Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016
St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Durango, Colorado
Today is the first Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, a day that acknowledges and celebrates the Christian experience of God as three persons in one being. Though the word “trinity” is never used in the Bible, a number of passages in the Christian Scriptures, like our readings this morning from Romans and the Gospel of John, describe God (creator or father), Jesus (son) and Spirit (or Holy Spirit) in ways that imply they are all referring to one supreme being. And church theologians, over the centuries, have conjectured as to how we should understand thistrinity/monotheism paradox, what we should believe about it, and how we should live in relation to it. In some ways the notion of God being more complex than a simple singular being is not new to monotheists. The ancient Torah and other Hebrew scriptures frequently mention, not only Yahweh, but also Yahweh’s Spirit (or wind) and describe men (usually prophets or kings) who were filled with, put upon, rushed upon (Sampson) or possessed by that Spirit. What’s new with regard to our experience and understanding of God from a Christian perspective is, of course, Jesus – whom we regard as the second person of a three-personed divine unity. So, almost immediately after Jesus’ departure, we began trying to understand what his life, death and resurrection meant. We asked ourselves how he and God inhabited the same human body. Was it like water and wine commingled inseparably in the same container – or was it like oil and water present but separate in the same container? We asked ourselves why Jesus was necessary. If God was planning to forgive us, why didn’t he just forgive us? Why did Jesus, as God, have to suffer and die? These last two questions were eventually addressed by theological accounts or theories of what has been called “the atonement.”
At this point, I suspect that some of you are beginning to ask: “So what? Why does any of this theological conjecture that began in the first centuries of the Common Era about the nature of God and the role of Jesus matter to Christians who are trying to follow Jesus in the 21st Century? Does it really matter”? I think the answer is yes – yes it does.
Let me see if I can begin to explain my answer by confessing one of the most important and influential sins of my youth. In 1972 I got married to my high school sweetheart and started medical school – and I was a bit overwhelmed by both. Fortunately, though, Nell and I were members of a very supportive and progressive (by 1972standards) Christian community near the University of Arizona in Tucson that included, Bible studies, a coffee house, Christian folk music, a homeless shelter and a drug rehab program. I had long hair; I wore sandals, cutoff Levis, and a silver icthus (or Christian fish) over my U of A t-shirt; and I carried a Bible with a custom latigo leather cover. We were “Jesus People.” At the medical school, I became a member of the Christian Medical Society, and about ten of us became the recognized “born-again” Christians in our class of seventy-two students.
But medical school, particularly the human anatomy course, was an extraordinarily stressful experience. I had to handle and cut up a cadaver, a dead human body, almost daily for a whole semester – and I had to master more information about human biology than I thought was humanly possible. Part of dealing with that stress was the development of dark, almost gallows-like, humor and language – which in the end was probably fairly harmless. But three of us (the other two of whom were not identified Christians) also began telling jokes and teasing each other in ways that mocked gay men. I have no idea how we got started. I certainly had no clue that members of our class might actually be gay men. It just seemed funny at the time – and it relieved some of our stress. Sadly, we publically engaged in that type of humor throughout the first year. When our second year began, we resumed it. But one morning, when I checked my open medical school mailbox, therein was hand-written note that addressed me using a word that began with the letter “A” and was thescatological, unscientific term often used to describe the lower alimentary orifice of the human gastrointestinal tract. That note went on to detail the hypocrisy of my claiming to be a Christian, someone whose life was supposed to be characterized by love for other humans, while I was publically demeaning and tormenting homosexuals. Thank God, I was immediately emotionally mortified and physically nauseated. Intuitively, I knew the writer’s criticism was spot on and that I needed to apologize and ask his forgiveness personally – but the note was anonymous. In the end, I had to apologize to my entire class by posting a written notice on our communal bulletin board. It was only after graduation that I speculatively determined the identity of the person who had written the note. Turns out he was a gay Jewish man (whom I did not know was gay at the time and whom I considered a friend). He had attended some of our Bible studies. I suspect that hehad tried to tolerate and ignore my behavior for an entire year of medical school, but when it continued into the second year, I think he had had enough.
Looking back on this incident, I have often asked myself why, as a professing Christian, I ever thought it was okay, despite the stress of medical school, to engage in a sort of humor that publically demeaned other persons – of any type. I now think that an inadequate understanding and experience of God’s expression in Jesus, an inadequate understanding and experience of the atonement if you will, was at least a part of the character flaw that allowed me to repetitively hurt a fellow student, a student whom I considered a friend, for over a year.
Like most other evangelical Christians in 1972, I had grown up with and accepted (though I was never comfortable with it) what has been called the “penal substitutionary theory” of the atonement. This account of how Jesus saves us dates back at least to Anselm of Canterbury in the 12th Century, was affirmed by most of the leaders of the protestant reformation, and was extensively articulated and defended by Charles Hodge, a Princeton theologian in the early 19th Century. It is still the dominant account of the atonement for many Roman Catholics and most protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists in the United States. Many American Christians consider it the only true interpretation of the Biblical Jesus story. Fr. James Alison, a Roman Catholic scholar and penal substitutionary atonement theory critic, has summarized that theory as follows:
“God created the universe, including humanity, and it was good. Then, somehow or another, humankind fell. This fall was a sin against God's infinite goodness and mercy and justice. So there was a problem. Humans could not, off our own bat, restore the order which had been disordered, let alone make up for having dishonoured God's infinite goodness. Nothing finite could make up for an offence with infinite ramifications. God would have been perfectly within his rights to have destroyed the whole of humanity. But God was merciful as well as being just, so he pondered what to do to sort out the mess. Could he have simply let the matter lie in his infinite mercy? Well, maybe he would have liked to, but he was beholden to his infinite justice as well. Only an infinite payment would do. Something that humans couldn't come up with; but God could. And yet the payment had to be from the human side, or else it wouldn't be a real payment for the outrage to be appeased. So God came up with the idea of sending his Son into the world as a human, so that his Son could pay the price as a human, which, since he was also God, would be infinite and thus would effect the necessary satisfaction. Thus the whole sorry saga could be brought to a convenient close. Those humans who agreed to cover over their sins by holding on to, orbeing covered by, the precious blood of the Saviour, whom the Father has sacrificed to himself, would be saved from their sins and given the Holy Spirit by which they would be able to behave according to the original order of creation. In this way, when they died, they would at least be able to inherit heaven, which had been the original plan all along, before the fall had mucked everything up.”
If this account of how Jesus saves us is uncomfortable for you, you are not alone. The Eastern Orthodox churches have never accepted it. Peter Abelard, the famous Christian philosopher of the 12th Century, challenged it. The Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church, influenced by medieval scholar John Duns Scotus of the 13th Century, never accepted it. Other thoughtful Christians who have rejected and/or offered alternatives to penal substitutionary atonement include, but are certainly not limited to: George MacDonald, a popular Scottish protestant writer in the 19thCentury; C.S Lewis, a popular Anglican apologist and Rene Girard, a Roman Catholic anthropologist in the 20thCentury; Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Miroslav Volf, a Yale Divinity School theologian, and Brian McLaren, a former mega-church pastor and popular speaker and writer in the early 21stCentury. All of these venerable Christians experienced and expressed Jesus’s work on our behalf in nonviolent ways, ways other than penal substitutionary atonement. Their alternative theories are quite varied, but most of them stress God’s utterly free gift to us in Jesus, God’s non-violent partnering with us to transform our lives, Jesus’ victory over sin and death, and God’s identification with us in our suffering – rather than God’s need (rooted in his sense of justice and/or honor) to violently punish or destroy us because of our sins – a need which, according to the penal substitution account of the atonement, was satisfied only because Jesus was punished and killed instead.
An alternative account of the atonement, particularly God’s identification with our humanity and suffering, might, had I embraced it, helped to heal this particular character flaw of mine (though it was sadly not the only one) in medical school. Character is formed by, among other things, our connection with and participation in large narratives (like the Biblical narratives, the stories of our families, and the story of the church), through which we make sense of our lives. It is also formed by smaller but still powerful stories that capture our imaginations – and by the ways we ways we celebrate and interpret those stories in worship. Our theology, particularly the stories, mental images, and interpretations that feed our intuition, actually matters with regard to the kind of persons we are becoming. And my theology in 1972 provided me with virtually no imaginativeor interpretive resources that could have helped me identify and empathize with other humans who were significantly different than me. I had no idea I even needed such resources. I could identify with Anglo-Saxon protestant evangelicals who had grown up in the rural American west, in an extended Christian family and church. But I lacked the resources, the virtues if you will, that would have helped me identify with people of color, Roman Catholics, atheists, skeptics, Jews, Muslims – or with anyone with significant physical or mental disabilities (the category in which I placed homosexuals at the time). For me, to be saved by Jesus was simply to be judged righteous by God because I had “accepted Jesus.” And having done so, I thought I could somehow transcend and detach from all those messy different folks while trying, at a distance, to help them “accept Jesus” like I had. Like penicillin for strep throat, Jesus could be administered to people with problems that I did not want to have myself – and this could be done dispassionately without getting my hands very dirty. So, in medical school, I was not only detached from the possibility that there might be homosexuals in my class – I was also detached from them as fellow human beings in need of Jesus’ loving identification with them, an identification which probably should have to come to them through me. As a result, even though I was a Christian, I treated at least one gay man, someone I considered a friend, very badly.
But what if I had learned and internalized the Jesus story – not in terms of him appeasing an angry God – but in terms of him identifying with suffering humans and offering to help them personally in a way that cost him his life? What if, in following Jesus, I had followed him by connecting with humans who were very different from me, byidentifying with their struggles and doubts, by loving them in ways they could understand rather than ways that I thought were good for them. What if identifying with Jesus and his love for outcasts had motivated me to re-evaluate the way I read and interpreted scripture and helped me recognize that my current judicial lens was allowing me to separate from and mock those very outcasts whom Jesus loved? If I had done so, it might have been very different back then. My fondest hope is that it is different now. Because of Jesus “God’s love has been poured into” my heart “through the Holy Spirit.” And I hope I now realize that the love poured into my heart is not just an expression of God’s love for me – it is also a motivation, an empowerment, for me to love and identify with all my sisters and brothers in the human family, particularly thosewhom I think are very different from me – but perhaps aren’t so different after all.
Scripture References for Trinity Sunday:
• Romans 5:1-5
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
• John 16:12-15
Jesus said to the disciples, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you."
• Stricken By God, Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ; edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin; 2007
• Mere Christianity; C.S. Lewis; 1943
• Life Essential, the Hope of the Gospel; George McDonald; 1892