Monday, June 9, 2014

Practice Makes Perfect

In a bible study on 1 John a few weeks ago, a participant asked me whether a particular passage (I can’t remember which one) was a reference to the Trinity. Like any good preacher trying to explain something he or she doesn’t really understand, I used an analogy: “That’s kind of like asking Leonardo Di Vinci whether his sketches of a primitive helicopter were drawings of a Boeing 747.” Yes, there’re related. Yes, we can look back and see how something that was written around the end of the first century anticipates a theological conclusion that would take several more decades--maybe even centuries—to ratify. But to ask whether a New Testament author was writing about the Trinity is to project our understandings of a doctrine backward into its antecedents where it comes from but doesn’t quite fit. Another analogy would be to imagine going back in time and wearing 21st-century clothing to a 15th-century gathering. People would think you were a little strange.

The New Testament doesn’t talk about the Trinity. (Well, almost.) The word “Trinity” certainly doesn’t appear anywhere in the bible. Although John gets tantalizingly close to saying it, nowhere in the bible does it say unequivocally that Jesus is God. Although clearly the Spirit is something that comes from God, there is absolutely no understanding that the Spirit or “breath” of God is the third person of the eternal and blessed Trinity. Paul frequently ends his letters with an appeal to the three persons of God: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost…” But the concrete thought “God is one God in three persons” never crossed his mind. So what do we have? Where in the bible does it tell us that there is a Trinity? What lessons do the lectionary crafters select for a Sunday that has no direct biblical referent?

Practice makes perfect. It seems that the early church—even before understanding that there is a Trinity—baptized its members in the Trinitarian name. As Matthew concludes his gospel account, he recalls Jesus sending his apostles out to “make disciples of all nations” and to baptize them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That was key to them. It was more than an early kerygma—it was the central practice. They knew that Jesus was God’s Son. They knew that he had been sent by God and that he had sent them the Holy Spirit. To baptize converts in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit was to immerse them in the whole story of salvation.

It took a while before the church figured out how to talk about Jesus’s divinity without arguing for more than one God. In the west, we still aren’t all that comfortable with the Spirit, but we’ve figured out a way to have one God in three persons. Where did it come from? Practice. Sometimes we have to do things before we understand them. Sometimes we have to trust that in time our mistakes will fall away and leave us with truth. How did the church overcome the Arian heresy? How did we survive the Spirit-fighters? How did we get past the confusion of natures and persons and Jesus’ potential multiple-personality disorder? It started with the practice of baptizing people in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. All of the rest of the details got worked out over time because we believe that God remains active in our lives and in the life of the church.

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