5/27/18: The Same Mystery, Romans 8:12-17
The Same Mystery
First Lesson: Psalm 29
Second Lesson: Romans 8:12-17
Rev. Scott Dickison
In the Christian Year, the first Sunday after Pentecost is celebrated as Trinity Sunday, when we meditate upon the church’s claim through the generations that God is triune, both three in one and one in three.
And it’s certainly easy to get lost in the Doctrine of the Trinity, or cynical about it’s origins, or skeptical that it’s anything more than some kind of ancient theological riddle that has little practical application to our lives today. But the mystery we celebrate that gets lost in the fuzzy math is really pretty simple, and when weighed against our own experience is quite true, which is that the life of God is not so different from human life in that they’re both defined by relationship.
It’s no secret that humans are social creatures. We thrive in relationships and communities—we’re wired for connection. I read recently that the human brain can recognize the face of someone it’s met in less than a quarter of a second. Not just a familiar face but any face it’s seen before.You may not be able to summon their name, but their face…You don’t need scientific evidence to know we’re at our best and within our fullest potential when we live in relationship with others. There’s something generative that happens among people. There’s energy and growth. Or as the poet Malcolm Guide puts it in his poemwe adapted for the call to worship this morning: we’re made to be “each other’s inspiration.”
Relationship is at the heart of more than human life. Our world is literally held together by forces we cannot see or understand, and yet are so clearly there. Ecosystems and nutrient cycles and the way countless species of plants and animals and natural forces combine to produce life, not just one time, but over and over and over again—and all the way back. Some months ago on Wednesday nights we did a study of modern physics and faith and learned how physicists now think the universe is not best understood as a collection of distinct objects suspended in air, but as a field of energy that we perceive in different forms. Kathleen Norris, one of my favorite writers of spiritual things, notes how quarks, these subatomic particles that seem to make up the base of all of creation, mysteriously exist only in threes. There’s no such thing as one quark, but what we call a quark is really three interdependent beings that exist together. And these little triune particles are as she puts it, “the glue that holds all things together."
Connection, interdependence, relationship. You could say the Trinity is simply the church’s way of insisting that the creator is best known by the creation. That God, just like all of creation, is defined by communion—that God is “with” as much as God is “one.”
There’s a certain mystery in all this, of course—just like there’s a certain mystery in describing what’s happening in the expanse of the universe, or the base of creation on the subatomic level, or even what happens when two people touch hands for the first time, or even more, when they touch for the last time. And just like the mysteries of love and life and faith and beauty, the mystery of God is best spoken in the language of poetry, not rigid prose. Throughout the church’s history, the best images of the Trinity have done this.
Tertullian, the great North African theologian who may have actually coined the term “Trinity,” described the Trinity as a kind of plant, where God is the root going deep into the ground, the Son is the shoot that breaks forth into the world, and the Holy Spirit is that which brings beauty and fragrance into the world.
The Eastern Church has long described the work of the Trinity as perichoresis.which literally means “dancing around.” Meaning in the imagination of a whole half of the Christian family, the three figures of the Trinity dance with each other— work and move and create with each other. God isn’t just Lord of the Dance, they claim, God isDance—God is the interplay of moving bodies set to music. And the Christian life, they say, is to join in the divine dance, sometimes moving in concert, and other times in tension—both of which, it turns out, are essential to dance and faith.
But the image perhaps most tethered to the Christian tradition, and maybe most true to your life, comes from one of the great mothers of the medieval church, Catherine of Siena, who imagined the Holy Trinity as a supper to which we’ve all been invited. She says that at this dinner party, God is the table and chairs: where we gather and what’s underneath all that we’re doing, supporting us, giving us a place to rest our weary bones. And Christ is the food we eat that nourishes us and brings us together, the bread broken for us, the cup poured for us. And the Holy Spirit, she says, is the host who’s prepared a place for us, who greets us at the door. Who invites us in and brings us to the table, who serves us the food, carries the conversation, makes us feel welcome and at home in this dinner party of the Holy Trinity.Of all the mysteries in life, the mystery of what happens around a table filled with food has to be among the most fulfilling—at least the most filling. How much of life takes place around a table?
Do something for me: picture your childhood dinner table. You can see it can’t you? The grooves, the worn out places. The marks of pen and paint from school projects. You can hear the creaks and cracks. And you can smell the smells, too. The rolls burning in the oven halfway through the meal—or was that just my family? You can taste the food. And you can see the faces. You can hear the things that were said. The nightly check-ins, the celebrations, the laughter. The hard news. The tears.
And there are so many other tables. So many other meals. So many hosts.
What if it happened that all the meals you ever ate and all the people you ate them with, and all the tables at which you sat— what if the mystery of what happened there in the midst those things was the same mystery as the God we worship? The mystery of your grandmother’s biscuits and the expanse of the cosmos? Peas and carrots and space and time? Grooved wood and creaky legs and the love that will not let us go? What we celebrate this Sunday each year—what we marvel at even though we do not fully understand, or perhaps marvel at becausewe do not fully understand—what we proclaim even if only in a whisper, is that they’re all the same mystery. As Buechner put it “the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.”They’re all the same God. It’s all the same love. It’s all the same food, and we’re invited simply to gather around the table, to sit down and eat our fill of it. Amen.
As found in Gary Gunderson, Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life, 67
Kathleen Norris, Trinity, in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, 290
Kathleen Norris, 291
Catherine of Siena, from Pneumatology, by Veli-Matti Karkkainen, p.55
Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark