June 3, 2012
Corrie and I were driving around southeastern Wisconsin yesterday, and everywhere we went, we saw signs for the upcoming election. Granted, there were many more expressing support for Governor Walker in the countryside and small towns through which we drove than one finds in Madison, but there was evidence of the deep divide throughout our state. In one small town, we saw a yard filled with signs for Walker; right next to it was a house with just as many signs showing support for Barrett. I wonder if those neighbors are on speaking terms.
A couple of weeks ago, the Wisconsin Council of Churches issued a statement calling for a “season of civility.” Signed by a number of religious leaders from across the state, including all three Episcopal Bishops, it urges all of us, especially religious communities, to foster a culture of respectful conversation, in which opposing views can be aired openly and honestly. Creating such an environment is not easy. We live in a culture that thrives on the demonization of one’s opponents, and instead of debate and dialogue, features shouting matches at all levels of our discourse.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It might seem a stretch to make a connection between our political culture and the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, the Trinity has a great deal to teach us about our relationships with one another. For at the heart of the Trinity is relationship—relationship within God and among God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That divine relationship teaches us, not only about God, but about ourselves as human beings.
The Trinity is not one of the things that I struggled over or wondered about as I was growing up. There were other, more pressing concerns—the virgin birth, the resurrection, the historical plausibility of miracles and the stories in the Old Testament. In fact, I don’t think that I thought much about the Trinity at all until a few years ago. I was perfectly content reciting the Nicene Creed, knowing full well the historical context of the creed, and all of the doctrinal debates that led into the creed, and proceeded out of it. The Trinity itself, though, was no big deal. It didn’t matter.
That began to change a few years ago, as I deepened my reading in the great texts of Christian spirituality and in other religions. What I’ve noticed in contemporary Christianity, that people speak about relationships with God or with Jesus, they talk about being filled with the Holy Spirit, but rarely does one hear about spirituality, one’s Christian life as being lived in the context of the Trinity. That’s not true of many Christians in the past. Many of them encountered and experienced God, profoundly and most meaningfully, in the fullness of the Trinity. I began to wonder why that was so.
About the same time, I was teaching a course in which my students and I read Augustine’s On the Trinity, or at least parts of it. It was a struggle for all of us, because the ideas he was expounding were so profound and so complex, that none of us could make sense of them much of the time. But the surprising thing was, that text gripped many of my students, and the discussion of it that we had in class was one of the highlights of my teaching career.
Taken together, all of this has meant that over the last decade, I have fallen in love with the Trinity. I know that sounds strange, but I have. Our belief that God is Three in One, has become central to my theology, but more importantly, to my experience of God. The fullness, the mystery, the central claim we make when we confess God to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has become the heart of how I experience God in my own spiritual life. Why is that?
Our lessons do give us some insight into the nature of God, and into the nature of our relationship with God. Paul writes, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
Paul’s words come from the middle of Romans 8, one of the densest and most puzzling sections of Paul’s most difficult letter. In this chapter, Paul is distinguishing between spirit and flesh between a life lived in submission to sin and death, and a life lived in the spirit. Such a life brings us into communion with God. We receive a “spirit of adoption” Paul says, and that spirit makes us new creatures. But the spirit that dwells in us is also the Holy Spirit, that enlivens us and teaches us.
The chapter concludes with one of Paul’s most eloquent, and moving statements: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So here Paul, perhaps without knowing it, is saying something about the Trinity, and more importantly, about our relationship with God as Trinity. There is something about God and about God’s love that unites us with God in Christ.
When we turn back to the gospel, we may see that more clearly. “For God so loved the world,” those words are so familiar to us that they have probably lost their meaning. We tend to think of them in very individualistic terms. That’s certainly the way popular Christian culture understands them. But love, God’s love, is not about me. God’s love is about God, and about us.
One of the images St. Augustine uses to try to explain the Trinity is love. He ponders whether we can think of the Trinity in terms of the one who loves, the beloved, and the love that binds them together. While ultimately he finds that image unsatisfactory, for reasons we won’t go into here, he does assert that it says something we can understand about the Trinity.
The Trinity matters for us as Christians because it is a doctrine that posits God is all about relationship. God does not exist alone. Rather the fullness of God is expressed and experienced in the relationships among the three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To know God as love is to recognize that it is not just about God’s love for us, or about our love of God, but about that love experienced in relationship.
Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Note the pronoun he uses, us, not me. To understand and experience the Trinity is to live in community, with the Trinity, but also with other people, with the body of Christ. That is a difficult reality to live into. We know all too well the messiness of community, the conflicts that inevitably arise, the temptation to pull out and pull away. But we also live in a culture that celebrates individualism. We want to rely on ourselves, to ignore those around us. In religious terms, we emphasize the importance of our relationship with God. But the Christian faith is not lived most faithfully in privacy; it is lived out most faithfully in the body of Christ in community with others.
Yes, living in community is difficult. On Wednesday morning, we will wake up and whatever happens on Tuesday, we will still need to live together as a state. We will still have to come together to work toward the common good. What that might look like in the days and months to come, I have no idea. But I pledge to do my part to foster conversation and civility.
The same is true in the church. The past few weeks, we have had a series of discussions among Madison Episcopalians about the issues facing the larger church and General Convention. We have shared our views openly and disagreed deeply at times. Still, as we have talked together, we have gained a deeper appreciation for each other’s perspectives and for the divisions within the larger church. Most importantly, we have continued the conversation, and pledged that it will continue, whatever happens at General Convention, and in spite of our disagreements.
“Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.” The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that our faith in God is a faith in a God who loves, a faith in God who is love. Our God is a God who we experience most profoundly and deeply as a web of relationships, within the Trinity and with us, all of us. To proclaim our faith in the Trinity is to proclaim our faith that in the midst of these relationships, with one another, in our congregation, in our church and in the wider community, no matter how messy they might be, we experience, and we create, love.