Trinity Sunday: Making Sense of the Threes in our Lives

Readings: Psalm 33: 4-6, 9, 18-20, 22; Deuteronomy 4: 32-34; 39-40; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28: 16-20

What a difference a week makes!  Last week, Pentecost Sunday, everything seemed so easy. The disciples received Jesus’ Spirit in the Upper Room. Peter spoke to the crowds in Jerusalem. He proclaimed at the top of his voice that God’s Spirit belongs to everyone. Barriers of gender, language, culture, class, and religion were irrelevant.

What good news and how simple! You and I are vessels of the Holy Spirit; we can channel Jesus’ Spirit any time we choose. We are the way God appears in the world. Treat yourself as God; treat others as God and “be saved” – not in some afterlife, but here and now. Everyone understood Peter’s message whether they spoke Hebrew or not. It was the message of Jesus.

But alas, this week seems to reverse all that simplicity. It’s “Trinity Sunday.” And what can you say about that?  The doctrine is so complex: The Father, Son, and Spirit are One God, but three persons. Jesus is one divine person with two natures (one divine, one human). Through the “hypostatic union,” Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Dick Vitale would say “Headache City!”

To repeat, no one understands it. And do you know why? Because it really doesn’t make sense – at least to us in the 21st century.  To be charitable, it may have meant something to a very few people in the 4th century. But it sounds like gibberish to us – and probably always has to most people. So do the “clarifications” offered by church councils and theologians. For instance, this is how the Second Council of Constantinople (in the 6th century) shed light on the way Jesus fit into the Holy Trinity:

. . . the union of the two natures in Christ is achieved “according to the hypostasis” (kathypostasin) of the divine Word, or “by synthesis” (kata synthesin), so that from the moment of the incarnation there was in Jesus Christ a single hypostasis/person (subject, autos), of both the divine nature and the human nature, which remains whole and distinct from the divine in the “synthesis” or “composition”.

Aren’t you happy they cleared up the confusion? What we find in a statement like that are theologians who take themselves too seriously. Even worse, they are people who have lost sensitivity to the language of faith which is always the language of metaphor. The fact is, every statement about God is metaphor. “Person” is metaphor; “Father” is metaphor; so are “Son,” “Spirit,” and “Word of God.”  All of that constitutes beautifully imaginative language trying to express the various ways human beings experience the One who is Transcendent and completely beyond the power of words to describe.

Jesus understood metaphor and he kept things simple. More than anything else, he called himself the “Son of Man.” “Son of Man” simply means “human being.” Jesus thought of himself as a human being. You can hardly get more basic than that. By calling himself the “Son of Man” again and again, Jesus emphasized that he is the same as we are. What’s true of him is true of us. “Son of Man” was an expression of solidarity with us.   

If that’s the fact, “Son of Man” makes Jesus’ other title “Son of God” terrifically important for us. I mean besides referring to himself as “the human one,” Jesus apparently also referred to himself as the “Son of God.” So if Jesus is the exemplary “human being” (like us, as Paul said, in all things but sin) and if he’s also the “Son of God,” that seems to mean that all of us are sons and daughters of God just as he was.

It was as if Jesus said: (1) I am a human being like you in every way; (2) You are a human being like me in every way; (3) I am the son of God; (4) Draw your own conclusions. . . . Or better yet, Jesus drew the conclusion for us: Every human being is a son or daughter of God just as I, the human one, am.

But all of that almost sounds blasphemous, doesn’t it? Jesus is God. You are God. I am God. Evidently, theologians from the 2nd century on saw blasphemy there too. So they went into denial and constructed an incomprehensible doctrine of the Holy Trinity to explain how Jesus could be uniquely God who prayed to his Father who is God and sent his Spirit who is also God – all without there being three Gods. Trinity gibberish is the result.

And yet . . .  and yet, there is something “three” about our experience of God – about our experience of life – something that shouldn’t be lost. Think about it. Our initial experience of life is three. There is our father, our mother, and us. That’s our first experience of trinity – and of God.

Besides that, all of reality just in terms of language is described in terms of three. Our verbs are conjugated as 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd – I (or we), you, and it (or they).  Anything we talk about is addressed either as 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person. And that includes God. We can talk about God in the 3rd person as St. Paul does when he says “God is love.” Or we can address God in the 2nd person, as we do in prayer, “O God, please help me.” Or we can speak of God in the 1st person as they say Jesus did when he said, “I and the Father are one.”

The fact is that Christians are very good at 3rd person language about God. We talk about God in the 3rd person all the time in homilies like this one. We’re also quite at home using 2nd person references. We do that when we pray, when we address God as “thou” or “You.”  But Christianity’s not very good at 1st person references. We have a hard time – even after Pentecost – acknowledging the divine within us and speaking as Jesus did about our unity with “the Father.”

That’s where we can learn from other faiths. Hindus, for instance, excel at recognizing the divine within each human being.

I remember when I was studying for my doctorate in theology in Rome forty some years ago. I was in a seminar at an international theologate. Aspiring theologians from all over the world sat around that seminar table at the Anselmianum, one of my alma maters in “the holy city.” We were discussing the Trinity and Jesus’ identity as God’s unique Son. One of my colleagues, a priest from Kerala State in India, raised a question that made a profound impact on me. He said, “How are we in India to express Jesus’ supposed uniqueness as the God-Human Being?  In our culture, everyone is believed to be a God-Human Being?” Obviously, I’ve never forgotten that question. It made me wonder: If you translated Hindu concept for concept so it could be understood in the West, would it come out Christianity. And vice-versa.

But even apart from that, the young priest-theologian’s question made me realize how rich Hinduism is in its grasp of what Christians profess to believe. God is present within each of us and in everything we encounter. We can and should act accordingly.

I’d even go so far as to say that Hindu belief in 300 million Gods – yes, 300 million – is more understandable and helpful than the Christian doctrine that there are three persons in one God. The meaning of the Hindu belief is that there are about a million manifestations of God for each day of the year – 300 million for 365 days. It means that if we were really attuned to God, we’d see God’s presence everywhere in every moment of every day.

That sounds a lot like the message of Pentecost; we are temples of Jesus’ Holy Spirit. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

That’s the real message of Trinity Sunday as well.

(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Promise: Despite Appearances, God’s Kingdom Will Ultimately Triumph

Arc of history

Readings for 21st Sunday in Ordinary time: IS 22: 19-23; PS 138:1-3, 6,8; ROM 11: 33-36; MT 16: 13-28.

Of course, you’re all following the news, I know. It’s so discouraging, isn’t it? Charlottesville, Syria, Yemen, and President Trump’s defense of Neo-Nazis.

It all reflects such one-dimensional thinking. I mean it gives the impression that in the eyes of public officials from the militarized cop in the street to the POTUS himself, the only solutions to social problems are found in shooting, tear gas, torture, and Hell Fire Missiles? In sum, “solutions” uniformly involve locking the people of color behind “the Gates of Hell” centralized in today’s Gospel reading.

In every case, diplomacy, social reform, and negotiation seem out of the question. In fact, diplomacy has become a vanished art. Who needs it? After all, those damn “others” – be they African Americans in Charlottesville, Houthis in Yemen, or ISIS militants in Syria – can’t possibly have legitimate grievances. They simply must be brought to heel by force – shooting, bombing, and killing their children and youth. We’re made to believe that alternatives such as dialog and working out problems by discussion and compromise are signs of weakness. So violence is the first resort, never the last. It’s the order of the day in a world ruled by machismo, revenge, violence, and the law of the strongest.

When we’re not bombing, we’re building walls with locked gates. Our “gated communities” and locked doors wall us off from unsightly ghettos and the realities of the world’s poor mostly non-white majority. Better to build a wall along the Mexican border and then lock the gates, throw away the key and pretend that such barriers solve the problem of farmers and their children driven off their land by globalization, poverty and gangs. Better to justify it all by invoking the Ultimate White Privilege: “I feared for my life!” (We whites are the only ones who can get away with that one.)

All that brings us to today’s Liturgy of the Word. It’s about God’s interest in matters like those just enumerated – about politics, oppression and the liberation of non-white people like Jesus, Houthis, Syrians, and residents of Chicago’s south side. It’s about breaking bonds and opening the gates of hell so that every Inferno can be transformed into the Kingdom of God. It’s about refusing to be discouraged even though the flow of history makes Jesus’ prayer, “Thy Kingdom come” seem like an impossible dream.

Start with today’s first reading. There the prophet Isaiah has God telling a courtier named Shabna to step down in favor of a man called Eliakim. Little is known about either one. The reason for including the reading today is apparently to establish today’s central point that God is concerned with the world of politics, and that (despite appearances) God is ultimately in charge of what happens in that sphere. There can be no separation of politics and religion in the divine dispensation.

The responsorial psalm continues the “this worldly” theme set by the first reading. It had us all singing “Lord, your love is eternal. Forsake not the work of your hands.” Once again, emphasis on “the work of God’s hands” reminds us of God’s commitment to this world – including ghettos, those living under endless bombing campaigns in Syria and Yemen, and rich people like Mr. Trump and Saudi Princes making life unbearable for the world’s largely non-white poor. The psalm goes on to praise Yahweh for divine kindness, truthfulness, encouragement of the weak, care for the impoverished, and God’s alienation from their proud oppressors – again all connected with life here and now.

Then in today’s Gospel selection, we find a reprise of the very reading we shared just two months ago on the “Solemnity of St. Peter and Paul.” We practically know this passage by heart.

The reading centers on three titles associated with Jesus of Nazareth – Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ. All three names are politically loaded – in favor of the poor rather than the privileged and powerful.

Jesus asks his friends, “Who is the Son of Man in history and for us today?” (Scripture scholars remind us that the “Son of Man” is a figure from the Book of Daniel. He is the judge of all those who oppress the People of God whether they’re Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks or Romans. He is “the human one” as opposed to a series of monstrous imperial beasts which the author of Daniel sees arising from the sea against God’s poor.)

So Jesus’ question boils down to this: who do you think has taken the strongest stand against Israel’s oppressors? Jesus’ friends mention the obvious heroes, Elijah and Jeremiah. But in the end, they settle on a contemporary political prisoner in King Herod’s version of Abu Ghraib. He’s John the Baptist who was Jesus’ mentor. (According to Jesus, John was the greatest of all the prophets of Israel.) He’s the Son of Man, they say.

Having set that anti-imperial tone, Jesus then asks the question, “What about me? Who do you say that I am?” No question could be more central for any of us pretending to follow the Teacher from Nazareth. How we answer determines the character of the path we walk as Jesus’ would-be disciples in a world filled with Charlottlesvilles, Yemens, Raqqas, Hell Fire Missiles and militarized cops. Our answer determines whose side we are on – that of Mr. Trump, his friend Sheriff Arpaio, or with the innocent victims of U.S. bellicosity.

Matthew makes sure we won’t miss the political nature of the question. So he locates its asking in Caesarea Philippi – a city Herod obsequiously named for his powerful Roman patron. Herod had commemorated the occasion by minting a coin stamped with the emperor’s countenance and identifying him as “the Son of God.” Caesar was also called “the Christ,” God’s anointed. Good Jews saw all of that as idolatry.

So Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” has the effect of delegitimizing Caesar and his empire. It’s also a swipe at King Herod. Peter’s response couldn’t be more political. Jesus, not Caesar is king, God’s anointed, the Son of God.

Neither could Peter’s words be more spiritually meaningful and heartening for those of us discouraged by events in those places afflicted by permanent U.S. belligerence.

The encouragement is found in Jesus rejoinder about the “gates of hell” and the “keys of the kingdom.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What powerful words of encouragement! They say that the world’s ultimate decision-makers are poor people like the fisherman, Peter, and like the rest of Jesus’ followers – the beggars, prostitutes, and victims of Roman imperialism. It’s what they decide — what they bind on earth — that reflects God’s divine order. History is on their side, not on that of the apparently invincible.

For those who would join Jesus on “The Way” to God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ words disclose the very key to life’s meaning. In effect, Jesus says, “Here’s the key to opening ‘the gates of hell’ and transforming life’s Infernos into God’s kingdom: all our actions – even apparent failures like my coming crucifixion – have cosmic significance. Don’t be discouraged even when the agents of hell end up killing me – as they inevitably will.”

In other words, we may not be able to see the effect of resisting empire and its bloody agents in the short term. But each act has its effect. God’s Kingdom will finally come. That’s our faith! It’s what gives meaning to our lives of resistance.

In today’s second reading, Paul elaborates the point. He says it’s not always apparent what God is up to in the world. After all, the ways of Transcendent Reality are deep and beyond comprehension – even by the wisest human beings. We may not be able to see God’s (political and personal) purposes at close range. But ultimately their inscrutable wisdom will become apparent (ROM 11: 33-36).

Or as Martin Luther King put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

All of us need to embrace that wisdom, refuse discouragement and continue doing what we can to resist the forces of empire and unlock those “Gates of Hell.”

Sunday Homily: The Ayatollah Was Correct: the U.S. IS “the Great Shaytan”

Ayatollah

During the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the West became aware of Muslims’ profound mistrust of the United States. The Ayatollah Khomeini repeatedly referred to “America” as “the Great Satan.” Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that the Ayatollah’s reference was spot on. The United States is indeed the Great Satan leading the world astray with its beliefs for instance that limitless wealth brings happiness, that bombing can be a humanitarian act, and that “fearing for our lives” justifies killing others.

As we’ll see in today’s readings, such beliefs are ‘satanic” both in the eyes of Jesus and of the Great Prophet Mohammed. In the United States, their infernal results are on display in each morning’s headlines where:

• The rich and famous end their lives in despair
• The U.S. bombs and drones to save the Yazidis in Iraq (or Libyans in Libya, Afghans in Afghanistan, Ethiopians in Ethiopia . . .)
• Police killings are uniformly justified by the claim “I feared for my life.”

I raise the issue because the term “Satan” is prominent in today’s gospel reading. There Jesus uses it in contrast to his own beliefs about life’s divine purpose which turns out to be incompatible with dominant western beliefs. According to both Jesus and Mohammed, life’s purpose is not to accumulate riches. Nor is life rendered meaningful by killing others even to save one’s friends. Neither do Jesus’ followers have the mandate to protect their own lives at any cost. Quite the opposite!

What is life about then? Consider Jesus’ answer in this morning’s gospel reading.

There Jesus uses the epithet “Satan” to refer to the leader of his inner circle of twelve. In Jesus’ eyes, Peter merits the name because he misunderstands what life is for. That’s shown by the fisherman’s efforts to dissuade the Master from following his divine “prophetic script.” For Jesus, that pattern would require him to lose his life for speaking truth to power. As we’ll see, using such speech in an effort to change the world – to bring on God’s Kingdom – turns out to be central to Jesus’ understanding of life’s purpose.

In any case, like the prophet Jeremiah in today’s first reading, God’s spirit has put Jesus out of control. So, like Jeremiah, he feels compelled by an inner fire to speak the truth, whatever its cost. As the earlier prophet had put it, God’s truth “becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary of holding it in; I cannot endure it.”

So in today’s reading Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Peter objects. “God forbid! This will never happen to you,” he says.

It’s then that Jesus replies: “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Hearing those words, most of us inevitably connect with images right out of Dante’s Divina Comedia – enhanced by subsequent satanic glosses to include a fire-red body, horns, cloven hooves, tail and pitchfork. But that wasn’t the image in Jesus’ mind.

Instead, Jesus was thinking in terms of the Hebrew tradition. There Satan was a member of God’s heavenly court. He was God’s prosecuting attorney who typically raised questions that Yahweh’s overwhelming goodness and generosity might otherwise obscure.

In Jewish tradition, Satan was a realist who believed that faith and prosperity go together. Take away prosperity and goodness and faith will disappear too.

That was the thrust of Satan’s bet with Yahweh that we find in the book of Job. Job is good and rich. God is proud of his servant’s devotion. Satan says, “Don’t be naïve. All of that will change if you simply remove your servant’s wealth, children, and health. Just watch and see.” The familiar story unfolds from there.

So when Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” he’s not really telling his friend to go to hell. No, he means what he says, “You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Human beings (like Satan) connect faith with prosperity. But in Jesus’ eyes, prosperity is not life’s overriding purpose. Neither is personal safety protected by violence.

But what does God really “think” about the purpose of life? Jesus words about saving and losing life provide a clue.

Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?”

These are stunning words. They turn the world’s values upside down. They imply that God “thinks” that life’s purpose involves opposing empire. (Remember Rome reserved “taking up the cross” as a punishment for insurgents.) Life’s purpose entails self-denial, not self-gratification. It means holding life loosely, being prepared to surrender it “for justice’s sake” at any moment. It means preferring God’s Reign to possessing the entire world. It means returning kindness for evil, even if that means losing one’s own life as a result. Or as the psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, “God’s kindness is a greater good than life itself.”

All such ideals run counter to the U.S. culture which Muslims find so threatening. They have become the ideals of the world which in today’s second reading Paul tells us to resist. “Do not conform yourselves to this age,” he writes, “But be transformed.” Only personal transformation, he adds, will enable your mind to discern what is good, pleasing and perfect in God’s eyes – even if it leads to the sacrifice of your own life.

As a Muslim who embraced the New Testament tradition, the Ayatollah Khomeini understood Jesus’ words. He saw that the order championed by the United States contradicts the basic values of Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition about community, compassion and care for society’s most vulnerable.

So he viewed “America” as what Muslims call “Shaytan.” For Muslims Shaytan is not the devil either. Instead, he is “the Great Deceiver,” whose promises mislead, corrupt and immiserate those who believe them.

In fact, while promising peace, prosperity, and happiness, the West’s elevation of commercial values to a position of supremacy in the moral hierarchy could not be (in Muslim eyes) more deceptive and disastrous. Without care for society’s poor and vulnerable, commercial values lead to individualism, competition, war and unhappiness.

None of those represent God’s purposes for human beings.

Would that we Christians could embrace those teachings and stop our mindless pursuit of wealth, our belief that violence saves, and our cowardly conviction that anything is justified by “fear for our lives.”

As Paul says, the authentic teachings of Jesus challenge such conformity to “this age.” Who among us is willing to embrace such challenging truths?