June 19, 2011

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Today is Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday in the church year that calls us to ponder a teaching of the church rather than a teaching of Jesus. The scripture readings, of course, are carefully chosen to reflect the Three-in-One doctrine: God as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. And the readings provide biblical backup for a non-scriptural word: Trinity.

Although this mystery of God revealed in three ways is a core belief of Christianity, we struggle to explain it. Monotheistic Christians do back flips explaining why such a belief doesn’t make us polytheists. It sure sounds like we worship three Gods, while we claim that God is One.

A reflection on water has often been used to provide insight into this baffling doctrine. At different temperatures, water exists as a gas, as a liquid, or as a solid. Water is one substance, but it has three very different forms. Is that helpful for wrapping our heads around our one God – Father, Son, and Spirit? Perhaps.

A Lutheran pastor, Mary Anderson, in a reflection on the Trinity, describes a memorable experience of the Three-in-One. She was watching her grandmother sleep during her afternoon nap. As she contemplated the old woman’s existence, she thought wisely, “That’s Grandmamma, Mamma, and Odelle.”

Mary’s grandmother smiled in her sleep as Mary called her by the names used for her by her grandchildren, her daughter, and her husband. Three names, three relationships – and yet the same person.

I think it’s interesting that Trinity Sunday happens to land this year on Father’s Day. On a day when many people in our society are celebrating and thanking their human fathers, Christians are invited to reflect on God as Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Those among us who have experienced the blessing of having a wonderful father likely understand why Jesus and those who became his followers began to call God their father. They experienced God as one who was as close and caring and reliable and generous as a loving father, so that when they addressed their prayers to God they began to call God Abba, Daddy, our Father.

Some of us, of course, may have never experienced that kind of a father. Perhaps if we never knew a father at all, we might find comfort and encouragement in the God who is the true father of us all.

But others have had fathers who abandoned them, fathers who abused them, or fathers who seemed to only make demands and showed no grace or love. For these, Father’s Day may not be a day of celebration, and God as Father may not be a particularly helpful metaphor.

But it seems to me that the purpose of the Trinitarian language – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is not to set limits on our understanding of who God is. Nor are these words the only words that may assist our minds and hearts to connect with the mysterious God that Christians have experienced as One in Three.

The doctrine itself was likely not formulated for the purpose of fully explaining the nature of God. After all, the church doesn’t fully understand the nature of God, nor could we find words adequate to express it. It has been suggested that the point of the doctrine is not to provide a full and complete explanation, but it is simply an attempt to put the faith of the church into words, an attempt to share what Christians have come to know and experience of God.

We might think of the doctrine of the Trinity as part of the church’s response to the Great Commission from Jesus.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus appears one more time to eleven of his closest followers. And he gives them a Great Commission. He makes it abundantly clear what they are being sent to do in the world:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he tells them, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

The apostles were sent to baptize and to teach, to invite others to turn away from sin and towards God, and to help them learn the wise ways that Jesus had taught and demonstrated in his life.

Throughout history, the church has always taken that commission very seriously, but it hasn’t always led to the results that I imagine Jesus was hoping for.

Just think of the crusades. Christians in that era took the commission seriously all right. They took it so seriously that they would force people to be baptized on pain of death. And those who refused would be slaughtered. The crusaders must have thought that they were getting the job done, but no one was turning to God through that kind of baptism. And the Christians themselves were turning away as they engaged in the kind of violence and misuse of power that is so contrary to Jesus’ way of life and his teaching.

Of course, the crusades were a long time ago, and the churches today bear little resemblance to the powerful and militant church of that time. And yet, not so many years have passed since the Christian churches of this country teamed up with the Canadian government to impose our religion and culture on the First Peoples of this land.

The legacy of the Residential Schools witnesses to the arrogance of our churches to assume that we have God and God’s will all figured out, that we could assume that the Aboriginal children would somehow be better off if we removed them from their homes and families and communities and put them in our schools.

There is no doubt that many Christians of good will and good intention participated in the process, alongside others who took great advantage of the system to torment and abuse these vulnerable children.

At the heart of the problem, I think, was the fact that we Christians presumed that we were the ones who understood and could explain God and God’s will for our lives. We were fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus to baptize and to teach. And we were so focused on that mission that we never stopped to notice that our Aboriginal sisters and brothers knew something of our mysterious God too.

On the back of this morning’s worship bulletin, Lori Ransom shares a glimpse of the faith and deep wisdom that is found in Native Spirituality:

“We live every day as a prayer,” explains the traditional Native Elder. “All day we give thanks to the Creator for all the Creator has blessed us with, providing for all of our needs in this world.”

Indigenous people in Canada always pray by giving thanks for each element of God’s creation: the plants and medicines that nourish and heal; the birds and animals that feed, clothe and provide companionship; the winds that cool; the waters that refresh; the rocks and minerals that help build our communities; all things bright and beautiful that lift our spirits.

Today is not only Father’s Day for the world, and Trinity Sunday for the church. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has also designated today as Aboriginal Sunday – the Sunday immediately following the Canadian Aboriginal Day which was celebrated this past Thursday.

Today is a good day to recognize and celebrate the gifts and insights of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters in our church and in our communities. It is an important day to remember the errors of the past, and to commit to doing things differently in the present and the future.

It has been 17 years since the Presbyterian Church in Canada made its official apology for our participation in the Residential School system, and we still have a long way to go and a lot of work yet to do to promote healing and reconciliation with those whom we harmed and their children and grandchildren.

The doctrine of the Trinity may serve today to remind us that God is yet a mystery to us. Though we keep on trying to understand God more and more, and we keep on doing our best to put our faith into words, and we keep on trying to share our faith with all the people of the world, we need to be reminded from time to time that God is yet beyond our human understanding. God is yet a mystery.

And, in fact, those people that the church once tried to evangelize may actually understand many aspects of God’s character even better than we do.

Indigenous peoples, for example, share the Christian belief in the sacredness of all that God has created. And their traditional ways of life allow them to live out that belief by respecting and caring for the created world and all its gifts and blessings.

May God grant us wisdom as we try to understand God and God’s will for us more fully. May God grant us humility, as we try to carry out the Great Commission of Christ with grace and integrity. And may God fill us with joy as we grow together in mutual love and understanding. Amen.