In seminary one of my favorite professors was our theology professor. I did not like her because of the subject she taught. In fact, her class was one of the classes that gave me the most headaches as I struggled to understand theological arguments. Instead, what I liked about her was the way that she taught. She had a dizzying intellect, and yet she had the ability to gently make you feel like you were not an idiot. Someone in class would ask a question, trying to get their head around a theological concept. Her soft response would be, “Oh, yes, yes, I could see how you might get to that conclusion. So-and-so also argued that heresy in the fourth century.” Or she might answer, “Oh yes, that heresy is one of the church’s favorite,” and then go on to explain how the church struggled to counter the heresy. What I loved about her responses was she let you know that although you clearly did not understand the theological concept, you were not the first person to struggle to understand and you will not be the last. Struggling to understand and articulate a cogent theological concept without slipping into a heretical argument is a basic part of being a Christian.
What I loved about the pastoral nature of my professor’s responses was she understood that being able to articulate a definition of God is incredibly difficult. More important to her than you getting that articulation correct was your engagement with the concept. Perhaps she understood that theologians for centuries have tried to do the same thing – define who God is and what God means. That may be why she never seemed bothered by our heresies – because she knew that her role, and in fact the role of the church, is to be involved in the ongoing endeavor of naming God’s activity in our world.[i] That is the same work that we do every year on the feast of Trinity Sunday – embracing the endeavor of naming God’s activity in our world.
To help us in that endeavor, we get two great pieces of scripture today. In our gospel lesson from John, Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit will guide the disciples into all truth. Jesus’ promise to the disciples tells us those closest to Jesus, those who have been sitting at Jesus’ feet, learning truth from the source, are still going to need help. The disciples, who will be commissioned to go out into the world to share the Good News, will not do that work alone. The Spirit will go with them, helping them to continue to learn and grow into the fullness of faith.
I was recently invited to come to Sunday School for a little round of “stump the priest.” I laughed at the title, but inside I was thinking, “What if they ask a question that really does stump me?!?” Luckily, a cooler head prevailed. The truth is they probably will stump me – several times over. But that will give us a chance to talk about how the Spirit guides us into all truth – in childhood, in young adulthood, and into our older years. But more importantly, I hope that we get the chance to talk about how the community of faith is a vital part of that learning of all truth. We are certainly dependent on the Spirit, but we are also dependent on each other, because the Spirit so often speaks to us through people and the words of those around us.[ii]
That is one of the things I love most about being in the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has always been a place where ambiguity is okay. As David Lose explains, “…being part of being a Trinitarian community [means] striving to be a place that knows it doesn’t have all the answers, and so consequently makes space for conversation and values those who bring different voices and experiences into its midst. Conversation, valuing difference, being inclusive – these things aren’t easy, but genuine community, while challenging, is also creative, productive, and enriching.”[iii]
The other great piece of learning today comes from our reading in Romans. On the surface, this piece of scripture has always troubled me. Paul’s claim that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, has always sounded a little dismissive about suffering. But I do not think Paul meant for this formula of suffering leading to hope was not meant to be prescriptive, but descriptive.[iv] In other words, he is not saying those who are suffering should be grateful. What he is saying is those who are suffering have the opportunity to not waste the pain. Peter Steinke says, “We ‘waste’ suffering if we gloss over, deny, avoid, or neglect its message…. If, however, we can learn from pain, [pain] is not wasted but a source of life and health.”[v] My suspicion is that Paul is trying to capture what we learn from our gospel lesson today. Even in the midst of suffering the Holy Spirit and the community of faith can guide us into all truth.
I have been a part of parishes that have a communal component to their premarital counseling. In addition to meeting with the priest, each engaged couple is partnered with a married couple in the parish for mentoring. One would think that the married couple’s job is to tell the engaged couple how to do everything and give them advice. But more often, the couples end up talking about how hard marriage is, what struggles they have dealt with, and how they got through the suffering. The relationships between the mentors and the mentees often last well beyond the wedding. When done with honesty, vulnerability, and compassion, the couples realize that they gain strength from one another and find a place where they can go when they are looking for truth and guidance.
Our gospel and epistle lessons today weave together an understanding of the Trinity that is both vertical and horizontal.[vi] Vertically, we learn that our understanding of God is ever changing and dynamic – much like God is ever changing and dynamic. I think that is why my professor was so open to us stepping into and out of heresies and doctrine. She knew that every Christian had to take that journey of steps and missteps. But I think she also understood that truth was ever evolving and that the Spirit was with us in that journey. She was not worried about us because, “…a critical characteristic of faith is an ever-striving and dynamic making sense of God. The Trinity [cannot] be the only way to get God. [That theology] is as limited and finite as our humanity. [The theology of the Trinity] is one attempt of the church to articulate the being of God in a particular time and place.”[vii] We will continue to walk toward truth in our own time and place too.
Horizontally, our lessons teach us that we find our way to that truth the Spirit is showing us through the vehicle of those around us – both those in the church, and those outside our walls. I cannot count the number of times I have learned something profound about God by someone who never harkens the door a church. Our job is to pay attention: pay attention to the way that God is using others to show us more about God; pay attention to the ways God invites us to interpret our sufferings with others; pay attention to those who are struggling toward truth along with us. We will surely step into heresy now and then. But we will also step into God’s love and grace through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and those around us. Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Trinity Talk,” May 15, 2016, as found on http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4648 on May 18, 2016.
[ii] David Lose, “Trinity C: Don’t Mention the Trinity,” May 17, 2016, as found on http://www.davidlose.net/2016/05/trinity-c-shh-dont-mention-the-trinity/ on May 18, 2016.
[iv] Richard L. Sheffield, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 39.
[v][v] Sheffield, 41.