Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the fifth book of the Old Testament: Deuteronomy. Here Moses speaks to the people about how fortunate they were to have a God like theirs. In a series of rhetorical questions he asks those gathered if any other people were so fortunate: “Was there ever a word so majestic, from one of heaven to the other? Was anything ever heard? Did ever a people hear the voice of the living God speaking from the heart of fire, as you heard it, and remain alive?” Moses then enjoins his people to keep God’s laws and commandments. Today’s Gospel finishes the end of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus, immediately after his resurrection, gathered the eleven remaining disciples. He instructed them to “make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.”
I’ve spoken before about how much joy I had as a child when I asked adults about the Holy Trinity. By and large they’ve wanted me to accept this teaching without asking questions and that showed me that they didn’t understand Holy Trinity either. You see, I’m somebody who can’t help but ask questions on subjects that don’t make sense to me. While my classmates took the “three persons, one nature” at face value, I didn’t. Follow up questions like “who’s in charge” or “what if they disagreed” tied up in knots the adults in my life, and few things gave me more pleasure.
But at a base level I think I was asking good questions. While we worship a God who is indeed three persons we don’t live our lives in a way that lends itself to its understanding. From our earliest days as humans we have found ourselves a hierarchical people. We have leaders and followers, we have organizational charts, we climb corporate ladders, and we strive to find our place. We even talk about our place in our families, the most intimate of our communities. As many of you know, my household consists of me, my wife, and her father. Eight years ago I was filling out the 2010 U.S. Census form and it asked for the head of the household (that’s been true all along: it asks for the head of the household and the relationship of all others in the home). As I was filling out the form I took a moment to ponder this: Is my father in law the head of the household, making my wife his daughter and me his son in law? Or am I the head of the household, making my wife my spouse and her father my father in law? Or is my wife the head, making me her spouse and her father, well, her father? I won’t tell you what I decided, but since U.S. Census records are sealed for 72 years, you can look it up in 2082.
Hierarchies actually even predate us as humans. The anthropologist Dian Fossey (1932-1985) wrote about how gorilla troops form strict relationships with lines of authority. This need to know where we fit in appears baked into our very DNA.
And in many ways that may help us understand why we find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity puzzling. Scripture doesn’t give us a great deal of help as nearly all arguments for the Trinity point to this same passage in Matthew. True, Moses’ impassioned speech in Deuteronomy speaks of a God who is much more intimate than the pagan gods of their time, but that relationship is also an all powerful God and his obedient people. St. Paul finishes his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians with the phrase “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” but that’s really about it.
So what do we understand about the Holy Trinity? I think it speaks to a profoundly holy mystery that calls us to travel a road we will never complete. I’ve spoken about this before, but there is a difference between human justice and divine justice. Our justice is based in revenge: you harmed another person and you in turn will be harmed, in the hopes that this will teach you not to harm another. But God’s justice is based in mercy. God’s justice calls us to find a love that makes harm nonsensical and that God’s mercy so overwhelms us that we have no desire to harm. We know that in this life we will never achieve this form of justice, but we are called nonetheless to strive for it.
The teaching on the Trinity does the same thing. We are called to travel a road whose end we will not reach in this life but we are still called to it. We have laws, rules, regulations, and commandments to ensure that we treat each other well, but the call to love one another creates our moral compass. What if we lived with the understanding that another person could not hurt us, no matter what, or perhaps they could hurt us but would not? Would that change us? I hope so. I hope it would call us, not only to promise not to hurt that person, but to see that person in a whole new light. I hope it would call us to see that person with pure love.
In the end I think that’s what the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit can teach us. They don’t need rules or laws because they are completely devoted to each other and want only the best for each other. I’m not sure they need to spend any time resolving conflicts or talking out issues simply because they don’t need to negotiate. I think many of our conflicts arise out of a belief that we are chasing limited resources or a belief in a “zero sum game” (If you win, I lose; if I win you lose). The Trinity tells us that true relationships benefit all parties and that win-lose can be replaced by win-win-win.
And if there’s anything more counter cultural than that, I haven’t found it. Many of us in the United States are being buried in mailings from politicians who want us to vote for them. They promise to protect us by “getting tough on crime” and brag about conviction rates. Legislators brag about how many laws they’ve introduced and executives brag about how many bills they have signed.
Can we instead dream of politicians who promise to help create a society where no one is left behind? Imagine bragging about laws that were repealed because they were no longer needed.
Make no mistake: we are not yet in a place where rules and laws have become obsolete, but can we begin to travel down that road? Let’s try.