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Sitting at the Piano

June 1, 2015

“Sitting at the Piano” Psalm 8; Ecclesiastes 8:16-17; Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; John 16:12-15 © 5.31.15 Trinity Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

A writer in a Christian journal once remarked how much she dreaded sermons on Trinity Sunday, the festival we celebrate today. They were something she had to “endure,” she said.

Small wonder she felt that the typical message on this day is painful and tedious. When confronted with the Trinity—the idea of the Trinity—preachers may feel they have to explain it. As someone has observed, “Men and women who normally would not be caught dead with a prop in the pulpit have been known to show up with an egg—shell, white, and yolk—or an apple that is at one and the same time tree, fruit, and seed.” Both preacher and congregation are embarrassed (Peter Hawkins, The Christian Century).

But it’s not just the drive to explain the unexplainable that makes the idea of the Trinity so hard on the soul and the mind. The church itself is to blame for what it has done with the concept. Douglas John Hall is one of our day’s most distinguished theologians. He says there is a necessary complexity here, because we’re trying to describe the indescribable. But, he points out, we’ve made it harder than it has to be. The history surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity is “an almost impossibly tangled story,” Hall says. And so much of it has to do not with the search for truth but with the selfish motives of people who wanted to advance their ideas in order to gain power in church and government (Professing the Faith).

Part of that “impossibly tangled story” has been written in blood. One of the most shameful incidents in the history of Reformed faith was the execution of Michael Servetus by the city council of Geneva, Switzerland in the 16th century. His “crime”? Failure to accept the doctrine of the Trinity. John Calvin sat up with him all night begging him to believe, but Servetus steadfastly refused. When the effort failed, Calvin tried to get the council to have the man beheaded—a quick death. But they wanted him to suffer horribly for his crime, and so burned him at the stake, a fate they felt heretics deserved.

And even if there has not been actual blood shed, there is bad blood between brothers and sisters in the faith. The rift between Western and Eastern Christianity at least in part is about the Trinity. Roman Catholics and Protestants have seen the Trinity as hierarchical, a sort of stair-step idea, with God the Father as a kind of top God. (That’s actually not monotheism, but what’s known as “henotheism.” ) The exception seems to be Celtic Christianity, in which the symbol for the Trinity is the “triskelion,” with its spiral arms radiating from a common center. Eastern Orthodoxy is similar to that concept, and pictures God not as a hierarchy or chain of command, but as forever in a circular dance of community as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “endless dance of love and light,” as a hymn puts it. And East and West still disagree on a certain phrase about the “procession” of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed. So our disagreements go all the way back to the fourth century.

We may well ask what all the fuss is about. Isn’t the Trinity just another of those silly ideas cooked up by dead Greeks that we have to give lip service to in order to call ourselves Christians? What is all this talk of “persons” and “substance” in the ancient creed? What difference does it make whether we believe in this doctrine?

In answer, let me suggest that we need to remember three things. First, talk of the Trinity is not about an idea or doctrine, but the experience of the living God. We do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. We don’t believe in the Bible. In fact, we don’t believe in any doctrine or book. We believe in God. Doctrines are important, but they have no ultimate value. They’re merely ways we try to make sense out of and order our experiences.

And that’s exactly what the early church theologians were seeking to do with all the wrangling about the nature of Christ or where the Holy Spirit comes from. The words “trinity” and “triune” do not appear in the Bible. But the raw material is there, like in the texts we heard this morning. Remember: the apostles were all Jews, who believed in one God. Yet they saw in the man Jesus not just one who was another prophet or teacher or miracle-worker, but one in whom they encountered God. He did what only God can do. He forgave sin; he spoke with absolute authority; he healed; he even raised the dead. The gospel of John goes so far as to give to Jesus the name of God in the Hebrew scriptures: “I Am.”

What was to be done with this experience? How could there be one God, who yet was seen in the human being Jesus of Nazareth? As the sage of Ecclesiastes would say, it’s the kind of thing that will keep you awake at night, but get you no closer to an answer. And further, what was to be made of the continuing sense of the Church that God was with them, in them, among them doing works of power, saving people, guiding them? Who was this Holy Spirit they knew?

So the problem was to be true to the heritage of Israel but also to the experience of the Church. To talk about a living God who at one and the same time was known in three distinct ways. A God who is not just a force or a something or an unmoved mover or a passionless and removed sovereign, but related to creation, to us, to God’s own self. That’s the reality that the doctrine of the Trinity seeks to describe. That’s the mystery it seeks to preserve. But the metaphors and the ideas and the formulas and the symbols, however beautiful and elegant, are not the reality itself. God is always beyond our understanding. But God is also right here among us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The late respected writer Shirley Guthrie said it well: “The Trinity is a mystery to be confessed, not a mathematical problem to be solved” (Christian Doctrine).

So, whenever we think of the Trinity, let us think of the living God to be worshipped, not a doctrine to be accepted. But second, let us remember that what we believe about God matters. Our Book of Order says that opinions do have consequences, and that there is an “inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty” (F-3.0104). So, how do our beliefs about God affect our actions? Do we think of God the Father as a kind of “top” God, old and bearded, with God the Son and the Holy Spirit as subordinates, rather like in a corporation or committee? Or is God the lonely individual at the top, the man upstairs, self-sufficient, needing nothing, not interested in the petty affairs of worldly, unspiritual people far down below, who seem like ants to him? Or does God simply do anything he pleases to anybody anytime, and the poor victims of his wrath, manifested in flood and storm, disease and hardship, have no right to question him? If we think of God in these ways, do they not affect our human relationships, at least as a kind of subconscious justification for the way we deal with each other? Wouldn’t they influence how we think about matters of superiority and inferiority, individualism and community, male and female, power and powerlessness, accountability and freedom?

So we have to ask: what kind of God do we believe in and how does the character of this God influence our relationships and our outlook on the world? But third, and finally, let’s remember that we don’t need to use the ancient language to talk about God the Trinity. When the theologians long ago spoke of substance, essence, nature, and person, they were speaking in terms commonly understood by learned people in their day, and the words meant something much different than they do now. And, really, the way they were used turned God into a philosophical concept instead of a living reality.

For example, as Guthrie observed, “talk about one substance…suggests to us modern people that God is composed of some kind of divine ‘stuff.’” He concluded: “However meaningful it may have once been, language about one divine essence, substance or nature no longer helps us understand faith in one living, acting, speaking God.” Douglas John Hall is even stronger: “… we…have to maintain a strict vigilance against…thought about God…which only confuses the church with abstract problems that do not relate to or enable our confession of faith.” Hall insists that we need to stop fighting each other over language and instead get about the task to which the triune God calls us, namely, extending grace to the world.

It’s fine to criticize the ancients, but how do we express this traditional faith for today? Guthrie proposed a simple solution: “If we want to translate the ancient doctrine of the Trinity into language that is meaningful to us, we could say something like this: “One God in three persons” means one personal God who lives and works in three different ways at the same time.” Then he gave us this marvelous statement: “…the doctrine of the Trinity does not try to explain the mystery of the triune God; it tries to preserve a mystery that cannot be explained without ‘explaining it away’ in one false direction or another. What is finally important is not that we comprehend the mystery itself but that we see how the doctrine of the Trinity functions in Christian thinking about who God is and what God is doing in our lives and in the world around us.” In other words, honor the Trinity by carrying out the works of the Trinity: creation, preservation, salvation, guidance, sustenance, comfort. Go out into the world where this God is at work.

So we come to the end for today. What can we say as we leave our reflection on the Trinity? Perhaps we can take our cue from the late John Cage. He was a composer known for his avant-garde, ahead of the times, approach to composition. He might pluck the strings of the piano or place ticking clocks on the instrument. I remember seeing on TV a clip of one of his concerts at which he simply sat in silence at the piano, then got up and walked away. “Stupid,” one will say. “He’s a fake. Probably can’t write a note.” “Profound,” claims another. “He wants to remind us that there is so much to hear if we will be quiet enough to listen. And no composer can truly capture the beauty in the world.”

After all is said and done—after all the lame explanations and the arguments and the claims and poor sermons like this one, after the eloquent thoughts of theologians, the sharing of creative metaphors, and even the doing of mission that seeks to express the love and care of the Trinity—after all that, I believe the best we can do is sit at the piano in awe and silence, listening for what we may hear. Not because we are honoring a doctrine or celebrating an idea, but because we are offering worship to the living God who is known and acts as one-in-three and three-in-one. In other words, our most faithful response to the awesome and unimaginable wonder of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer is to fall down in wonder and praise, heeding the call of the prophet: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.”

Let it be so.

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