Sermon by Burton Cooper
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth …
God saw everything that he had made,
And indeed, it was very good.
These opening words from the book of Genesis express two beliefs of our biblical faith: that God created the world, and that everything that exists in it is very good. Our faith is full of beliefs. These days, many of us find that we have given up on many of them --- some for very good reasons --- though perhaps we have given up on too many. Still, here we are, with beliefs we can no longer affirm or beliefs we have reinterpreted so radically that we have come to wonder whether we have made Christian faith too malleable, too flexible, so that it has lost any firm identity; or, worse still, we may worry that we have given up so many beliefs that we have lost our identity as a Christian. I can’t tell you how many times, in my life as a seminary professor and a worshipping member of a church congregation, people have come up to me, life-long church members, even seminary students, confessing loss of beliefs --- whether in the Adam and Eve story, or in the crossing of the Red Sea story, or in the Virgin birth, or in the raising of Lazarus, or in the physical resurrection of the body, or in miracles, or in God’s predestinating or omnipotent power, or in Jesus’ divinity, or even in God’s justice ---worried, given all this loss, whether or how they can still consider themselves Christians. It’s a deep, troubling question, one that I’m all too familiar with in my own dark nights of the soul. So let’s spend a little time this morning on the identity of our faith and on our own identity as a person of faith. This morning’s reading from the book of Genesis, combined with this being Trinity Sunday, gives us a good chance to get at this question in a substantive way.
On these two beliefs, that God created the world, and that the creation is good, I need to say something as bluntly as I can: Christian faith lives and dies on those two beliefs. And yet to say this is to run smack into our existential fear: for how do we go on believing in a God-given, good creation when almost every day we hear about some new wreckage, some new destruction, that we have wreaked upon our planet, or some new suffering, some new horror, we have inflicted upon each other. For those of us who suffer this existential fear there are no simple answers --- or perhaps I should say the simple answers will not do. Nevertheless, there are answers, there are ways of understanding that can help sustain us in our faith.
When we come upon a passage, such as the Genesis story of creation, we need to ask ourselves what existential faith is being expressed here. That kind of question will steer us away from thinking of that story as an objective account of the initial time of the creation, a way of thinking which, of course, would run us into the disastrous conflict with what we know as true through the method and findings of modern physics, biology and astronomy. More positively that question would steer us towards asking who exactly are the people expressing that existential faith in God and the goodness of the creation. And the answer we get to that question is astounding. For this creation story, as we now have it, was published in written form and promulgated with the authority of
scripture either during the exilic period when the land of Israel had been devastatingly overrun by Babylonian armies, and Israelites had been forcefully marched into a fifty year exile in the land of Babylon or, since we have no exact dating of biblical texts, this creation story may have appeared during the post-exilic period when many of the exiles had returned to Israel to find their temple destroyed, their homes guttered, their cities and agricultural lands in ruins. It’s as if, today, out of the community of Syrian refugees, having fled their homeland, their lives as they knew it destroyed, family members dead, living in their desolate refugee camps, (out of this Syrian community) would come a story of God’s goodness and the goodness of existence. So understood, it becomes painfully clear that the faith expressed in the Genesis story of creation comes not out of good times, not out of some shallow, simplistic, privileged experience of existence but out of the experience of physical and psychic suffering, serious loss, violent uprooting. Contrary to what may be a common assumption, a biblical faith is not bowled over by the experience of evil but arises in spite of that experience and stands up against it by affirming God’s redemptive activity in the goodness of the world. That is the existential faith expressed in this morning’s Genesis story, and the how and why of that redemptive activity is worked out in one of theology’s much unappreciated doctrines, the one that thinks of God as trinity rather than simply as oneness.
We are so used to thinking of the doctrine of the trinity as a riddle --- how can three persons be one, the orthodox answer being that the distinction, the plurality, is in the relations, not in the essence: a brilliant but not very satisfactory answer, for it just opens up more unanswerable questions. How many trinity sermons begin with the preacher saying, “I don’t understand the trinity.” Anyway, we are so used to thinking of the trinity as a riddle, even an insoluble one, perhaps best ignored, that we miss its deep meaning, just as we would miss the deep meaning of today’s creation story if we thought it’s telling us that God created the world by speaking words, and did so in six days. We would also miss the deep meaning of the trinity if we followed the lead of some of those creative feminist theologians of the seventies who dismissed that doctrine as just another piece of patriarchy, characterizing the three persons, as one of them cleverly did, as two men and a pigeon.
Granted, it’s problematic that trinitarian language is masculine, as if only male imagery is appropriate when thinking of God’s nature. But for now, let us let that go, and take a different tack, asking ourselves what faith is existentially at stake in affirming God as trinity, that is, as complexity, as a multiplicity of distinctions, rather than simply as oneness. For to think of God as one, which is the way the whole orthodox theological tradition from its beginnings right up to the twentieth century thought of God, is to think of God as complete in God’s self, with the assumption that complete means perfection, so there can be no change in God, there can be no needs in God to be fulfilled in time, God simply is, eternally is, absolute in being, unaffected by outside relations because being affected by another means being subject to change, and change means lack of perfection which is impossible because God by definition is perfect, and perfect means complete, lacking nothing. You see how this reasoning circles around itself. And it
leads to some very bad ideas, such as predestination --- for if God knows everything from eternity because God wills everything from eternity, and God’s will is omnipotent, otherwise there would be a distinction between God’s will, God’s knowledge, God’s power, so whatever is, is what it is, predestined from eternity, including all our actions. I
know, this is dizzying. Forgive me. But I also know that predestination makes a mockery of our moral struggles, emptying our actions of significance, which is why its such a bad idea. That God is immutable, unaffected by relations to others, leads to another bad idea, which is that God is impassible, incapable of suffering, undercutting our faith that God is love, for the heart of love is that love suffers with the suffering of the loved one, and, God knows, we human beings suffer.
This notion of God’s oneness is impossible from a biblical point of view where right from the beginning God is relational, not being holed up in God’s self, not being complete, but going out from God’s self, as the idea of trinity affirms, creating the heavens and the earth, creating us, and with us “always, to the very end of the age,” as Christ says in this morning’s gospel. Throughout the Old Testament Israel’s faith testifies to God’s involvement in our lives, God’s caring what we do, God being affected by what we do, God getting angry, upset, being compassionate, calling us towards justice, goodness, concern for others, and, of course, the New Testament affirms the sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit as a revelation of God’s caring for us, God’s mercy, God’s demands upon us, and finally, on the cross, a revelation of God’s suffering love for us. What is all this except a relational view of God, a God of complexity, distinctions, the most obvious, glaring one, is that great distinction between what God wills for us, a will that givers us creative purpose, and how far short we fall from that will.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity is not a riddle; it is an affirmation of God’s goodness towards us, an affirmation that there’s no such thing as a world without a creative, redemptive God because there’s no such thing as a creative, redemptive God without a world. And that is very good news. For it is a relational, trinitarian God that assures us that there is purpose and value in life. It is a relational, trinitarian God that assures us that what we achieve will not be swallowed up into oblivion, forgotten, but will be taken up eternally into God’s being, adding to God’s being. And finally, it is a relational, trinitarian God that preserves our sanity, our zest for life despite life’s evils, by assuring us that our life attains eternal worth, some lasting significance, allowing us to live and trust in life’s ultimate meaning.
Thanks be to God for all that.
And now, as Paul says, may “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
And the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.”