The City Built on a Planet – Br. Mark Brown
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Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Today is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate one of our core doctrines: that is, that God is both one and a trinity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As an ancient explanation puts it: “…the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God…the whole three persons are co-eternal together and co-equal…the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.” That is from a 6th century formulation often called the “Creed of Saint Athanasius” which you can find in the back of the prayer book. It’s actually not from Athanasius, but has a more complicated history—and if you’d like to know more about it, please make your request known to the Great Google…
The early Church believed that the understanding of God as a Trinity was foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” [Gen. 1:26] And in the story of Abraham at the oaks of Mamre it says the Lord appeared to Abraham as three men, to whom Abraham bows low and addresses as “lord” (singular). And in Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple, the seraphs sing not one “holy”, but three: holy, holy, holy. These are all tenuous connections to the modern mind, but earlier generations made much of these poetic resonances, because that’s the way they thought about things. (By the way, the familiar Rublev icon of the Holy Trinity is often called the “Hospitality of Abraham” in reference to that story. The icon in the chapel this morning is one written by Br. Eldridge.)
We Christians have inherited a doctrine about the nature of God that is either a profound paradox, that is, statements that seem mutually contradictory yet are simultaneously true. Or, depending on your point of view, a non-sense, something that simply cannot be grasped by the mind functioning in its usual rational way. Perhaps this is why earlier generations used poetic language and imagery uninhibitedly when speaking of the ineffable mysteries of God.
But, enough about God and doctrine; what about us? What about people? I have to admit I’m an unrepentant, unapologetic humanist. I love God; I’m in love with God. But, if God is the object of our ultimate concern, as one theologian put it [Paul Tillich], people are the object of our immediate concern. And why not? Looking out into the cosmos as far as our instruments can “see,” it appears that, as far as we can tell, human beings are God’s most elaborate project. These extremely intricate human bodies we are, these systems of interdependent biological systems, appear to be by far the most complex things in the universe.
Other things, like stars and galaxies, are a lot bigger, but we’re actually more complex—we’re even alive! We are so complex that things are often breaking down or wearing out—and, of course, we all eventually just poop out. But we can think—and even think about thinking. We can decide whether we think a theological doctrine is paradox, poetry or nonsense—or all the above. We can decide whether we think a man standing up in front of others in white and red silk damask is being tongue-in-cheek or serious–or both. That’s pretty amazing; there may be nothing else in the cosmos that has the capacity for paradox and irony. Paradox, irony and humor are cognitive functions of a high order. But it’s quite possible that nothing funny has ever happened or anything ironic said or paradoxical thought in all one trillion stars of the Andromeda Galaxy or the 100 billion other galaxies.
We are pretty amazing creatures, even if we do get dressed up in fine silks once in a while. Which is why I think God really does care about us—and why I don’t think it’s such a stretch to believe that “the Word became flesh” in Jesus of Nazareth. Why wouldn’t God want to try out something so extraordinary that took nearly 14 billion years to create? I’m imagining God saying something like: I think I’ll go down there and try out one of those—besides, they sure could use some help.
I’ll move on to the main point: In addition to saying something about God, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity says something about human beings. “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” says the Creator in Genesis. Two things about that “likeness” come to mind.
First: there certainly seem to be a multiplicity of persons in the world. Lots of people, and no two the same—each one unique, each one distinct, and each one unrepeatable. And yet, there is in the human condition a fundamental unity that binds us all together. There is only one God; there is only one humanity—and it is us, each and every one of us. This transcendent unity is expressed in seemingly infinite diversity: each person, each group of persons can claim a distinct identity.
This transcendent unity is why none of us are completely well until all are well; none of us is completely whole until all are whole. The degradation of another human being is our degradation. Regardless of how successful or strong or healthy or wealthy we may be, the suffering or the oppression of others degrades our humanity. Regardless of how much money we have, we are poor if we are preoccupied with ourselves only and have no regard for others. That which lifts up one lifts up all and that which degrades even one child of God degrades all. In other words, we’re all in it together.
Secondly: within the oneness of God there is not only multiplicity of “persons”, but equality of persons. As the Athanasian Creed puts it, the three persons of the Holy Trinity are co-eternal and co-equal: none is greater than or less than the other. There is no hierarchy in the Trinity: no person of the Trinity is subordinate to the other or more important than the other.
Within the Holy Trinity there is radical equality. Which is not the same as “sameness”. The three persons are distinct, yet equal in dignity. So it is with us: we are distinct as persons, no two alike, each one peculiar in his or her own wonderful way. Yet we are fundamentally equal in dignity, regardless of personal characteristics or qualifications. Pope, prince, pauper, paragon of virtue or prisoner: co-equal in dignity.
This co-equal dignity, this radical equality is expressed in the Holy Communion: everyone receives the same piece of bread and the same sip of wine. The little pieces of bread may not look the same—some may be larger than others. But each piece is the same Body of Christ—each morsel of bread is the whole Body, sacramentally speaking. We all receive the whole Body of Christ, not a part of it. All receive exactly the same thing, which is to say, the whole thing–co-equal in dignity.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”
What if we actually became a society, a country, a world, that reflected the image and likeness of the God who created us? What if in our infinite variety, in our countless ways of being imperfect, in all our individuality and peculiarity and just plain nuttiness we really came to comprehend the transcendent unity that binds us all? What if in all our dazzling diversity we came to fully embrace the notion of radical equality, all human beings “co-equal” in dignity? What if these Trinitarian principles became fully incarnated in our political and economic systems, in our application of justice and in everything else?
That would be a Christian way of being human, in a deeply Trinitarian sense: life giving, life affirming, life celebrating. That would be God’s vision fulfilled, God’s image and likeness, God’s very life given human form. That would be the city built on a hill. And that light would shine to the farthest reaches of the cosmos.
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