The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday (Year A), 7 June 2020
June 7, 2020 | by Paul Nancarrow
|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|
The first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost, better known as Trinity Sunday, is the only day in the Christian liturgical calendar given to the celebration of a theological doctrine. It has been known to strike terror into the hearts of preachers everywhere. Many of my ministerial colleagues would note that this was a Sunday they would regularly assign their associates or assistants or ministry interns to preach. The doctrine of the Trinity is often regarded as a strange and obscure intellectual conundrum, required by the historical development of the faith in its early dependence on Greek philosophy, but having little of any concrete value to say to the practical dimensions of living and working in the world for justice and peace today.
A process-relational reading of the doctrine would give a very different assessment. What matters most in this reading is that the doctrine of the Trinity makes relationality a fundamental characteristic of God in Godself. Classical theism tends to treat God as completely self-sufficient, and God’s relation to the world as a secondary characteristic, affecting the world but not effecting any kind of change in God. Different process theologians will give differing accounts of how specific items in Whitehead’s philosophy might be connected to the Persons of the Trinity — Is the Primordial Nature of God equivalent to the “Father,” the Consequent to the “Son,” and the Superjective to the Spirit? Are the Persons like distinct but related personal societies of occasions within the ongoing concrescence of God? — or whether any such connections can consistently be made. But process theologians who take up the topic of the Trinity agree that putting relationality squarely at the heart of God, not simply in God’s relation to the world but principally in God’s way of being God, is key to appreciating the present practical importance of the traditional teaching.
The readings chosen to reflect the teaching of the Trinity on this day all speak to this divine relationality.
The Creation story in Genesis 1:1—2:2a is the major reading for this day, and the most extended exploration of divine relationality.
The whole story unfolds according to a logic of differentiation and relationship. Each phase of creation begins with God introducing a difference, and resolves with God setting the differentiated creatures into new and generative relational patterns. So God introduces into the pervasive original darkness the new reality of light. But the light does not simply drive away or cancel the darkness: the light and the dark are set into a new relational pattern of day and night, and that reliably cyclical alteration creates the condition for all the other phases of Creation to unfold. So God introduces into the primordial deep a “dome” or “firmament” — a hollow space that is different from the deep by being open and free for movement. But the hollow space does not simply drive away or cancel the deep; the relationship between the dome and the waters above the heavens creates the possibility of rain (according to ancient Hebrew cosmology), essential to the flourishing of life that is to come. So God introduces into the waters below the heavens the difference of dryness: dry land appears, and the land and the sea are set in relationship defined by shores. God introduces the difference between “living” and “non-living,” and vegetation appears on the earth, each kind of plant with its own kind of seed, so that lineages of plants are related through time as species of plants are related in the soil. God differentiates the light of heaven into sun and moon and stars, and their ongoing relationships set patterns of seasons and days and years. Fish and animals and birds are differentiated from their non-living surroundings in sea and soil and atmosphere, and are set in relationships of fruitfulness and multiplicity. The entire panoply of the experienced world is thus built up from an iterative process of differentiation and relationship.
In a culminating act of creation, God makes human beings. This work of God is different from the others, in a way we can discuss more fruitfully after noting a second level of relationality in the preceding phases.
God creates the world by introducing differentiation and setting differences into relationship. But God also enters into relationship with the differentiated creatures in each phase. In the first and second phases, God initiates difference with a passive imperative: “Let there be light”; “Let there be a dome.” God does not say “I create light” or “I create a dome.” The creature, not the Creator, is the grammatical subject of the sentence, and the meaning of the odd verb voice comes down to something like “May light now have the potentiality to exist.” God grants potency, God empowers light and dome to exist; their existence is an act of self-realization in co-creativity with God. God does not simply create them from without, but God joins in relationship with them to co-create them from within. Similarly in later phases, God says “Let the earth bring forth” and “Let the waters bring forth”; God does not say “I create animals” or “I create fish,” but God empowers the surrounding matrix to differentiate into myriad living creatures. Yet this is also God’s own creative work; after recording that God says “Let the earth or sea bring forth,” the text goes on to assert “God made the great sea monsters” and “God made the wild animals” and so on. Here the creative work is both God’s direct act and God’s empowering of earth and sea to act. The differentiation and relationship of the phases and cycles of life is a co-creative activity of God and creatures together. God thereby enters into intimate active relationship with every creature created.
Except for human beings. In this final phase of Creation, God says “Let us make humankind in our image.” There is no passive imperative, no “Let there be,” no “Let the earth bring forth.” Humans do not appear to be differentiated from any preexisting water or soil, nor do they appear to have any co-creative share in their own making. This implies a direct dependence on God, an unmediated relationship with God, that sets human beings apart within the panoply of Creation. This godlikeness is emphasized when God blesses humans and tells them to be fruitful and multiply, as God had with the fish and the animals, but then goes on to tell them to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
This special godlikeness of humans in the earth has been used to justify what is sometimes called “dominion theology,” making the claim that human beings stand apart from “nature” and are authorized to do whatever they like with natural resources for their own human benefit. From a process point of view, we would have to take a very different view of the “dominion” ordered here. If human “dominion” in Creation derives from special likeness to God, then the “dominion” God has visibly exercised in the story so far is a process of differentiation and relationship, of empowering new creatures to become themselves and to arrange themselves in dynamic patterns of relationship with other creatures around them. God’s power in this story is persuasive not coercive, power-with not power-over; and if humans derive a special power in Creation from their special likeness to God, it is to be this same kind of persuasive and empowering power-with. Thus humans in Creation are not removed from or standing over the web of relationality that makes the world, but are created for the express purpose of intertwining deeply with the patterns of Creation and empowering them to flourish. If humans share in co-creativity with God to a superlative degree, it is not to aggrandize them over other creatures, but to share generatively in the self-realization of other creatures. Humans are called to exemplify God’s generous co-creativity to a self-transcending degree.
Finally, one other aspect of divine relationality in this passage is a hint of relationship not between God and Creation, but within God. This is nothing like a fully developed idea of Three Persons in One Being; the developed doctrine of the Trinity is of course a Christian idea, brought about by the earliest disciples’ conviction that they had encountered in Jesus the true and living God; there is no justification for saying such a doctrine is “hidden” or “latent” or “foreshadowed” in a passage of Hebrew Scripture written from a point of view of absolute commitment to the Oneness of God. Still, with that important caveat, and being clear that we are reading this passage through a consciously Christian lens, we can interpret a kind of threeness in each creative act of God. First God originates or initiates creativity, saying “Let there be” or “Let x bring forth.” But God also articulates or characterizes that creativity, giving definition and name to that which is created, joining in co-creative realization of the creature. And God also “sees that it is good”: God receives the goodness of the creature into God’s own experience, unifying that created goodness with the goodness of the whole and the goodness of God’s self. These three aspects of creative activity correspond roughly — very roughly — with the traditional functions of the Persons of the Trinity: Father, Word, Spirit; or, as Anglican theologian John Macquarrie named them, Primordial Being, Expressive Being, and Unitive Being. This aspect of divine relationality is far less important in context than the relationality God mirrors in Creation, or the co-creative relationality between God and creatures; but on the occasion of Trinity Sunday it is worth noting that it is there.
Psalm 8 is chosen to go with the Genesis passage because it echoes the themes of God’s cosmic creativity — “your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses” — and humans’ special relation to God and place in Creation — “You have made humans but little lower than the angels; you adorn them with glory and honor; you give them mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under their feet.” There is little in the psalm to ameliorate the threat of “dominion theology,” as we saw in Genesis; it is probably best to read this psalm in the light of the more nuanced Genesis passage and leave it at that.
The formula “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” has become a traditional benediction in Christian liturgy, and that accounts for the inclusion of 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 in the readings for today. These short verses say little about the inner-Trinitarian relations of the Persons, focusing instead on the economic-Trinitarian effects of God’s threefold relating to the world. The divine attributes of grace, love, and communion are appropriated to the persons of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit; while these attributes belong equally to the whole Godhead, the people of Paul’s community experience love as originating from the transcendence of God, the free gift of grace as flowing from Jesus’ self-offering in death and resurrection, and communion as being made real within and among them through the indwelling empowerment of the Holy Spirit. This is roughly the same appropriation made in the nongendered, expansive naming of the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Importantly, the threefold gift of grace, love, and communion received from Jesus, God, and Holy Spirit is what makes it possible for the members of the community to work together to “put things in order,” “agree with one another,” and “live in peace.” The divine relationality of attributes is what empowers the relational reality of the community.
Empowerment for relationship is also the work of the Trinity in the Great Commission from Matthew 28:16-20. This is the only place in the day’s readings where the traditional Trinitarian formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” occurs; significantly, it appears in connection with the liturgical rite of baptism. Jesus’ commission to his apostles is to go into the world and make disciples, crossing all ethnic and political lines to do so, so that the church will include people of “all nations.” There are two specific determinants of this discipleship: to be baptized in the name of the Trinity, and to shape their lives in accordance with all that Jesus has “commanded.” Unlike the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus sums up his teaching in a specifically named “new commandment,” Matthew does not show Jesus issuing many overt imperatives. We might better understand “commandment” here in the more general, Torah-like sense of “instruction”; in this case, what Jesus has instructed both in word and deed is compassion, commensality, forgiveness, metanoia or changing of the heart, caring for “the least of these,” love of God and neighbor, and a foundational trust in the good purposes of God even when God’s influence seems as insignificant as a mustard seed. It is what I characterize as a life based on a pattern of action of receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude: receiving from God ideals of justice and peace and love, and offering to God responses of devotion and action; receiving from others their gifts and their needs and their selves as they are, and offering to others the genuine gifts and needs of our own selves with generosity and no strings attached. This life-pattern of receiving and offering is what Jesus himself exemplifies, and is derived from his own sharing as the Second Person in the receiving and offering dynamic of the Trinity. Baptism in the name of the Trinity thematizes this dynamic; patterning life according to Jesus’ instruction embodies it; and the whole is empowered by Jesus’ continuing indwelling in disciples through the Holy Spirit, with us always to the end of the age. Thus it is the underlying relationality of the divine life that makes the Christian life possible.
Preaching on Trinity Sunday is often feared as an impossibly abstruse task. But focusing on the gift of relationality, circulating at the heart of God and offered to us to be the fundamental character of the universe and also the guiding principle of our own lives, transforms talk of the Trinity from abstruse doctrine to the invitation to joyful shared life.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest retired from full-time parish ministry. His theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at paulsnancarrow.wordpress.com. He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Upper Midwest.