What the Trinity Tells Us about the Value of Humans
What the Trinity Tells Us about the Value of Humans
Rev. Stephen Hollaway
June 7, 2020
It is a fearful thing to be asked to preach in a crisis. You may well wonder if it is relevant to talk about the Trinity on a day like this. If I was in a Baptist church, I might well shelve the assigned scriptures. I might even choose to repeat Al Sharpton’s sermon from Thursday, which was misidentified as a eulogy. But in this church, we choose to honor both the Christian calendar and the Common Lectionary, and the truth is that I have preached on the Trinity on this Sunday each year since I became a pastor. So I task myself with thinking about what the doctrine of the Trinity has to say to our crisis.
The first question the church had to deal with was the relation of Jesus to God. Once the fundamental unity of God and Jesus was established, the Trinity was a more fulsome description of God that included the Spirit. Both constructs have something startling to say about what it means to be human.
Most talk of God I’ve heard all my life assumes that God is “’up there” or “out there,” while the human is down here. It assumes that God is holy and pure and good, while the human is anything but. The Christian message which puts emphasis on the Fall of Man tells us that humans are defective and immoral by nature. In that situation, the problem the gospel seeks to address is “How can I be forgiven for my wickedness which makes me deserve God’s punishment?”
Now, I am not going to deny that such a discussion provides one kind of insight into the human condition. After all, Chesterton and others have pointed out that the doctrine of depravity is the only doctrine that is empirically verifiable. But I want to set that idea aside long enough to consider other insights the Bible and Christian theology might give us about what it means to be human.
From the very beginning, communities of Christians worshiped Jesus as God. Skeptics like to argue that in the beginning Jesus was understood to be a teacher and healer but the further we got from the historical Jesus the more we deified him. This is completely wrong. If you look at the earliest layers we find in the earliest Christian writings—the hymns like the one in Philippians 2 and quotations from creeds and the apostle’s sermons—all of which predate Paul’s letters, the earliest documents we have, you find that the church understood Jesus to be one with God and equal with God. When you dig into the development of Christian thinking, you cannot get to a layer before Christians worshiped Jesus as God. The very first non-Christian description of Christian practice—a letter from Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan in 112—says that the Christians would meet one day a week before dawn and sing hymns to Christ as to a god.
So they understood Jesus to be one with God and yet they understood Jesus to be human as well as divine. We read part of the Athanasian creed which said that Jesus Christ is both God and human, equally…completely God, completely human. If our first statement of faith is that the human and the divine can be one, rather than that the human is hopelessly wicked, it changes our approach to people. We are pushed back to Genesis and the idea that the human was made in the image of God, and that God proclaimed the human very good. We read in the words of the creed that God took humanity to himself—or into himself.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said in an Ascension Day sermon at Westminster Abbey that the Ascension “celebrates the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety and vulnerability had been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life.” How can we fail to value humanity when we understand that the human is part and parcel of the Holy Trinity?
The more dignified and exalted humanity is seen to be, the more it matters how each and every member of the species is treated. A vicar named John Davies wrote, “[Christ] is taking human nature into the realm of the Father. Henceforth, our humanity is represented with the community of God…Henceforth, any insult to the humanity of any person, any treating of a human being as expendable rubbish is strictly blasphemy; it is an insult to the nature which God has eternally taken upon himself.”
So the question I must ask today is: Whose head is that on the pavement, his neck under the policeman’s knee? It is the face of God. There is God’s image being crushed as it was on Calvary by the foot of the oppressor.
The question I must ask myself is: Do I as a white man really believe that the image of God can look like George Floyd? Or do I believe deep down that God is white? Outside of the movie version of God played by Morgan Freeman, when have I imagined God as black, rather than that old white-bearded white man on a throne? When I imagine the story of Adam and Eve as the first humans created in God’s image, do I ever picture them as black in my mind? My imagination has been shaped—and corrupted—by great European paintings and stained glass windows in which God the Father and Jesus and Adam and Eve are all white. I have to go beyond repenting to renewing my mind in Christ Jesus, transforming my imagination, replacing the archetypes I use to think about God.
The way I think about God, and God in Christ, inevitably shapes the way I think about the people around me. Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy, wrote this past week about his experience as a black man:
I’m sixty years old and have been practicing law for thirty-five years. I have a lot of honorary degrees and went to Harvard. And I still go places where I am presumed dangerous. I have been told to leave courtrooms because the presumption was that I was the defendant and not the lawyer. I have been pulled out of my car by police who pointed a gun on me. And I can just tell you that, when you have to navigate this presumption of guilt, day in and day out, and when the burden is on you to make the people around you see you as fully human and equal, you get exhausted. You are tired. And I would argue that the black people in the streets are expressing their fatigue, their anger, and their frustration at having to live this menaced life in America.
The Trinity tells me that a human is a person of great value whom God loved so much God took the human nature into his very being and inner life. The Trinity also tells me that the human, partaking of God’s nature, is made for relationships. Last year on this Sunday the focus of my message was that God is not a loner, isolated, autocratic, but that God is a community of love constantly flowing among Father, Son, and Spirit. To say that God is love is to say that God is relationship, within God’s self.
And so it is for us. Liberation theologians pointed out what should have been obvious: that we do not have a monarchical One God at the top of a hierarchical model. We have a Triune God who is a community of divine persons whose essence is their shared relationship and their surrender to each other. That is what human relationships are to be like. If we are made in God’s image, human identity is defined by relationships. You know this intuitively about your own life. Who you are is not distinct from who you are in relationship with. It is impossible to think of an “I” without defining it in terms of the roles and relationships to other “I’s.” In fact, it is difficult to say where I end, and you begin. If you were to disappear, the boundaries of my self would change.
An English theologian named Colin Gunton wrote about these ideas in connection with the Trinity. A few of you may remember that last year I talked about the Greek word perichoresis, which means the interpenetration of Father, Son, and Spirit, which can also be translated as a “circle dance.” Well, Gunton wrote about “a doctrine of human perichoresis” in which “persons mutually constitute each other, make each other what they are.” He said that “the heart of human being and action is a relationality whose dynamic is that of gift and reception.” We participate in the trinitarian community through the Holy Spirit, and enter into the joyful life of God. And that community is also the pattern for our own lives, as creatures made for relationships—not only with the divine, but with other humans in the image of God.
Today we come to the Lord’s Table, celebrating that God has drawn us into God’s own life through the God-man Jesus, and also celebrating that we have been made one as the human body of Christ. But on a week like this, we must also remember the story of what happened to Jesus. We don’t often say it this way, but the truth is that Jesus was lynched. He was grabbed by authorities who humiliated him and beat him. He was rushed to judgment without a fair trial. He was taken to the edge of town, far from the nice part of town, but he was shown off there for mobs to gawk at. He was lynched. Not in Jesus’ case because he was black, but because he identified with the others in his society, because he refused to submit to authorities and say the words they wanted. He was not valued by Romans because of his ethnicity. He was not valued by Jewish leaders because he did not accept their view of God.
Black people in America—especially black men—as heirs to a long history not only of slavery but of lynching. For decades, they were murdered by police and posses and Klansmen. Most were in the states of the Confederacy, but we know of 44 lynchings reported in Maryland. Newspapers like the Atlanta Constitution would announce the time and place of planned hangings. Here’s how James Cone described the 1890’s in The Cross and the Lynching Tree:
Often as many as ten to twenty thousand men, women, and children attended the event. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims—burning black flesh and cutting off genitals, fingers, toes, and ears as souvenirs. Postcards were made from the photographs taken of black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera. They were sold for ten to twenty-five cents to members of the crowd, who then mailed them to relatives and friends, often with a note saying something like this: “This is the barbeque we had last night.”
These killings that we have seen recently by abusive police are events in a long line of lynchings, a line that goes back to the lynching of Jesus, which we remember in this meal. To quote John Davies again, “Any insult to the humanity of any person, any treating of a human being as expendable rubbish is strictly blasphemy; it is an insult to the nature which God has eternally taken upon himself.” Let us think on that as we prepare for the meal.