Who's Missing in This Picture?
Matthew 28:19, Genesis 1:2, Steve Hollaway, June 15, 2014, Trinity Sunday
When Becca was in the first grade, her teacher said, “What I’d like you to do with this piece of paper is to draw a picture of your family.” Becca was already a good artist, and she proceeded to draw likenesses of her mother, her sister, and herself. Her father was traveling on Baptist business most of the time and so didn’t quite make it into her internal image associated with the word “family.” When she took the artwork home and showed it to her mother, who showed it to her father when he came home. “Who’s missing in this picture?”
I tell you this story not because it’s Father’s Day and I want to lay a guilt trip on all the absent fathers out there—well, not mainly for the reason. I’m telling you this story because it’s Trinity Sunday. If I asked you to draw a picture of God—a picture of what you see when you think of God, even if it’s not accurate—it’s a pretty good bet that I’d get pictures of God the Father and pictures of Jesus, or maybe a picture of Jesus with a cloud or a hand behind him. Most of us have a way of imagining Jesus, and, whether it comes from Bible stories or Greek myths, we have some way of imagining God the Father—even if he is an old man in a white robe on a throne. I doubt I would get many pictures that suggested the Trinity, and few that included an image of the Holy Spirit.
I might be in the position of Becca’s mother, holding up your picture of God and asking, “Who’s missing in this picture?” The missing person in many of our pictures is the Spirit. We don’t pray to the Spirit. We don’t use the Spirit’s name to curse. To most of our minds, the Spirit is not quite equal to God. For a good many people in our culture the idea of God as Spirit is the most comfortable picture of God, but Spirit is not understood as related to Jesus. The Spirit is identified with nature, as in animism, or becomes a kind of energy like “The Force” in Star Wars. But for many Christians the idea of the Holy Spirit is not only amorphous and invisible but scary, associated with kooks and scam artists on TV. Some mainline Protestants have been awakened to the Spirit by Pentecostals, but even more have been scared away from the Spirit.
Many of us have a default picture of God as family that includes the Father and the Son. A feminist theologian would say that our picture leaves out the feminine—which might be true—but we are also leaving out the dynamic in favor of the static, leaving out the God in us in favor of the God out there, leaving out the immanent in favor of the transcendent. For all practical purposes we may be binitarian rather than Trinitarian. The binary understanding is God and Jesus. The real God who made the world and appears in the Old Testament is up there, then there is Jesus who is God revealed in human form, almost a representative of the “real” God, a way the “real” God made himself more knowable and more lovable. We don’t take seriously those passages in the New Testament that say that Jesus/Christ/the Word also created the world or that Jesus is one with God.
I didn’t make up the word “binitarian.” That’s the word scholars use to describe not only Christian groups today who don’t accept the Trinity but accept Jesus as divine, but also to describe the theology of many early Christians. Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh has written extensively about the worship of Jesus in the early church, and he says that the church started out as binitarian. The most basic theological move the first Christians made in switching from their Jewish conception of God was to lift Jesus up into the Godhead. There is still one God, they would say, but Jesus who died for us and rose is one with God and to be worshiped as God. You can’t get to a layer of Christian thinking behind that; even in the decades before Paul wrote his letters the Jesus-followers were worshiping him as God rather than just following him as a teacher.
So why didn’t we just stay binitarian? It was because of experiences like the one on Pentecost which we remembered last Sunday. The doctrine of the Trinity evolved as a way of accounting for all the data we have about God in the New Testament, and as a way of accounting for all the experience we have of God in our own lives and in the church. At the very least, we had to talk about God’s presence within us, and the God-energy that empowers us, and the sense we have of God actually being with us in worship and in miraculous healings, and the thing that whispers in our ears “This is true” when we hear the words of Scripture.
You might be able to do that without calling the Spirit a person, except that in the New Testament you find descriptions of the Spirit doing all kinds of things that take a person to do. Consider just a few examples: The Spirit bears witness to Jesus, assures us that we are children of God, convicts us of sin, gives gifts, intercedes for us, prays when we can’t pray, brings things to remembrance, calls us to particular tasks, guides us in our journeys, fills us with himself, raises people from death to life…the list goes on and on. So the early church fathers in the centuries that led up to the ecumenical council at Nicaea began to speak of God not only known by way of three masks, but God existing in three persons, yet still one God.
When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I had become something of a Jesus Freak (they were at their height in 1971) and interested in charismatic phenomena, so I signed up to audit a course on the Holy Spirit at Princeton Theological Seminary. It was way over my head as a 19-year-old, so I didn’t stick it out. I was disappointed that the first lecture was on Genesis, and the next few lectures were about the Spirit in the Pentateuch and in the stories of the judges and kings, then several lectures on the prophets. We wouldn’t even get to the New Testament for weeks—which in my mind was the good stuff. Like some of you, I assumed that the Holy Spirit showed up with Jesus and wasn’t really known until the book of Acts. Completely wrong. The starting place for understanding the Spirit is the creation story in Genesis 1.
The first verse tells us when this story happened: “In the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth.” The second verse sets the scene: “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” If you want to, you can read that “void” as what we call “the void,” the void of nonbeing and nothingness which we fear. But most likely the Hebrew authors had in mind the shapelessness of a great mass of water—the waters of chaos which most cultures in the ancient Near East believe existed before the world was created. For them, the creation was a story of establishing order over chaos more than a story of creating from nothing. Where the waters of the deep came from was not the subject of this story. To them the whole universe in the beginning was like a wild ocean with no boundaries.
But here is the first action in the creation story, in verse two: in the NRSV it reads, “a wind from God swept over the face of the deep.” (As we mentioned last week the same Hebrew word can be translated as wind, spirit, or breath.) The King James reads, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” But the Hebrew word translated as “moved” literally means “fluttered.” Several translations render it that the Spirit of God “hovered” over the waters—which hints at the idea of the Spirit as a bird-like being—but I think the best translation is to say that the Spirit brooded over the waters, like a bird waiting for a world to be hatched out of the chaos. Eugene Peterson in The Message has verse two as
Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.
The priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins picked up this image in a poem:
the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings!
The Spirit is still brooding over the world, to bring life into being.
So it’s clear that the Spirit was present from the beginning, not a Johnny-come-lately to the Godhead, and not a minor player. Even through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance you get pictures of God in churches that show God the Father and Jesus Christ side by side or one above the other, with the Holy Spirit represented as a small dove, either flowing from Father to Son or from both to the world. But the orthodox idea which existed before Nicaea but was affirmed there was that God and Christ and Spirit all existed from the beginning. Even before the world existed, they existed. Why is this important to you? Because it means that God is not solitary; God is social. God was never a solitary I, a simple or solid being, unchanging and unfeeling. God is not static but exists in dynamic relationship. God was always a community of love among three persons. The world was created out of the overflow of the life of God, that dance of love that existed prior to what we know as existence began. That means that we ourselves were created out of love and for love.
You know that Elvis once sang “I’m a hunk, a hunk of burning love.” I bet you didn’t know that Martin Luther, the great Reformer, once said, “God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love.” God is a hunk, a hunk of burning love. God was that hunk of love even before he made us, and now he has brought us into that love-life to share it with him. That’s what the Trinity means.
One of the first verses we teach children is “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But if God is love, God cannot exist in isolation; God cannot ever have been alone as one being. Let me quote from a sermon by an Episcopalian, Joseph Pagano:
To love is to be in relationship, and to love perfectly is to be in eternal relationship. If God is perfect love, then God must be social. God is not some simple, solitary, isolated, individual being. God is not some kind of Wizard of Oz hiding out behind the curtain of the stars. God is not personal in that sense. That’s anthropomorphic. Rather, God is personal in the sense that God is the love that creates, redeems and sustains everything that exists. The life of God is like a divine dance of persons in love from which sparks fly, the love that moves the sun and the other stars. At the heart of the universe is the divine dance of persons in love, and if God is the love that creates and reconciles and transforms all that exists, then God must be relational in God’s essence. So when we say that God is Trinity, it is a way of saying that God is love, nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love, a love that overflows into all of creation.
The doctrine of the Trinity means that this is a three-way love, not just love between Father and Son into which we would be intruding. It is love with the Spirit who is within us and around us and at work in the world, so we get drawn into that love. The early Greek Fathers used a term to describe the mutual love and indwelling of the three Persons: perichoresis. The word peri means “around” as in perimeter, and the word choresis can mean “dance” as in choreography. The best description they could come up of the life within God’s self is a circle dance. That’s how Greeks dance, right? They join hands and form a circle. Ta-re-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. My Big Fat Greek Wedding shows people dancing that way, joyfully. That’s the orthodox conception of the Trinity.
I think it frees us up to think of God not only in the Father-Son drama of incarnation and redemption and forgiveness, but to see God also in the flow of love within God, in the flow of love into the world. It frees us up to think of God not so much as out there but in here and around us and under us, drawing us to something deeper and richer and more joyful, inviting us to be a part of God’s recreating dance as God makes everything new. Some of us grew up binitarian, thinking of God as bad cop-good cop, strict dad-loving son, the demander and the giver. That’s not the way it is at all. God is love, after all—love that creates, love that redeems, love that sustains—and all three functions belong to God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is, I am happy to report, “a hunk, a hunk of burning love.”
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