July 2005 v.p. May 22, 2005 – Trinity Sunday Homily p. 1
Trinity Sunday Homily
May 22, 2005 –
St John’s on Bethnal Green
East London, England
Thank you for allowing me to share this great Feast day of the Trinity with you. I am visiting here from the United States. In America, I am part of the Catholic Worker Movement, which is a radical lay movement in the Roman Catholic Church. Known for our work with the poor and for our nonviolent peace activism, we Catholic Workers are more at home in primitive Christianity than we are in the Christianity of the post-Constantine church, under which we all currently suffer.
It is a privilege to be here in this humble church, which at one time, I can see from its grand structure, knew better and wealthier financial times. Today it possesses the richness of being a home to a true Kingdom community made up of the poor, the weak, the gentle, the mild and the not-so-important, in worldly standards, folks. I feel right at home here.
As a guy who likes to preach, I take every opportunity I can to do so. Given this opportunity to speak to you, I confess that I was disappointed to find that it was Trinity Sunday. In the eighteen years of my past preaching, I always dreaded preaching on the Feast of Trinity Sunday. It is a Feast based on a dogma. Dogmas, which are formal sets of beliefs and tenets, are abstract, and therefore difficult to preach about.
Nevertheless, there is one thing good about Trinity Sunday. In the liturgical year, it is well placed in the calendar. We just finished celebrating the Easter season, and Trinity Sunday is a time in which we can stop and examine our new relationship to God in a post-Easter world.
To begin with, you need to know that “God is big… real big.” So big, in fact, that anything we might say or claim about God can only be pathetically inadequate. Even the dogma of the Trinity tells us absolutely nothing about the inner workings of God. That knowledge is way beyond us. Yet, we human beings must attempt to speak of God, for in our efforts to speak of God, we can get closer to God. (It is also true that some efforts to speak of God get us further away from God.)
So, how do we do that? God being so big, and unknowable, how do we begin speaking of him? Today we begin with the dogma of the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Karl Rhaner, a famous Catholic theologian, wrote that the dogma of the Trinity can
best be understood as the “economy” of God. By economy, Rhaner means the belief of the Trinity is designed to name our experience of God. To me, that makes some sense. Through the Trinity, we explore the ways God is revealed to us through salvation history.
Think of Greek theater and the different characters in a Greek play. An actor puts on a mask in a Greek play, and is said to become a distinct person – a character. God comes to us in salvation history in sort of the same way, in three distinct persons – characters. And, through these “characters”, we are invited to fully experience God from our limited human perspective.
Let’s begin with “God, the Father”, the all knowing, all powerful God, Creator of the Universe. I’m talking “The Universe” here. We are just one little planet, in our own little solar system in a galaxy filled with millions of other stars and solar systems in a Universe filled with millions of galaxies. God, the Father, is Big!
In human history, God, the Father, is also the best known of the characters of God. Almost every culture and civilization, from the very beginning of time, has a sense of this person of God. Today, despite our many different ways of expressing our beliefs, most of us believe in some kind of a divine creating being.
Now, let’s consider the next person through which God is revealed in salvation history – “God, the Son”. Of the three persons of God, this is the one we Christians are most confused by. If we only consider the dogmatic perspective of Jesus’ claim to be God’s Son, we are limited to an abstract philosophical understanding of Jesus, who is fully human and fully God. No matter how we grapple with dogmatic perspective, the human side of Jesus gets somewhat lost in this divine equation. Hence, our confusion….. a man equal to, and one and the same with, the God of the Universe. As difficult as this is for we Christians to grasp, it is a concept most non-Christians cannot embrace at all.
But, if we use an historical, contextual approach to exploring this claim, perhaps we can rediscover the more human aspect of Jesus’ Divine “sonship”. When the New Testament was being written, before the introduction of this dogma and the establishment of the Christian creed, there was another living claimant to the sonship of God – the head of the Roman Empire, Caesar. Caesar laid claim to the title ‘Christ’ long before Jesus did. Further, any other person who claimed to be the ‘Christ’ was considered Rome’s enemy and was treated as an outlaw.
At the time, Caesar probably had a better claim than Jesus for being God’s son. He was the most powerful human in the world, who could, and did, move mountains (with his armies) at will. He held the power of life and death over everyone in his Empire and all the nations of the known world came to Rome to pay him homage. This son of God ruled through power, and control, destruction and wealth.
Jesus was a very different claimant. He was a penniless Jewish peasant, who preached a radical egalitarian message and espoused a nonviolent revolution. In trying to make the case that Jesus, not Caesar, was the true Son of God, it is no wonder that St. Paul and the Apostles had their hands full back then.
Today, ironically, the Divinity of Jesus is a dogmatic given for Christians. He is proclaimed to be God, who came to us in human form. But what of his humanity? We’ve nearly lost sight of this human part of Jesus. To experience God, the human, we need to revisit and reclaim the Jesus of human history and the way he lived on earth.
According to the Gospels, Jesus lived and preached the guiding principles of unconditional love and unlimited forgiveness. He and his followers engaged the followers of Caesar through non-violent resistance. Jesus said a lot about laying your life down but he never gave anyone permission to take a life. For many early Christians, following the Way of Jesus cost them their lives.
Through the Beatitudes we also learn that God is revealed to us through the least, the poor, the marginal and the down and out – those with whom Jesus lived and prayed – and that the peacemakers and not the war makers are the true sons and daughters of God. Following Jesus and not Caesar was a hard sell in the first century. It’s a hard sell today.
Finally, we consider the third person of God – “The Holy Spirit”. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was known as the Wisdom of God. The word for Wisdom, in Hebrew, is feminine. So it helps to think of the Holy Spirit as reflecting a feminine side of God. On the cosmic level, the Holy Spirit is the Divine spark of God found in all created things. She acts like a Divine DNA code contained in every particle of the Universe, animate and inanimate. Her cosmic job is to help the Universe bend back towards God.
In the New Testament the Holy Spirit job is to give the followers of Jesus the courage to claim Jesus, crucified and down and out, as the true Son of God, over Caesar. She is Divine and cosmic, a spark of God, a provider of inspiration and courage, and she is found in all things created.
So there we have it – The Trinity. Three different divine persons in which we experience the unknowable God. If we embrace God as the Creator, the Human sent to earth in God’s image, and the spark of the divine Cosmic in all created things, we can begin, and only begin, to know the God of Salvation History.