Trinity Sunday May 26, 2013 Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31 John 16: 12-15
Rev. Catherine Purves
It seems to be part of our human nature that we are problem solvers. We cast a critical eye on the world around us and we perceive things that need to be fixed. Perhaps this is intellectual pride, or a drive to dominate our environment, or a need to feel useful and creative. Or it may be a subtle cocktail of all of these ingredients. But whether it stems from pride, a lust for power, or a desire to create, human beings are industrious problem solvers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because we do have plenty of problems that need to be solved. But when it comes to our faith and our knowledge of God I see two dangers arising from this particular aspect of human nature.
The first is that we might impute this problem solving characteristic back into God and assume that this is part of the image of God in which we were created. This turns God into the great problem solver in the sky. It makes the inner workings of the divine “mind” something to be contemplated. It imposes some sort of human logic or rationality onto God. This is very subtly done, and I suppose we all do it to a certain degree. But this draws God into the human web of actions and reactions in which problem solving thrives. It sees God as above all a thinking being whose interactions with human beings must make sense to human beings because (we assume) God is a reasonable problem solver just like us.
Here is the problem with that way of thinking about God. It has limits. Rather, it places limits on God. It assumes that God must make sense to us and that God must think and act like a human. God must accommodate our rational categories. God must see things the way we see them, and therefore God must agree with us. It assumes that God relates to the world in the same way that we relate to the world, with a problem-solving mentality, so that everything becomes a project, and all attention is focused on putting things right, solving the problem, correcting past errors. This runs the risk of so domesticating God that the awe and mystery and wonder of God’s dealings with us and with creation are contained in small boxes that we can understand. If you do that, you are making God too small. You are not really worshiping God at all, but your very human ideas about God.
Let me show you how that works, and what it does to our sense of who God is and how God acts. This is something of an exaggeration, just so you’ll get the point. You look around you, and you discover a problem. Human beings are a rebellious and a sinful lot. They neither honor God, nor do they treat one another well. That is a problem. We assume that it is a problem for God since it is a real puzzler for us. Next, we discover Jesus Christ and decide that he must be the solution to our problems that God has devised. Jesus then is seen as a sort of invention of God created to solve our problem. The actual mechanics of this Jesus-invention are rather complicated, but we strain to make sense of them and bend them to fit if we can’t quite see them as entirely rational.
The way in which Jesus solves our problem, however, involves his death, and then, after the resurrection, his departure from this earth. Here is another problem. Now we are more or less on our own again, and that problem of sin has not really gone away. How will God solve this problem? Back to the drawing board, and the Holy Spirit is the result. The Spirit becomes our link to the Father and the Son, the source of life for the church, a truly useful problem solving invention.
I have portrayed this in a caricatured way so that what is wrong with this way of thinking is, hopefully, obvious. We are not letting God be God. We are willing God to be our problem solver, even to the extent that God’s very being as Trinity is seen as a solution to our problems, rather than simply recognizing it as God’s holy nature from before the creation of the world. God was always Trinity. The Trinity is not a clever threefold invention which God devised in order to solve our problems.
Our reading from Proverbs reveals a kind of community in God going all the way back to creation, in fact, before creation. Wisdom is envisioned as another active partner in the godhead. This is not a text without its own problems. Verse 22 has been analyzed and debated, and remains somewhat puzzling. “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.” The word ‘created’ could mean that a thing was ‘made’ or it could mean that it was ‘born’. If we understand Wisdom as being identical with the Word of God which is another way of referring to Jesus Christ, then this distinction is significant. Was Jesus invented or begotten? If Jesus is of the very nature of God, part of the eternal Trinity, we must say begotten.
The verse continues by saying that this was “at the beginning of his work,” but footnoted in your Bible is an alternative translation which is of interest. It reads, “The Lord created me as the beginning of his way.” This captures and conveys the notion that God was always Trinity; this was God’s way of being God. And Proverbs goes on to insist that this was all before the beginnings of the earth, because the Wisdom or Word of God was active in creation. “I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
You see, Jesus cannot simply be the solution to our problem, because Jesus was Son of God before we were a problem and before we had a problem. Adam had not yet been formed of the dust of the earth (vs. 26). Adam had not sinned. Our troubles had not begun. How egocentric and how earth-bound we are to think that God’s very nature must be determined by us and in response to our problems? Alternatively, how vast and large is our sense of God who was always Trinity, three persons existing in mutual love, saving grace, and abounding creativity? This is the God we know and worship.
Now, here is the second danger that I perceive. Having recognized that we humans tend to be problem solvers, some uncharitable non-believers will look at the doctrine of the Trinity and see in it, not God’s solution to our problems (which it is not), but a human invention devised to solve our problems. They will argue that the word ‘Trinity’ isn’t even found in the Bible. This is true. They will say that Trinity makes no sense. It is a jerry-built concept that was used to try to make sense of Jesus being God and man and a way to explain his ongoing relationship with the post-Pentecost church. It took centuries to get the doctrine of the Trinity fully worked out. This is true. So, these non-believers conclude, the Trinity is obviously a human invention devised to solve a human problem.
This perspective, which has even made some inroads into the church itself, is laboring under the same error, however. That is, that everything must somehow be related to us and our problems. Whether we see God as our problem solver in the sky or our theology as a human solution to our problems, we are still putting ourselves at the center. We are still assuming that the nature of God is dictated by our needs. In the first instance we are putting limits on God’s grace and the eternal nature of the Trinity. In the second we are ignoring the self-revealing of that eternal nature in the Son and through the Spirit.
Look at our second reading from the Gospel of John. These few verses are found in the middle of the long final conversation which Jesus has with his disciples before he is arrested and crucified. It will eventually culminate in a prayer for the disciples, but here Jesus is still giving them instructions. He is framing the future for them, preparing them for what is to come, and communicating essential truths about their ongoing relationship with God. This is from the mouth of Jesus.
He begins by saying, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Notice that Jesus is not giving them (or us) a puzzle or a problem that must be solved. Our inability to understand or to bear some things is not a challenge to be met or a problem to be resolved. It is a knowledge yet to be revealed. It is a promise that we will receive. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus says, “he will guide you into all truth.” Jesus vows to reveal what they (and we) need to know by the Spirit of God. But who is this Spirit? Then follows a rather entangled description of the inner life of the Trinity, for all are involved in this work of revelation. The Spirit, Jesus says, “will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine.” The word ‘Trinity’ may not appear as such in the Bible, but here in these two verses (as elsewhere) all three persons are to be found and their common work is revealed as the fulfilling of an everlasting purpose, for God was always Trinity.
Contrary, then, to our nature as problem solvers, I suggest on this Trinity Sunday that we are not, from God’s point of view, a problem to be solved, but precious children, chosen before the foundation of the world in Christ. Neither are we given a problem that we must solve through our own theological creativity. The Trinity is not just a doctrine that the church invented, but the true nature of God revealed. And so, today we can relax our problem solving obsession and rest in the knowledge of the triune God revealed by God. We do that with awe and wonder, not with airtight arguments, or proof-texting, or problem solving. We do that as we humbly worship God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons, revealed and known in the outpouring of divine grace and love.