“The Wholeness of God”
Cassopolis/ White Pigeon, June 16, 2019, TRINITY SUNDAY
Text: Psalm 8: Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15; Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-36;
As I’ve driven in the car this past week, I’ve been listening to the audio book version of Alison Weir’s history, Lancaster and York—The Wars of the Roses. My only contact with that stormy period in English history previous to this was back in college when I read some of the history plays of Shakespeare such as Henry IV and Richard III. But I have become rather interested by Weir’s account of the times, especially with the lucid way she has of making the politics and personalities of the times clear and intriguing, the pious king Henry the VIth and his queen wife, the smart, ambitious, and sometimes ruthless Margaret of Anjou, and their opponents, Richard, Duke of York and the earl of Warwick.
But what has really grabbed my attention is the national division so evident in the book which tore up the kingdom of England at that time, especially as the Wars of the Roses, named for the rose symbols of the house of York and the house of Tudor, really got rolling in the middle years of the fifteenth century. In 1450, England had one king, and was, nominally at least, one kingdom, one realm. But in reality it was split into two factions constantly at odds with each other, the Lancastrian side with Henry VI and Queen Margaret at the top, and the Yorkist side with Richard and Warwick. And also constantly stirring within those factions was self-interest, every person involved not just taking a stand for his or her particular party, but for whatever stood most likely to advance their own personal or family interests.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the story is how modern sounding it is. At one point in her narrative, Weir tells of how one of the players, probably the very religious king, Henry the VIth—was heard lamenting the political strife in England, quoting Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand,” bringing to mind the use of those same words centuries later by Abraham, Lincoln to lament the same kind of strife in the Civil War era United States. But division did not end then. For that matter, it would not be too hard for us to speak those same words right now in our own time of political gridlock when party politics call the tune every day in almost every arena of our nation.
But this is not a sermon about those party politics nor about the divided being of the nation—it is rather a sermon for Trinity Sunday about the undivided being of our God. And since it is Trinity Sunday, it seems appropriate first to acknowledge the belief that sets Christianity apart from the two other major world faiths with which it has the most connection, Judaism and Islam—our stubborn insistence on the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Christian faith has long—at last since the days of the church council of Nicaea in about 325 AD—declared that although we believe in one God, our experience of that God lead us to believe that there are three persons within that single Godhead, that God is, as the Scots Confession states it, “distinct in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” also referred to in more recent years by the more gender inclusive “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” And contrary to what some various Christian heresies have suggested in the past, these three persons are indeed distinct—it’s not just the case of humans understanding God in three ways at different times, of one God entering our experience wearing, as it were, three masks representing different roles—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are, indeed, three individual person in the Godhead. And because of this insistence one might suspect, and many have accused, that the God of Christian faith is divided, perhaps even a house divided against itself, with various conflicts and disagreements among the three divine parties much as we witness constantly in human history.
But this is not the case. For Christians have just as stubbornly maintained, that God, far from being split apart, is one. Again, the Scots Confession— “We acknowledge and confess one God alone,” hammering in that word by going on with, “to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust, [who is] eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible” and, “of one substance”—that is, whole. Or as Shirley Guthrie says in his classic book Christian Doctrine, “The doctrine of the Trinity emphasizes the unity of [what] God is and does. According to scripture, all of God is involved in everything God does.” There is no split whether in will, act, or intention—all three persons together are one God, and that one God is the very definition of wholeness.
And that wholeness of action and activity and intention shows itself in every part of scripture. In Genesis, for instance, although we commonly think of creation as the work of God the Father, we read that the, or at least, a spirit of God is also involved in the work as a “wind or Spirit or breath from God”—depending on how you translate the term ruach—“swept over the face of the waters” to begin the act of creating. And later in Genesis, although the Old Testament does not confess a Triune God, God yet says, “Let us make humankind in our image,” to some Christian thinkers a subtle hint in the direction of Trinitarian understanding.
Again, although the Old Testament writers do not think in terms of a Trinity when they think of God, the picture of Wisdom in Proverbs almost seems to hint at it. Here, in chapters 1 and 2, and 8 and 9 of Proverbs, a personification of God’s Wisdom is shown, always as a female figure, working beside God in the divine enterprise, attempting to teach humanity. Scholars do not assume that these personifications show that the Old Testament writer really believed that there was a separate person distinct from God but were using this more as a metaphor for God’s wisdom put to work to make creation something fully integrated and cohesive and fully good. But in later years as the Church read these passages in light of their experience of Jesus, they came to see in them a foreshadowing of One begotten of God the Father who was the Word of God Incarnate and who, at the Father’s side from all eternity, was there at the start of the world. Paul in Colossians describes Jesus Christ as being “in the image of the invisible God,” all things that have been created, created for and through Him. And the opening words of John announce that “All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being.” So while the church began to see God as three, we never lost sight of the fact that God is yet One, never three person at odds, but always working in wholeness with one mind and will, always pursuing all ends together in unity, integrity, holiness and love. This was evident in the creation of the world, and just as evident in the way God pursued and desired the wholeness of the human creation.
Proverbs 8 again gives a delightful testimonial to this belief that the Trinity embraces humanity with care when Wisdom says of her activity with God that she was always “beside Him like a master worker, rejoicing in the inhabited world, rejoicing in the human race.” And giving an even more inviting nuance to the passage, the Hebrew term translated as “master worker” by the NRSV can just as well be translated as “little Child”, the way the King James version does, “as one brought up with Him, daily His delight.” And with this translation we see a picture of Wisdom as a child, dancing and singing before God to God’s pleasure as she races about joyful in creation and playing delightedly in and among the people who have been made. This is a beautiful example of the work of God in creation being one of wholeness—of the entirety of God’s being embracing it and enthralled by it and holding it in delight and love. It is, in New Testament thought, the joint and willed activity of the entire Trinity shown in love. And if this is the case for God’s work of creation’s making, it is equally so, says Paul in Romans 5, of creation’s saving.
All three person of the Trinity figure prominently in the first five verses of chapter 5 in Romans where Paul examines the results of God’s work of rescuing creation from sin, and all three work together in the pursuit of salvation. It is not the case, as some erroneous theologies have said, that a merciful Son acted against the will of an angry Father who wished to destroy sinners, and by the Son’s intercession and sacrifice of Himself for them on the altar of the Father’s wrath, rescued them from Him. This is the story of Zeus and the titan Prometheus in Greek mythology—it is not the story of the God the Father and Jesus the Son. Rather, as Paul states, the Son, whose will and desire along with the Father is one will and desire, gave Himself willingly, as willingly as the Father sent Him, to bring us to peace with the complete God. And in that act of reconciliation, God as wholeness acted to make humanity a wholeness itself. In that giving and sending which is one action of one God, we are also given the assurance by the specific action of the Spirit that it is God’s love that has done this, turning even our trials and hurts into opportunities for greater growth and healing, not objects of despair, a grace and “hope that will not disappoint” being poured into our hearts through that Spirit to insure the love of the entirety of God.
But it is not only to justify our standing before God for which the Trinity works as one to make us whole—it is, just as much, in our relationship with and understanding of God. Humanity is not meant to have merely a beginner’s familiarity with the God who created us—we are to become deeply involved and deeply enlightened. So it is that the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers, “Let us go on toward perfection—wholeness in knowledge and relationship—and not get stuck back with the basic teachings about Christ and faith. “So Jesus tells His disciples in the gospel of John—“I have many things to say to you which You can’t bear just now—that you are not yet ready to understand. But,” Jesus goes on, “when the Spirit of truth comes”—the Holy Spirit of truth—He will guide you into all truth—into a greater and greater understanding. And this understanding will be endorsed by the whole of God for the Spirit “will not speak on His own’ but for all—will take what is Mine, and thus, what is the Father’s, and declare it to you” so that you may grow more whole in knowing Me—Us. And, one might add, that you may, as you come to know more of God, also grow in the desire to become more wholly involved in God’s work in the world. For as much as God is a wholeness, a true One in Three, so does God desire us to be a part of that wholeness of love and outreach, a fact that gives Psalm 8 so much its exuberance.
“O LORD, our Sovereign,” the psalm famously begins—“How majestic is Your name in all the earth,” a majesty testified to by the mouths of “babes and infants,” but also given graphic witness by the “work of Your fingers—the sun and moon and stars that You have established.” But a part of that majesty resides in what God has desired for us, mere mortals that we are. Although we are at base dust and ashes shaped by God’s hand, God has decided to lift us up in grace—to “make us just a little lower than God Himself, “ set in a place of honor and responsibility, acting as God’s agents in God’s name and way with the rest of creation, giving us dominion over it, not to abuse and exploit for our own selfish good, but to keep and sustain. In that desire we were created to become a part of what the Trinity is in itself—a wholeness of life, mirroring the divine life by our own lives with God and the world. And modeling God’s care for each other even in the way we suffer, which may help explain the odd statement Paul makes in Colossians 1.
In verse 24 of that chapter, Paul says this—“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake”—probably referring to one of his imprisonments—“and in my flesh am completing whatever is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, the church.” Now for anyone who has a knowledge of Paul’s theology, this is a curious remark for it seems, to imply that what Christ did in His life and in His death was not in itself enough for our salvation—that there was something lacking in it that we need to supply. And this is completely counter to what Paul normally insists. Indeed, as Galatians shows us, he is adamant that what God has done in Jesus Christ is completely sufficient for any need we might have for salvation or justification before God—there is nothing at all lacking in it. So, what might he mean here in this strange, and seemingly even grandiose statement?
Well, perhaps if read in light of Psalm 8, the statement is not grandiose at all, but, on the contrary indeed, grand, and something to rejoice in as Paul does here. For perhaps what Paul means to say is exactly the same thing about God that the psalmist did—that God is never satisfied for us to simply become saved, but rather desires us to become part of salvation –to let ourselves become a part of Trinity wholeness—and this is indeed and grand and glorious thing. It is not enough for God that we merely exist in creation, but that we become a part of His work of maintaining and defending creation. And it is not enough for God that we enter into relationship with God, but become a part of His work of extending that to others, making, as Paul writes, “the mystery that has been hidden through the ages” known to all humanity, the “riches of the glory of this mystery” reached out beyond Israel to Gentiles and indeed all flesh, human and otherwise. Paul says that he glories even in his sufferings for they tie him to Jesus and mean that he has been privileged to become a part of this wholeness by the gift of God who “powerfully inspires” all things in him. And this same invitation is an open one to you and me—not just to be blessed by God’s wholeness, and come to know more of it little by little, but to become a part of it, a sharer in its glory, ready to reveal in our own lives and words, and even in our sufferings, the love of God, Father, Son, and Spirit together, to encourage and enable us to become mature in Christ, and more whole ourselves each day.
“A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand,” said Jesus. And although we know and testify to God as One in three persons, there is no division in that Godhead, that kingdom of light—there is only the kind of glory which elicits the praise of the psalmist—“O God, our Sovereign—how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” We might echo this praise ourselves—“O God, our Sovereign, how majestic and unbroken is Your fullness, the wholeness of Your holiness, love and power as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer! And how full is the delight You offer us in becoming a part of that fullness, whole and holy in Your name, the name of Father, Son, and Spirit, majestic in all the earth!” +++