Pastor Frank Senn
Festival of the Holy Trinity. Year A. June 11, 2017
As we enter into summertime and can get out into God’s world it seems appropriate to begin with the creation story from Genesis. It’s also good to look more deeply at what this so-called priestly account of creation really says. Sometimes it helps to be literal, that is, to pay attention to words and phrases and how they get translated. In this regard I would point out that the Hebrew text does not say “In the beginning God created.” It literally says, “In the beginning when God began to create...” The text suggests that creation is an ongoing activity. Nor does Genesis teach creation out of nothing. The Genesis text indicates that there was already something. The earth was there but without solid form. Modern cosmology tells us that our planet was a fiery ball spun out from the sun. To the ancient Hebrew lack of form meant chaos, and the ancient Hebrews equated chaos with evil. The ongoing work of creation is God’s effort to bring order out of chaos, because chaos – evil – persists, as we know all too well. What God did in the work of creation was “good” because it countered the persistence of evil.
We’re at the beginning of the summer vacation season. For a lot of people this also means vacation from worship. In this regard I would point out that the priestly author of the first creation account in Genesis is really building a case for weekly Sabbath observance. God’s work on the six days leads to God’s rest on the seventh day, a day which God blessed and hallowed. That’s what the six days are all about. They represent work days and they are a lead-up to the seventh day, a day of cosmic rest. The Jewish and Christian traditions have held that the proper human response to God’s rest is for us to also rest from our usual work. But this doesn’t mean that we do nothing. The purposeful use of the Sabbath is to worship God and study God’s word. To turn to God is to turn away from evil, at least every seventh day.
But this is Trinity Sunday. Why is the first Genesis creation story our reading on this particular day? Where is there a reference to the Trinity in this Old Testament text? You might think: well, the text says that God created through his life-giving breath, and by his word, his self-communication. These become personified later in the Bible as the Holy Spirit and the Logos, identified with the Son. So on this basis we can affirm that the God of creation is the Holy Trinity. God the Father creates by means of his Spirit and through his Word, incarnate in Jesus. “Through him all things were made,” says the Gospel of John.
But the church fathers saw the Trinity more explicitly in verse 26. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind [the Hebrew is “adam”] in our image, according to our likeness.” Who is God talking to when he says “Let us make”? Is this just the so-called “plural of majesty,” like when the queen says “We are pleased?” If so, why isn’t this expression used elsewhere in the Bible? Is God talking to the heavenly creatures? Did they have a role in helping God to create humankind? No, they have no such creative power. The only solution is that God is talking to Godself. God is a plural personality.
Moreover, the text goes on to say that God created humankind plural: male and female. Humankind is created to complement and complete one another, just as God in three persons complements and completes Godself. While there’s a lot of discussion today about gender being on a sliding scale, this isn’t about gender (which is a cultural construct); this is about biology.
In the years before I retired I had a weekly evening Bible study group at Immanuel, Evanston. We began “In the beginning” with Genesis and worked our way through the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book. We made it through the Books of Kings and Chronicles before the time came for me to retire. But I’ll never forget that when we completed Genesis, one of our regulars said, “Why, this book is all about sex!” Yes, it is. Begetting is about procreation. In the unfolding story it mattered who gave birth to whom.
Genesis 1 says that humankind is created in the image and likeness of God. In our need for one another we reflect the being of God. You can go in both directions with this. You can say that the fact of human sexual polarity and complementary points to God as a community of persons, and you can say that God as a community of persons creates humankind in his own image as a community of persons. As the second creation story in Genesis 2 says, adam is not meant to be alone. It is not good to be a self-contained organism which proceeds to develop itself. In order to develop and mature, we must have a partner, a companion, a “thou” to relate to my “I.”
Usually “I” and “thou” find expression in the marriage of a man and a woman. That’s not the only kind of relationship in which complementary and community can be experienced, but it is the most fundamental one. Yet even marriage can fail to attain its God-given potential if the couple lives only for each other. There are a lot of things people can enjoy with each other: in no particular order there’s work and vacation trips, music and art, sports and sex...and more. But in their love for each other, a couple does not reach their fulfillment when the two make their companionship an end in itself and are just taken up with each other. Marriage doesn’t exist just for its own sake; it also exists for the sake of others, including for the sake of children. The blessing of God on marriage is found in the command, “be fruitful and multiply.” And if the gift of children is denied through no fault of the couple, God sends other blessings and gives other responsibilities; for God is always the Giver of every good and perfect gift.
If marriage is in trouble today as an institution (and it is in the Western world, especially in Europe where fewer and fewer couples want to get married and have children or they have children but don’t want to get married), it is because we continue to be more focused on "me" than on "community". We’re more concerned with what I want, and what I desire, what I think I deserve, what I am afraid of, than with what is best for my partner, my family, my city, my nation, my world. While there may have been one generation called the "me" generation, the truth is that every generation is the "me" generation—from Adam and Eve on. Marriages stumble and crumble over issues of "me" over against "you". Families have difficulties and dissolve over issues of "me" over against "you". Conflicts at work, tensions in neighborhoods, gang violence, hatred and intolerance between races, wars between nations, all get their start with issues of "me" over against "you." That’s what we’re experiencing in our nation now with an intensity I’ve not known in my seventy-four years. How will this divisiveness ever be reconciled? If “me” over against “you” has been with us since the beginning, what hope is there of ever overcoming these tensions and conflicts?
Our hope, of course, is in Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Our hope is that as we sinners are reconciled with the Holy God through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we will be reconciled and restored to our brothers and sisters as well — so that through the cross of Christ humanity will be gathered into one, to live in peace with God, with others, and with the creation of which we are a part. Medieval images of the Trinity depict the bearded Father holding up the crucified Son with the dove of the Spirit as the bond between them. It is worth noting that devotion to the Trinity, which resulted in the establishment of Trinity Sunday as a universal festival, emerged during a time of plague and warfare, of suffering and death. It’s like people needed the fullness of God to cope with the brutality of life.
Pope Benedict XVI, who as Joseph Ratzinger was truly one of the great Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, writes that the answer to this "me" against "you" or "I" against "Thou" is the Trinity, "that ultimate unity in which the distinction between I and Thou is not withdrawn, but joined to each other in the Holy Spirit. In God there are three Persons, and so God is precisely the realization of ultimate unity. God did not create an individual person so that he might be dissolved but so that he might open himself in his entire height and in his innermost depth — so that the Holy Spirit embraces the individual person and is the unity of the divided persons." In practical terms, says Pope Benedict, "the Church in the deepest part of her nature, is the overcoming of the boundary between I and Thou — the union of all persons among themselves, through the radical transcendence of self, into eternal love.”
The Church is humankind being brought into the life of the Holy Trinity through word and sacrament. For this reason Jesus sends us forth to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe everything that Jesus has commanded. In entering into the life of the Holy Trinity through Baptism, our "me" against "you" is replaced with Holy Communion—a relationship with God and others that transcends our self‑centeredness and is fused into that new creation that is called the Body of Christ. This new relationship requires truly a death of the old me-centered Adam in Baptism, so that, as St. Paul writes, it will now be not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me. How does Christ live in me and in us together except by eating and drinking, ingesting and digesting the divine Godhead, present for us in the earthly gifts of bread and wine which we received in faith as the Body and Blood of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In Holy Communion we together, every Sabbath Lord’s Day, turn away from evil in the world – the world reverting to chaos – and face toward God, taking our places at the table of God’s kingdom where there is always room for one more. Amen. – Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS, Evanston, IL