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Struggling with conceptual inadequacy on Trinity Sunday

From a sermon preached by Bruce Hiebert at LMF, 31 May 2015
Text: Romans 8:12-17

Today is Trinity Sunday, that day in the church year set aside to proclaim one of the most difficult and important mysteries of Christian experience, the three-in-one nature of God. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or, God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, or God is some similar choice of three foundationally different human experiences of the nature of God, personally and in history.

It’s not an easy concept. Much ink has been spilled and many trees given their lives in the effort to make sense of it. If someone were to give me an hour I think I could explain it, though the last time I did so the audience unanimously voted to adopt a heretical point of view rather than the orthodox. I don’t know if that was a case of a bad teacher or just that we don’t think about these things the way the Greeks did.

Part of what makes it difficult is that it isn’t a particularly biblical concept—a comment that once earned me an askance look by a teacher in theology class. But it isn’t. There is no clear passage in the Bible that teaches or explains the Trinity. Something like it is obviously implied in a number of places, but it wasn’t until well into the post-biblical era that the Church figured out that this was one of the foundational Christian truths.

So on Trinity Sunday the lectionary gives us texts like today’s, Romans 8:12-17, which has an implicit Trinitarian understanding of God, but not an explicit one. As Paul writes:

“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the sins of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. 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—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Okay, did you get that? Clear as anything, isn’t it? There’s God the Father, the Spirit of God, and Jesus the Christ. They are all crammed into one vitally important section of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Thus we have a doctrine of the Trinity. Makes perfect sense!

Well, maybe you didn’t follow it. I’m not sure it matters whether you did. What mattered to the early Church was its proclamation of the three-in-one God, not whether it was particularly biblical. It was how they experienced God in the context of the declining Roman Empire, and it was a vitally important truth. It was the God they encountered and saved them and they found it in the Bible.

But… maybe you remember your Anabaptist History and Theology class from CMU or CBC and you caught a whiff of another trinity in that Bible text from Romans. The Anabaptists argued for three baptisms, a baptism of Spirit in the inner being, of water into the community of the covenant, and of suffering into discipleship. It doesn’t take much squinting at this text to find these three baptisms here as well.

A quick check of my sources found that Balthasar Hubmaier directly references this text in his writing on baptism. He writes in 1526:
“I confess three types of baptism: that of the Spirit given internally in faith; that of water given externally through the oral confession of faith before the church; and that of blood in martyrdom or on the deathbed. … Whoever will cry to God with Christ ‘Abba Father,’ must do so in faith and must also be baptized with Christ in water and suffer with him in blood. Then he will be a son and heir of God, a coheir with Christ, and will be glorified with Christ.”

Did you catch the many resonances between Hubmaier and the Apostle Paul?

In the late medieval/early modern world of the Anabaptists their vital truth was the mystical encounter with God that led through the community to a life of visible and sacrificial witness and possible martyrdom. It was the truth they encountered and saved them, and they found it in the Bible.

So now we have two trinities, the Divine co-existence of God in three parts and the three-part baptism of the true Christian. Each was a powerful truth to its community, and each found its truth in this passage from Paul.

It kind of makes you wonder what Paul really had in mind. Except no one knows what Paul really meant. You can read the commentaries and they all understand that this passage is part of the Apostle Paul’s central concern in the letter to the Romans, but none agree on what he actually meant. That’s because no one really knows what Paul is trying to say in the letter to the Romans.

Krister Stendahl, one of the most esteemed Paul scholars of the 20th century was commissioned to write a Commentary on the letter to Romans for one of the most prominent commentary series. When he got to Romans 8 he gave up. He is reported to have said that he couldn’t make sense of the chapter and since it was the hinge of the whole letter, there was no point in trying to finish the commentary.

Everyone agrees the Apostle Paul is trying to explain here how it is that Christians become part of God’s salvation. Since no one in quite sure what Paul means by inclusion in God’s salvation, no one can figure out quite how this text explains it. Are Gentile Christians included in the Jewish covenant? Or are Jews included in a new covenant in Christ? Some combination of both? What does the flesh-body dualism mean? Is sin a personal state, a personal act, or a cosmic power? Choose your favourite answer and then find a commentary to match.

So this is an important text of profound confusion and which is subsequently used to explain profound truths and mysteries. We keep finding in Paul’s truths our truth about how God works in the world.

Of course our world is different and our profound mysteries are a little different again. I think there is a profound mystery which we express here every Sunday and which is also found in this text from the Apostle Paul, even if he didn’t intend to put it there.

This profound mystery is that in our technological-materialist-individualist world, we stand together and cry “Abba-father” in the hope of our salvation. It is an act of self-denial in the name of Christ, and we do it because we feel claimed by God as coheirs so that we may live in the Spirit of God.

Our profound mystery is the truth that as individuals we find our salvation in a trinity of Spirit, Bible, and Community, and through that trinity we find the meaning of our lives. And as with those earlier trinities, it is a complex and confusing truth, no less than it is a profound statement of the reality of our experience of salvation.

Just as those earlier Christians felt their faith stand or fall on the basis of their trinities, so also with ours. We dare not abandon Bible or Community or Spirit. And like those earlier Christians we face the reality that there is no easy co-existence between these three and none can be defined in such a way as to include the others. Spirit, Bible, and Community, these are the three distinctly different ways we encounter God but it is only through the three together that we find our salvation. This is our mystery which we must confess or affirm, even though it is logically impossible. It is both truth and mystery.

The temptation for Christians is always to stray to the error of excessive simplification. We want our faith clear and easy to understand. So inevitably the Church must respond by proclaiming the complexity.

To make my point I want to briefly look at these three and how an emphasis on only one of the three quickly leads us astray and how together they serve as a corrective to those errors.

In our world the temptation of simplicity leads us to fall into the heresy of centering our faith on one of Spirit, Bible, or Community, just as the early Church struggled between the errors of only God the Father, or God the Son, or God the Spirit, and medieval Christians struggled between the errors of Spiritual baptism, or sacramental baptism, or martyrdom. Each point in these sacred and mysterious trinities is true and each on its own destroys our faith. Always the three points together form the truth we live by.

A Christianity of Spirit?

Here on the West Coast the Spirit is everywhere, clamouring its truth from every rock and tree, or creek and mountain. We know God speaks to us through the very being of the world through a spirit of inclusion and transcendence.

Denying that truth is one of the great evils that besets our province as we take part in the industrial scale rape of the planet, as we blow up sacred rocks in order build another suburb or protect a railway, as we denude the mountainsides of the trees that sustain the very air we breathe. We must know and worship God in Spirit if we are to reclaim our souls from industrial-technocratic cyborg death. Faith without Spirit cannot judge right from wrong.

Yet the truth of Spirit quickly races on its own to the heresy of spiritualism, of failing to properly love our neighbours in order to stand in the Pacific ocean at sunset or raise our arms in praise, forgetting at the same time the weightier matters of paying taxes and reaching out to the suffering. The Spirit must be framed with the limits of justice, justice understood through the lens of Bible and Community. We need the Bible and Community to correct us from the error of spiritualism and bring us back to the fullness of God’s truth.

What about a Christianity of the Bible?

The Bible is one of the truthful anchors of our experience of God. It reaches back through to the origins of time and space to proclaim who we are and what makes us whole. Yet this truth is easily denied through a materialism that proclaims truth is a collection of facts and thus the Bible has nothing to say to us. The result is a faith that is rootless and easily swallowed by hubris.

But the Bible is easily taken too far through a focus that elevates it to an unquestioned beacon of truth, a beacon whose glare in our eyes causes us to ignore our messy contextual existence and faithlessly ignore the partiality of all language and the inherent ambiguity of meaning. The Spirit and Community correct this error by informing us that humans live by metaphor and fractured glimpses of another reality.

What about a Christianity of Community?

Community is the third mystery of our trinity. We have no faith except the faith of our communities, the one expressed by those around us and handed down from our ancestors. In our hyper-individualistic world it’s not hard to find Christians who deny this point in our trinity, Christians who find in some buddy Jesus or a self-satisfied personalism a faith empty of any of the hard-stuff inter-personal encounter, and with that of change and growth.

It is also possible to focus too much upon the truth of community. That is the faith of revered traditions and quick conformity, a place where conflict is denied or papered over, and rules, unconscious as much as conscious, replace the on-going struggle with self and others to be disciples. Dare I say it, it is a perspective where an ideal of consensus is prized over necessary and difficult change. The reality of the community is of ever-present conflict, of the partiality of collective identity, and the ever growing fractures between us. It is Spirit and Bible that form and sustain us, not community on its own.

To be faithful Christians in our world requires the hard stuff of proclaiming the mystery of Spirit, Bible, and Community together. It isn’t easy. If it was, we wouldn’t need to proclaim it. But our way in this time is of these three in one.

Divine mystery surrounds us, carries us, saves us. The human tendency is to try to simplify, to focus, to box in that mystery so that is not so mysterious, and certainly easier to manage. But the constant experience of the church is of mystery that when confronted, allows no easy answers. Often these mysteries come in paradoxical dualisms or confusing trinities—conceptual groupings that force us to stop and admit our confusion. And then to probe the foundational complexity of our experience of God and salvation and the inadequacy of our humanity.

We experience the trinity of Spirit, Bible, and Community. The Anabaptists experienced the trinity of baptisms in Spirit, water, and suffering.
The early church experienced the Trinity of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. These are mysteries and these are truths. In them we live and breathe and find our meaning. Much as we might dislike the complexity, thus it was and thus it shall always be.

Amen.