Saturday, June 02, 2012

But, Seriously, Who Do You Think I Am?

a reflection on the Gospel of John 3:1-17 for Trinity Sunday

I recently renewed my subscription to the NY Times. I love to receive the Sunday edition and frequently spend Monday, my day off, reading it. One of my favorite articles in the NY Time Magazine used to be, “On Language,” written by the now deceased, William Safire. The column ran for 32 years, including two years after Safire died. The column explored the vagaries of the English language – what words mean and how they are used.  For example, Saffire once wrote an entire article on the word “wackadoodle.

Here is part of what Safire said, ….the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. (pastor of the church President Obama use to attend in Chicago) was once called a wackadoodle by a journalist in the New York Times.

Safire goes on to write, “In 1995, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted a state legislator, David Heckler, when he said that those wanting to repeal a firearms law were ‘ wackadoodles.’

In 2005, the Associated Press quoted a former prosecutor of Michael Jackson, who said, ‘It may sound kind of wackadoodle, but this is (Michael Jackson’s) world…(it’s) a separate reality.’

The Dallas Morning News zapped ‘Tom Cruise’s wackadoodle public behavior,” after his controversial appearance on the Today Show.

Safire then defines the word, “The adjective, growing in usage with about 9,000 Google hits, takes its first syllable from wacky – that is, ‘far-out, eccentric, off the wall’ possibly from ‘out of whack.’ The second syllable, “doodle” was first used in the 17th century  - when it meant  something like, ‘simpleton’….’

So, a wackadoodle is someone who is a far-out, eccentric, off the wall, out of whack, simpleton?

I have to admit that when I first read this article my thoughts jumped immediately to the Trinity and the complex nature of trying to explain to someone, Christian or not Christian, what we mean by the Trinity – one God in three persons. We say it as if it is a simple statement: The Trinity, God in three persons. We proclaim the traditional Christian understanding of the Trinity every Sunday in the Nicene Creed.

But in truth, the Trinity is a challenging enough topic for us Christians who have grown up with the concept. For those not Christian I imagine they think it a bit wackadoodle. Certainly our understanding of God in three persons can seem a bit “far out,” “eccentric” or “off the wall” and trying to explain it may turn the best of us into bumbling simpletons.

In the fourth century a huge debate was held amongst various Church leaders from around the world at a church council meeting in Nicea. This highly charged and deeply political meeting, (something we modern Christians know nothing about), set out to discuss the nature of Christ. Was he fully human? Was he fully divine? What is Christ’s relationship to God? And further more what is the Holy Spirit’s relationship to God and to Christ? What do all three have in common and what distinguishes them one from another? In some ways I imagine the council, as only we humans can do, belabored a point that Jesus himself would not have worried about.

I think this joke gets at the heart of the issue…

So one day Jesus was speaking to his disciples and he asked,

“Who do people say that I am?”

And his disciples answered, “Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or some other of the old prophets.”

And Jesus said, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered and said, "You are the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple."

In response Jesus said, "What?"

The very idea that as Christians we worship one God but that that God expresses God’s self through three distinct entities which are nonetheless united as one is so complex that in the end all we can really say is that God is more mystery than known.

God is more mystery than known. Genesis reminds us that God created all – water, air, earth, female, male, sky, moon, water…God created all and as such God is in all and of all.  The story of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John is a well-known story that illustrates our human inability to comprehend the mystery of God’s nature. Some might say that in this story Nicodemus comes across as a wackadoodle….

When we read scripture, all of scripture, we are reminded to be cautious, mindful of the ways we humans tend to limit God by claiming that God is one thing and not another.

The Bible is filled with complex, often contradictory stories, of God’s relationship to creation, especially to humanity.  As a whole these stories give us a glimpse into the expansiveness of God’s nature – the many ways God is God.

In the end we sometimes just have to shrug our shoulders and acknowledge that our efforts to describe God are either limited, or perhaps, endless? How God manifests God’s self in and through the Trinity, as three persons in one, as God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, is an effort on the part of Christians to describe God as relationship – God is in relationship with God’s self, with creation, and with us. And, really, what’s so whacky about that?


RevJ said...

Nicely done!

Lisa :-] said...

I like the way you put "God expresses God's self", rather than him- or her-self...

Because I was brought up with the Trinity, the concept does not seem difficult or wackadoodle to me. It simply is.

Now that I am older, it seems to me all these machinations and folderol were contrived to make sure that outsiders understood that Christianity is monotheistic, even though it worships god in three separate persons. Simply an ever-wrought way of distinguishing itself from polytheistic "pagans" (who are all going to hell), in my opinion...

Lisa :-] said...

That would be over-wrought. Augh...

Terri said...

Lisa, Your points are well taken. The early church however was not concerned with making sure outsiders understood Christianity as monotheistic. In the case of the Nicene Creed and the formation of the Trinity the issue really had to do with "how does Jesus save us?" Particularly because he was crucified - what kind of a hero/savior dies? So this concern, which also was a theological battle between the group that thought Jesus was human and the group that thought Jesus was divine, and the ultimate conclusion that Jesus is both human and divine - ergo the Virgin Birth (Divine), the human life (human) the brutal death (human) - or in the case of the Gospel of John where Jesus is fully divine and doesn't suffer in the crucifixion, and the resurrection (divine) but in his body (human)....and the response is also to anchor the idea of "original sin" and the fall of adam - and therefore the NEED for Jesus to be both human and divine to save us.

I am not a big fan of this atonement theology, wherein an angry God need a human being, Jesus, to suffer, in order to save all of creation from our sins. Pretty brutal stuff. THere are seven, or more, atonement theologies, and I prefer ones that focus on a God of compassion - and relationship - the relationship being key - GOd is invested in creation.

So indeed, it is in part about pagans, many Gods, and who is going to hell....and it's a lot more than that. The Trinity is pretty simple for me too, a God of relatiopnship who expresses God's self in three primary ways (for Christians) - a God who creates, a God who walks with us and sustains us, and a God who inspirites us...

Homily for the Festive Eucharist at the closing of the Episcopal Women's Caucus

The readings that we chose for the service tonight were all picked specifically for this service because they lift up the role of women ...