I spent last week at Virginia Seminary, at an annual residency as part of the First Three Years Program. This residency is a time to reflect on our ministries with our seminary classmates, hear each others’ stories and learn. Coincidentally, the theme of this year’s program was storytelling-I don’t think Chuck secretly influenced them, but who knows!
The first story we read was called The Expert on God, by John L’Heureux. It begins like this,
From the start, faith had been a problem for him, and his recent ordination had changed almost nothing. His doubts were simply more appropriate to the priesthood now. That was the only difference.
As a child of ten, he was saying his evening prayers when it suddenly struck him that Catholics believed in three gods, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. He blushed and covered his face. What if the kids at school found out? They were Protestants and therefore wrong, but at least they had only one God. Instantly it came to him that there were three Persons in one God. It was a mystery. He was very embarrassed but very relieved, and he actually looked around to see if anyone had heard his thoughts, and for the rest of his life it remained for him a moment of great shame.
This beautiful short story begins with a young boy’s meditation on the Trinity. For him, this contemplation is a shameful experience because initially he thinks non-doctrinal thoughts about the Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity has caused a lot of problems for many years. We in the church like to get our I’s dotted and our T’s crossed. We don’t like to leave room for error, so we describe abstract theological concepts until we’re blue in the face. Many churches won’t let you join them until you sign off on their interpretation of doctrine. The doctrine about the Trinity is tricky, because it is really important to us as Christians that we only worship one God. But, scripture tells us Jesus was not only God’s son, but was fully God himself. Scripture also tells us about the Holy Spirit, who pre-existed with the Son and the Father.
Theologians have been trying to wrap their brains around this for a long time. The Bible never expressly lays down a theology of the Trinity, so it has been up to the church to develop one. The Councils of Nicea and Constantinople in 325 and 381, respectively, dealt with the question and developed the creeds we read today. The consensus was that there was one God, one Divine essence, and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all made of that essence. Theologians fought over the words essence, subsistence, substance-words you and I might think mean the same thing! As I was preparing for this sermon, I was reading some of John Calvin’s work on the Trinity and at one point he starts making fun of other theologians’ descriptions of the trinity. He calls Augustine’s explanation on the Trinity, “extravagant.” Those doctrine wars can get downright nasty!
The little boy in our short story grows up and becomes a priest, but continues to have deep doubts about faith. He has these doubts in a very systematic way and takes turn doubting the Trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, in order, and never more than one at a time. He gets so caught up in doctrine that he isolates himself socially and has no personal friends. His doubts become his life.
As I mentioned before, nowhere in Scripture does the Bible lay out the doctrine of the Trinity for us. Nowhere does Jesus sit his disciples down and start lecturing about the Divine essence of God and how Jesus is a subsistence of that divine essence. No, when Jesus talks about the Father or about the Spirit, Jesus talks about relationship.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his close relationship with his father-how Jesus bases every decision on following his Father. The Father feels pain when Jesus is killed on the cross. Jesus also describes how the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus and speak truth about him. Jesus describes how the Father sends forth that Holy Spirit.
All three persons of the Trinity are caught up in this beautiful relationship in which they bring honor to one another, love one another and stay completely attuned to one another. Theologians call this the immanent Trinity-Think of an image of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in some kind of holy dance “up in heaven,” dwelling in glorious realms on high.
In the last few decades, theologians like Catherine LaCugna have been developing the idea of the economic trinity. Though the idea of the immanent trinity is beautiful, they believe the image of the members of the trinity in deep relationship with each other is incomplete. The economic trinity is not a trinity that is interested in the stock market. Here the word economic refers to the idea of exchange, in the sense of how the Trinity interacts with its creation, particularly human beings.
After all, if there is anything about which the Bible is explicit, it is the members’ of the Trinity relationship with human beings. God the father creates us and loves us, Jesus offers us grace, the Holy Spirit guides us. In effect, the members of the trinity are opening their arms and inviting us to participate in the dance of their relationship.
The priest in our short story gets invited into this relationship in a very intense way. He is driving home after church on an icy Christmas Eve, when he has decides to give up his faith, which for him, is deeply doctrine based. As soon as he’s made this decision, he notices a car accident. He pulls over and enters one of the cars, and encounters a dying teenage boy. Even after renouncing his faith, he pulls his anointing oil out of his pocket and says the last rites. He holds the boy for a long time and the story ends when the priest is able to tell the boy. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Though we first think the priest giving up his faith is tragic, soon we realize that in giving up his faith-which was incredibly rule and doctrine bound, he is able to open himself up to true faith in God-relationship. He is able to be an open vessel that communicates God’s love to a dying boy.
While this short story is a grim one, it reflects what can happen when we let go of doctrine and open ourselves to relationship with God.
All of us will doubt elements of our faith at some point or another. Even I, occasionally, will have a moment in the middle of the Eucharist in which I think to myself. “Well, this is a strange ritual we have here.” The important part of faith is not believing all the right things at the right time, but to be in relationship-in relationship to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and in relationship with each other.
There are different kinds of knowing. In German they are distinguished by the terms “wissen” and “kennen“. Wissen refers to the knowing of facts-You can “know” John Calvin was born in 1509, or that the Trinity is one essence, but three persons, or that the person of Christ dwells in the Eucharist. Kennen refer to the knowledge of another person, or something more intimate. Kennen has connotations of time spent together, face to face. Kennen invokes the image of something familiar and loved. We may “know” all about the Trinity, but that does not mean we know the Trinity.
Spiritual maturity comes with knowing not just the facts, not just the doctrine, but knowing the persons of the Trinity. We come to know them through study, but also through prayer and reflection. We nudge open the doors of our hearts and take the risk of letting the Father, Son and Holy spirit in our hearts. Doctrine is the bowl in which the relationship is help, but the relationship is what is really important.
Today, we celebrate the baptism of little Madison-as she begins her own relationship with the Trinity when we baptize her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we also celebrate our own relationship with the Trinity. Thanks be to God.