May 22, 2016 — First Sunday After Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
Rev. Alison Quin
Understanding the Trinity
How many of you read the book, The Shack? That book has one of my favorite descriptions of the Trinity ever.
The book is about a man who is lost in anger and bitterness and guilt over the murder of his five year old daughter ten years earlier. He receives a note in the mail, signed Papa, which is his wife’s name for God, inviting him to the shack in the woods where his daughter was killed.
He is skeptical and afraid, but he feels drawn to go and he does. When he gets there, the shack turns into a cozy cabin. He meets a tall African American woman who introduces herself as the cook and the housekeeper. She tells him to call her Papa.
Then he meets Jesus, who is a Jewish carpenter, who likes to fix things around the cabin. Finally, he meets Sarayu, who is described as an Asian woman who shimmers, whose hair blows in the wind even when there is no wind. She tells him she is the gardener.
They are the Holy Trinity.
This is a brilliant book of theological reflection for many reasons. Like all good theology, it begins with someone’s experience of God. Just as Shane and Elizabeth began their sermon on the Holy Spirit last week with their own stories, this book begins with the central character’s story. Like most of us, he encountered God when he was in dire straits and needed help. Shane described crying out to God for help when she was starting recovery and was about to share her story and was scared. Elizabeth described God being present when she was depressed and ill, and people helped her. I encountered God when I was 30 years old, an atheist, terrified that my brother would die. He was addicted to drugs and had tried to kill himself. I begged God to save him, and as I prayed, I experienced a kind of peace that I had never experienced before.
I became a believer in God, but it took a while for me to come to terms with the Holy Trinity. I couldn’t deal with Jesus initially. How could God become human? And what did it mean that he suffered and died for me? Jesus didn’t make sense to me and the Holy Spirit as far as I was concerned was mumbo jumbo. I sat at the back of the church and didn’t say the creed and didn’t take communion. But I kept feeling drawn to the table and one day I went up and received communion. And I was overwhelmed with the love and the sense of welcome and acceptance I felt there. Jesus reached out to me in the Eucharist, and in his teachings, and in the people who were loving to me and taught me about faith. As time went on, I began to identify the Holy Spirit as the God within, the God who guides, comforts, inspires, challenges and surprises me.
The church came up with the concept of the Trinity—God who is both one and three–as a short hand way to speak about the God of love revealed in Scripture and experience. We experience God as the source of all life, God as the One who comes to find us when we are lost, and God who is with us in every moment.
The Trinity is a powerful way to speak about God, but it can also limit the way we think of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit can sound like an all-male club. And because of the world dominance of Western Europe, it has often been depicted in art as an all-white club as well.
So the author of The Shack deliberately plays with the gender and race of the persons of the Trinity, except for Jesus, who lived in history as a Jewish man. The protagonist is shocked when he realizes that God the Father is an African American woman, but she tells him, “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it is because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning…To reveal myself to you as a very large white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes…”
The author wants to open up our understanding of God, to expand our thinking rather than limit it. His imagery is fresh but it has deep roots in Scripture. At the very beginning, in Genesis, God says, “Let us make humankind in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves…So God created humankind in God’s image, male and female in God’s own image.”
If we are made in God’s image and God is in each of us, then we must also be in God. Words can never adequately describe God, but words are powerful and can generate new ways of thinking about God, new ways to understand our relationship with God. The beauty and diversity of God’s people reflects the beauty and diversity of God.
The author takes another innovative step in the roles that he ascribes to God. Instead of Sovereign, King of Kings, Ruler of All, God is the cook and housekeeper, the carpenter and handyman, and the gardener.
These roles also stimulate reflection about the God of love. What is love but providing a home and making food for someone? What is love but fixing things around the house, making things whole again? And what is love but helping people grow and bloom and bear fruit?
God is sovereign, but God is also servant. As Jesus says: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” God is all-powerful, but as the Holy Spirit character says in The Shack, “Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself—to serve.”
God doesn’t dominate. Instead, God loves us and invites us into the relationship of love that is the Trinity. God longs to welcome us into the house of love. God seeks us out when we are lost and hurt and brings us home where we can be healed and transformed. God tends us and cares for us our whole life long, helping us to grow into people who can love and heal others.
When we celebrate the Holy Trinity, we celebrate the God of love—God who made us, Jesus who saves us and the Spirit who transforms us. May the God of love, the Three in One, welcome you home, cook you nourishing food, fix whatever needs fixing, and tend you until you bloom and grow and become food for the world.