Power, Compassion, Joy

Trinity Sunday         May 22, 2016

Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31

Now I know the Trinity is not a popular idea. I know that, for many people, it is simply an over-complex doctrine, burdened with irrelevant theological hair-splitting, the invention of nefarious priests determined to transform the simplicity of Jesus’s faith into an intellectual construct they can control. And I guess that’s right, as far as it goes – all of that is part of the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

And yet, I must insist: there is more to the idea of the Trinity, something not mired in the dusty and headache-inducing distinctions of the past, something fresh and relevant and essential, something we need to hold onto and explore and celebrate.

We make pictures of God in our heads, imaginative pictures that help us to understand and relate to God. These pictures are not God; God is always so much more than the pictures we have. If we can understand it, it is not God, as St. Augustine said. God is by definition so much greater than what our minds can hold. We can no more understand God than my dog can understand what goes on in my head, the thousand petty and not so petty concerns that make up my day. We can, however, know God, know and trust God – just as my dog knows and trusts me.

And so we have pictures and ideas about God, and they help us relate to God, and yet they are only partial. Which leaves us with two questions about whether they are true: do these images emerge out of an encounter with God, or are they just something we make up? And secondly, do they open us up to understand God as more and greater than our ideas, or do they get in our way, close off a richer encounter with God?

Israel’s first encounters with God took place in a patriarchal age, and so the picture they had of God was at first modelled on the patriarch: male, wise, authoritative, fiercely loyal to his people, concerned for justice, and yet also jealous of his privilege. The proverbial man with the long white beard. It arose out of an encounter with God, and expressed things that are true of God, which is why these stories can still speak to us today. But we have also come to see how limiting this view of God is, and how dangerous the tendency is to think that God is really like this: male, authoritarian, even occasionally violent.

And so monotheism would develop, in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. It would become more sophisticated, more philosophical. In place of the man with the long white beard we came to understand God as pure being, and the origin of all that is, as fully transcendent, beyond all form, unchanging, unsuffering. And this too was true, as far as it went. Particularly the idea of the oneness of God names something essential. In contrast to the paganism that sees the world as the battleground of different forces represented by different gods and goddesses, monotheism points to the essential harmony and consistency of reality, rooted in a single originating principle.

And yet even the oneness of God is an idea, an image, that we can take too far. If God is absolutely one, absolutely transcendent, absolutely beyond all that we can imagine, then we end up with a somewhat lonely figure. Think of all those 19th century hymns about God the king ruling in awesome splendour. The absolutely monotheistic God can be understood only in terms of power. And again, no doubt it is true as far as it goes, but if that is all God is, if God is unchanging, unsuffering, then how can a figure like that love? This God sits at the tip of the hierarchy, and it is our job simply to worship and obey. And so radical monotheism brings with it the tendency to demand conformity, to insist that we all need to be the same. From the colonial legacy of residential schools, to the fierceness of radical Islam, the servants of the one God always insist on sameness.

Now there were other currents in understanding God. Even within Judaism, God was seen as deeply engaged with the people, as Immanuel, who came and suffered with his people, who was present also in Spirit and Word and Wisdom. That was the tradition that Jesus continued, as he taught God’s radical compassion to the marginalised and the suffering. He taught about God’s kingdom, a kingdom of kindness and love – but he also embodied it, lived it out, brought it near in his way of living, and his way of dying. And so the church came to see that he embodied God’s compassion, that in his face we see the face of God, that he is a genuine and true image of God. Particularly in the manner of his death – and this is the great imaginative leap of Paul – they saw an image of God: that God’s love and compassion and solidarity with us when we are most despised and oppressed is so great that God chose to share our lot, right down to a shameful and painful death on the cross.

And here is where I lose my patience with the John Spongs of the world – and I’d be sorry to offend anyone here, but I have to say how I see it. I’m talking about the liberal theologians who would paint Jesus only as a wisdom teacher teaching a God who remains safely in heaven, and the divinity of Christ as some bad idea that Paul made up. Because it seems to me that this approach sacrifices the whole point, all that is most truly radical and subversive and liberating about the Christian gospel: that God came to share our life and flesh, our vulnerability and our shame. And what for? Because, I suspect, it makes God less real, it keeps God safely in heaven as an abstract principle, where he won’t threaten our cherished modern ideas about how the world works. And I fear, to be harsh, that this theology is a middle-class luxury: for those ground down by poverty, for those beaten and terrorized by their spouse, for those huddled in a dark cell awaiting their next round with the torturer, the gospel of God’s ultimate solidarity on the cross is their last, life-giving hope.

God is the power beyond all reality, undergirding it all; God is the ultimate compassion in the midst of our reality, entering into our darkest hour. And then there is the Holy Spirit, the elusive one, the neglected one. Just one image this morning, the image from our first reading:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

The Holy Wisdom it talks about has long been identified with the Holy Spirit: and here we have the beautiful image of the Spirit accompanying God as a master builder in the work of creation. In fact, my bible tells me there is a variant reading of this verse, one I almost prefer: “then I was beside him, like a little child, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always”. What an image that is, that God is a little girl, dancing with joy at the beauty of God’s creation, “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” Some of you who were at the Phoenix concert a couple of weeks ago will remember the little girl who danced up and down the aisle for a whole hour. Picture her, and remember: this too is an image of God, and an ancient and orthodox one at that! And it reminds us that this too is something essential we need to understand about the heart of God, something we too often forget: that God is not just power, not just compassion, but God is also joy, wondrous, exhilarating joy.

God is power, God is compassion, God is joy. And God is not these things as three competing principles that work themselves out in eternal conflict; God is all three at once, an eternal harmony of love and relationship, an eternal dance, as the Orthodox church named it, of reconciled diversity and mutual service.

That, I think, is something like what the Christian tradition understands by the Trinity. Forget all the shamrocks and triangles and complex credal formulations. They are dead: the Trinity is alive and in motion. Is it a perfect and complete picture of God? No, because God is beyond all pictures. But it is, I believe, the best we have: rooted in our experience of God; richer than any single, simple image; not closed in on itself in dogmatic certainty, but inviting us to encounter and experience God, to discover God as always more real, always more awesome, always more compassionate, always more joyful, than we can ever imagine. And that, my friends, is where I will take my stand.