2 Corinthians 12:11-13: “As for the rest, brothers and sisters, rejoice, be restored, be encouraged, be of the same care, be at peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit ___ with all of you.”
This week we celebrate Trinity Sunday. I’m never reluctant to talk about the Trinity, and you can find more about that here and here and here and here. But right now it’s time (again!) to shift focus to the enormity of what’s happening around us.
Our wellbeing has been under assault from a minuscule virus for months. Now we are unmistakably under assault from ourselves—the murder of yet another black man by those who should protect us from murder; nationwide, even international, outrage morphing into violence; aloofly and inaccurately blaming the violence on “those people”; outrage at those who do not share our sort of outrage; refusals to address the systemic problems guaranteeing that all of this will happen again—and again. And all of this is happening while we are still conflicted among ourselves on what to do about that virus. Indeed, many of us who came together to protest this week have placed ourselves in further danger of infection. Wellbeing is under assault from countless quarters.
In the midst of all this, what’s the point of an intellectual puzzle like the Trinity? As an intellectual puzzle, maybe there’s not much point. But what if we focus instead on a spiritual practice that these intellectual puzzles faintly outline?
What’s the practice? Maybe there’s more than one, but try this: awakening and living into the endless interplay between unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity that God is, and that we reflect.
That endless interplay, that shared creativity, is how we find ourselves involved with one another. For those of us who speak of God, it’s how we find God involved with us and the whole universe. It’s even how we find God involved with God! The Nicene Creed invites us to imagine God (the “Father”) creatively sharing “God-from-God” (the “Son”) with God (the “Holy Spirit”). So we and our world reflect the shared creativity that God is, while God is relentlessly embracing and working with the shared creativity that we are.
Living into this endless interplay makes it impossible—for me and many others—to think of what’s happening among us now as the working out of some horrendously controlling plan. When creativity is endlessly shared at every level of existence, then, as they say, “shit happens”—including new viruses, old prejudices, and our human propensity for denial and violence. The good news is not that we’ll be protected from any of this shit, but that none of this shit has the last word. That’s what resurrection means, new life arising from devastation in ways we never could consistently picture (try picturing a “spiritual body”—1 Corinthians 15:44).
After all, the doctrine of the Trinity can’t be separated from the life, death, and risen life of Jesus. It wasn’t the result of timeless philosophical reflections (though there are philosophical reflections that can shed light on it). It was one of many attempts to make sense of no less than God undergoing the unjustly institutionalized, agonizing death of an alleged offender. (Sounds current!)
Hymn writer Brian Wren wrote a hymn about the Trinity that has informed my thinking for decades, especially the last verse: “Through the pain that loving Wisdom / could foresee, but not forestall, / God is One though torn and anguished / in the Christ’s forsaken call, / One through death and resurrection, / One in Spirit, One for all.”
This is the God I find among us right now, in all the shit that’s happening. (By the way, if my language seems too earthy, remember that it was also St. Paul’s language—check out the Greek in Philippians 3:8.) We now find ourselves “torn and anguished,“ and so does God! And resurrection doesn’t happen immediately. There’s a waiting period. Nor does resurrection sugarcoat what’s happening now. The Gospels tell us that when Jesus rose his wounds did not disappear. But while we’re waiting for a resurrection we don’t know how to picture, we know that this shit is not the last word.
One of our lessons for this Sunday comes from the final words of St. Paul to the community he helped found in Corinth. It’s actually the earliest sentence in the New Testament that sounds Trinitarian. (But don’t ask Paul what homoousios means! He wouldn’t know.) The sentence lacks a verb, like many Greek sentences where the implied verb is some form of “to be.“ “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit ___ with all of you.” There’s no doubt it’s a blessing, but when the reader supplies the verb, it can be read both as a wish for what can be and as a recognition of what already is.
Translation aside, what we need to recognize is that these final words of Paul to this community come at an especially conflicted time. Paul’s words are being dismissed as “fake news.“ He has been trying all sorts of strategies to convince them that his credentials are valid, and it’s clear from reading the entire letter that he’s worried that when he shows up he will be rejected. It’s also clear that he thinks his authority should be undisputed, but he has to recognize, however reluctantly, that Christ is also inhabiting each of the members of this community, so they’ll have to make up their own minds (13:5). And the letter closes with these conflicts unresolved.
So Paul’s closing Trinitarian-sounding formula comes at time of unresolved conflict. Maybe they will never find a way forward. He has no way of knowing at this point. And that’s the last we hear about his relationship to this community. Everything is still in suspense.
But we do know one thing with the benefit of hindsight. The community apparently didn’t throw Paul’s letters away. That’s how they wound up in the New Testament. Paul’s words remain. So apparently they worked out their conflicts, at least enough for that to happen.
So now as we, like Paul, find ourselves torn and anguished, try awakening to the God who is likewise torn and anguished with us in order to deny this agony the last word. That’s what the doctrine of the Trinity means on this Trinity Sunday.