I wonder what rituals and traditions – what words and motions – you share with your family, or those you love most.
Are their familiar words shared between grandparent and grandchild in the driveway each time one of you gets in your car to leave?
Do you stretch out your arms just as wide as possible when hugging your child at bedtime to show them just how much they are loved as they giggle with confidence and delight that it’s true?
Is there music that is so tied to a relationship that when you hear it you are swaying and moving not only with a melody, but also with motions of assurance of safety and love?
A dear friend of mine, Danny, had a regular ritual with his 2 boys. Dr. Daniel Goodman was my favorite professor and primary mentor in college at Palm Beach Atlantic, and later taught in the Divinity School of Gardner Webb University. He and his wife, Barbara, were parents to two – Daniel and Dylan. Once their family reached that number they used the phrase: “We are four.” So at times when his boys needed to remember that, Danny would remind them. If they rolled their eyes or protested when it was time to go to their brother’s soccer game or tennis match, or out the door for pizza as a family (“Dad, I want to stay and watch tv…”), Danny would say, “Hey buddy. What are we? We are not one. We are not two. We are four,” as he held up four fingers.
Danny knew that even from a young age his boys – like all the rest of us growing in this world – would begin to understand themselves first and foremost as individuals. As isolated beings, with their own concerns, plans and priorities, their own remote controls and cell phones. We are more than that, he told them. So you are more than that.
That kind of unity and belonging becomes ingrained in a person. It endures. I know this because in one of the great losses of my life, Danny passed away 7-and-a-half years ago, suddenly, in his early 40s. Barbara, Daniel and Dylan stood before us all at the memorial service, just to say a few words of gratitude, and among the things they so bravely said, Barbara reminded her boys of that phrase. “Boys, what are we?” As she asked the question at the front of the church, I noticed that Dylan – now a student at UNC, but then about 12 yrs old – held up four fingers.
It was so moving. So much so for Jenny and me, that about a year later when our first child was born – John Daniel Sherouse – we began to use this phrase. This motion. We are three (four, five…). Well we’re about to need two hands – sometime mid to late July – but the message remains. We are not one, we are not two. We are more than detached individuals. More than independent beings. More than separate bedrooms in a home or separate homes in a community or separate communities in a wider world. We also exist for and with one another.
Trinity Sunday is the day we are reminded of just that in our life together as a family of faith called “church.” It’s the day God holds up three fingers, to remind us that the life of God is not singular nor individual, not dichotomous nor binary. The life of God is multiple, shared, interdependent. Not one. Not two. Three.
Last year on Trinity Sunday our inquisitive John Daniel – whom you know as “Jack” – at 5-yrs-old was peppering his mother with questions about this God-in-three persons he had heard about in church. Jenny did her best to respond – probably about as well as any of us would do – and finally he sighed at her replies and said, “Yeah… that sounds made up.”
Well, our young skeptic might be on to something, or at least justified in his questions. Trinity Sunday is the only day in our church calendar where we are called first to ponder a teaching of the church rather than a teaching of Jesus. The word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible. We wouldn’t expect it to. It’s one of those times where followers of Christ have sought to make sense of what they read in Scripture and what they read in their experience of God’s work and revelation in the world. And one of the words that was put around that early in the life of the Church was “Trinity.”
As the early movement of Christ followers organized and became a Church – and with that as teaching and theological identity formed – there was a sense that God existed in multiple ways throughout scripture and human experience. Intense debate followed about the specific nature of the relationship, but a growing consensus formed that God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit, just as Jesus pronounced God to be in the great commission in Matthew 28. So an understanding of God as Trinity was adopted in the year 325 at the Council of Nicea.
Sometimes it feels like all these centuries later we understand it about as well as they did.
But Jesus seems to have understood his relationship to God the Father, and the coming Spirit in this three-fingered way. He sends his disciples out in the name of Father, Son and Spirit. And in his prayers, his actions, his words and his being, he models for us the unity that exists in the life of God – that if God exists in this way as multiple, interdependent, unified, so too the people of God created in this image should exist in this way.
In John 17, this is what he prays for his disciples and for all of us. It’s just before his betrayal and arrest, and his last act is a prayer for us: Let all of these who believe in me be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
As you are in me and I am in you may they be in us. The sense of the word is “belonging.” May they belong to us, and to one another. May they take on this life that exists in us. The Trinity is not so much meant to be understood or explained as it is to be entered. And Jesus believes it can happen. Sometimes we do, too.
Richard Lischer is a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School and among his books is a beautiful memoir Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church, which tells about his early years as a Lutheran pastor in the farm community of Cana, Illinois. He says this: “In Cana we baptized our babies, celebrated marriages, wept over the dead, and received Holy Communion, all by the light of our best window.”
What Lischer calls “our best window” was a stained-glass depiction of the doctrine of the Trinity, set high into the east wall of the sanctuary above the altar. A large central triangle labeled “DEUS” was surrounded by three smaller triangles, marked respectively “PATER,” “FILIUS,” and “SPIRITUS SANCTUS.”An image of three. Separate, but interdependent. Knowing who we are. And who we are not. And who we relate to. And how we depend on one another.
Thinking about the relationships formed in the light of this window, his ministry, and the life of his congregation, Lischer observes, “We believed that there was a correspondence between the God who was diagramed in that window – our best window – and our stories of friendship and neighborliness. If we could have fully taken into our community the name Trinity, we would have needed no further revelations and no more religion, for the life of God would have become our life.”
The life of God becoming our life. That’s Jesus’ prayer for us on the eve of his death. He knows how desperately the world needs it, just as he knows how much we will resist it, betray it, deny it, seek to entomb it and forget it. It ought to be jarring for us that directly following this prayer in John 17, Jesus is arrested, inaugurating the events of his death and entombment. Because such a life of shared, mutual, interdependence runs so counter to the powers of this world, and the forces at work in each of us if left to ourselves.
Sometimes we would rather God be one. Because if God is one, then we can more easily be one. We can be individualistic, isolated and cut off, looking to our own interests above all else and set on our own achievement. But God is not one.
So maybe at times we’d rather God be two. Because if God is two, then we can be two. Which is to say, we can operate with a dualistic understanding of the world. An oppositional approach, where we are locked in struggle and competition. A simplistic either/or with everything placed in easy pairs that define each other, and are ultimately defined by and against and over and under each other, with an element of power so often introduced. And I can’t help but wonder if that kind of competitive approach might have something to do with the somehow always mounting disparity in our world. Or if that kind of simplistic, either/or understanding of things might have something to do with our incessant struggles with racism, discrimination and all those overpowered, oppressed, and wounded even to this day. But God is not 2.
The life of the Trinity is shared, mutual, interdependent. It’s a wholly different kind of relationship than those that govern our world. And if God exists in this way, so too the people created in the image of God-in-three are called to exist in this way.
Did you notice what Jesus says: As you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world might believe that you have sent me.
This world’s ability to believe – to understand a call beyond the individualistic pursuits and oppositional struggles of our nature, to cease silencing and resisting the sons and daughters of God that call them to truth and justice, to embrace a God-in-three as something more than made up or dreamed up, to change into the image of a God who is mutual and interdependent – it hinges on the ability of the followers of Jesus to structure their lives in this way. To take God’s life into our life.
Church – those gathered in the name of Father, Son and Spirit – is the place we rehearse just that. Through motion and word and song, sometimes this life of God becomes ingrained in us.
My friend Scott Dickison told me a story of a time it happened at his church – First Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia, where he has been pastor for a few years. Some years ago, one of the Associate Pastors, Ben Taylor, and his wife, Dale, were expecting a child. They had dreamed of this, tried for this, experienced some of the heartache many of us know along the way, but they so anticipated the arrival of this child. They were excited to be three.
When their daughter, Mary Ben, was born, it was not precisely as they dreamed though. She was born with Downs Syndrome, learned upon her birth. There was shock, some readjustment, and an extra 13 days in the hospital, but Ben and Dale loved Mary Ben. She belonged to them, and they understood her to be a gift from God, complete with all of the particular needs they had not expected. Still they wanted to be prepared, so after about a week, while Dale was still in the hospital, they began to plan. Dale sent Ben to the public library, just up the street there in Macon, to check out some books on Downs Syndrome – they wanted to read and research so that they could be the best parents for this little girl that belonged to them.
This was some 30 years ago – no Google or Amazon or online recommendations. Ben went to the card catalog. He pulled the drawers, made a long list, and checked the shelves. But as he went down the list, he found that all the books on Downs were gone. He found a librarian and asked about it, and whether she could tell him who had checked them all out, just so he could contact them to see when they might be returned. And when the librarian showed him the list, he saw that they were all people from First Baptist.
The people of the church had checked out all the books, so that they might read and research and be prepared to care for this little girl. Because she also belonged to them. Because they understood that as this family was now three, they were three, too.
Sometimes the life of God becomes our life. Even here. Even now. And if we see enough of that, then we might all come to believe.
May it be so, in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit three. Amen.