Saturday, June 18, 2011

Holy Trinity: One God, Three Personas

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, which gives us an opportunity to ponder what kind of a God we believe in. Our God has been described in many ways in scripture: as king, as shepherd, as suffering servant, as mother, as husband, as fierce animal, as smoke and fire, as mountain, as inaudible whisper. Christians mostly use three images of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and believe all three have been present from the beginning, in one Trinitarian God.
 The image of God as father was relatively uncommon in the Hebrew Scriptures. It wasn’t until Jesus was called the Son of God that Father became a frequent title, especially in John’s Gospel. Although the Spirit of God was present from the beginning of creation as the ruah, the spirit/breath/wind, of God moving over the waters, we are more familiar with the Holy Spirit as sent by Jesus on Pentecost.
The very familiar hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy names these three images as “persons.” A more correct term is “personas.” In ancient Greek drama, a persona was created with the use of a mask held in front of the actor’s face. He was still himself, and the main character he was portraying, and another character or mood he portrayed with the use of the mask. We are aware of God’s presence and activity in our lives mainly through the three personas of God as Father, Son, and Spirit.
God as Father is most often seen as Creator, and it’s on this persona of God that I will focus the message today. Although the Genesis creation story was told and retold, changing over time, as all oral traditions change over time, it was given its final shape during the Babylonian exile. The Babylonians believed in the Enuma Elish creation story, in which there are many gods, all related to each other. Two of the gods kill other gods, and the world is created out of the parts of their dead bodies. Humans are created as slaves to the gods who remain.
The Israelite creation story needed to be a strong contrast to the Babylonian creation stories. This positive story, reflecting the goodness of God and the goodness of creation was something to cling to during the 40-plus years of exile. The Genesis story declares in no uncertain terms that humans were created in the image of God, in order to have a relationship with the Creator; and to be stewards of creation with God, not as slaves to the gods.
The Genesis creation stories do not define in scientific terms how God created the world and all that is in it. What they do is tell why God created – in order to have a relationship with creation. The Genesis Chapter One was written by priests. It is so poetic, it is like liturgy. Perhaps the people were given the opportunity to respond with the refrain “and God saw that it was good” as a way to really reinforce this aspect of the nature of God.
This creation story would also serve to remind the people that God was in charge, and more powerful than the Babylonian gods their neighbors and conquerors believed in. This God was still involved with the Israelite people even though they were far from their home in Judah. This God still wanted a relationship with the people.
Today, this is good news for us. The God who created us will go to great lengths to have a relationship with us – including becoming human in order to speak human words; including death on a cross to demonstrate the extent of divine love for us humans; including sending the Holy Spirit to act and whisper and nudge. ... which takes us to the Trinity, Father-Son-Spirit, God.
The harder we try to define or even describe the concept of the Trinity, the harder it becomes. Artists and theologians have been trying to explain the Trinity since the first century. There have been artistic depictions, mathematical figures, diagrams. There are circles, triangles, combinations of circles and triangles, and so forth. For myself, the best images show movement in some way.
Authors have written about the Trinity, mostly in scholarly terms. A few are easier to understand. Many of you have heard of the book The Shack. Some of you have read it. In this book, author William P Young attempts to define each persona of the Trinity by giving them very distinct characteristics.
Mack is a father whose daughter has been murdered, which sends him into a spiritual crisis. He encounters the Trinity in a remote shack the family owns. God the Father takes the form of an African American woman who calls herself Papa, Jesus is a Middle-Eastern carpenter, and the Holy Spirit physically appears as an Asian woman named Sarayu, although her physical presence is constantly in a state of flux. The bulk of the book narrates Mack's conversations and experiences with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. Mack walks across a lake with Jesus, sees an image of his father in heaven with Sarayu, and has a conversation with Sophia, the personification of God's wisdom. 
While The Shack does a good job of describing the separate personas of God, it is less able to describe the unity of God. A few times, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu speak and act together, but mostly, they act and speak separately.
However, it is impossible to separate the personas of God. The Spirit was present at the beginning with God the Creator. Genesis says the Ruah – the Spirit/Breath/Wind – of God moved over the waters. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus – the Word of God – was also present from the beginning, participating in the act of creation. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all present in creating, in healing, in judging, in saving, in relationship with us.
When we pray to the Father, we are calling on Jesus and the Spirit at the same time. When Jesus walked this earth, healing, preaching, forming relationships, the Father and the Spirit were also present on earth in the same way. When the Spirit moves us to reach out to other people, the Father and Jesus are present at the same time.
  So, what are we to do with all this? I believe we can continue to try to understand the Trinity. Some days it will be as clear as the Rainbow River; some days it will be as clear as mud. When Jesus met with the disciples in Galilee, they did not understand much, either, except that Jesus was alive again. Even so, Jesus said to them “Go. Tell others about me. You can go with confidence, because you are not going alone. I will always be with you.”
These words are just as true for us today as they were 2,000 years ago. We are sent by Jesus – and the Father and the Spirit – to tell others about Jesus, even if we don’t fully understand. Let us go out in faith and without fear, reaching out to others, to bring them into the same loving, forgiving relationship with God that we have.
Please pray with me. Holy One, we give you thanks for creating us and seeking to have a relationship with us. Continue to call us to yourself, and to reach out with your love to those to whom you send us. Amen