June 16, 2019, Trinity Sunday Year C, John 16:12-15
Earlier this month Barna released their research on the most post-Christian cities in the United States. Barna is a research organization that analyzes cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Their recent research on the changes in the religious landscape and attitudes in the United States measured what they call the level of post-Christianity across the country. They measured this by asking such questions as whether people believe in God, the degree to which faith is important in their lives, whether they have prayed or read the Bible in the past week, whether they have attended a church in the past six months, and the degree to which they believe the Bible is true. Then based on the data collected from the respondents they rated the cities or areas they were from as to the level of post-Christian responses. The less engaged religiously the respondents in an area, the higher the area ranked on the post-Christian scale.
Any guesses as to the most post-Christian city in the United States? Would it surprise you that Springfield-Holyoke topped the list? It kind of surprised me and I know that the New England overtook the Pacific Northwest as least religious area of the country a few years ago. And it appears to be likely to still hold that title as eight of the top ten post-Christian cities on the list are in the Northeast and only two are on the West Coast.
Barna didn’t delve into what causes cities or areas to be more post-Christian than others, perhaps that is a later subject for their research. However, it did leave many of my clergy colleagues in this number one ranked post-Christian area scratching their heads and pondering what makes this area so much less Christian than other areas of the country. And it left many wondering what all this means for the future of the church here.
For me, on this day where we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the only day of the church year where we commemorate a doctrine – or teaching of the church – I have been wondering if part of the problem is that we in the church are answering questions many in today’s world aren’t asking or interested in. After all, on this weekend in particular in the life of the church where we ponder the complexity of the Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as a way to understand God it feels to me that too often we focus on how to think about God, rather than how we are in relationship with God.
You’d figure that we’d have the theologians to thank for this. After all, they are the ones trying to give us heady explanations about how to think about our faith. But Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregan in his commentary about Trinity Sunday quotes my seminary professor, the late Bishop Fred Borsch as saying on this topic, “There are probably a number of people who imagine that the idea of the Trinity was thought up by ivory-tower theologians who, typically, were making things more complicated than they needed to be and were obscuring the simple faith of regular believers. In fact, it seems that the process worked pretty much the other way around. Practicing believers and worshipers were driven by their experiences of God’s activity to the awareness that God related in several different ways to the creation. … Thus what these believers came to insist upon was that God had to be recognized as being in different forms of relationship with the creation, in ways at least like different persons, and that all these ways were divine, that is, were of God. Yet there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. This complex and profound faith was then handed over for the theologians to try and make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since.” So, while the theologians have been working on helping us to understand the Trinity for centuries, it was because practicing believers wanted to understand the Trinity so as to be able to understand their experience of God better.
While I get that the theologians were simply responding to a request in producing all the deep theological musings on the Trinity that we have been debating over the centuries, I think that perhaps for the most part they misunderstood the question being asked of them. Because it seems to me that they have sought to provide an intellectual answer to a question that is really about the experience of the heart. Because as John of the Cross once wrote, “God refuses to be known but can only be loved.” I think what John is saying in that quote is that God doesn’t want to be known as in understood intellectually in our minds, but experienced within us in our hearts. Yet, as human beings we have that tendency to want to know things and have all the answers figured out in our heads.
As Mary W. Anderson writes in her article, “So Explain It To Me” in the Christian Century, “Perhaps the doctrine of the Trinity challenges our secret wish to know God fully and eliminate all mystery. This, after all, was the burning desire of our first parents in the Garden, a desire that ultimately caused them to fall from grace. Does this temptation to dispel all mystery still burn within us?” (Christian Century, May 20-27, 1998) Are we still, like Adam and Eve back at the beginning of the Creation story, trying to do all we can to figure God out? Thinking that perhaps by discovering just the right answers about God we can eliminate the mystery of God and can gain control over God or at least gain some leverage with achieving an intellectual understanding all about God? I think that could be and yet the Trinity offers us much more than simply a heady understanding about how to think about God.
The Trinity is never mentioned by that name in the Bible, yet the Bible talks about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Like in our gospel reading from John today. There Jesus speaks of how he relates to the Father and the Spirit and he recognizes our limits to understand what he has to say. As we continue on for one last week after spending several reading through this part of John’s Gospel called the Farewell Discourse where Jesus prepares his disciples for life after the death he knows is about to come for him, he tells his disciples that he still has many more things to say to them, but they can’t bear them now. Yet, when the Spirit comes, the Spirit will guide them into what they need to hear when the time comes for them to hear it. In other words, they aren’t ready to understand everything about God quite yet, though they might want to know everything right now. However, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – won’t leave the disciples hanging, but will continue to guide them and invite them into the truth over time as they, and us like them, are ready to receive it. God the Trinity will continue to invite us as Jesus’ followers into deeper and deeper relationship and deeper and deeper revelation of God through that relationship.
Because that is what the Trinity is about – relationship. In the Trinity – God Three in One – we see that God is relationship. God is communal. God is connection. In his book The Divine Dance, Richard Rohr says that the by the fourth century the Cappadocian Fathers started speaking in this way of the Trinity. He writes that in essence they said, “Don’t start with the One and try to make it into Three, but start with the Three and see that this is the deepest nature of the One.” Rohr says in this way of thinking the Trinity is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between the Three as One. This is a God that invites us not to know God intellectually in our heads, but drawn into that flow, that radical relatedness, that perfect communion of the Three in One – to know God in and through relationship in and with God.
In the 15th century Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev showed this idea in his icon, “The Hospitality of Abraham.” You can see it displayed in front of the baptismal font today. The icon is also known as “The Trinity” as it depicts the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the three angels who Abraham welcomed at the great trees of Mamre, sitting around a table and sharing food and drink. The faces of the three are nearly identical, but each is depicted with a different color. The Father is gold. The Son is blue. The Spirit is green. In the icon the Father looks at the Son who looks back at the Father as he points to the Spirit. The Spirit looks at the Father while also pointing to the Son and with his other hand gestures outward to invite us, the viewer, into the flow between the three, into the circle of relatedness and communion they have made that can’t be completed without us being part of it. The icon shows God as Trinity welcoming us into relationship with the Three in One.
When we as human beings want to understand God fully with our heads, God as Trinity invites us into relationship through our hearts. A relationship where as over time we grow in communion with God, we also grow over time in our understanding of God as God the Spirit reveals to us what we need to know when we are ready to bear it as Jesus tells us in our gospel reading today. And I wonder if that is the true gift of the Trinity to us then? That while our human inclination leads us to attempt to offer heady answers to intellectual questions no one is asking about God as Trinity, all the while the Trinity is drawing us all closer into relationship with God Three in One and revealing to us the answers our hearts are really in search of and really waiting for. Amen.