Text: Matthew 28:16-20
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
June 11, 2017
I have found throughout my ministry that whenever the bishop sent me to serve as an assisting priest, the rector always assigned me to preach on the Sunday following Pentecost. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was not because it was a “low Sunday” like the Sunday after Christmas or the Sunday after Easter when church attendance is always down. Rather it was because the Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday – focusing on a Christian doctrine that is the most difficult to understand. I could not blame them for giving me the task.
As this doctrine was hammered out by the Church Fathers over the course of three centuries, they found they had to use the most technical Greek philosophical language to show that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit could be three distinct persons, yet one God. I confess that in my seminary days, I struggled to understand the logic of what the Fathers were saying. Somehow, it always seemed as clear as mud
Years later, I shared my early struggles with a colleague of mine at Wesley Seminary who taught systematic theology. Sathi grew up in India. He just laughed and said: “Bill, you remind me of my Muslim friends in India, no matter how many times I explained the Trinity to them, they kept saying, I worship three gods. On the other hand when I explained the Trinity to my Hindu friends, who have thousands of gods, they had no trouble understanding the concept at all.” That didn’t help a bit. Long ago, I realized I would just have to accept the doctrine by faith.
But I think my friend Sathi had a point. The real problem though is that we try to comprehend the Trinity through the Western eyes. Like the Greeks before us, we seek to understand the essence of things. However, the Tribune God revealed Himself to human kind through the Eastern eyes. Far from being an intellection problem to be solved, for them the Trinity asserts a dynamic reality to be lived. They experienced God as One, but intuitively understood and experienced God in his three-fold dimension.
Because we are brought up in the West, I have come to believe this balanced Trinitarian life frequently eludes us and we often become satisfied with a one-dimensional functional understanding of God. See if you find yourself fitting into one of the three patterns I seek to describe.
Such people have a wide-angle cosmic perspective. The raw beauty of nature, from beautiful seascapes to towering mountain views, powerful wild animals and barren volcanic landscapes are rightfully taken as the handiwork of the Divine Parent inspiring to ecstasy, wonder and worship. And this is good!
But Father-centered Christians will inevitably draw upon the experience of their own parents in imaging the Divine Father. Such experiences will be mixed, and often inadequate. For some people, these images can even be destructive.
There are absent fathers, especially in a century which has given way to the breakdown of the traditional family. Absent fathers become projects of an absent Divine Father—unknowable, distant, erratic, unpredictable whose children learn to be distrustful of everything.
There are also exacting fathers, who demand high standards and whose love and affirmation are given conditionally to reward exceptional achievement. Children of such fathers often find themselves standing before God feeling worthless and insignificant.
There are also idealized fathers who seem perfect and self-sufficient. This can lead to an exaggerated sense of God as self contained and omnipotent, rendering us superfluous and subservient.
Father-centered Christians need the Son to image the Father’s gracious parenting within the contours of a particular human life. The love, grace and self-giving of the Son are mutual gifts that also characterize the Father. The Son shows us that otherness as well as closeness is two sides of a relationship with God. The Son provides us with the model for obedience and delegated authority that is the foundation of our vocation. Father-centered Christians need the Son in order to fully understand the robust healthy relationship the Father calls us to have with Him.
Father-centered Christians also need the Spirit to confirm them as God’s sons and daughters, enabling them to address God as Abba-Father. Without the Spirit, the model of Sonship realized perfectly in Jesus, would be an unattainable ideal, a pattern that we could never hope to emulate. But the Spirit works to recreate our family likeness and safeguards our personal freedom.
But if there are Father-centered Christians (many who are outside the church) there are also many Jesus centered Christians.
If the Father provides a wile-angle view; the Son offers a close-up telephoto perspective. Jesus brings the Father within a human fame. For Jesus-centered Christians, a personal relationship with their Lord is foundational to their faith. The life of Jesus of Nazareth—especially his death and resurrection is held to be the touchstone of God saving action for human kind. This too, is good!
But Jesus-centered Christians can easily shut Him out of the relationship He had with His Father. Without the Father, these Christians are at risk of seeing our Lord as a separate spiritual guru. Jesus-centered Christians need the Father if they are to reconnect with the cosmic scope of creation. They also need the Father if they are to take seriously the whole scope of the Father’s creative work and to challenge in His name, the impersonal and dehumanizing societal structures that distort our lives and threaten our planet’s survival.
Jesus-centered Christians need the Spirit if they are not to be handcuffed to the letter of scripture in their attempt to reconstruct the historical life of Christ. They need the Spirit to release them from a misplaced adherence to the literal words of Jesus and be freed to embody His Presence in ways that are appropriate for our life and culture.
Finally, there are Spirit-centered Christians.
These Christians have been especially noticeable since the emergence of the Charismatic movement back in the 1970’s. These Christians relish the immediacy of experience rather than intimacy with the historical person of Jesus or the otherness of the Father. They hold neither the wide-angle perspective of the Father-centered Christian nor the telephoto perspective of the Jesus-centered believer. Rather, they hold a zoom lens that makes it possible to keep in focus both the cosmic otherness of the Father and the particular presences of the Son. Spirit-centered Christians, moreover, celebrate the Spirit for the explosion of life that transforms tired, flaccid, predictable worship and brings the hint of victory and vitality to dull and routine Christian living. This, I celebrate with them!
But Spirit-centered Christians can become absorbed in the quest for religious experience and especially for the more exuberant, spectacular, and showy gifts. They need the discipline of the Father if their spiritual experience is not to dissolve into divisiveness and spiritual elitism. By recognizing the vital role of the Father, Spirit-centered Christians are enabled to harness their spiritual energy to the structures and disciplines of the Church. They need the Father to remind them that their mission is not merely personal but also to work for structural change, and to bring to their remembrance that the natural gifts of the created order are no less spiritual gifts.
Spirit-centered Christians can be rootless and detached without the down-to earthiness of Jesus. Without the Son, their vision can fuel a triumphalist distortion of the Christian faith. They need the concrete reality of Jesus crucified to chasten the excesses of a spirituality that fails to reckon sufficiently with suffering, failure and tragedy.
They need both the Father and the Son to teach them that the Spirit’s most characteristic work is to form relationships of love, perfectly exemplified between the Father and the Son.
When I try to understand the essence of the Trinity, I still find myself confused. But when I refocus my thinking and hold in tension the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I find myself entering into the Trinitarian life of God Himself.