“God Beyond Us, Among Us, Within Us”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 16, 2019
Last week we celebrated Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate all three aspects of our God: Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost as the doxology says.
The Trinity is a distinctive element of Christianity, to say the least. It’s head-scratching for non-Christians, certainly, but also for many of us. How is God One, but also Three? How did we end up with a paradoxical math equation at the heart of our theology? And why does it matter?
The Trinity as such isn’t in the Bible. The best we get are scriptures like today’s, naming each person of the Trinity but not saying they are one or that they are equal to each other.
That’s because the Trinity grew out of the early Christians’ experiences of God. Initially, they knew God as the Creator who made all things, with whom their ancestors Abraham and Sarah had covenanted and whom they had worshiped for almost two thousand years. This was the God Jesus knew as Abba, or Father.
When Jesus began his ministry, his disciples may have thought he was simply a very holy teacher with special powers from God. But when he died and rose again, they realized there was more to it.
Finally came the Holy Spirit, bringing God’s presence and power to the disciples in a new way, empowering them to teach and heal as Jesus had done, giving them words, courage, connection.
Three very different experiences of God, for an early church made up of hardcore monotheists. Uh oh.
By the Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD, the early church was dealing with factions claiming Jesus wasn’t divine, and a newly converted Roman emperor who needed some clarification, so they came up with the Trinity – three distinct persons of God, all equal, all God – yet still just One God.
If that didn’t actually clarify things for you, you’re not alone. It’s a tricky concept that theologians have been struggling to define for almost two millenia.
But while the fact that the Trinity causes so much head-scratching may seem like a bug, it’s actually a feature – a built-in positive. Because as I preached about on this Sunday last year, the Trinity reminds us that God is a mystery we will never fully understand – one we catch glimpses of, one we will keep coming back to, time and again, one that tells us there is something much bigger than us, something magnificently beyond us.
As it happens, that’s a great starting point for understanding the Trinity in more practical ways – of coming to know this Three-in-One God. Priest and theologian Donal Dorr talks about the Creator part of the Trinity as “God Beyond Us.” God Beyond Us creates entire worlds, studs the sky with stars, gives form and substance to us and to every living creature in all our diverse and intricate glory. It’s enough to make your jaw drop.
But while that may sound intimidating, it’s also reassuring. We often need God to be bigger than us, more sure, more steady – the ground we root ourselves in, the mother eagle’s wings we hide ourselves under. Sometimes when I feel the swirl of expectations, obligations, and opportunities threatening to suck me down into a vortex – whose opinion matters? Which way should I go? Who am I underneath the titles and positions and possessions I’m so used to? – I imagine myself, still, in the middle of it all, planting my feet in the God who is the Ground of Being, as Paul Tillich called it, and suddenly, though the storm continues to rage around me, I am filled with the peace of knowing whose I am and where I can go for refuge – and it’s enough.
So, God Beyond Us.
Next in Dorr’s parlance is Jesus – God Among Us.
This is a way of knowing God that encourages us to look for the divine in the faces of those around us – to see God working in and through humans now just as God worked in human form two thousand years ago. We’ve all had holy brushes with this God Among Us – a helping hand from a stranger right when we needed it; a trusted friend to walk with us during our darkest moments; a glimpse of the sacred as we serve the sick, the lonely, the cast aside. It encourages us to love God through loving others the way Jesus did – with our actions as well as our hearts.
God Among Us also reminds us that God has lived this life with all its pain and beauty just as we are living it – that there is no part of our human experience that God does not understand, no part of it that God cannot love us through, no part of it from which God cannot tenderly heal us.
And then there is the Holy Spirit – God Within Us. Scripture tells us that we are created in the image of God, and so we each carry inside of us that spark of the Divine, that voice whispering peace to us, encouraging us to trust, nudging us to let our God-given light shine love into others’ lives.
When a friend comes to mind, seemingly out of nowhere, and we reach out only to discover that that was the moment they really needed to hear from someone; when we feel an inexplicable peace over some thorny dilemma or looming stress; when we finally, after years of struggle, find ourselves freed from a destructive behavior or filled with love for a difficult person in our lives – that is God Within Us, reshaping our inner beings into landscapes of freedom and love.
God Beyond Us, Among Us, Within Us – grounding us, inviting us, guiding us. What a rich inheritance those early theologians have given us – such a multidimensional way of knowing our infinite, and infinitely loving, God.
In our tradition (and many other traditions) we practice infant baptism, an approach we are sometimes criticized for. How can a baby or a young child understand the gravity of the promises being made on their behalf? How can they know God well enough to say “yes” to life with God?
I know that Beatrice didn’t understand my words this morning as I baptized her in the name of the Trinity. But I think that, too, might be a feature rather than a bug. The Trinitarian formula – “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God and Mother of us all” – is a reminder that we are each invited into relationship with a God we can never fully understand, yet whose love we can know just as intimately as the love of a cherished parent.
I had the privilege of spending some time with Beatrice this week. (It’s always a good idea to make sure an infant or young child you’re going to baptize has a chance to get comfortable with you – it dramatically reduces the chances of screaming during the baptism.) Beatrice is learning to talk, earnestly naming things around her and expressing her desires, without knowing the rules of grammar. No one sits down and explains to children that this is a noun, and this is how a sentence works – they just start speaking.
That’s how it is with the Trinity, too – a chance for us to feel and give love without having to understand it all.
What a gift if we are able to be like Beatrice, like all small children – not having to understand the Trinity in order to experience through it God’s rich love for us, today and always. Amen.