Sunday, May 26, 2024
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“God Is Not an Individual”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, May 26, 2024
Text: Romans 8:22-27

When I was in seminary I took a course on the doctrine of the Trinity. We went around the first day to say why each student was in the class, and one said they’d had to preach on Trinity Sunday that summer and found it really hard. Our professor promised: after this course you’ll be ready to preach on Trinity Sunday for the rest of your ministries. Well. Later I became a professor. Wrote my own book on the Trinity and realized, uh, I may have less to say now than ever. The Trinity is just God. And if you claim to understand God, you’ve already failed. No one can comprehend God. The mystery writer and theologian Dorothy Sayers was joking I think when she described the Trinity this way: “The Father indecipherable, the Son indecipherable, the whole thing indecipherable.” But she wasn’t wrong. With God silence is usually better than speech.

The Trinity is one of those things we understand best by ruling out misunderstandings. By saying what we don’t mean. We don’t mean that God is three individuals. Three people. God is not a committee, thank God, can I get an amen from anyone ever served on committees here or elsewhere? I often joke that Jesus rose from the dead so we could have committee meetings. The great playwright George Bernard Shaw used to say socialism was a good idea but who could stand all the meetings? I say that about Christianity: it’s a good idea but who can stand all the meetings? A committee is a deliberative body. It works best through disagreement, compromise. But God never disagrees with God. All God is is mutual love working to save the world. God is never at cross purposes. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit together are nothing but love. No need to schedule a committee vote.

Here’s a harder one. God is not one appearing to us in three forms. This is a common mistake. We’ll say that God is like water, ice, and steam, all H20 just at different temperatures. Or that God is like a woman who’s a mother, a spouse, and a colleague. No, that’s one person performing different roles, doesn’t work. God is relationship within God’s own life. Ice has no relationship to vapor or liquid, but all God is is relationship. Jesus prays to his Father. Is he just talking to himself? The Father raises the Son and sends the Spirit. In other words, these three relate to one another. They’re more like a communion than an individual. And this is where the Trinity gets really exciting. God is not a solo agent, never lonely. God is always relationship, who creates more relationships.

In Ireland they have a word for a roaring conversation, full of jokes, stories, mutual respect, with a good drink and a warm fire. They call it “the craic (pronounced crack).”[i] Such a conversation crackles, makes us more fully human. The Trinity is more like the crack than a solo individual.

How did we get here? Why did we start speaking of God this way? If you ask our Jewish or Muslim neighbours and they’re not being polite they’ll say we Christians are not really monotheists. With our talk of three in the divine life we sound to them like we've abandoned the oneness of God. Jewish belief that God is one is so central that stories of martyrs have them saying God is one, echad, with their dying breath. Egyptians worshiped lizards and other animals, and that made them slavers. Jews worship God alone, and that makes them free. Muslims also stress God’s oneness. To say God is one means the government is not God. Power is not God. Violence is not God. No, only the creator and lover of the world is God. I admire these beliefs. A Hasidic Jewish student I had once told me he is allowed to pray in a mosque because Muslims believe God is one. He’s not allowed to set foot in a Christian church. We’re technically pagans. Because the minute someone worships more than one God, they’ll start enslaving people again.

So why did we Christians start speaking differently than our Jewish predecessors?

Because of Jesus. Blame him for this Trinity business. Blame him for anything we do or think. And don’t feel badly for being different than Jews or Muslims. They know Jesus is our guy, we’re not fooling them by not mentioning him. Jesus. He does things that are only in God’s job description: he forgives sins. Only God is allowed to do that. He raises dead people. Only God is able to do that. He stills storms, makes an ocean of wine, heals disease. The disciples ask at one point: “who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” Over time we Christians realized oh, he is the One who made the wind and the waves and the wine in the first place. And at times Jesus even admits it. He says in John “Before Abraham was, I AM.” He is the great I AM of Exodus, who created the world, liberated Israel, and is making all things new.

So, our speech about God got more complicated, more layered and nuanced. Whatever we mean by the word “God,” it also includes Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s child, the One we worship and in whose name we baptize. Confused yet? Good. If you’re confused, you’re starting to catch on.

And that’s not all. Jesus speaks of sending another. One even greater than him. When the Spirit comes, he says, we’ll do greater things than he did. You ain’t seen nothing yet. You want me to leave, he says, because with the Spirit there’ll be greater life, healing, and salvation. We celebrated Pentecost last week with a profusion of languages, tongues of fire, wind and miracles. All three persons of the Godhead are on the stage now: the Father, the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Holy Spirit. And you’ll appreciate this: our Jewish siblings talk of God as Holy Spirit even though they don’t speak of God having a Son. The more we speak of the Spirit, the more Jewish company we’ll find ourselves in. That’s not why to do it, but it’s a good side benefit. God is Ruah Ha Kodesh, the Spirit who makes anything that’s good. Did you know that Muslims point to these passages from Jesus about the Spirit coming and say, “that’s Muhammad Jesus is prophesying.” Isn’t that interesting? We disagree, respectfully, no, that’s about God the Holy Spirit.

So, whatever we Christians mean by the word “God,” it includes the Son and the Spirit. And we agree with our siblings that God is only One. The Oneness of God includes Sonship and Spirithood. In other words, God is always and only ever relationship. More verbs than nouns. God is always begetting the Son. And breathing the Spirit. God is Fathering and Son’ing and Spiriting. Think of it like this: Jesus is not one-third of God. A fraction. Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s child, is all the God there is. There is no “more” to God than him. Also, the Holy Spirit is not one-third of God. When we see the Spirit, that’s all the God there has ever been. There is no more God than that. Confused yet? Good. You’re starting to get it. When we speak of God we should be dumbfounded, gob smacked. Who can understand this? No one. God is not a math problem to work out, three and one, what? No, God is a mystery. If God were a puzzle, it would be like sudoku or a crossword, finish and you’re done. A mystery is more like the face of someone you love. The more you know that face, the more you long to know, the more depth you have to explore. God is a mystery not a puzzle.[ii]

Here are some other metaphors we use for God. God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, we often speak of as God’s Word.  You’ve heard that: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” The opening of the Gospel of John. Think of the most trustworthy person you know. The person whose word is gold. The one you can most count on. Who is that? When we say God has a Word, we’re saying God is trustworthy. God keeps his Word. You can count on it. Even the most trustworthy human being can fail, misstep, let us down, die. God never does. When we say God has a Word, that Word is eternal. That Word is as much God as God is. God’s Word is like God’s own self all over again.

Another way we speak of God you’ve already heard this morning: God is Spirit. You and I have a spirit too. In Judaism our spirit, our ruach, is our breath. Take a breath with me and hold it, now breathe it out. That’s your own self, the wind in your lungs. One day we’ll not breathe anymore, we’ll die, hopefully far in the future surrounded by loved ones, holding hands, singing with them. Being a Christian is about pursuing a good death, dying in the arms of the ones we love most.[iii] The Spirit is our life within us. Well, God never dies. God’s breath is eternal. Undying. In fact, our life is God’s gift, God’s breath in our lungs. God’s Word is reliable, God’s breath is undying. God is like a person whose Word is eternal and breath is forever. Also, way better than that. You see? No? Good. The doctrine of the Trinity is not about understanding. It’s about shaping our not-understanding so we can love well.

Here’s another analogy. When we speak of God all we have are analogies. They all fall short. We’re trying to find the least worst way to speak of the One who can’t be spoken of.[iv] It’s like this St. Augustine says, 5th century African church luminary. Think of a relationship. Any relationship. A spousal relationship is the most obvious, but a friendship can work too. In any relationship you have two: one who loves and another who loves back, right? The relationship is a sort of third thing. We speak of the relationship as having a life of its own. Couples celebrate anniversaries. Forgetful spouses: remember your anniversary, or you’ll regret it. Jaylynn had our anniversary date etched inside our wedding bands, so I’d have no excuse. Guess which one of us forgot one year? Not me—I have a cheat sheet. Anyway, Augustine puts it this way: in a relationship you have three things: there is the lover, the beloved, and the love between them. That love between them, the third thing, is like God the Spirit. God begets the Son eternally and loves him. The Son loves the Father back eternally. And since that Love is unending, that Love is what makes the universe, it’s a third thing, capital L. The Holy Spirit. Augustine says this thing so full of goodness I can’t hardly stand it: “When you see Love, you see a Trinity.” There is always the lover, the beloved, and the love that glues them together. We Christians don’t just believe this weird thing about God, that God is triune, though we do, it’s true. We believe anytime you see love, you see triunity. Love is pluriform, multi-layered, variegated. That’s because the God who is Love is pluriform, multi-layered, variegated.

A Jewish scholar and friend says we Christians have this advantage since we believe in the Trinity: we know that any good relationship needs marriage counselors.[v] A good marriage needs three: the spouse, the other, and the shrink. Go ahead, try and stay married without that third. Well, my rabbi friend says, you Christians already believe God is three, you shouldn’t struggle with this. I’m joking but kinda not. You see this triunity with the birth of a child. A relationship produces fruit, and another is born. God is like that. Love that gives off life, produces fruit, makes for more love. Persons are triune too: I told you of God’s word you can rely on, God’s breath that is undying. You are your word, your breath—try and do without either and it won’t go well. Do you see how the Trinity is everywhere? Are you starting to see what no one can understand?

Our passage from St. Paul for today speaks of God in pluriform terms. Creation groans, longing to be redeemed. All nature is like a mother in labour. Hoping for deliverance. We are like that too. We groan. We’re waiting to be made new. All the suffering in the world can be seen in those two short verses. Creation longs to be free. It will be. It strains until then. We long to be human. One day we will have faces. When we groan, that’s the Spirit, praying through us. “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words.” One of you told me that, shock, you sometimes fall asleep while praying. Or go to bed at night without praying. But you thought, God knows what I need. So, like, it’s ok, right? Yes, of course it is. In fact, you didn’t forget to pray. God prayed through you. Every sigh we sigh, every sorrow we have, that’s God the Spirit praying, longing, in us. God is prayer. The Son prays to the Father and sends the Spirit to pray in us. We’re the conduit through whom God talks to God. So never worry about forgetting to pray, neglecting to pray, God is already all the prayer there is. Sometimes we remember and join in.

A friend illustrates it this way.[vi] A granddaughter visited her grandfather for a week. And he let her help him shave. She lathered up his cheeks, ran the razor over his face with his guidance. When it was time to go, she suddenly panicked. Wait, without me, how will grandpa shave? When we pray, we help God shave. God doesn’t need us to do it. But God delights to let us help. Because God loves us and wants to be with us. You can bet the grandpa missed his little helper the next day. He still managed to shave. But it wasn’t nearly as fun.

Sarah Coakley is my favourite living theologian. Cambridge don, taught at Harvard, but more importantly, deep person of prayer. She speaks of prayer as getting very quiet. Still. I’m no good at this. Some of you who do yoga or meditation are better. The quieter you get you might hear something. A voice. A vibration. A prayer rising up within you. She’s learning from Pentecostal Christians partly, who speak of prayer bubbling up involuntarily, outside their control. When you’re quiet enough you can detect that God is already praying through you. The Spirit is singing love to the Father through you. Prayer is triune. It’s God drawing us into God’s own life, the crack that God always is, the communion that will one day include all creation.

Coakley has taught this sort of silent prayer to prisoners, disproportionately black and brown in the US. Part of the terror of prison is its regime of noise, the lack of sanctuary. Silence chosen in this context is radical, subversive. It says I will not be terrorized by your noise. I will have peace and be drawn into God’s life. Prayer is not weak. It’s the most empowering thing there has ever been.

Boomer friends of mine talk about going south for rallies to register black voters in the civil rights movement. They were ready to face dogs or hoses or billy clubs. They weren’t ready to face the church ladies. They’d get off the bus from New Haven or Cambridge and realize they were at a church meeting. They’d sing for hours. They’d be like, when’s the rally? I thought we were here to do important work. Silence child, trust us, you need these freedom songs first. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with King, he was asked what he was doing. “Praying with my feet,” he said. That’s a Trinitarian comment. Though of course we expect that the good rabbi wouldn’t see it that way.

Why does all this matter? Who cares after all? Is it just so much God being indecipherable, as Dorothy Sayers says?[vii] In a way yes. A God we could understand would be no God at all. St. Augustine said, "If you understand it, it is not God." The God we don’t understand is triune, praying for and in us, for and in creation, making all things new. God didn’t need creation. God already has, already is, all the love God needs in the life of the Trinity. That makes creation radically unnecessary. There is no need for us to be here at all, nor for anything else to be, every single atom there is, is a gift. Contingent, the philosophers say. A delight, normal humans say. God says, “why not?” And there’s a world. And this world reflects the love God eternally is. One day all there will be is love. Love is all God is in God’s triune life. Love is all we’ll be in our created reflection of the Trinity. The lover, the beloved, and the love between them. The Holy Trinity. The Lover, God, the beloved, creation, and the love between them, the Holy Spirit, making us one and yet different, a community of life, forever. Amen.

[i] The illustration is Herbert McCabe’s.
[ii] It’s Paul Claudel’s illustration.
[iii] It’s Andy Crouch’s language.
[iv] Rowan Williams here.
[v] This is Peter Ochs.
[vi] It’s Katherine Leary’s illustration but I think she got it from elsewhere.
[vii] This God indecipherable quote comes from Fleming Rutledge.