The Holy Trinity, Race, and a Time of Crisis
Perhaps we should take a look at God's identity papers before we ask people for theirs.
Below is a slightly edited sermon delivered on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020, at First Hamilton Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The Scripture readings that shaped this sermon are Genesis 1–2; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11–14; and Matthew 28:16–20. We encourage you to read those passages prior to reading what follows.
Our societies are in the middle of a crisis. The pandemic is asking us to think about what it means to be human living in community—not only with other people but also with the rest of creation, including animals—especially if it’s true that the virus originated from an animal source. All over the world, it has become a time of physical distancing, isolation. As a result, in this time of pandemic, people die in hospitals and long-term-care homes without the support of loved ones. It raises the question: How do we live more humanely?
But the combination of marches across the world, horrifying images in our browsers, and conversations in the media mean that what is on most of our minds is the unnecessary murder—and yes, I said “murder,” not death—of George Floyd. And he is only one name in a long litany of people who are killed because of their skin colour. In the face of these horrors, we ask: What does it mean to be human? It is an urgent question in this time of crisis.
In all the debates about where society is heading, about what’s wrong with the world, or what it looks like for a society to flourish, it can be wearisome to listen to a cacophony of dissonant voices. The debates seem to go around and around in circles. And so often these conversations are steeped in a backstory of politics and ideologies, and all the while, we are in danger of losing our souls—our humanity—in the noise of all the words.
This past week, I was talking to a mother in Cambridge, Ontario, who tried unsuccessfully to hold back tears as she told me how her nine-year-old daughter came to her after seeing what the police did to George Floyd, and asked, “Mommy, they’re not going to do that to Daddy, are they?” That mother happens to be my daughter. Her husband is my son-in-law who is a Guatemalan of Mayan descent; his skin isn’t white.
I tell that story because as someone who has lived among people in very different places, I have been forced to think about these things as I ask: What does the kingdom of God look like in a place this this? I confess that I still have much to learn, but I believe it is absolutely necessary to discuss the answer to this as people who are on the journey to shalom and reconciliation as described in Scripture as the kingdom of God.
Last Sunday as we celebrated the Pentecostal fire of the Spirit that came down on the gathered church, there were other fires burning in cities across North America as once again, once again, people held up signs to remind us that black lives matter. To tell us, yet again, that systemic racism is rife.
But here we are: Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020. If Scripture has nothing to say to us today at a time like this, you may as well turn your computer off and find better things to do with your time. This is Trinity Sunday, and if theology has nothing to say to us today at a time like this, we might as well simply pull the plug on being a Christian. I mean that.
Truth be told, however, it has often been the misreading of Scripture that has contributed to racism; bad theology can endorse a perspective that brings death and destruction. So, yes, both Scripture and theology have much to say to us in a time like this. Scripture and theology are both intensely personal and extremely public. What do they have to say to us, and what do they have to say to the public writ large?
Living Intentionally with the Triune God in Times of Crisis
Tensions run deep in our human family. They can overwhelm us and paralyze us. Sometimes it seems that it would be far more helpful to be silent and listen. In fact, writing back in 1968, Jean Daniélou argued for the need for contemplation and silence if human beings are ever to realize their full stature and worth as humans made in the image of God. But he didn’t just advocate for us to be quiet or, as some have suggested in recent days, to blackout our smartphones. He called for silence in the presence of God. Think about that: Silence in the presence of God.
If you follow the news, you will know that columnists regularly compare and connect our current situation with the 60s, particularly 1968. The 60s were years of social unrest, race riots, of deep questions, and deep social pain as well. But in 1968, things came to a head: Anti-war protests, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., forty American cities saw troops deployed, the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy . . . the list goes on.
I find it extremely significant that precisely in 1968, in the midst of this turmoil, Jean Daniélou made the perceptive observation that “the search for God lies at the heart of today’s crisis.” The title of the book might take you by surprise. The French original is translated as “The Trinity and the mystery of existence.”
I have no doubt that some people would roll their eyes and immediately dismiss this as escapist nonsense, or of whitewashing over historical troubles. And with good reason. I mean, history is replete with tragic examples of what happens when God and nationalistic or partisan politics become ingredients in a volatile cocktail. It is so easy to say, “God is on our side” and then perpetrate unthinkable crimes against other human beings.
Yet, if we are going to talk about the Christian God, we inevitably must talk about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons—one God. If we need a common understanding of grammar in order to communicate with one another in daily conversation, the Trinity is the Christian grammar we use when we talk about God.
The striking thing as we open up the Bible and turn to the first page, however, is that the author simply asserts: “In the beginning, God created. . . . And God said.” God speaks, the universe listens.
By telling us who God is and what he has done as our Creator, Scripture invites us to come and live in the presence of God, to take God seriously. What’s more, as we read the passage we get glimpses that are later clarified and deepened that this God who creates, who speaks, reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. Is it a mystery? Absolutely! But in Scripture, the Trinity has been revealed.
By establishing a biblical understanding of the universe (a cosmology), Scripture insists that the Trinity is the principle and aim of all reality, the ultimate source of all that exists. The universe exists because God exists. While God could exist on his own, the earth could not. We live in a world that witnesses to its Creator every single day. If we were but to open our eyes, we would see that all creation celebrates our Creator.
Think of this poem by Mary Oliver:
I wake Close to Morning
Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask,
“Is this the place?”
When we turn to Genesis 1:1–2 we read that in the very beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless empty space and there was darkness over the face of the deep. The wind, breath, Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. Daniélou comments that the Spirit moved as “a bird beating its wings to kindle a spark of life.” God, the life-giving Spirit, rouses the empty void to life “as an eagle incites the babies to come out of the nest by hovering over the brood.” Daniélou says that Spirit “provokes existence, wrestling movement from inertia.” The songwriter sings, “you send forth your breath, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.”
As the author of Genesis moves through the creation sequence, he tells how God created human beings. Listen to what he says:
“Let us” (not: “let me,” but “let us” plural) “make humankind in our own image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Let us create so that they may participate in our work in the world.
“So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female . . . and then God blessed them, and mandated them to be fruitful, to flourish and to fill the earth, to subdue it.”
The recovery of mystery of Trinity as the divine dance (perichoresis) desperately needs to be understood at this moment in history. The Eastern church fathers and mothers talked about Trinity in terms of a three-person dance, all holding hands, finding delight and enjoyment in one another, who then welcome us into that very same dance! We have been created by a community of Love, for a community of love, to be in a community of love. We are not meant to be isolated individuals—little islands in the endless sea. We are truly human when we experience the reality of community. With one another, with God as Father, Son, and Spirit as well. We are defined, not as individuals, but as persons only in relation to other persons.
Patently, the Trinity is not a hierarchy. And even though in the West we are quick to use language like co-eternal, co-equal in our minds and our theology, there is often a hierarchy:
When it comes to human beings, in recent centuries this has taken on a racial element: the whiter you are the higher on the scale of human worth.
That is the way that history has played out time after time. We have socially constructed and stratified people according to skin colour, according to a hierarchy of haves and have-nots. Of privilege, of civilized and uncivilized—with civilization defined by us. And that’s sin. It’s not just “wrong”; it’s sin.
Sadly, Scripture was—and is—used to justify it. Sometimes the Bible is just used as a prop for a photo op; at other times, it is explained badly. As a child of Dutch immigrants, I learned many good and helpful things, but I was also told that “we were blessed” because we were descendants of Noah’s son Japheth, while blacks were cursed because they descended from Noah’s other son Ham. Black people were just paying their dues because of Ham’s sin. The “proof” was that we were blessed—with material wealth, with things, with stuff—while the others folks were poor. It was their destiny. I’m ashamed to say that for a while I believed that too.
Theology was used to justify this reading of Scripture based on an erroneous reading of the exodus and conquest of Canaan stories woven together with a misguided doctrine of election. Europeans saw themselves as “chosen” and as elect people believed they had a divine right to take land from native people. America became the “promised” land, and the doctrine of election was used to support a colonial project. And if the natives refused to hand the land over or convert, the Europeans had the God-given permission to wipe them out or move them on to reserves. They had permission to enslave people based on the colour of their skin. True, slavery is no longer technically on the books, but discrimination and prejudice are still real.
Let me be absolutely clear. Genesis destroys those ideas: God said, let us make humankind in our image. Full stop. Not some humans: all human beings share the divine image. All human beings are icons of the living God. It’s easy to nod and affirm the doctrine; it is more difficult to live this truth intentionally with this Triune God, particularly in a time of crisis.
What will it take to see others as God sees them? To believe that they, too, are his image bearers who have intrinsic worth and value as those created by the same Father, and breathed into by the same Spirit himself so that they are also alive? Those who share their humanity with the same incarnate Son of God.
From the very first verses of the Bible, a relationship is established between the Triune God and creation. God’s creative action—creation through the actions of the Trinity—provides us with a primary and radical point of departure to think about everything that has been created, including what it means to be human.
As Daniélou points out,
At the birth of mankind, the whole creation, issuing from the hands of God is holy; the earthly paradise is nature in a state of grace. The House of God is the whole Cosmos. Heaven is his tent, his tabernacle; the earth is his “footstool.” This is a whole cosmic liturgy; that of the source of the flowers and the birds. At this point, all people could equally enjoy the presence of God because the entire cosmos was “a Temple where we are at home with God in the cool of the evening, where humans come forward, silent and composed, absorbed in their task as in a perpetual liturgy, attentive to the Presence which fills them with awe and tenderness.”
No wonder the psalmist worships as he looks into the night sky! Doxology, worship, awe is the appropriate response to recognizing God as our Creator. From the lips of children and nursing infants, no less. Let children be our teachers: listen to them sing:
When I look up . . . consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place . . . what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
God is mindful! God cares! And it’s not, “Who am I that you are mindful of me . . . that you take care of me?” Our collective humanity is the focus of God’s providential care.
Baptism with Water, Baptism with Fire
The point is that we not only live in the presence of God but also dwell within the realm of the Trinity. The amazing thing is that as redeemed human beings, we are drawn into the very life of the Trinity as well. We are privileged to enjoy extraordinary intimacy and closeness.
This is one of the main points of the reading in Matthew. Yes, yes, this is the Great Commission. Yes, yes, it is about missions. But it is also about baptism. Notice that Jesus doesn’t simply say: “and make sure that you baptize people.” No! Jesus is very specific. He says, “baptizing the nations into the Name [singular] of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” We are baptized into a relationship of love with the Trinity.
We are officially invited into the movement of the life of the Trinity. This is Life with a capital L. Not an ideology, not a club, not an elite. No, we are invited into an amazing relationship of love with Father, Son, and Spirit. Those baptized into the name of this God end up having a completely new identity.
And here’s precisely where the Trinity as community is both a profound blessing and an unparalleled privilege. We are welcomed into the fellowship shared, and enjoyed with absolute delight, between Father, Son, and Spirit. This is the divine dance of love, a love that is never self-centered, self-seeking, or selfish.
In the waters of baptism the life-giving Spirit hovers over us again—just as he did at creation, at the Red Sea, and at the Jordan. It is in the waters of baptism that we are united to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. It is at the waters of baptism that the Father says, “You are my beloved.” It is at the waters of baptism that heaven opens and love comes down. But here’s the point: If we are going to live intentionally with the Triune God, we need to let ourselves be loved. And then that love necessarily transforms us so that we, too, have the capacity to love.
If we are going to live intentionally with the Triune God in a time of crisis, we need to affirm God’s love for others—for all peoples. We need to embrace those whom God embraces, or we are out of sync with Jesus’s commission. Precisely because the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ has received all legitimate authority in the universe—it has been given to him—“therefore,” he says, “go and make disciples.” Of whom? Only people who look like us? Of white people? Or people who need to learn to live like white people? No: “of all nations.” The Greek word is actually ethne, from which we get our word “ethnic.” This is an important distinction because a “nation” is often made up of different ethnic groups. Jesus says—all ethnic groups are welcomed into the life of the Trinity. All ethnic groups are the object of Jesus’s love.
At this point I can hear some people say: “That’s right! All lives matter! Not just black lives! Jesus died for all people.” You are absolutely right, of course. But imagine this scenario: your house is on fire, so you call 911. The firefighters come with sirens blaring, and hook up their fire hoses and begin at the corner by spraying down all your neighbours’ roofs with water until they gradually get to yours.
“Wait a minute!” you protest: “It’s my house that’s on fire! What are you doing? Spray ours! Those other houses aren’t even burning!”
“Yes,” they respond, “but all houses matter! Everybody gets the same amount of water. We should be fair to everyone.”
The point is clear enough. Yes, all human beings are made in the image of God, but at this particular juncture of our history, the systemic racism that has poisoned our human relationships for so long has come home to roost and the injustices need to be addressed. Human beings created in the image of God have been dehumanized long enough. This cannot continue!
A Ministry of Reconciliation
Paul will later describe the Great Commission in terms of “the ministry of reconciliation.” We dare not individualize the scope of that reconciliation so that it’s just about me and Jesus. We dare not limit the reach of that reconciliation so that certain people are excluded because of skin colour, or language, or income, or whatever we decide defines people. It needs to be as broad as God intended it. So much of the New Testament deals precisely with the race question: Do you need to become Jewish to be a part of the church? Time and again, the Holy Spirit through the New Testament authors stresses that it isn’t a matter of genetics; faith in Christ is enough. The good news from God is for all people. It isn’t about your passport or your skin colour. Jesus gives us a great commission that is rooted in the creation—the cosmos—and that embraces all of creation, all ethnicities. Isn’t that what Pentecost was all about?
Yet, let’s be clear: it’s not about eliminating racial differences, it’s not about erasing colour or making us all colourblind. In fact, in John’s vision of the throne room in Revelation, he specifically says: all nations and languages and peoples are gathered before the throne. We can be true to our culture, our ethnicity, and be true to Christ. As Syrians or Hispanics, or Asians, as people with black skin and white. Different doesn’t mean hierarchy; it doesn’t mean uniformity; it means community, as apprentices of Jesus together, followers of Jesus together, imitators of Jesus together.
Jesus is insistent: “teach them to obey what I told you.” The starting point for our discipleship is the ministry of Jesus. The blueprint is the Nazareth Manifesto of Luke 4:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
At first the crowd is thrilled, but when Jesus reminds them that God’s embrace includes people outside of Israel, that God’s vision isn’t nationalistic, the Jews force him out of the synagogue and take him to a cliff and want to kill him.
Given the history of humanity, the message of the kingdom of God is radical stuff. And that’s precisely why we need to listen to Jesus: this is what following Jesus should look like. This is what it means to obey Jesus.
Our Lord concludes by saying, “And remember, I am with you always . . . to the end of the age.” I am with you. Covenant language, gospel language. We are not alone. God himself is with us. Always.
As we seek to be the change we long for, Jesus is with us and the Spirit goes before us. As we strive for a more just society, Jesus is with us. As we proclaim a message of grace and forgiveness, reconciliation and social healing, Jesus is with us. He is Immanuel—fully human, fully God. He is Jesus, the human face of God, present with us through the power of the Spirit.
Week after week, as we leave our time of worship we go with those remarkable words: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. It is only in that reality that we can live intentionally with the Triune God in a time of crisis.
Because God lives with us.
Because God is for us.
Because God is in us.
We share in the mystery of divine life. We can be different!
So was Daniélou on to something? Is the search for God at the heart of today’s crisis? I think so.
It is only as I know God and am known by God, only as I enter into the communal life of God and God enters into me, my life, my family, my community, that I will not only begin to understand myself in relation to God but also understand that God, the Triune God, needs to be the starting point for all thinking about what it means to be fully human. We are made in God’s image and through his transformative grace, we are being renewed—changed—into the image of his Son through the power of the Spirit.
Is this just a pipe dream? Not if I read Scripture! Not if I see that God’s restoration project is called the kingdom of God and it’s all about restoring the world so that it is finally the way God really wanted it.
Instead of seeing “silence as violence” or instead of “quietism” that fails to respond to injustice, let us, as a community of the baptized, begin each day in a time of silence in the presence of the God who made us, who loves us and who walks with us, who fills our lives. Let us join all creation in praising our universal king. As we do, we’ll increasingly be amazed by the gift of being human, as being loved and welcomed into the life of God. And because we recognize that salvation is all of grace, we will be able to see others through the lens of God’s grace as well, and begin making steps toward reconciliation.
Image: Trinity in Dark Tones (Genesis 18) by Alek Rapoport, 1994.Subscribe