Toorak Uniting Church

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Beyond the telling of it!

Matthew 28: 16 – 20
Rev. Vladimir Korotkov
Trinity Sunday
16 June 2011

The Word is everything to the child, both father and mother, teacher and nurse.... The nutriment is the milk of the Father, and the Word alone supplies us children with the milk of love, and only those who suck at this breast are truly happy. For this reason, seeking is called sucking; to those infants who seek the Word, the Father's loving breasts supply milk.

Clement of Alexandria, ca. 180 A.D.1

This statement, ... written by a revered early church theologian, presents us with an androgynous image [partly male and partly female in appearance] of a loving God who is both Father and Mother. Paradoxes leap from these statements, shatter our mental categories, and startle us out of old patterns. We are reminded that God surpasses all human constructs of gender and cannot be neatly contained in any verbal or pictorial packages. Paradoxes, especially those concerning gender, hint to us that God is (as Alan Paton said of his homeland) wonderful "beyond all the telling of it".2

1. Along with the OT and other religions, we agree that God is incomparable, a profound mystery who seeks to relate to human beings in each time and place! Out of this inexplicable relationship, we seek to learn how to speak about God in human language.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ has reshaped human knowledge about this God.3 The early church in biblical times began to grapple with the shape of monotheism, given their encounter with the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

There were many hints of a Trinitarian understanding of this one God. But, there is no fully developed doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament. Only 200 years later Tertullian applied the Greek word Trinity to God. At the Council of Nicaea in 325, it was more fully formulated. Yet, there were also many other ways that Christians expressed their experience with God. There were many bitter disputes about correct expressions and language.

2. Like our sisters and brothers throughout the ages, we are invited to reflect theologically, creatively and relevantly about God for our time and place. Carl Gregg reminds us of the joke by feminist theologian, Sandra Schneider, that "God is not two men and a bird".4 Exclusive masculine language is not only limiting for our time, but is irresponsible given its disempowering effects and the stumbling block it creates for people who are spiritual seekers of the divine. To demand an inflexible formula for God or the trinity in exclusively male terms, as some male theologians and churches do, perpetuates its assumptions of monarchical and hierarchical power.

The language and metaphors to speak of our experience of God are rich and endless! And this has to be relevant to gender experience.

In his article, Three is not enough: Jewish reflections on Trinitarian thinking, David Blumenthal, Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University, suggestively asks:

Jewish rationalist hesitations notwithstanding, the question remains: If God's being is plural, why only Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Why not Ineffability [inexpressible], Knowability, Intuition, Grace, Judgment, Compassion, Eternity, Awe, Fecundity [greatly productive], and Providence – all of which are equally integral to the divine whole? If we, who are complex beyond three, are created in God's Image, God must be complex beyond three.5

In the 4th century, Augustine cites twenty different creative formulations for the Trinity. In his best-known example, he speaks of God as "Lover, Beloved, Love!" In another formulation, "Mother, Child, Womb".

3. Jurgen Moltmann is the Reformed theologian who has contributed to a contemporary, creative, and relevant Trinitarian theology. In the mystery of God, he writes, there is a wondrous community.6 God is no single Lord in heaven, a cold, removed power of providence. He adds, "the triune God is a social God, rich in internal and external relationships".

Barbara Brown Zikmund develops this way of reflecting:

To believe in a triune God is to suggest that there is an inner relational energy within God self which spills over into the Christian life. John of Damascus, an eighth-century theologian, describes this way of understanding God by proposing that there is an exchange of energy between the persons of the Trinity by virtue of their eternal love. The unity of the Trinity is not static substance, or even familial relationship; it exists as open and loving community. John of Damascus uses the Greek word "perichoresis" to describe what is going on within God self. "Perichoresis" comes from the same root as the word "choreography".

But a truly social doctrine of the Trinity contains the vision of a community of women and men in church and society without privilege or subjection to each other-or to God. Trinitarian theology asserts that relationship is fundamental to God and that community is the foundation of God's interaction with the world. Instead of an unmoved mover, God as community calls us to shared responsibility.7

4. ln my interpretation, the Trinity is a model and spirituality for radical community and belonging in contemporary society. The liberation theologian Leonardo Boff observed that contemporary society yearns for belonging and a greater democracy in which there develops a more participatory and family-spirited society. He observes that such yearning is addressed with a theology of the Trinity: the three divine persons in communion is a transcendent model of the human striving for a society that encourages participation and welcomes diversity.8

This divine community, in Boff's interpretation, taken from Jesus teaching in John's Gospel, is a mystery of inclusion, with the divine Three "opening the divine community to the outside and inviting human beings to share in their community and life."9

When Jesus in John 17:22-23, "inserted the Trinitarian community into human history, he calls his followers to eliminate the barriers of distinction and to create a community of equals".10

In our reading in Matthew 28:16-20, Matthew's Jesus speaks from a place of authority and power, a mountain, yet an authority and power of radical love and inclusivity, of difference seeking relationship with difference. He seeks to inspire all of his followers to live out of and witness to the divine, Trinitarian community of love, open and generative, to share that experience with the whole world.

This commissioning is in marked contrast to the Roman Empire of the time. In their commissioning narrative, Romulus "the father of the Roman city" descended from heaven to command, "Go and declare to the Romans the will of Heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world to let them cherish the art of war, and let them know and teach their children that no human strength can resist Roman arms."11

The followers of Jesus also are presented with a mission, by the God of Jesus, to build a just and life-giving community and society.

The shame of it is that the church or any of us as Christians can lose sight of this and seek power for our own cause.

Abdal Hakim Murad, a Muslim, shared that

the doctrine of Trinity was the most notorious point at issue between Christianity and Islam, and hence was freighted with fierce passions. For the pre-modern Muslim mind, Christian invaders, crusaders, inquisitors and the rest were primarily obsessed with forcing the doctrine of Trinity on their hapless Muslim enemies... Even today in Bosnia, Serb irregulars use the three-fingered Trinity salute as a gesture of defiance against their Muslim enemies.12

The crucified Risen Jesus meets us repeatedly! Meets us now as John of Damascus imaged it, from out of "an inner relational energy within God self" which spills over into our life and the life of the world. As Eduard Schweizer expresses it:

From all eternity, God opens [God self] to us by seeking us out, by loving us. God is thus already in [God's] inner being favour and love; and the love revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, not to speak of the love [humans] have for each other, derives from the original act of love, from God.13

This is the deep meaning of The Trinity, to use the words of Rowan Williams:

"God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God's giving that God's self makes in the life of the Trinity." Consider this claim in light of Jesus' command to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:28-34 and parallels). Just as "God loves us as God loves God," each of us is called to love our neighbor as if our neighbor were our self.14

1 Clemens Alexandrinus, quoted in E. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage, 1981), pg 81, cited in Rebecca Oxford-Carpenter, Gender and the Trinity
2 A. Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (New York: Scribners,1961), cited in Rebecca Oxford-Carpenter.
3 Barbara Brown Zikmund, Trinity and Women's Experience
4 Carl Gregg, "Bring Many Name: Progressive Christianity on Trinity Sunday" (for June 19, 2011).
6 Jurgen Moltmann, The Triune God: Rich in Relationships, The Living Pulpit, 2005.
7 Ibid.
8 Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 2000, p.xiii. Cited in: Thomas J. Scirghi, The trinity: a model for belonging in contemporary society, The Ecumenical Review, July, 2002,
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 550.
13 Edward Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, 533.
14 Rowan Williams, The Body's Grace: The 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address, now reprinted in Charles Hefling, ed., Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies (Boston: Cowley Press, 1996), 56-68; here, 59. This address is available online at grace.htm. Cited in: Carl Gregg, "Bring Many Name: Progressive Christianity on Trinity Sunday" (for June 19, 2011).

© Rev. Vladimir Korotkov, 2011

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