~ Psalm 8/Romans 5:1-5 ~
Today is Trinity Sunday. In my relatively short time of being a Presbyterian I’ve discovered that this is the Sunday where, in those churches who have them, the associate minister is assigned to preach the sermon. Or maybe the seminary intern gets to try to explain those big theological words like omniscience, omnipresence, and immutability. They get to comb every source possible for that one metaphor that can adequately explain the Trinity, the God who is three yet one. But, alas, I have no such luxury of an associate minister or seminary intern. So I get to do it.
How do we talk about God? How do we describe God? Well, for many it’s quite simple: God is the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course, for us here at Noe Valley Ministry, if referring to the Trinity we’d say, Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. Later in the service when we pray the prayer of Jesus we’ll say, “Earth-Maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver” from the New Zealand Book of Prayer.
However, even with the creative verbiage, for pretty much anyone who has grown up in the Christian church, talking about God as Trinity is not at all strange or difficult. It is just part of the warp and woof of Christianity. Most Sundays I end the service with a Trinitarian benediction: “The love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit…” We always baptize using the Trinitarian formula: In the name of the Creator, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Indeed, our New Testament scripture lesson for today speaks of this Trinity: “We have peace with God through Jesus Christ… through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Notably, however, the word “trinity” is not found in all of scripture. Yet, God as Trinity is at the center of Christian theology.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we all understand it. Indeed, it doesn’t even mean we’re really comfortable with the whole Trinity thing. We certainly have issues with thinking of God as Father, using male gender language, because it feeds into the notion that men are in charge and women must submit. Too often language of the Trinity has been abused to sanction hierarchies arbitrarily imposed on others.
Let me say right now that however and whenever the church has used the language of the Trinity in these ways, it must repent. God is not male. God is no gender whatsoever. Likewise a proper understanding of the Trinity should dispel any notions of hierarchy and subordination. If anything, the Trinity is about a relationship of mutual love and fellowship. It is not about power and authority.
Also, many struggle with the idea of how Jesus fits into all of this. How can Jesus be a man and yet be part of the eternal Trinity? Did Jesus pre-exist before he was born on earth? If God is Spirit how does Jesus’ body fit into the equation? Some of us are still struggling with all that. Others just somehow live with that tension.
And what about the Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit a person or a force? I mean the very word for spirit means wind or breath. How can wind be a person? Maybe the Holy Spirit can best be explained as a life force. We just don’t know.
Of course, the Church has chewed on all this for centuries. The four great councils of the early church, the Council of Nicea in 325 AD (called by Emperor Constantine himself), the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, were all about how to talk about God, the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. Out of these councils emerged the Nicene Creed, one of the confessions of the church. Of course, we won’t mention the fact that those who disagreed with the final conclusions of these councils were kicked out of the church.
We use the language of the Trinity (Father/Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit) all the time even if we don’t have it all figured out. Trinity – we might not have it figured out but it seems to go with the territory; it’s what we know. It’s how we talk about God.
But for some here and, indeed, for many of the residents of this very secular city called San Francisco, this kind of God talk is really difficult to handle. For those with little or no Christian background, talk of the Trinity is obtuse and confusing. For many just the idea of God is a really big issue. So, in our casual and/or liturgical references to the Creator, Son and Holy Spirit, we are very likely going right over their heads. How do we talk about God with those who aren’t familiar with our language?
Today, I would like to explore with you two seemingly contradictory, yet Biblical, understandings of God’s nature. One is the understanding that God is “out there” (often called ‘transcendence’) and the second is the understanding that God is “right here with us” (often called ‘immanence’).
Psalm 8 is a good description of the God “out there” understanding. Here is the God who is above the heavens. Here is the God who has created the moon and the stars and importantly is quite distinct from the creation. Here is the God who is so “other” the psalmist wonders if God could ever give creation, particularly humans, any thought whatsoever. This is the God of transcendence. God is “out there”, “up in heaven,” beyond the universe.
And it follows in this understanding that God is an “interventionist” God. From “out there” God intervenes in this world. These interventions include the spectacular events reported in the Bible, especially those associated with Jesus: his birth, miracles, death, and resurrection. And this understanding of God affirms that God continues to intervene to this day, usually in the form of answered prayer. Christians pray for this God to intervene in the affairs of their lives.
For hundreds of years this understanding of God outside of creation has been the dominant one in Western Christianity. The primary reason is the Enlightenment. Starting in the seventeenth century a scientific view of the universe grew in dominance—a universe separate from God. And the larger our view of the universe the farther “out there” God became. Most Christians today accept this modern world-view of reality and then add God into it. For many the God who created the universe is normally absent from it and must be invoked to intervene. Sometimes God does and sometimes God doesn’t. So in this modern scientific age our understanding of a transcendent God doesn’t work very well. God is too “way out there.”
The ancients, including the people of Israel and first century Greeks and Romans, viewed the universe differently than we,. And maybe the best way to put it is they saw the sky as fixed. The sun, moon and stars were affixed, if you will, to the ceiling of the world. They envisioned a dome that covered the earth, which somehow rotated accounting for the movement of the sun, moon and stars which were attached to the dome. This was the universal view of the universe.
Under the dome is everything on earth. On the other side of the dome is heaven, where, interestingly, came all the water that rains down on the earth through the holes in the dome that were called stars (although some ancient people thought the stars were angelic beings). It was often thought that God walked on the top of the dome which created…thunder.
And so it was that this prevailing view of the universe helped explain where God was. God was in heaven, on the other side of the dome. God is up there. And much of our biblical language of God conveys this idea that God is up there. One significant way is when we talk about God as the Creator. The idea is that to be the Creator, God must be separate from the creation. The essence of God demands a Being that is outside of creation. So, God is up there, outside of creation.
Now, for the ancients God being up there wasn’t that far away. I mean, God was just right there on the other side of the dome. Needless to say, we today don’t have that view of the universe. Indeed, when we consider an ever-expanding universe, billions and billions of light-years across, where is God? Is God somehow outside this massive, maybe infinite, universe? If our concept is that God is in some specific space called heaven, where is that? Most people today, indeed, the people who inhabit our city, would consider that idea ridiculous. If that is who God is they are most likely going to just write off the whole institutional religion enterprise.
And yet this view of God has been the prevailing view of Christianity for many centuries. A transcendent God has been the starting place for defining God. The God out there who intercedes in the affairs of earth from heaven. Again, this interventionist God has dominated Christian theology for centuries. And it is this idea of God, a god who lives up there, that many in our culture reject. If somebody says they don’t believe in God, this is the God they most always don’t believe in.
Our text from Paul’s letter to the Romans evokes the other understanding of God (and this is the understanding I commend to you today). This is the God who is “right here with us,” the ‘immanent’ God. Here Paul affirms that the Holy Spirit has poured God’s love into our hearts. How intimate can it get? Now the “out there” view doesn’t deny this but it does tend to see the work of the Holy Spirit as special works of intervention. The “right here with us” understanding of God does not see God as coming down to us from out there. Rather it sees God as here everywhere all the time. As Paul says elsewhere, God is the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Notice how this language works. How are we in relation to God? We are in God; we live in God, move in God, have our being in God. God is not “out there,” but “right here,” all around us. In this understanding God is the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. The universe is not separate from God, but in God. We are not separate from God, but we are in God. To use sacramental language, this view sees the presence of God “in, with, and under” everything—not as the direct cause of events but as a presence beneath and within our everyday lives.
I believe that one of the ways God is present is not just all around us, but in us. In our lives, God is. One of my favorite theologians was the Presbyterian, Frederick Buechner. In his book, The Sacred Journey, he writes about God’s presence in our lives, in how God speaks to us.
Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you because it is through what happens to you that God speaks…. It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.
That’s it – simple as that. God speaks today through our lives; yours, mine. God speaks to us through the living of our lives. Buechner goes on to say, “…if God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives [God] speaks.”
The transcendent Creator of the universe, speaks into our personal lives because that is where God is. The majestic sovereign Creator God whose glory is above the heavens, as the Psalmist puts it, is poured out into the intimacy of our personal lives, as Paul puts it. The transcendent God who is immanently with us. May we live into that reality. Amen.