Trinity Sunday

May 18, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 8
Reading 3: 
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Reading 4: 
Matthew 28:16-20
By Rick Marshall

On the Trinity
The historical definition of the Trinity makes very little sense to me. It is a confusing mystification of the divine nature using old arguments based on substance philosophy and how the three aspects of God are related. Substance philosophy is no longer persuasive and therefore undercuts the rationale for the Trinity. This idea of faith is a fundamental distraction from what the general definition of faith tends to be in the Bible, which is trusting the power of the resurrecting God.  

Discussing the text
Both the Genesis text and the Psalm establish a very simple point: God is the Creator. God’s power is ultimately defined as creative. And it is a good power. It gives life, it transforms chaos into order, and it brings new life out of death. Not only does God’s power bring into existence the things that are not, but it creates a way out of no way. It brings into play entirely new possibilities. It is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. It is the same power that is on display in creation, day after day, creating and recreating. God’s power is the basis for hope in the future. We are called to trust this God. Yet, that seems to be a difficult priority to affirm, as we often see in the Bible, and in daily life. It is a priority that needs to be repeatedly remembered, celebrated and acknowledged. God is our ultimate loyalty. Idolatry is to forget this priority and to commit our ultimate loyalty to a creature and not the Creator. Sin is a life lived, no matter how nobly, in service to a power other than God’s creative, transforming power.

The text from the end of Matthew affirms that Jesus represents and embodies the same kind of power. Jesus tells his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me.” He appeals to his disciples, on the basis of this authority invested in him, to embody that same creating transforming power, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Hence the name of this Sunday, Trinity Sunday. We also get the ending verses of 2 Corinthians and an appeal to live in the love and the peace of God. Although this statement might seem obvious and benign, it is given in the context of a different orientation to the world, which is a challenge to the powers that be. This is the peace of God, and not the kind of so-called peace that the world offers.

The texts for this Sunday seem to make a simple theological point and all of them can be used in worship to make that point: God is the Creator and we are the creatures and let’s not forget the order of the two statements.

Process Theology and the text
All the texts fit beautifully with a process perspective. Power is often the issue in the Bible and divine power is clearly defined as creative and transforming, especially in the Genesis and Psalm texts.

Process theology sees two aspects to God’s nature. This duel nature is expressed in a variety of ways within process thought. Some describe the divine nature as abstract and concrete, or primordial and consequent, or giving and receiving, and so on. The duel nature of God fits better with the basic rhythms of life: light and dark, life and death, receiving and letting go, doing down and coming up. Jesus often uses images from nature to describe the power of God in terms of planting and sowing. Things return to the earth and new things come out of the earth. The death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrates this. And Ecclesiastes expresses this rhythm as well in couplets in chapter 3. A higher unity comes in the experience of God, giving to the world and receiving from the world. This is another reason God is seen as ultimate because all things are brought together in God’s experience.

Preaching the text
The texts call us to preach on God as Creator, implying a focus on making a distinction between Creator and creation. In his analysis of sin, Paul puts his finger on the central issue in Romans 1:25: “they (the Gentiles) exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Paul then addresses the Jews at the end of Romans chapter 2 and accuses them of turning the law into their ultimate commitment and not God. This seems to be the central sin; human beings committing their ultimate loyalty to something other than God. Ultimate commitment to either God or to the creature leads to divergent ways of life; a life of commitment to and trust in God leads to well-being and peace. A life of commitment to and trust in any creature leads to anxiety and violence. This understanding of sin is still the central issue today.

Patriotism is the de facto religion in the United States of America, giving ultimate loyalty to country--quite literally, to the Fatherland. This is a direct contradiction of the Bible and its call to give ultimate loyalty to God. Patriotism is therefore a form of idolatry and an egregious form of sin. Here is the biblical logic. Empires are the maximum embodiment of human power, which justify themselves as the ultimate to which citizens owe their allegiance. Empires conflate God and country. Empires are idolatrous by definition and tend to devolve into structural patterns of oppression and injustice, using coercive power to maintain their reason for being. Since empires are an embodiment of human will standing apart or even against God, God is against empire. Witness the biblical history with Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and even the Jew’s own experiment with empire with King David. The prophetic voice speaks out against the abuses of empire: that’s why those in power are so dedicated to silencing the prophetic voice. This biblical critique of empire has implications for the United States of America because it is the current empire. If it is an empire, God is against it. What then would it mean to ask God to bless America? This places Christians in a precarious relationship to the empire, any empire, in which they live.

It is the tendency of any empire to co-opt religion in order to provide justification for its existence. Any religion that affirms, justifies, and sanctifies the coercive values of empire is what I would call Empire Religion. If we learn anything from the Bible it is that the powers that be, whoever they are, especially religious authorities, are not to be trusted with the Word of God. They are more likely to reject, abuse, manipulate, and even destroy the prophetic voice that arises from within the church.  Much of Christianity in this country is Empire Religion, insofar as it naively supports the powers that be. “My country, right or wrong” could be a bumper sticker in many church or mall parking lots. “God and Country” come in the same breath as if they were synonymous, but evil comes out of this marriage.

From the biblical world view, empire is idolatry. Empire creates the very conditions the prophets spoke against: injustice, oppression and violence. Fear is the most effective tool of the empire; the federal threat level even comes color-coded now.

The empire tries to co-opt religion and, failing that, tries to pacify it and, failing that, tries to trivialize it and, failing that, tries to discredit or intimidate it and turn it into an enemy of the state. Preachers who speak truth to power are accused of the worst possible offense: being unpatriotic. Let the stonings being. Witness the shameful treatment of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which amounted to a public stoning. Why do Christians participate in this culture of personal destruction? These are the same powers that would stone Jesus, if he were to appear among us today.

This is the kind of cultural analysis and challenge the church should be engaged in today. With the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, we are called by God to speak truth to power, in the name of God. The church must be in the world but not of the world. Preachers of God’s Word need to stand up and advocate trust in God and speak against the idolatry of patriotism and empire.

In the current presidential campaign, who does or does not wear a flag label pin, and who loves the flag and loves this country more than another candidate, are considered equally as important as other issues of economics and global climate change and war. Those who know the prophetic voice of the Bible should be wary of the promises the empire makes and the loyalty it requires and the cost of speaking against it.

What are Christians up against? A military-industrial complex bent on war; a president and vice-president whose hubris knows no bounds; a corporate media that is the public voice of special interest groups and has acts as judge and executioner; a corporate world that is rapacious in its pursuit of profit; an empire religion that has high-jacked the Bible to bless nationalistic interests. All of this is a toxic brew of lies, corruption, injustice, oppression and violence. Where will the church choose to stand: with God against empire, or with the empire against God?

Children and the text
Bring a globe or a map of the world. Point out with the children all the different countries in the world. Talk about how people are different. If the preacher has been to different countries, talk about some of the things that were seen. Then talk about similarities. There are children who have parents who want the best for them. People have jobs and live in houses. They have gardens. They have pets. They want to protect their families and enjoy life. They have to eat. They need a safe place to sleep at night. They want to have friends. So, with all the differences, there are a lot of things that are the same.

Ask, does God love one country more than any other? Of course not. All people are God’s children. God loves the whole world.

Pray, asking God to bless all the children of the world, all the countries and all the people.

1. See Cobb on the Trinity and substance thinking. Process theologians who retain a positive (reformulated) view of the Trinity include Joseph Bracken, Marjorie Suchocki, Lynne Lorenzen, and Paul Nancarrow.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.