Sunday, June 7, 2020

God in Three Persons: Diversity, Unity, and the Movement of God

Happy, holy feast of the Holy Trinity! Our namesake. Our history. The namesake of our church and also the river that sustains life here in our part of northeast Texas. And, even more than that, the heart, gift, and mystery, the irreducible center, of the Christian faith. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, in three persons, blessed Trinity.

Trinity names the ‘in the beginning’ God of the first chapter of Genesis. God speaking, the Word God spoke creating, the Spirit hovering.’ Through whom all things were made. The ‘delivered them out of slavery in Egypt’ God. God again speaking, fiery pillar illuminating, showing the way, waters gushing from the rock to quench the people’s thirst. The ‘he went down to the river Jordan’ God, to be baptized in the river by John. The Voice again speaking, the dove now descending, hovering over the waters, 2nd Genesis, birthing new creation, the Son, submerged in those same waters, pledging every inch of who he is to every inch of us, to every inch of the mess and mud of our humanity.

And Trinity names the ‘When it was evening on that day,’ God - you know, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” The Son appearing, glorifying the Father, breathing the Spirit, announcing forgiveness, Pentecost. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained. It’s only and always after Pentecost that the Church each year celebrates the day called Trinity, because now we’ve seen it all. The fullness of God revealed. God in Christ has held nothing back, but the Son makes clear God’s decision not to be, except to be the living God who is with and for us and the world.

That’s why the scriptures today start creation and take us to the great commission. We are being enlisted. We are being called into the movement and love of the same One whose love first moved the sun and the stars.

That movement is one of the things most striking in two of the earliest visual depictions of the Trinity. The first one you’ll recognize as the 4th century symbol that adorns the front and the side of our church. 

The second is the one and only officially licensed non-symbolic image of the mystery called Trinity. It’s an icon that remembers the time Abraham and Sarah were visited by three strangers. In both, you’ll notice first of all the movement. Whether in the curve of the lines or the gaze of the eyes. Both images are complete and restless all at once. And with the visitors, you’ll notice that the fourth side of the table is left open. For you. This is what it means to say God in Christ has held nothing back, but Jesus makes clear God’s decision not to be, except to be the living God with and for us and the world. This is what it means to say we are being called into the movement and love, into the circle, of the One whose love first moved the sun and the stars. Impossibly, wonderfully, the picture of the Trinity has become a picture of our communion with God, where for each and every one of us there is room at the table.

But if the scriptures today helpfully trace the movement of God - and the invitation of God to join in the movement - from creation to great commission, today’s readings also carry two common misunderstandings of what the movement of God is like that, if we do not name them, will make us clumsy dance partners of the Triune God at best and, at worst, will put us at odds with God’s movement in this world completely.

The first misunderstanding comes with the command God gives humankind just after God creates them in the image of God. As we heard in Genesis:

So God created the image of God he created them...God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The first misunderstanding arrives in the words subdue and have dominion. These words have been distorted for centuries to justify a militant posture of domination over the earth. So we relate to the earth with verbs like extracting. Exploiting. Consuming. Assuming that creation exists 1) as a thing of which I’m not a part, and 2) primarily if not solely for my benefit. But the original Hebrew language is not as confident about this one-way relationship, this me-first dynamic, between humans and the earth. Hebrew Scripture scholar (and fellow Episcopalian) Ellen Davis suggests that a perhaps more faithful translation is serve and preserve. If this is the case, it would certainly suggest a different sort of movement. One grounded in humility and the fruit of the Spirit: gentleness, patience, long-suffering, self-control. Generosity, and love. Fill the earth, serve and preserve it.

But suppose you don’t find the translation compelling. Dominion and domination it is! Then I would suggest considering the words of Jesus to his disciples on the day they picked a fight about which one should be the regarded as the best: Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

So even if we settle for dominion, Christians cannot imagine any dominion other than that which follows the shape and the steps of our crucified Savior. The one who, in his dying for us, revealed himself to be our Lord and king.

So this is the first misunderstanding, that the movement of God could ever mean exploitation or violence toward creation, toward the earth, toward those that God has made. And the second misunderstanding is like unto it. The great commission of Matthew’s gospel “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” has too frequently been understood as the mandate for something like a colonial conquest. “Go, make the others more like you! Go, give them what you have. Fix them. Complete what is missing in them with your wisdom, abundance, and wealth.” So Christians have sometimes or often times participated in patterns of conformity enforced or extracted by violence and power over others until the only access the others had to public spaces, if they were granted any at all, came at the expense of the heart of their identity, their dignity. This distortion mirrors the experience of the people of Israel, exiled in Babylon; it is a distortion that has been known and felt across the globe in centuries ever since, and it is a particularly evil version of this distortion that so many African American sisters and brothers are grieving, alongside so much else, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Amaud Arbery, names added to lists whose pages span centuries, the distortion against which they and so many others are presently railing, if society and its members will resist natural instincts toward defensiveness and instead find ears to hear them.

So does all this leave the Christian wanting to be faithful? Wanting to live the great commission? Wanting to live in, to dance with, the movement of God?

As we listen to the voices of the dispossessed, and as we contemplate the mystery of the Trinity itself, we find a hope and new possibility. Remember, way back in Genesis, the tower of Babel? The people only spoke one language, and they made goals for themselves that depending on insisting that the just one language never change. So Babel represented an imagination of building toward God through sameness, uniformity, empire and oppression, where participation took the shape of silence or sacrifices offered on the altar of the status quo. But then God scattered their languages, so that they could not understand each other. God rejected an ambition that would insist on the absence of difference, diversity, and the dignity peculiar to each one. Life lived only through the lens of the powerful. So, last week, when the day of Pentecost arrived, Babel was not only reversed, as in, they could all understand again, more profoundly the sin of socially subsidized sameness was undone. They all understood, but each in their own language! Just like at Babel, pre divine interference, but this time no one was asked to surrender their voice. Their heritage. The unique image of God imprinted on their hearts. They all understood, each in her own language. As the Spirit is poured out on all people, God’s mission, God’s movement is revealed to be more generous than our hearts.

And it is with this Spirit that God gives us the invitation to go, make disciples. As Willie Jennings puts it, "not just to make conquered Christians," but to truly and deeply make ourselves Christians in a space that would mean that...we ourselves would be changed (see Jennings' fabulous Theological Commentary on Acts).

It’s Peter, being sent out to Cornelius, going to an unclean Gentile, discovering the impartiality of God. It’s Paul, a Jew’s Jew become an ambassador for the wideness of God’s mercy. It’s Annanias, sent to Paul, discovering that a murderous past does not insulate another human being from becoming the location of the redemption of God.

Go to the others. True, they need you, but/and/also go because you do not know and cannot yet see your need of them, what God will show you there. Wherever Christians go, we know God goes before us, and it is for our mutual blessing, in expectation of our own continued conversion, that Christians engage the great commission.

So I think we need a third and final picture of the movement of God, and what it might mean to share in it.

The third picture is a beautiful and ancient form of Japanese art, kintsugi. 

In kintsugi, broken bowls and vessels are reassembled. But unlike the way I was taught to put together broken dishes as a kid (not that I ever broke any), with super glue and attention to hiding the cracks, kintsugi sees the cracks as occasions for beauty. Mixing gold dust in the mortar, brokenness is highlighted, mended bowls and vessels are imagined to be more beautiful than those that have not yet had the occasion to become transformed into art; those bowls still convinced that the best way to be a bowl is to never admit weakness or break, so who must live in silence and fear.

But we are different from bowls condemned to live in fear or silence, pretending our purity from a safe place on a shelf. We trust Christ with us, come hell or high water, even to the end of the age. So Christians are those daily discovering invitations to go, make disciples, who know that our weakness is no reason to decline and that our brokenness, our systemic sins, our wounds, name opportunities, are exactly prime locations for the mending, for the glory of God, God’s strength made known in our weakness. This story and this movement, after all, it’s not our own. It is the story and the movement of the One whose Table we enjoy through the delight and mercy of God:

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.

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