June 11, 2017
Donna G. Joy
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
Last week, as we celebrated Pentecost, we also celebrated the Baptism of six children; a wonderful celebration to be sure. So, six times we heard those Trinitarian words: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we find these words in our Gospel reading from Matthew this morning, where the risen Jesus commands his disciples to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit... And, conveniently, today, one week later, we celebrate Trinity Sunday and are given the opportunity to unpack those words: those words that establish the core - the center - the very heart of the Christian faith. Indeed, the Trinity permeates the church's entire life and witness, and in the words of Miroslav Volf one of this century's most celebrated theologians, when we baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we name the Trinity as the church's 'determining reality.' In other words, the Trinity determines the very essence of who we are.
But what, exactly does that mean? Certainly, there are many ways of looking at, reflecting upon, and unpacking this important teaching. Today I'm going to start with a reflection on William Paul Young's portrayal of the Trinity in his book The Shack, which emphasizes the central theme of relationship. Three persons, God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit: intimately yet inexplicably interconnected, living, breathing, moving, functioning as one... This is the model that essentially defines how we are called to live. Together, we are called to live as the Trinity lives: however many persons, certainly each of us here today, intimately yet inexplicably interconnected through the Godhead, living, breathing, moving, functioning as one.
Young's glimpse into the relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is both insightful and compelling. Ten years ago when this book was published, numerous people recommended that I read it, many being people whose opinion I would ordinarily respect and whose recommendations I would take seriously. So I got myself a copy of the book, but when I began reading it I - quite frankly - didn't find it engaging. However, more recently, I was reading a review which suggested that the author's portrayal of the Trinity was worth reading, so as I was preparing for today I picked the book up and this time, couldn't put it down.
I have discovered ten years later that the author's portrayal of the Trinity is, in a number of ways, theologically solid and sound. In my opinion it provides some good theology about the mystery of the Trinity. I still - personally - do not think it is a particularly great novel, but I do think it is worth reading, if only to discover Young's interesting and in my opinion helpful way of imagining and portraying the Trinity. What really fascinates me is that - despite my own initial difficulty with getting into it - Christians generally are drawn to this novel as ducks are to water, which suggests that there is a deep longing for a deeper grasp of this often complex doctrine and teaching.
In this story, Mackenzie Phillips's youngest daughter has been abducted during a family vacation. Evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. The reactions within the family extend from intense sadness and grief, to guilt, and to extreme anger with God for allowing this terrible thing to have happened. Four years later, in the midst of his continued sadness and grief, Mack receives a suspicious note--apparently from God--inviting him back to that shack for a weekend.
The note says, "Mackenzie, it's been a while. I've missed you. I'll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. Papa." (Papa is the way in which Mack's wife refers to God...) Despite his feelings of suspicion and foreboding, Mack decides to go, and arrives at the shack on a cold, crisp, winter afternoon and returns to the place of his worst nightmare. What he discovers there is the Trinity in very human form(s). He meets Papa: "a large beaming African-American woman"; Jesus: a Middle Eastern man, "dressed like a laborer, complete with tool belt and gloves"; and the Holy Spirit: an Asian woman names Sarayu wearing the clothes of a groundskeeper or gardener.
Of course, the specific identity of these individuals is radically different from what we find in Scripture, and in pieces of art that have been produced throughout history. But to get hung-up on that is - I think - to miss the point. I believe these three individuals are helpful in terms of imagining the Trinity: That is: God the Father/Mother/heavenly parent as an individual with a heart as big as eternity itself; Jesus as a laborer (one who exists at - enters into - the very heart of all labour and life); the Holy Spirit as the very breath that generates all growth.
But the primary point of Young's portrayal of the three person of the Trinity is the relationship they share. If we are going to look at this portrayal as a way of getting to the theological heart of the Trinity that we do find in Scripture, we need to study the way in which these three individuals relate to and with one another. It seems to me that at a very deep level, Young actually portrays the Trinity according to Tradition; he presents the Trinity as three distinct Persons who share so intimately in each other's lives that they interpenetrate each other to the extent that Mack cannot have a conversation with one of them without the other knowing what has been said. Again, in my opinion, the pieces that focus on the Trinity are among the most compelling in the book.
At one point, when Mack is struggling to understand the difference between the three persons of the Trinity, and how they are united, he asks, "...what difference does it make that there are three of you, and you are all one God." And here Papa makes the point that it makes all the difference. She says, "All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within Me, within God myself." So, again, because the Trinity: One God, three distinct persons, is bound together in such love and harmonious living, that same quality of love and unity is possible for us.
In another scene, Young describes what this can mean in simple, everyday terms, as Mack watches Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu prepare for dinner when Jesus drops the bowl with the sauce that Papa had just prepared. Instead of getting angry, all three end up laughing and joking and working together to clean up the mess. And here the author says, "Mack's mind was full of thoughts. So this was God in relationship? It was beautiful and so appealing. He knew that it didn't matter whose fault it was - the mess from some bowl had been broken, that a dish that had been planned would not be shared. Obviously, what was truly important here was the love they had for one another and the fullness it brought them. He shook his head. How different this was from the way he treated the ones he loved!"
Imagine families, churches, governments, communities all - in good humour - happily working together to clean up the mess when someone creates a mess.
For the purposes of this reflection on the Trinity, I want to emphasize two things. Number one: In returning to the place of Mack's most terrifying life experience he discovers the gift of the Trinitarian Godhead. I think we sometimes tend to view the Trinity as a somewhat exotic doctrine that we take off the shelf and dust off once each year on this particular Sunday. But, in fact, the One God in Three Persons exists at the very centre of life; at the very centre of disappointment, grief, fear, and anger. When Mack asks Papa where she was when he needed her, she says, with a quiet sense of conviction, "I never left you. I never left you."
So, Mack returns to the shack, the place that embodies his deepest pain, and there he discovers the Trinity: One God, Three Persons. And in relationship with this relational Godhead, he finds comfort, healing, and hope. He discovers that while the bad news is there is no such thing as a pain free life, the good news is that this Trinitarian God welcomes us home in the midst of it. This God feeds us with Word and Sacrament, and it is interesting that much of Mack's conversation with the Three Persons of the Trinity occurs around the table as they share a meal.
Secondly, I want to return to the relational quality that exists within the Trinity. If you look at the image on the front of your bulletin, you will see that it is a sketched interpretation of Rublev's icon, which many of you have heard me reflect on before. These three figures are separate, yet bound together in an inexplicable and deeply moving way. They have been together since before the beginning of time; we were reminded of this in our first reading from the Book of Genesis this morning. Their creative, harmonious, unity throughout the whole history of salvation has given and continues to give birth to life, and love, healing, and wholeness.
It is this vision of the Trinity that underlies Paul's message in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, as he says, "Finally, brothers and sisters... agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace (found within the Trinity) will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss." We can live in this way because the Trinity: One God, three distinct persons, bound together in love has always lived, and continues to live in this way.
So, when we see people working through conflict in peaceful, forgiving, reconciling ways, we can remember that this is possible because of the relationship among the Trinity, and we can see the Trinity at work here on earth; we see people living and loving harmoniously as the Trinity lives and loves. When we see members of the Body of Christ (the church) living harmoniously, sharing leadership and ministries together, we catch a vision of the reality of the Trinity: within the Godhead, as well as here on earth.
The whole of Matthew's Gospel actually ends with this morning's passage, where the risen Jesus tells his disciples (after they go forth and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to, teach them (the newly baptized) to obey everything that He has commanded them to do. And finally, the risen Jesus reminds them that he will be with them (us) to the end of the age. To obey everything that Jesus has commanded, is to live and love together with the same brand of relationship as the Trinity. We can do it, because the Trinity always has, and always will. Indeed, filled and stamped with it through the Sacrament of Baptism, the Trinity (in the words of Miroslav Volf) is our defining reality.
May the relationship of the Trinity be our guide as we live, love, breathe, and have our being. And in the words of Paul to the Christians in Corinth: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." Amen!