abstract nature of God. . . but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other. Trinitarian theology,” she says, “could be described as par excellence a theology of relationship . . . .” (God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, Catherine M. Lacugna). The way we think about God influences the way we think about each other and ourselves.
The contemporary theologian Leonardo Boff shows how the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been emphasized in relation to other trends in culture and thinking. Boff suggests that early on, in the Roman culture where polytheism was prevalent, the Church Fathers emphasized the oneness of God.
Later, when the Greek church was battling an overemphasis on other aspects of God, they emphasized the unity-in-diversity of God. But in our era, when individualism often reigns, Boff argues for a need to have a growing focus on the social trinity, what some through history have pointed to as a kind of dance or movement of the Trinity within Godself. Boff writes,
What does it mean to say God is in communion and therefore Trinity? Only persons can be in communion. It means one is in the presence of the other, different from the other but open in a radical mutuality. For there to be true communion there must be direct and immediate relationships: eye to eye, face to face, heart-to-heart. The result of mutual surrender and reciprocal community. Community results from personal relationships in which each is accepted as he or she is, each opens to the other and gives the best of himself or herself [Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, p. 3].
I love that idea of God in community and conversation, through all time. Like the famous Rublev icon of the Holy Trinity, God the Creator, Christ, and Spirit, are seated around a table, feasting and spinning stories about creation, about healing, about the destruction of things that need to die, about resurrection, and life going on, and the stories going on.
Sometimes when I’m working with a couple towards marriage, or when a couple is having a rough patch in their relationship, I tell them about making a genogram. I don’t pretend to be a counselor or therapist, and refer people instantly, but I can explain about a genogram and then help a couple see things in their own story. A genogram is a little like a family tree, usually a little graph written out with three generations or so.
But instead of focusing on names and dates, the focus of a geogram is the way people get along—what’s called the emotional process of a family. Written down, each person shows family members and attempts to draw the various relationships—who died, what they died of and at what age, birth order, who has a chronic illness, who has addictions, who gets a long, and who is cut off. On and on. When each person has done their genogram, we then look at the two and I invite the couple to tell me about their family. We find out all kinds of things about ourselves and about how our family of origin relates to itself and to others.
In some ways, that’s a lot like our thinking about the Trinity of God—it’s an image, a story, about how God relates—within God’s self, with us God’s creatures, and with all of creation—those who sense God’s presence at any level, those who seek to know God, and even those who turn their back on God.
Whatever else the Holy Trinity may be, it is an invitation for us to look, listen, and come closer into the life of God. That’s what the Great Commission calls to do—to meet God-in-community in our world and participate fully in God the creator, God the Christ, and God the Holy Spirit. We are invited into communion with God, as Boff says, “eye to eye, face to face, heart-to-heart,” looking for God in others we can move into deeper communion with our world.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.