The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday, June 4, 2023

June 2, 2023 | by Thomas Hermans-Webster

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 1:1-2:4a Psalm 8 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 Matthew 28:16-20

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Psalm 8

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20

A temptation of Trinity Sunday is to, somehow, prove the doctrine in the sermon. This temptation is understandable, for Trinity Sunday is a feast day that celebrates a doctrine rather than an event. For congregations that take up the festal day, the preacher should certainly be ready to engage the Trinitarian mystery of Christian faith in the sermon. The nuanced difference between engage and prove, however, is crucial for the process-and-relationally-minded community of faith. The gospel lesson gives a helpful glimpse into the significance of this distinction.

Today’s gospel lesson has been read as agenda-setting, mission-launching, authority-proving, and ministry-evaluating. After the Resurrection, Jesus comes to the remaining eleven disciples, including those who were doubting the events. He speaks, contextualizing the life that they had lived together up to that moment with a commission to “Go therefore and μαθητεύσατε all of the ἔθνη.” The disciples are to go, baptizing and teaching the ἔθνη to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. Process theologians recognize the value of the past, enlivening and enriching the present, casting a vision for the future. In a chiasmus-callback, the gospel writer cleverly evokes the one-who-shall-be-called “Emmanuel, God-with-us,” (Mt 1:23) as the one who sends forth the disciples and tells them to remember that he will always be with them.

The Trinitarian formula in the baptismal language is a clear moment for the preacher and reflects Jesus’s teachings at other points in Matthew’s gospel. Like the Genesis poetry in today’s first reading, the formula reflects a liturgical practice of communities that influenced the scriptures, sacred stories, and theological thinking of those communities. Jesus taught his disciples to pray to the one who Jesus called “Abba” (Mt 6:9-13). Led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus confronted evil both in the wilderness (Mt 4:1) and in the personal and interpersonal lives of people in his ministry (Mt 12:18, 28). Descending like a dove, the Holy Spirit was present at Jesus’s baptism as a voice from heaven claimed him as “Son” (3:16-17). Instead of doctrinal proclamations with rich–or, sometimes, convoluted–philosophical and theological argumentation, the Trinitarian formula in the gospel lesson emerges from the apostles’ and their communities’ faithful life-in-Christ together.

Though not exactly the empirical method that characterizes the Whiteheadian inheritance of process theology, the gospeller’s attention to their community’s life-in-Christ, to their experiences and growth, can instruct the preacher’s approach to preaching about the holy mystery of Triunity on this doctrinal feast day. Above, I left two words in Greek on purpose because they’re particularly process-y in their tone: μαθητεύσατε and ἔθνη.

The latter, ἔθνη, can be translated in a number of ways, including “the nations,” as the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates it. Matthew, writing for a predominantly Greek-speaking and Jewish Early Christian community, would have likely been familiar with the Pauline use of the term and the use of the term in the Septuagint’s record of the Hebrew Scriptures. “The nations,” yes. More specifically, the Gentile nations, those nations that had not been initially included in the Covenants of Israel.

Again, with chiastic creativity, the gospeller who included women from outside of Israel in Jesus’s genealogy to open the good news now casts the vision of discipleship beyond Israel; a move that process theologian Theodore Walker, Jr., would call us to recognize as “the more inclusive good news.” Engaging the Trinitarian mystery of the Christian faith today, process theology seeks to proclaim the more inclusive good news of God who is in mutually-uplifting, dynamic, real relationships with the whole cosmos; God who is Love-in-Action (a loving beloved lover!) for the life of the whole world.

The former, μαθητεύσατε, is traditionally rendered in English as “make disciples.” Process theology’s organic and organismic challenge to mechanistic thinking begs the preacher to peel back the industrial, mechanical, and colonial layers of “make disciples.” Frankly, none of us make disciples. We, clergy and laity alike, participate in the mutual interdependence that brings forth and contributes to the growth of disciples, but we do not make disciples. The Greek aids such a process interpretation, for μαθητεύσατε is an aorist, imperative, active verb: discipling.

What possibilities arise for Trinity Sunday when we experience Jesus’s commission as a sending forth to disciple the world in the more inclusive good news of God who is Love-in-Action? Perichoresis is a traditional theological term for the Trinity that seeks to describe the dynamic interrelationality of the divine persons who love one another and the world in a circle (peri-) dance (choresis). Reading Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, these holy three share a table and gaze toward the reader as if to lure us to join them in the empty space. Dancing and eating, Triune God is described in language that depends on incarnating love who comes alongside.

Process theology has long advocated for a Christian faithfulness that centers creative, transformative, restorative, and vivacious loving. Discipling the world in the life of Christ requires us to live Life-in-Christ; to live in such ways that the world recognizes its divine poet, creatively hovering over waters, lovingly enfleshing among us, passionately working for justice, beautifully spangling throughout the cosmos, suffering alongside us, overcoming evil with us. When this divine Three-One becomes our living partner in faith, hope, and love for the world, language of dominion and sovereignty cannot follow old interpretations of domination and exceptionalism in word and deed.

While process theologians love to revel in the first chapter of Genesis–after all, who among us doesn’t love liturgical poetry about creativity that challenges conceptions of creatio ex nihilo while Spirit hovers over the face of the waters that are very clearly there before God utters a phrase–a preacher who wants to focus on the Trinitarian themes of the day faces a supersessionism challenge. The temptation for supersessionist readings of this first Genesis creation story are clear and ought to be avoided: the “wind from God” (Gen 1:2) can be accurately read as a “Spirit from God,” but that does not mean that the Genesis storytellers, liturgists, and scribes were prefiguring a divine person in keeping with later substance-based Trinitarian Christian theology; likewise, the divine “us” (1:26) need not be the Johannine Logos in order for God’s creative and compassionate plurisingularity to invite us to recognize the beauty of living beyond monarchical and binary paradigms.[i]

If you are not focusing on the feast day (and especially if you are!), then let the dynamic interrelationality of process thought hone your discernment for planetary well-being and ecological justice. When we recognize our solitariness as selves, we meet the inescapably beautiful fact that we each become into each moment through the countless relationships with people, human and other-than-human, who give themselves to us. Likewise, we recognize that we give ourselves over to others and are invited to practice the accompaniment of discipling and being discipled in Love’s life. Resist notions of dominion that misconceive humanity as removed from, oblivious to, and lording over our relationships with creatures great and small who yield seed and fruit, who flitter wing and wriggle tail, who give light upon the earth and feed the swarms of creatures who fill Earth.

Process theology’s organic and organismic understandings of the cosmos encourage us to live life-in-Christ as relatives with one another and all of our creaturely kindred. Paul commends the Corinthians to one another in the communion of the Holy Spirit, who, later Christians came to call the “Lord and Giver of Life.” The relational language is relatedness to Paul, to one another as siblings (2 Cor 13:11), and to the saints (2 Cor 13:12); presumably those other Christians with whom Paul was in ministry but who did not live in or worship in Corinth. Paul bore witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit by pouring into the relational well-being of the early Christian community in Corinth, commending them to one another in love and peace. For Paul, discipling these siblings in the organism of the church had less to do with making them believe a particular philosophical formulation–of course, he was much earlier than those Ecumenical Councils–and more to do with living with them into the life of the trinitizing, ever-loving God-with-us.

God invites us into ever-growing, dynamic trinity-loving life. Utterly unlike the Sovereign who sits, immutable and impassible, enthroned in extraterrestrial omnipotence, God is with us. This feast day gives the preacher the chance to engage the Trinity in faith and joy. Then, join and call the People of God to disciple in love, with all of our relatives, for the life of the world, in the beauty of God.

[i] Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (London: Routledge, 2003), 172-182.

Tom is the son of Alabama Methodists whose experiences of Christianity have led him to ordination and ministry in theological education. He earned his PhD from Boston University School of Theology, where he developed a process theology of Holy Communion in a sacramental ecotheology from Norman Pittenger, Theodore Walker, Jr., Monica Coleman, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Mary Elizabeth Moore, and others. Currently, he serves as the Acquiring Editor at Orbis Books in Maryknoll, New York, and on the steering committee of the Open and Relational Theologies Unit of the AAR.