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"Created in the Image of a Triune God" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on June 7, 2020 by Kathy Miller

Created in the Image of a Triune God

(Trinity Sunday)

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.         Amen.

Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.

Matthew 28:19

“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”

2 Corinthians 13:11 & 13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

 

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

 

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

––––––––

Created in the Image of a Triune God

Much like Ascension Sunday, which we celebrated two weeks ago, Trinity Sunday, which we’re celebrating this morning, doesn’t always garner a lot of attention. Unlike, Pentecost Sunday, which we celebrated last week, there are no flashy displays of power, no tongues of fire licking people’s heads or accusations of day drinking.[1] In fact, Trinity Sunday does not even have a biblical story to accompany it—celebrating, as it does, a theological doctrine that was established well after the scriptures were written.

In preparation for Bible Study this past week, I went back to look at my theology notes from seminary, and I took a screenshot of what I found so you could see it. Under the heading “Trinity” are the words, “the problem with the Trinity,” and the rest of the page is completely blank.

What was likely just a glitch in formatting, is nonetheless indicative of the situation, because what followed that ominous first page was four pages of single spaced notes filled with words like “dreaded, paraclete, perichoresis, heretical, homoousious, filioque, modalism, economic vs. imminent, reflexive vs. transitive, and more. I did well in my theology classes, so, presumably, fifteen years ago, I knew what all of those words meant and understood the doctrines and ideas they were referring to. Such is no longer the case. I had to go back to my textbooks and spend some significant time on the internet to remind myself what on earth my notes were talking about.

And this, I think, is one of the great challenges of the Trinity—it is a theological concept that tries to describe the nature of God, something that is inherently beyond our ability to understand, let alone talk about. As Martin Luther once wrote, “The Trinity is the way in which we stammer and lisp after God.”[2]

In Bible Study this week, we talked briefly about the distinction between first order theology and second order theology. If theology is literally our words (logos) about God (theos), then first-order theology is our words about our experiences of God. It is the language we use to try to describe our own personal and communal interactions with God. It encompasses our experiences, the experiences of others around us, and the stories we find in Scripture. While second-order theology is the words, language, and ideas we use to reflect upon and make sense of our first-order experiences. Second-order theology is what we find in seminary textbooks, and it’s where the idea of a triune God comes from.

The word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible. What does appear, and what was foundational for the early church is the affirmation in Deuteronomy 6 that the Lord God is one. This statement of monotheism was one of the distinguishing marks of Judaism in the ancient Near East, and it was, and is still, a foundational belief for both Judaism and Christianity. And yet, within a generation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Paul wrote to the church in Roman that Jesus is Lord. And this, too, was, and is,  one of the foundational beliefs Christianity.

Which led to something of a conundrum for the early church: was Jesus the God of their ancestors? And, if so, did that mean that there was no God in heaven while Jesus was on earth? What about when Jesus died? Or are there two Gods? You can, I suspect, imagine some of the ways in which people tried to make sense of these two truths. It’s where a number of the larger, more obscure words in my theology notes come from—these attempts that were eventually deemed heretical, or not quite right—ideas like subordinationism, which argued that Jesus was like God, but a little less than God. Or modalism, which suggested that God was one, but had different modes of operating.

What the early church eventually agreed on, after years and years of arguing about it at church councils, was the doctrine of the Trinity, which declared that God is one substance or nature in three persons. The language is still tricky and not entirely clear because they didn’t mean persons like we define persons, but going down that road will lead us even further into the weeds of large vocabulary and abstract ideas that will leave all of us dazed and confused.

What matters for our purposes is that the doctrine of the Trinity, this belief that God is one and at the same time three, developed as a way to try to reconcile seemingly contradictory experiences of God. And, more importantly, the Trinity was not the only possible explanation. Other theologies were proposed that, to be honest, made more sense—because let’s be clear, the statement that God is one and also at the same time three is probably the least clear explanation that could have been given. And yet, the fact that this highly complicated, not entirely clear answer was what was ultimately chosen says something about who God is.

Perhaps first and foremost, the Trinity is a clear reminder that God is beyond our ability to grasp, bigger than our ability to calculate, more complex than our highest reasoning. God is, in the end, always going to be something of a mystery. Which means that we need to have humility. The Trinity reminds us that Christianity does not have a monopoly on the divine. God will always be more than we can understand, more than we can grasp, and so we need to remember that other people will know things about God that we do not. And we need to listen and look for the places in which God is acting in the world, even if they are outside of our religion or our comfort zone.

Second, when we say that God is one nature in three persons, we are saying that inherent within God’s very self is diversity in community. Author Kathleen Norris writes, “For Christians, the Trinity is the primary symbol of a community that holds together by containing diversity within itself … The wonder is that this flexibility and diversity has often been considered more of an embarrassment than celebrated as one of the religion's strengths.”[3]

The diversity of the Trinity is what allows us to talk about God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; it is why we call God Father or Mother, Son, and Holy Spirit. Part of what the Trinity affirms is that we know God in multiple ways and that this isn’t a trick of our human experience but rather a fundamental part of who God is—God is diversity in community.

And because our passage from Genesis this morning reminds us that we are created in this divine image, we too, are created for diverse community. Diverse community doesn’t mean we all have to be the same. Instead, it insists that we maintain and celebrate our differences even as we live in community and fellowship with one another. Given what is happening in our country right now, the Trinity reminds us that we are not who God created us to be until everyone’s life and freedom are not only safe but celebrated and valued. 

Finally, the Trinity reminds us that God is dynamic. God is not a singular monolith, not an unchanging entity that never moves. God exists in fluid relationship. Jurgen Moltmann describes it as a continual flow of energies. Richard Rohr calls it a divine dance. There is in this relationship movement, give and take. God is not just the persons in the relationship but the love that connects those persons. God is not just the dancers but also the dance.

In one of the most famous icons of the Trinity, the three persons of the Trinity sit together around a table. In front of the table is a small rectangle. Most people miss it, Richard Rohr notes, but there are some art historians who believe that a mirror might have originally been glued there. A mirror. A mirror in which the viewer of the icon would see themselves, a mirror which would invite us to sit in community, in fellowship with the Triune God. We, too, are invited into this divine dance, this divine exchange of energy. Rohr argues that the circle is not complete until we (all of us) take our place at the table. Humanity, Rohr suggests, is what the scriptures are referring to when they speak about Christ coming again.[4] We are the ones called to continue moving in this world, gathering up the broken pieces of light and putting them back together as Jenny preached a few weeks ago.

The Trinity is terrible math. But it is terrible math that reminds us we worship a God who will always be bigger than we can understand, a God whose essence is diversity in community, and a God who is always moving, always dancing, and always inviting us to dance as well. Amen.



[1] Acts 2:13.

[2] Martin Luther. “Trinity Sunday: A Sermon on Romans 11: 33-36.” The Collected Works of Martin Luther. Kindle Edition.

[3] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

[4] Richard Rohr, “Sitting Inside the Divine Dance.” workofthepeople.com, https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/sitting-inside-the-divine-dance

 
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