Beloved Community



Hosea 11:1-4; Psalms 130:5-131:3

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 May 2024

               Earlier this week when I told one person it was Trinity Sunday, they responded, “Trinity?  What’s that?”  At least they didn’t think we were doing some Barbenheimer celebration, since the location of the first atomic bomb was the Trinity Test Site. 

            So I put “Trinity?” down as my sermon title.  Hoping that seeing that your eyes wouldn’t glaze over and your mind go numb.  Surely the question mark would inspire a little spark of curiosity.

            Christianity teaches that there is one and only one God, but that God exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The ordinary Christian layperson might be aware that there were early church Councils and creeds that tried to spell out all of the metaphysics.  With the resulting divisions, conflicts, and schisms when folks disagreed.

After I explained Trinity the person said, “I don’t really understand.”  To which I said, “Don’t worry, no one does.  Which is actually the point I think—mystery.”

So, today we won’t go on some historical discursus through ancient creeds diving deep into Greek metaphysics.  Instead, I want to talk about the revival of Trinitarian thinking about God as part of the explosion of new theology in the last half century.

Which, might be a surprise—that this incomprehensible, old idea would have new lease in an era of globally diverse and pluralistic theological voices. 

Earlier this year I taught in First Forum about the vibrant blooming of theological ideas and perspectives on God since the end of the Second World War.  Liberationist, feminist, queer, postcolonial, ecological, and more ways of thinking and talking about God have emerged and engaged in conversation with one another.

Long gone, at least in theological circles, are out-dated notions of an all-powerful, patriarchal deity, distant from creation, exacting judgement and punishment upon wayward people.  That such ideas still permeate the consciousness of so much of the public is sad.  And well out-of-step with the best ideas of the contemporary Christian Church.

The book I used to structure our adult education series was Quest for the Living God by the prominent Catholic, feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson.  And yes, there are Catholic, feminist theologians.  That she has been able to successfully navigate those two identities throughout her career is to her credit and one reason her thinking and writing about God is so rich.

Elizabeth Johnson provides us three rules of thumb for our thinking and talking about God.  Three rules that I’ve taken to heart.  I’ve even suggested that we paint them on a wall somewhere in the building.

First, is that “the reality of the living God is an ineffable mystery beyond all telling.”  Meaning first off, that God is fundamentally a mystery that will transcend every effort we take to conceive it.  And also meaning that all of our words will always be inadequate. 

Which leads to the second rule of thumb—“no expression for God can be taken literally.”  Not only is every word we use about God inadequate, those words can never be literal descriptions, they are always symbols, metaphors, analogies, allegories, or something like that which only hints at what we are talking about.  This is one area that actually has often strained my atheist friends, when they ask about my “God-talk” and I respond, “It’s all metaphor.”

Johnson’s third rule of thumb, is that because of the inadequacy and limitations of all our thinking and talking about God, it becomes necessary then to give God many names.  No one perspective, voice, concept, creed, confession, description, word, or name can tell us who God is.  So we should hold our convictions with humility and the sense that our beliefs are that—ours.  Which means we need to listen to other people and their perspectives.  To be open.  To learn from them.  To expand our own ideas.  Or to hold gently a multitude of ideas at once, never settling into any firm foundations. 

It also means, we must listen not only to other Christians, but even to what other religions say about God.  For Elizabeth Johnson this openness to religious pluralism arises because of our Trinitarian views of God.  She quotes these ideas from the theologian Jacques Dupuis: “The expansiveness of God’s inner life overflowing outside the Godhead is the root cause for the existence in history of divergent paths leading to a unique common goal, the absolute mystery of God.”

So, instead of Trinity being some ancient notion that creates stumbling-blocks for us, it can be the opening to a religious pluralism and global diversity of voices about God.  How’d that happen?

Well, I think we must first understand the renewal of Trinitarian language as part of what was a radical shift in theology to think of God as open and relational.  Some of the origins of these changes lie in the extreme suffering of humanity in the face of great evil, especially in the Second World War, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, the colonial wars for independence, which led to reconsidering what we believe about God’s power and goodness and how that connects to evil and suffering.

The result was an emphasis on a God who feels.  Like how God is described in Hosea or today’s Psalms.  A God who isn’t remote and distant, but is present, immediately and always, with creation, feeling what we feel, living in solidarity with us, and empowering us to respond to the trials of this world and our lives.  Such a God is not all powerful, at least not as that was once understood.  Instead, God also suffers and feels pain and hurt, and responds.  This God doesn’t endorse the status quo, but instead works with the victims, the oppressed, and the poor to undo the injustices of this world.

Another source of these changes was our new scientific understandings.  That the universe is very old, incomprehensibly large, complexly interconnected, and profoundly dynamic.  God is a part of this vast process, guiding it and inspiring it, but not in dictatorial control.  And this universe has its own agency and role to play within the creative process—God is open and responsive to the novel changes arising from universe.

God then works not through fiats and orders and extreme acts, but instead through relationships—luring, inspiring, drawing the world and us toward what God dreams for us.

And so we recover the idea that God is Trinity—mystery beyond our understanding—except that the one thing we do understand is that God at God’s core is a relationship.

Here’s how Elizabeth Johnson describes it:

To say that God is one is to negate division, thus affirming the unity of divine being: there is only one God.  To say that the “persons” are three is to negate solitariness, thus affirming that divine being dwells in living communion.  The holy mystery of God is not a single monolith with a rigid nature, an undifferentiated whole, but a living fecundity of relational life that overflows to the world.”

            God is fruitful and abundant life, fruitful and abundant relationship, so fruitful and abundant that they overflow into creation.  Or as one of my other favorite theologians describe it, God is an “ecstatic fellowship.”  Or, as First John simply puts it, “God is love.”

            So, when we talk about Trinity these days, we aren’t trying to spell out the details of a metaphysics.  We are trying to express, in inadequate words and symbolic language, what we feel in our religious experience of the love, compassion, and aliveness of God.

            And, we usually do so in a burst of contemporary idioms.  Like Sally MacFague’s Mother, Lover, and Friend.  Or Karen Armstrong’s drawing parallels with other religions in describing Nothingness, Ungraspable, Ultimate Innerness of Every Being.  Or Anthony Kelly’s Giver, Gift, and Giving.  Or Peter Hodgson’s One, Love, and Freedom.  Johnson herself likes to draw from our DNA and imagine a triple helix that brings forth, heals, and creates anew.

            The only way we know and interact with God, then, is relationally, as we live a life of communion and compassion.  The love that is God overflows into us such that, as she describes it, “the glory of God is the communion of all things fully alive.”

            I delight in her description of how we encounter God:

Wherever the human heart is healed, justice gains a foothold, peace holds sway, an ecological habitat is protected, wherever liberation, hope and healing break through, wherever an act of simple kindness is done, a cup of cool water given, a book offered to a child thirsty for learning, there the human and earth community already reflect, in fragments, the visage of the trinitarian God.

            And, so that we might hear various voices, and glory in our dynamic, adventurous, loving, mysterious God, I have invited three folks to come close out this sermon by reading a litany formed from the UCC Stillspeaking Writers’ Group book Stating Our Faith in Urgent Times:


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