Experience the mystery -Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-13
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The traditional structure on which theological thinking, or discourse about God stands has three legs. Revelation (what data is given about God), Reason (how we process that data intellectually and logically) and Tradition (how others before us have dealt with the other two legs). This has been the classical system and though useful, it has tended to produce quite dry and dusty systems of thought.

I love the story of the first year student who made an error at registration and signed up for Geology instead of Theology. He attended lectures for an entire semester before realising the mistake!
Revelation, reason and tradition meant that the good ‘ol boys who ran the theological club could devise nice closed systems in a code that only they would understand.
Clearly there has been something missing with this three legged stool.
Many, like the Gnostics, tried to introduce a fourth and vital ingredient to the process but they were sooner or later removed from the club. “Right of admission reserved” and all that. It was only in the eighteenth century that classical theology received a challenge from one of its own.

An Oxford don, who had begun actually dialoguing with ordinary gin-swilling, slum-dwelling, mine-working, common people and discovered what was missing in the dusty theological process. John Wesley, preaching; and Charles Wesley, singing, experienced the power of the very thing their training had taught them to be suspicious of: Experience!
Academia was not impressed. The Wesleys were labelled as “Enthusiasts”, a terrible slight in intellectually imprisoned rational England. Undeterred they persevered and prevailed to allow the experiences of ordinary men and women to inform and shape religious discourse and development. In so doing they not only revived religion they also opened the door for the great Pentecostal and Charismatic revivals of the twentieth century.

Naturally experience has always been part of religious life, but it is difficult to contain and control. Human experience is mercurial, oft times manic and extremely maleable.  Definitely not the characteristics that are sought after for hierarchical systems of dominance and discipline. That’s why the Gnostics never made it. They set too much store by mystical experience.
But today the genie is out of the gin-bottle and it ain’t going back.

Our spiritual natures demand experiences that are relevant and real. They don’t even have to be rational or traditional.
It is strange that the church never caught on sooner to what was missing. The clue was sitting right at the coreof the creeds. The very statements of orthodoxy that were used to exclude the emotional enthusiasts had at their heart a doctrince completely based on experience. The doctrine of the Trinity.

The trinity is the way the church has tried to square its experience of God with revelation, reason and tradition.
The monotheistic Judaeo-Christian path has experienced the one God as Parent, Son/Sibling Jesus, and Spirit of Life.
Right here experience has determined our theology.
Why did we take so long to understand?
Well like the trinity, that’s a great mystery.
Jesus encourages Nicodemus to get out of his head and into his heart. To experience being born from above.
Louis Armstrong got it right when a reporter asked him, “Mr Armstrong what is Jazz?” Satchmo replied, “Honey, if ya gotta ask y’ull never know!

Could we Tweak the Trinity?

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Let’s not underestimate the power of this doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  It is not merely some speculative sophistry on the part of idle theologians.  Blood has been shed, empires divided, and the first constitutional split in the hitherto united church of Rome hinged on this doctrine. (See Filioque debate). That was just one of many conflicts and councils around this doctrine.

The passion with which the Church has defended the trinity was inevitable. After centuries of defending monotheism as a minority view in the Middle East, the Jewish Christians were committed in blood and brain to the unity of the one God.  Add to that the contrast that they had to preserve against their most recent conquerors in the decades before Christ, namely the Greeks and then the Romans with their populous pantheons of gods, and we can understand why, in the Jewish mind, God had to be ONE.

There were just two problems.  These Jewish thinking Christians had experienced the divinity of the man they met as Jesus of Nazareth but whom they had come to understand as The Christ of God. As if that wasn’t conflicting enough, after Jesus had been translated back to the non-physical dimension of God being, they then experienced a presence and power so ecstatically and dynamically divine they could only reference that power as Holy Spirit.  Game on.

It is my contention as a steeped Wesleyan that a well balanced basis for theological thinking has four legs and not the traditional: Revelation, Reason, Tradition of the patristic model.  The fourth leg that is essential, is Experience.  I would hold that experience gives the contexture to theology and keeps it from being merely heady armchair speculation.

It was the experience of the church of God – Jesus  – Holy Spirit as a divine continuum and union, that led to the formulation of this complex doctrine which was settled into stone by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. So it has been since for millennia of our history. “World without end”?  Maybe not.

Given the fact that so much has happened to our understanding of the world in the last one hundred years (a mere wink of an eye in the history of this doctrine), and given that heretics are seldom burned at the stake anymore, I would like to propose a fresh look at this doctrine, not to change anything but to perhaps expand our understanding in the context of third millennium thinking.

Firstly I would want to suggest that we recognise that Father is often not the most helpful reference for the being that we want to understand as the source of unconditional love.  Exposure in our time of the horrors of domestic violence and patriarchal abuse that for centuries been hidden or even worse, condoned leaves some people unable to reference God at all because the referent of Father is so abhorrent. Referring to the first person of the Trinity as The Father and Mother would make things easier, but I wonder if the time hasn’t come for us to speak of that first experience of God as The Parent?

The second person of the Son, is also somewhat limiting because it is my contention and my experience that there is as much blessing to be experienced by realising that a large component of the nature of Jesus is also as brother to the believer. I am not sure how we could verbalise that in the creeds but I would ask that we seriously affirm the Sonship of Christ to the Father and the brotherhood of Jesus to the believer.  If the church does not make Jesus more relational as soul-sibling I do believe he loses the impact of his Incarnation.

My final expansion on our statement of the Trinity would be firstly to celebrate that we no longer speak of Holy Ghost, which infantilizes that face of God, but also ask that we perhaps bring Holy Spirit out of the shadows of the Parent and Son/Brother so that we may recognise that Universal Spirit is the very (I am tempted to say “only”) source of life, creativity, and change in the world.  As a Christ follower, I cannot conceive of anything good, true or beautiful that does not spring from Holy Spirit.  Once again I am not sure how we word-work this into creed, but I do want to plead that we do it somehow.

So that is my expanded understanding of the Holy Trinity: Parent, Son/Brother and Creative Breath of life that is the complexity and singularity we call God.

One plus One plus One is ONE

John 15:26 – 16:15

“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

I don’t know about you, but I find simply living my life as an average human being, I have so many roles so many facets so many faces

I am Son, Father, Lover, Preacher, Counsellor, Teacher, Friend and sadly, Enemy too. All of these are based on the experience others have of me which determines the name they would give to me.

If I have so many aspects that I can only begin to imagine the many ways God has been experienced

The doctrine of the Trinity like all other doctrines is an attempt to describe what has been experienced by people who have experienced God

Trinity Sunday invites us to realise again that in the Judeo-Christian tradition God has been experienced as Father, Son and feminine nurturing Spirit. This is a wonderful image of our relational God. It was however a very difficult doctrine to formulate. Not that it was more complex than say the doctrine of the Incarnation, I mean, how did baby Jesus still remain the divine Logos at the heart of the Universe? No, the doctrine of the Trinity was challenging because it flew in the face of a very hard won understanding that Jews express succinctly in their Shema, “Behold O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE

It had taken centuries and many battles and bloodshed, for Israel to come to the conclusion that there was to be only one God. Molech, Baal, and earlier Isis and Ra, were abandoned in favour of Yahweh, the great I am. Having come to this conclusion as a united Israel in their promised land, they clung to their monotheism as the key to their unity. When the New Israel, the church, experienced Jesus and later the Spirit, this experience had to be integrated into this monotheism and thus the doctrine of the Trinity was born. A beautiful work of theo-philosphical reasoning that retains the unity whilst recognising the diversity of operation and experience of the being we call God.

However, to step back just a moment, in the formulation of the Jewish monotheistic dogma the men (and they were all men) who did this reasoning could not conceive that perhaps Baal, Molech, Isis and Ra along with the pantheon of other Middle-Eastern deities vying for market share, could possibly be valid experiences of the same God too! Judaism, wasn’t particularly good about inclusion of “Other” in their thinking. Clawing for their self determination did not make them the most inclusive society in the Mediterranean neighbourhood. So I understand the blind spot, whilst ruing its missed opportunity. Some ideas take centuries to ripen.

I would like to suggest that the Trinitarian doctrine of God is ripe now. Ripe for fruiting a further step along its logical path.

Before I move to suggest the next step for the doctrine of the Trinity, I need to publish a disclaimer. I am fully aware that this is very volatile ground. After all, wasn’t it the filioque debate around the Trinity that led to the first Great schism between the Eastern and Western Church? So I am cautious yet compelled to make my suggestion…

I think we are outgrowing the Trinity.

More correctly I believe that in the miracle of the global village encounters we are having of trans-cultural, trans-national and thus trans-religious relations we have to face the fact that for others on the planet, the “One” whom our tradition has experienced as Father Son and Mother Spirit, has also been experienced as Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Tao and Vishnu by our spiritual siblings in other religions.

Remembering that the Trinity is a doctrine born directly from our collective experience of God in God’s modes of being experienced, can we begin to acknowledge that in other cultures and parts of this planet the names and roles of God are multiple, far more than three, and go on and on, just like God does.

Risking redundancy, let me recap that the Old Testament is amongst many other things, a record of Israel’s discovery that God is much more than a limited tribal idol God whom they thought to be only concerned with their own particular national and political salvation project to the exclusion and detriment of all others. The New Testament reflecting on the inclusivity of Jesus and the expansive vision of Paul had to realise that God was not a God of tribe nor of nation.

Could it be our task in these days to realise that those inclusive and expansive embracing arms of the Father Son and Spirit are reaching even wider? In this process of expanding our thinking, every group, creed and religion whom we are trusting enough to embrace in the inclusive love of Jesus, will bring to us their names and roles of God as they have experienced and named God on their journeys of discovery.

The Church Fathers were at pains to teach the early church that there were not three but one essence in the being of God although the attributes of this being were experienced by specific names and energetic encounters.

I would like to believe the Fathers and Mothers of the Church would invite us today to realise that there is still only one essential divine heart beating at the centre of the universe. To think that we are the only ones to have authentically heard that heart beating or felt its compassion directed to us, is not only narrowly erroneous, it is also arrogantly exclusive.

God is God in every corner of the planet and dimension of the Universe. God is God in every place of worship, and most importantly God is God in every heart of those God created to be called human.

Name God, Draw God, Describe God, Record God as you will. God is only ONE, the only ONE, and every person on this planet no matter how they name God are children of the one Father and Family of the one multi faceted faith community.

Does that mean that we have to make one generic porridge God in the pot of global religious encounter? Definitely not! As Christ followers we have the standard of Jesus who made it very clear that it is by the fruit of love that we will discern how valid the other experiences and names for God are. Permit me to attempt such a check list, that may still exclude Molech but may include some of the more popular and populous names and experiences around. Perhaps, if we allow ourselves to risk looking at God though another lens, our Christ following will be enriched and empowered. This has been my personal experience.

So here is a discernment list for Inter Faith exploration:

  • Do the followers of this manifestation and experience of God reveal deep compassion for others even beyond their group?
  • Does this path lead to greater human unity and the diminishing of violence and segregation?
  • Does this name of God heal the planet?
  • Does this group have the ability to be self-critical and are they able to laugh at themselves (or even cartoons of themselves)? (In South Africa this week a Muslim judge set aside the Interdict application by the Muslim Council to have a Zapiro Cartoon of Mohammed banned) read the Mail and Guardian Article here
  • Does this path encourage selfless generosity and service for all in need?
  • Is this name of God tolerant of the many different ways of being human, sexually, culturally, economically, politically?

This is a very rudimentary list, and red-faced I have to admit that in certain very orthodox quarters of our Trinitarian faith there are groups that would not pass this discernment test. However I believe the list is descriptive of the unique revelation received in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is also descriptive of the founders and followers of many of the other World religions that I have encountered.

To return to my initial suggestion, I wonder if we are ready to amend our doctrine of Trinity of God being God, and begin dreaming of a doctrine of Infinity of God being God?

No matter how many names and manifestations of God we add together, the sum will always be ONE.

(You can listen to a podcast of how the sermon, based on these thoughts, sounded, by clicking here)