Rev. Teri Peterson
Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31
26 May 2013, Trinity C
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
‘To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
Imagine yourself in the year 325. It’s been only 10 years since Christianity became legal, persecution ended, and the emperor decided to ensure the unity of his empire by requiring unity of religion. We’ve been trying to make the story of Jesus, the living Word of God, understandable to all kinds of people, some of whom hear about him not by choice but by imperial decree. No longer are we meeting underground, or in inner rooms of homes, but openly in public, and the gospel is spreading fast.
Then we hear something…whispers…teachers…philosophers…a man named Arius has come to the conclusion that Jesus was created by God the father, and his divinity comes only through adoption, not because he is actually God.
Soon everyone is talking about it, and people are taking sides, and there’s a new danger: if the one church that the emperor is using to hold together his one empire is fractured, this whole enterprise could come crashing down. Constantine, seeing the threat to his political power coming through the hands of a theological dispute, calls together 318 church bishops, puts them in a room in Nicea, and tells them, in no uncertain terms, to solve this problem.
Nicea is normally just a hymn tune to us—we sang it at the beginning of worship. But it’s also a place where the statement of faith, the measuring stick for orthodoxy, the most widely used profession of faith, was written nearly 1700 years ago. In it the bishops attempt to say how it is that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can all be one—because Arius was dangerously close to polytheism, and we do not believe in three gods! But if you open your hymnal to the front section, page 15, you’ll see that it’s not easy to put this understanding of God into words. It’s never easy, really—God is essentially a mystery, beyond the capacity of human language. And yet we try, over and over.
It’s almost impossible to explain the Trinity without falling into some kind of heresy. Some explanations make it seem as if God is one person of the Trinity at a time—first the Father, then the Son, then the Spirit. Some make it seem as if each person of the Trinity is just a part of God. Others make it seem as if each person of the Trinity is a mask that God wears, showing us first one face and then another, but never the true reality. There’s actually a really funny video about the problems of using analogy and metaphor to try to explain the Trinity. You can find it on the church facebook page.
So how can we talk about God, Three In One, One and Three? Well, first we can remember that the reason we try at all is because we want to put words to our experience of God—and when we talk about our experience of God, we are not talking about the fullness of God. Second, we can draw on an image from the Eastern Orthodox churches, where they talk about the three persons of the Trinity being locked in an eternal dance, circling and weaving and moving together and around and through one another. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are a community that is not complete without each person, but not all mixed up either. They dance, and we experience each differently, and their arms are constantly outstretched inviting us to join the dance. In the words of one of my favorite prayers, “God in community, Holy and One.”
It can be hard, for those of us who have been taught that God is static and unchanging, to imagine God ducking and weaving and swirling and moving and always appearing from a slightly different angle. But scripture is full of times when God changed or took a different tack. What doesn’t change is God’s essence as Love and Justice, constantly together. It’s also hard to imagine being both One and a community in and of Oneself, but there it is. Slightly beyond language, as always.
The keys here are invitation and experience. The creed unintentionally led us down a path in which we started to think that you had to believe the right words about God in order to be faithful. And the words we use do matter—we do not want to give the impression that God is just an actor pretending to be different things, or that Jesus is only part of God or not really God, or that when Paul says “God is Love” he’s only talking about the Spirit, not the Creator. But words are not the end of the story.
In the reading from Proverbs, we meet Sophia—God’s wisdom. In the gospel according to John, Jesus is God’s wisdom incarnate. Sometimes people equate Sophia with the Holy Spirit, because both are feminine nouns and because this passage talks about wisdom having a part in creation. Either way, we hear these words: before the beginning, I was with him. I was there before the waters and the earth, beside the Creator, a confidant, a fellow worker, dancing with delight like a child. Our English Bibles translate “rejoicing” where the Hebrew could also mean “dancing”—which is such a beautiful image, of God the community, dancing together to create and redeem and sustain, constantly inviting us to join this community, to come and experience the dance. It is an invitation to life--and life abundant.
And, as we said already, what the Trinity tries to put into words is an experience. Though we have turned the word “belief” into an intellectual exercise, it originally meant to love whole-heartedly, to trust completely, to give myself over. What a difference it would make if we said not “I believe in God” but “I love God wholeheartedly.” Not “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God” but “I trust Jesus, the Son of God.” Not “I believe in the Holy Spirit” the same way we “believe” in the church and in resurrection, but “I give myself over to the Spirit.”
But in order for that to be true, we have to experience God as more than a thought, more than an intellectual proposition. Ours is a Dancing Faith—and in a dance we give our lives to someONE, not someTHING. Unfortunately, we are the recipients of a long line of faith tradition trapped in the mind. Much of the time, not only do we not experience God, we don’t even expect to encounter God. In our zeal not to check our brains at the door—which I am not advocating! I want us to think!—we have forgotten that there’s more to us than a brain, and more to God than a spoken word. We have lost the dance.
What would change if we expected to encounter God every day? If we were looking for the movement of the Spirit? If we anticipated that God would show up in worship, in Sunday School, on the commute, in the office, in the kitchen? If we really believe that God is everywhere present, why do we so often fail to look for that presence? Why do we so often fail to cultivate a relationship with the One whose hand is outstretched, inviting us into community? Faith is, at its core, about an experience with God. We put words to that, we check whether our experience aligns with the community throughout the ages, and we try not to give the wrong impression of who God is, but ultimately God is beyond our limited human language. The only thing to do is to keep our eyes and hearts open while we sing and dance and pray, that we may one day affirm “I give my life to God, maker of heaven and earth…and I trust in Jesus, God’s son…and I love with the Holy Spirit, giver of life.”
May it be so.