Sunday, May 22, 2016

Prince and the Nature of God

[Sermon from May 22, 2016; Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; John 16:12-15]
So, this is Trinity Sunday, and it’s about the worst card a preacher can draw.  There are at least two reasons why:  First, God is inexplicable mystery, and the doctrine of the Trinity is essentially trying to explain something inexplicable.  I might as well try to explain love … which is what I am trying to do, isn’t it?  The second challenge is that people tend to tune out after about three sentences of theological sermons.  Soon, I risk becoming Charlie Brown’s teacher – wah, wah, wah, wha – and leaving you scribbling in your bulletin.
So, here’s a special surprise to listen for in today’s sermon, like the toy at the bottom of the box of Cracker Jacks.  As you know, the musician Prince died recently.  Prince’s death tells us something about Trinitarian theology.  What is it?  You’ll have to hang on to find out.
So, what does Scripture say about the Trinity?  Not much directly, and very much mysteriously.  The Holy Trinity dances through Scripture, tripping the light fantastic but never lingering too long.  Like us, the writers of Scripture received glimpses of God’s nature and struggled with how to frame it.  Think about the creation account in Genesis.  God says, “Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26) – explicitly plural, male and female, expressing life and relationship fully.  Then we have our readings this morning.  The reading from Proverbs casts divine Wisdom as a feminine presence, with the Creator from the beginning, delighting in the earth, its creatures, and its people.  In the reading from John’s Gospel, we get a description of God in interrelated partnership, with Jesus representing the Father, and the Holy Spirit coming as the ongoing guide thereafter, taking what is Christ’s – and, therefore, what is the Father’s – and declaring it to us. 
Got all that?
And to make it even more complicated, we also have 2,000 years of theological reflection on the mystery of God’s nature.  It’s good to keep in mind that what we might see as the basics – the Nicene Creed, sort of the Holy Trinity for Dummies – that didn’t take shape until more than 200 years after the Gospels were written.  And that creed is a direct result of conflicting interpretations of God’s nature.  Followers of a priest named Arius believed Jesus had a different nature than the Father, having been created – the first among creatures, but still a creature, not God.  Others believed something more like what we would say today.  And the Church – newly the official religion of the Roman Empire, under Constantine – the Church needed an answer.  So the bishops who came together at the Council of Nicaea argued it out, eventually taking the stance we know as the Nicene Creed.  But the conflict continued, and it was more than a century later before what we “know” as the nature of God and the nature of Christ was set down as orthodoxy.  And along the way, literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of people died in rioting and official violence brought about by people who thought they knew the truth about God’s nature.
The Nicene Creed is the basic structure of Christian belief, the grammar that supports our theological conversations.  But the Creed doesn’t try to explain how Jesus might be both human and divine; nor does it get into how the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer interrelate.  That’s a real hotbed of heresy because it seems that every time we try to explain how God works, we get it wrong, one way or another.  If we focus on defining which person of the Trinity does what, imagining that God just adopts different roles as Father, Son, and Spirit, then we’re into modalism.  If we focus too much on the oneness of God, and see Jesus and the Holy Spirit as something less than divine, then we’re into unitarianism.  If we focus on the relative authority of the persons of the Trinity, with the Father as the guy in charge, then we’re into subordinationism.  If we combine those perspectives, with Jesus as a subordinate creation, then we’re into Arianism, named after Arius.  And if we imagine Jesus wasn’t really human at all and didn’t actually experience the pain and suffering of life, then we’re into Docetism. 
So, now that your mind is beginning to numb, it’s time for your surprise in the box of Cracker Jacks.  How does the musician Prince come into all this?  Well, as we learned from the news reports of his funeral, Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness,1 and Witness theology includes Arianism and unitarianism.  Jehovah’s Witnesses believe God is a single monarch, not a trinity.  They see the Holy Spirit as Jehovah’s active force in the world, not a separate person of the Godhead; and they see Jesus as Jehovah’s first creation, not of the same substance as the Father.2  That doesn’t mean Jehovah’s Witnesses are bad people.  But it does mean that, even today, Trinitarian theology differentiates Christians from quasi-Christians.
So why does it matter what we believe?   Why does it matter that we worship God as three persons of a common substance?  What we believe doesn’t have any effect on God’s nature, of course.  But I’d say it does have an effect on us.
In the same way that praying shapes believing, so believing shapes living – and often in ways we’d never say “out loud.”  But think about some of the heresies I mentioned and what effect those beliefs might have on the way we live:
·        What if you follow subordinationism, seeing the Father as the monarch who lords it over the Son, the Spirit, and the world?  Well, then you might think that godly behavior looks that way, and you might try to lord your authority over others, too.
·        What if you follow Arianism, seeing Jesus as the first among creatures rather than seeing Jesus as God in the flesh?  Well, we’re taught to see Jesus in the people around us.  But we might treat those people differently depending on whether we think they’re just reflections of a good man or whether we think they’re truly reflections of the face of God.
·        What if you follow Docetism, seeing Jesus as God pretending to be human?  Well, if God didn’t take truly human form in Jesus, we might imagine God keeps that distance still, not really caring all that much about the suffering we face and the suffering of all those people with whom we share the world.
But what if you see God as Three in One and One in Three, eternal partners in a dance of love, valuing relationship above everything, and always, always seeking to take relationship one step further across creation?  Well, if we see God like that, then we know deep in our bones that we’re wired the same way.  Now, those wires may get crossed sometimes.  Sin certainly trips us up.  But deep down, we humans are all about loving relationship, too.  Deep down, we share Trinitarian DNA.  Deep down, we know that unity trumps division and collaboration trumps self-interest – despite the fact that it’s the harder path: the way of self-giving, the way of healing, the way of the cross. 
Our mission, as the Church, is precisely this: to restore all people to unity with God, and each other, in Christ.  That’s our mission because it was God’s mission first.  Unity in relationship – that’s just what God does.  The Holy Trinity always keeps dancing, and we are the Trinity’s feet – each of us sent to reach others and invite them into the dance, as well.

1.        Lah, Kyung, and Jack Hannah.  “Inside Prince’s private faith.”  CNN.  April 25, 2016.  Available at:  Accessed May 20, 2016.
2.        Mead, Frank S., and Samuel S. Hill.  Handbook of Denominations in the United States.  11th ed.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2001.  178-181. 

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