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“Whoever finds me finds life”
Sermon for Trinity Sunday
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; John 1:1-5, 10-14
Trinity Sunday is unique in the Christian calendar. Every other festival day – Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, to give the most well-known examples – celebrates an event or action of God, but Trinity Sunday is devoted to a doctrine. That is a bit of a turnoff for many people – say the word “doctrine” in almost any context, and chances are you’ll see eyes narrow suspiciously or glaze over. And of all the Christian doctrines, the doctrine of the Trinity is the one that is considered the most arcane, perplexing, and difficult to swallow – something only academic theologians looking to publish papers could get excited about. You can tell stories about Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, or about Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s special day, but how do you tell a story about the Trinity?
All this is to say that I recognize that not everyone, even in the church, is interested in or concerned about points of Christian doctrine. A statement I often hear goes something like this: “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe something.” Or this: “Why do we have to do all this theological hairsplitting? What difference does it make, as long as we love each other?”
For almost the last two millennia, the church has been saying it makes a great deal of difference. Imagine the kind of vehement, impassioned rhetoric that goes on today around issues such as gun control, abortion, or immigration, and you’ll get a sense of the importance of doctrine in the fourth and fifth centuries. People argued in their homes and schools, and sang polemical songs in bars and in the streets, about whether the Son of God was a created being or co-existed with the Father from before all time. Our passage from the book of Proverbs played a role in these arguments, with different sides debating whether the Wisdom and Word of God were identical with Christ, the one who was with God from the very beginning, as John’s Gospel says. Later, after Christ’s divinity had been established as doctrine, the argument shifted to asking how the three persons of the Trinity actually held together. It took centuries to work out the affirmations that we make when we recite the Nicene Creed, because the church wanted to get it right. Doctrine has always been important to the Church of Jesus Christ. More recent debates about the ordination of women, and then gays and lesbians, are at root doctrinal controversies, which concern how we think about the authority of Scripture. Doctrine is the foundation of everything we do.
As a matter of fact, today’s reading from Proverbs was at the center of a doctrinal controversy in the 1990s and the subject of a 1993 conference called “Reimagining…God, Community, and the Church.” The controversy had to do with the identity of the figure of Woman Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Early Judaism and Christianity were both fascinated by Wisdom’s speech in Proverbs 8, and the church came to identify the Word and Wisdom of God with Christ. The figure of Woman Wisdom herself began to get lots of attention from feminist theologians in the late 20th century, and the ecumenical “Reimagining” conference was about giving attention to the “feminine” attributes of God. Interest in Woman Wisdom has ranged from seeing her simply as a literary personification of a key attribute of God to an actual divine being herself, essentially a goddess. A Russian Orthodox priest has described her as the essence of the Trinity, “the glue that binds Father, Son and Holy Spirit together.”[i]
So who is this Woman Wisdom, and does she have anything to do with the Trinity? We can approximate an answer by looking at the text itself. It is clear that Wisdom is a “she” and not an “it” – she has a personality. Proverbs is a book dominated by female figures: a wise mother teaching her son, a valorous wife, and, less attractively, a sinister “deceptive” woman who uses people and forms no lasting relationships. Standing above them all, noble and majestic, is Lady Wisdom, whose words are more desirable than silver or gold and who “transform[s] the life of anyone who seeks her.”[ii] She was God’s companion at the very beginning, God’s “master worker” at the Creation, something like an artisan or architect. What is especially notable about her is that she shares in God’s delight in the created world, especially in human beings. Even more important, she and God delight in each other, and their joy flows out to the created world. Like God, Woman Wisdom is continually engaged in seeking and finding those who will follow her teaching and thereby find joy and peace and abundant life. As Marilynne Robinson has noted, “Those who seek wisdom participate in the holy joy that formed the world.”[iii]
For all these reasons, the early church associated the figure of Wisdom with Christ, the Word of God made flesh, the second person of the Trinity. She has also been associated with the Holy Spirit. She has not, however, been considered as a separate divine being herself. It would be going well beyond the biblical text to say that Wisdom herself is a divine person, a member of the Trinity (and the conference I described earlier was heavily criticized for going too far with the personification of Wisdom).
Yet the Proverbs picture of Wisdom delighting in, even playing, with human beings tells us something about the God who is involved with the world. This is what it means for the Word to become flesh, to stake a claim in human affairs, as Lady Wisdom does. This is where the church cannot help seeing in this Old Testament figure something of the grace and truth of Jesus Christ and the animating force of the Holy Spirit.
The essence of the Trinity is personality. Throughout the centuries, Christian thinkers have offered analogies to help us think about the Trinity, like Tertullian’s in the third century: The Trinity is like a plant, with the Father as the deep root, the Son as the shoot that breaks forth into the world, and the Spirit as that which spreads beauty and fragrance through the earth. Many others have been offered, like a comparison to water as ice, liquid and vapor. The problem with analogies, though, aside from the fact that they inevitably lead us into various heresies, is that they miss something crucial, and that is the dimension of personality. Personality is what is at the very center of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is meant to give us a picture of God’s innermost life. The persons of the Trinity do not exist independently. They don’t act on their own and report back to the committee. They exist as interrelated persons. (The famous Russian icon you see on the screens [by Rublev] as a symbolic picture of the Trinity focuses on this relationship.) The persons of the Trinity form a “community of love” perpetually given and received, and radiating out into the world. The eastern Orthodox branch of the church has used a technical-sounding word, perichoresis, to describe this divine reality, but the meaning of the word is more poetic than technical – it means, literally, “dancing around.” Think of the Trinity as a kind of divine dance, the love of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, not flowing one to the other and then another in some kind of top-down fashion that eventually “trickles down” to us, but a true “society of love” (Augustine), equally given and equally received, uncontained and overflowing. Each one exists only in this relationship; what one does, the others do, too.
I started by suggesting that you can’t tell a story about the Trinity. Well, the whole Bible is a story about the Trinity (even though the word “Trinity” doesn’t occur in the Bible). The doctrine of the Trinity tells us about a God who created the whole world in delight, and placed human creatures in this amazing world to tend it and care for it. It tells us about a God who loved these human creatures in such a way that God in Christ was willing to suffer and die for them, and so we, too, are called to love sacrificially, giving of ourselves for the sake of others. It tells us about a God whose Spirit can’t be contained by a church or a religion, but that spills out into the world wherever wisdom is sought, wherever truth is spoken, wherever good news is brought to the poor and oppressed people are set free. The God we know as Trinity is the fiery, passionate lover of justice who burns through the words of the prophets and speaks through the mouth of Jesus, the Spirit of grace and truth whose light shines in the darkness.
So we hold fast to our ancient confession of one God made known to us in three persons. The Trinity is not a formula for explaining God (or for confusing us about God) but points to a Divine Being who can’t be captured by formulas. “Trinity,” for all its descriptive power, is still an approximation: a window into the inexhaustible mystery of the one God, whose creating Word and life-giving Spirit shine in the face of Jesus Christ.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
June 16, 2019
[i] Sergei Bulgakov, Sophia, the Wisdom of God: An Outline of Sophiology (Hudson: Lindisfarne Press, 1993), cited in “Who is Sophia?”, Priscilla Papers: The academic journal of CBE International (www.cbeinternational.org/resources/articles/priscilla-papers).
[ii] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 94.
[iii] “Wisdom and light: John’s prologue as midrash” (www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-03/wisdom-and-light.