Trinity Sunday June 7, 2009
Reflections on Relationships and the Trinity by The Rev’d Margaret R. Rose
When I took the General Ordination Exams some 28 years ago, there was a question about the Trinity. I can’t remember exactly if I had to delineate the various controversies or map out my own theological arguments. In those days, one had to write things out and then hire a typist to put it all together. Though the exam was “open book”, there was no quick enumeration of the various controversies which I have just checked out on Wikipedia—(I wanted to log in and edit, but didn’t) In order to prepare, since I had not gone to an Episcopal seminary, I took a class on the early church at Episcopal Divinity School whose main focus had been the Trinity. So when it came up on the Ordination Exam I was thanking my lucky stars. More than that, however, I have great memories of the class and its loud and lively discussion. Yes, we went over the controversies: Aryanism, the Monophosite issues, Monarchianism, the writings of the “Church Fathers”: Novation, Clement, Origin, Ireneus, the Gregories, Eusebius, and Athanasius. We were reminded of the “wrong” ways to understand the Trinity: One substance, different properties—water, steam, ice. Or the first among equals idea, where one person of the Trinity was just a little better than another. There were the discussions about Adoptionism. In the midst of it all, I was struck not by how outdated these issues were. But rather how current. I had the same questions these old boys had. Moreover, one day I leaned one direction and another found a different answer which seemed to reveal the truth and mystery of God as Trinity of persons. Though some would say these questions were settled by the Councils of the Church or the magisterium, I am convinced that faith is made vibrant and alive when the questions remain. It is unfortunate that too many had to burn at the stake when one or another was declared heretical.
The class and the professor, luckily, encouraged our questions, and when we got to Augustine, I knew we were on the right track. His was not the didactic answer bur rather invited us to look at who and how of the three in one, invited us into cosmic thinking. It is pretty standard theology now but for me then, it was a classic AHA! The fundamental truth of the Trinity is that the very nature of God is Relationship. Three in one, one in three and all interdependent.
And that is also the fundamental truth of human being. And our call is to live into that interdependence in a way that mirrors God, in a way that calls us into relationship with one another, with God and all of creation.
This past weekend I was the celebrant at a family wedding. (Actually, it was the family of my ex husband…) In the homily in addition to dutifully mentioning the texts they had chosen, I noted a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine which related a 40 year study following the lives of 250 men. What makes people ( men in this case) happy?, the question was asked. The results are what most of us know in our heads and hearts but too often forget. It is not wealth, not stuff, a nice house, education or even travel or health. But relationships---friends, family, lovers, husbands, wives-- who sustain us. That is it, said the scientific study, as if we didn’t know it already. That is what matters in life-our connections with other people. I went on to remind the congregation that they were there precisely because of their connection with the bride and groom and having made a promise to support the couple in their life together had made a vow as indelible as the couple themselves.
The morning after the wedding, I was up before dawn, to drive three hours to attend a baptism. This one was a great niece, the granddaughter of my sister who died a few years ago. A number of family members had flown great distances to be there.
Back at work, I had to face the hard task of working with colleagues whose positions are about to be eliminated. And to whom I had been the bearer of the news. Later, catching up on emails, there were a number of announcements, a death among colleagues’ families, or some need for prayer. I found myself writing notes of condolence to mail. What was happening I wondered, that I was stopping in the middle of the day to connect with friends or colleagues.
Somehow I had listened to my own preaching and knew that these connections are somehow as fundamental to wholeness as any task I could complete.
I might have avoided the wedding, avoided that difficult situation of meeting the new wife, decided I needed sleep rather than make a predawn drive, or simply ignored my colleagues who soon will have no job. But if I take my words or what I know about the Trinity seriously, I belong to these people and they to me, even when it is not easy to do so or we don’t quite understand how we fit.
This morning as I listened to the speech that President Obama gave in Cairo, I thought he must understand that too. His words about Muslims and Christian and Jews being indelibly related to each other by our common humanity seemed to be much more than pie in the sky wishful thoughts for peace. His call for all to respect the dignity of every human being hearkened to our own baptismal covenant. And his proclamation that there is more that binds us together than separates us proclaimed that we belong to each other beyond nation or tribe in ways we have not yet imagined. It is our relationships that matter—within the family and across the globe.
It may be a stretch to bring in the Biblical texts for Sunday here. But they seem to be about figuring out how to belong to God in a web of relationships. The prophet Isaiah, in fear and trembling answers God’s call: Here am I! Send me. Nicodemus in John’s Gospel comes to Jesus furtively by night to ask him who he really is. Later we see that Nicodemus plays a role in the band of followers. In Romans 8, as this new community of Christians discovers how its members are not just related by blood in their own families but as a diverse group who transcend family or tribe or nation, they claim their oneness in the spirit, bound together as children and heirs of God.
If only we could make that claim real, knowing that like the Trinity we are one when we are three or indeed many.