Well, it’s Trinity Sunday. Who would like to explain the doctrine of the Trinity? Me neither. And actually I’m pretty convinced that the people who put together the lectionary weren’t sure about it either, or they would have given us more helpful readings to work with. The fun thing about Trinity Sunday for preachers is that any time you try to explain how the whole Trinity thing works, you inevitably stumble into one of the classic heresies. I could tell you how the Trinity is like H20, which can exist in three different states – ice, water, and vapor – but then I’ve suddenly become a modalist. And I know we’re not quite as worried about tripping on a heresy around here as in some congregations, but generally I try to avoid heresy unless it’s for a purpose.
The fact is, the Trinity is not a doctrine that came about because someone explained it so brilliantly, or we’d all be quoting that person this morning and going “Aha!” together. The doctrine of the Trinity came about through what is called apophatic theology, which is a way of approaching God by what we know is not true. For example, many of us have wandered away from the sort of Christianity we were taught as children, because somewhere along the line we realized that we do not believe in a wrathful, punishing God. Little did you know, you were doing apophatic theology!
The Trinity came about because of what people knew they did not believe about God. They did not believe there was more than one true God. However, they did not believe Jesus was merely an especially good human, or that the Holy Spirit was merely a force that was commanded by God. But they didn’t believe that God the Creator had actually left being God to come to earth and die as Jesus. And yet they didn’t believe that the Creator, the Christ, and the Spirit were essentially different beings. So, we end up with this three in one and one in three thing that no one can ever quite wrap their mind around. But. Just because I can’t explain it doesn’t mean I don’t believe it or don’t think it can guide us in our faith journeys.
I spent this week in Washington, D.C. at the Festival of Homiletics, which is a fancy way of saying Preacher Camp. The theme this year, appropriate to both the location and our current context, was Preaching and Politics. The consensus among the best of our well-known progressive preachers is that we are living in a situation of great urgency. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia are widespread and are regularly aired in the wide open. Our president and his staff speak of immigrants as animals, and treat them as animals as well, separating children from parents and then “losing” the children because they’ve shuffled them off like livestock, to supposed caregivers who receive a less stringent background check than it requires to adopt a dog.
And the thing I hate to tell you is, none of this is new. Some of us have been insulated from these realities because we are white or American citizens or hold other forms of privilege that have allowed us to believe that all things are equal if you just work hard enough, or to believe that the culture is at least getting better over time. The most marginalized people know better, and they have not been surprised by mass deportations or marches of white supremacists or the rise of violence against black and brown-skinned people. This is not the first time the government has marginalized and oppressed people to the point of inhumanity. And yet, this is the time in which we live, and this the time in which we are aware, some of us for the first time. This is the time when finally many of us are waking up and rising up to resist injustice.
You may be wondering, “I thought she was talking about the Trinity?” Ah yes, getting back to that. Often there doesn’t seem to be much connection between the ancient doctrines that the early church argued about, and the urgent work of bringing about justice here and now. But I’ve been thinking about the Trinity this week, as I’ve heard preachers cry out for justice. Although some of us may have mixed thoughts about the Trinity because we can’t explain it, I think it may be more apt than we give it credit for as we strive to maintain a movement toward a more just world.
First, it seems to me that the persons and roles of the Trinity are very like the movement toward justice. Like the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer, the movement toward God’s vision of justice is creative, redemptive, and sustaining. The Trinity shows us what the process of justice looks like, as well as the ultimate vision of justice.
Justice requires creativity. A creator, and the Creator, envisions that which does not currently exist, and courageously constructs the vision into reality. It requires a creator to see the possibility of a world where everyone has what they need, and to begin to build it out of whatever is available, sometimes to build it out of nothing.
Justice is redemptive – that is, justice heals what is broken and exchanges wrong for right. And like the redemption practiced by Christ, justice usually has a cost. We may not end up on the cross, but those who honestly commit themselves to justice for the most vulnerable will find their lives dramatically changed for the sake of the healing and wholeness of the world.
Justice is in large part about sustaining. Justice takes the long view. And so, it becomes important to persevere and preserve energy throughout the long, often exhausting struggle toward justice. You might notice in Scripture that the Spirit sometimes appears as a dove, sometimes as fire, sometimes as a comforting whisper, sometimes as a roaring wind driving people out of their comfort zones. Justice doesn’t require only one of these things; it takes all of them, so the community working together toward justice is balanced in inspiration, challenge, and rest.
So that first point is, the Trinity shows us what justice is, both in process and in goal: the creation of a vision of what currently does not exist, the healing of all that is broken, and the sustaining of the community as it does the work of justice together.
Second point: Like the Trinity, justice is inherently relational. If it is not interconnected, it is not justice. If it is not intersectional, it is not justice. I’m probably about to fall into another heresy here, but I’m going there anyway. Human beings are individuals. We have very different identities. We embody a number of categories of being that we share with some but not all other humans, like race, gender performance, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc., and each of those things affects how we interact with the world. Beyond that, we also hold our own unique set of experiences that makes us absolutely unique. Even identical twins who share DNA and grow up in the same household can vary drastically in personality. One of the things it means to be human is to be separate, unique, individual.
And yet – what it is to be human is also to be ONE, to be essentially connected across all of the categories and differences. We are of the same substance. We are like a giant web, and if you pull on one string, the entire web skews that way. When we act as though we are purely individuals maneuvering for our own benefit or maintaining systems that privilege us and those like us, we pull at that web and end up damaging the entire thing, including ourselves.
Like the Trinity, we are both one and many. And we cannot do justice unless we hold our difference and our unity simultaneously. If we try to erase any sense of difference, or refuse to acknowledge that there is difference, we cease to hear how the most vulnerable parts of that web are being stretched to the point of breaking. If we pretend we are not interconnected, we end up treating other humans as animals, hurting them and eventually hurting ourselves as well. The work of justice is Trinitarian – both individual and collective, both separate and singular, always, at its core, relational.
Point three: Like the Trinity, justice is a mystery. Sometimes it seems like it can’t possibly work, much like the Trinity itself. It makes no sense. A world in which everyone has what they need, a world where every human is equally valued and every human also treats the rest of creation with care and love – these things are so foreign to our experience that sometimes they hardly seem worth working for. But sometimes we understand things apophatically, beginning with what we know is not true.
And we know the church cannot NOT work toward justice. If we don’t, we are not the Church. We cannot ignore the creative vision of our Creator, which begins and ends with a world in which everyone has what they need. We cannot claim that the redemption of Christ stopped on the cross, and claim to be followers of Christ while refusing to engage in the healing work that he did. We cannot pray for the comfort and enlivening power of the Spirit without also being challenged and called out to live a different life – a life that is deeply shaped by the relational justice of a God who is three in one and one in three, who is at once intimately revealed to us and deeply incomprehensible, who is always at work toward a world created and recreated so that all may live and thrive, and who is always inviting us to join in making that vision a reality.