June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday  June 16, 2019  Psalm 8, John 16:12-15, Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; Romans 5:1-5 

****************************************************************

Jesus tells us he’s got many things to tell us – many more things than we can bear to hear… And one of these many things we can’t quite bear to hear yet – just might be church doctrine – including the awesomely intricate beautiful doctrine – of God in three persons, blessed Trinity – the One – and – the Three in One – we’re celebrating this Trinity Sunday…

Doctrine can be endlessly fascinating once we get into it… Or sleep-inducing, if we don’t see how it matters. And I’m not saying doctrine’s ever easy – or that I’m much good at it. Almost all I remember from my seminary Introduction to Theology class is that our professor let us rewrite our papers as many times as we were willing – and would change the grade on our paper every time it improved. Which wasn’t hard to do, since our teaching assistant, who graded our papers wrote helpful questions and comments on your paper – which, if you took seriously, made it relatively simple to get a decent grade after three or four tries.

Which is a bit like how I understand the work of the Holy Spirit – whom I picture as, among other things, Jesus’ Teaching Assistant – since Jesus tells us in John’s gospel (ch 14-16) the Holy Spirit will remind you of everything I’ve taught you, and guide you into all truth. (And I am the truth, Jesus also says.) Jesus tells us we should be glad he’s going back to God the Father – so the Spirit will come… And I can’t help loving Jesus’ description of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus calls (depending on translation) – our Advocate, Comforter, and Counselor…

So when Jesus is preaching his last sermon in John, all through chapters 13 through 17 – it’s as if Jesus is channeling God the Father – and – preparing us for the Holy Spirit – who will be channeling Jesus for us… And I wouldn’t be surprised if God the Father turns out to be channeling Jesus and the Holy Spirit, simultaneously for us also… Since Jesus tells us even though God shows up as three persons – God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost – always God is still fundamentally One. And part of the difficulty of doing Trinitarian theology is that it’s often hard to be sure which person of the Trinity’s directing at a given time… and…

At the risk of sounding irreverent, ridiculous or both – I’m reminded of a pair of great jazz pianists, composers and arrangers, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.  Ellington, the extroverted (and very heterosexual) band leader, often called introverted (and gay) Strayhorn his alter-ego. The two had very different personalities – but on their recorded piano duets (playing for example Strayhorn’s composition (You must) Take the A Trainif – you get to uptown…) you can’t always tell them apart. They absorbed each other’s styles so very thoroughly – that even they couldn’t always tell which of them was playing which part, when, in retrospect… (Was that me playing there or was that you?…)

Which comes to mind this week, as I’ve been thinking about – how distinctive are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one from another? In the bible God the Father speaks (Let there be light!) and creation happens in the beginning. God speaks to the prophets of Israel, who proclaim “Thus says the Lord!” But can we humans really tell the difference, one member of the Trinity from another, in our daily life?

This week I’ve been asking people – do you pray to one member of the Trinity –  or to more than one member? Do you feel the presence of one particular member of the Trinity more than others? (If so, how can you tell which is which?) One day I asked four women I’d been in a meeting with – and several spoke of feeling the Holy Spirit – living in me, one said – moving in my heart, another said. One said she always prays to God the Father – though I often conclude saying “in Jesus’ name” – but consciously directing her prayer to God the Father. (Adding “but that’s just me. Others do it differently.”) Another reported feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit most often, but also mentioned feeling God the Father’s presence in a different way – a way not easy to describe, but different. “When something good happens unexpectedly, that’s God the Father,” she said, without hesitation…

At New England Annual Conference this week, I asked others – “do you know which member of the Trinity you feel the presence of?” – and just asking the question seemed to prompt us to be feeling God’s presence…

In our scriptures from John and Romans today we hear all three members of the Trinity, present, accounted for, interactive– which has had me thinking of parables again from the world of jazz….Where the best musicians know all the tunes without anyone saying a word – and everyone’s playing the same song, each in their distinctive voice, yet all voices together in rich harmonic-rhythmic-interactivity… Which becomes a heretical comparison according to classic Trinitarian theology – if we draw the analogy too tightly – since the church decided long ago – the Trinity must be regarded as both three distinct-persons – and as three persons joined (metaphorically) at-the-hip – all of one substance yet each with their own distinct identity…

All Trinitarian analogies really only work if we don’t press them too hard – or take them too literally. Take them in the same spirit as with Jesus speaking of himself as a thief in the night and Lord of the household – as a mighty King and as a homeless person…. And in this spirit I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz lately – especially jazz saxophonists, whose blowing breathing sound-producing sighs and shouts reminds me of the Holy Spirit, also known as the Wind of God, who blows wherever she/he wills, as Jesus tells us… and…

I’ve been listening especially on You Tube to recordings of my favorite saxophonist, John Coltrane (grandson of two AME Methodist pastors) – whose distinctive tone and phrasing on tenor and soprano saxophones is readily recognizable… It’s usually not hard to recognize the sound of Eric Dolphy, Coltrane’s almost-alter-ego fellow reed musician, playing with Coltrane on flute, bass clarinet or alto sax – as a spiritually close yet distinct voice. As long as they’re playing different instruments the two are easy to tell apart. But if they were to be playing the same instruments I imagine they could be hard to tell apart at times, depending on time, place and the Holy Spirit… And this of course is a parable, not systematic theology. Which I mention again since –

The New Testament really never gets into systematic theology of the Trinity. (Even the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds that were written 300-some years after Pentecost are still bare-bones theology…) What we hear Jesus and the apostles say in the New Testament gospels, Acts, and letters, is all deep and true – but not always very explanatory. As in our first reading from John’s gospel, Jesus says the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” – and ‘the Spirit won’t speak on his own – but will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ And – “All the Father has is mine” Jesus says…Yet over in First Corinthians 15 we hear Jesus giving it all back to God the Father.

And listening to all of our animated discussions at Annual Conference this week with all our usual and unusual mix of opinions and perspectives – resolving only as our music team lead by Mark Miller would spontaneously take us into songs of praise and giving glory to God at just the right moments –So – I’m guessing all our contradictions are best reconciled in the liturgies and sacred hymns of the church – because understanding the holy mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of God’s people in all of our diversity all made in the image of God without exception… is still simply way beyond all human reasoning powers… as–

God being truly Three distinct persons – and truly One – at the same time – without any half-way-in-between-ness – is in the same theological ballpark as Jesus being truly God and truly Human at the same time without blending the two natures into half-and-half…And God giving it all to Jesus and Jesus giving it all to God the Father and the Holy Spirit giving and receiving equally with each of them… Each taking turns as soloist – the others accompanying – always one person in three – never one person playing multiple instruments at the same time – (like Roland Kirk, the late jazz saxophonist, who liked to play three saxophones at the same time – who was good on the sax, but not Trinitarian)…

And so the Holy Spirit led the ancient church to come up with the Greek word Perichoresis to describe the interaction of the Trinity. Perichoresis has multiple meanings, including being of the same substance yet distinct – but the definition I’m most fascinated with is “rotation” – a technical theological term describing something like a dance of three persons in close rotation with each other – dancing closely, quickly together, till we can’t tell one dancer from another…

Which has me thinking of our second reading – Proverbs 8 – the topic I chose for my term paper in my seminary Introduction to Hebrew Bible class. I chose Proverbs 8 because I was curious about this mysterious female figure Wisdom, who appears often in Proverbs – who, in today’s reading is there with God in the Beginning – “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” Who is this Lady Wisdom? I remember wondering. And…

The most interesting theory comes from John Calvin, God-father of Calvinist theology – not a guy I’d thought of as a feminist – but Calvin says with confidence – she, Lady Wisdom, is Jesus Christ himself.

How can God’s only begotten Son also be Woman Wisdom? Well – who else do we ever hear of in the bible except Wisdom and Jesus– who was there with God in the beginning? And Wisdom sure does sound like Jesus as she’s describing herself crying out to all who live – come to me and find life.

John Calvin doesn’t explain his reasoning – except to cite the comparison with John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”). But now I’m wondering if this too, is perichoresis – the dane of God, Holy Trinity, in intimate dance rotation…

And now I’m all the more persuaded – the best ways of approaching understanding of the Trinity – without claiming to understand more than we can – remembering the counsel of St Augustine in the fourth and early fifth centuries –  who said “any god we can understand is not God” – I’m guessing the best way to approach understanding the mystery of the Holy Trinity – is by musical analogy – God in three Persons, Blessed Trinity, improvising joyously Spirit-filled, God-shaped Messianic love songs… Calling all of us to come, join the heavenly dance… Come, sing the heavenly song…

Which we know how to do – since we’re made in the image of God – and God’s Spirit lives within us – as we live also within God. We know God’s song better than we sometimes know that we know – because God’s Spirit’s been singing God’s song with us, from the beginning. And singing the Lord’s song together in love with God… is how we keep learning… to know God, love God, serve God…singing and saying…

Thanks be to God… Amen.