I had two best friends in elementary school; Sarah and Maggie. Sarah and I lived just 10 houses apart, and we were born 10 days apart–as 9-year-olds, we thought this was very significant; Maggie lived in another town. Maggie and I both had younger brothers and therefore shared the suffering of older sisters–a unique and very heavy cross we bore; Sarah was an only child. Sarah and Maggie had been going to the same school together since pre-K; I was new in the fourth grade. Though we three were devoted to each other and loved each other, there always seemed to be one of us on the outside; a pair of us was always a little bit closer than the other.
Three seems to be one of the most challenging numbers for a group of people to navigate; with two, you’re just a pair, with four, there are two pairs, and once you get to five or six, it’s really just a party. Three is an awkward number when it comes to close relationships, and yet, that’s exactly the number that God chose to use to communicate to us who he is. The most challenging of all numbers for a relationship to succeed–that’s the number God uses to reveal to himself to humanity.
Though it’s wrong both to say that God is more unified than diverse, or more diverse than unified, both angles are a bit much to cover in one morning–or at least are beyond my ability to capture succinctly, so I’ll focus on God being three-in-one.
There are many images, or analogies we’re given in our daily lives to help us try to understand how God is three and also one; marriage, though between two people, not three, is a picture of more-than-one-becoming-one. In Genesis it says “the two became one flesh.” Some of you know well the challenge of being unified with someone who is very different from you; many of us have seen the beautiful results of a couple who have consistently, for decades, put their unity ahead of their own individual ways. Another picture we see of many-being-one-body is the church. Now, I don’t have to tell you that we haven’t done a great job of staying as “one” over the last many centuries. Even before the Protestants and Roman Catholics split off, the Eastern church, the Orthodox Church, split off back in the 11th century, and another branch of churches left in the 5th century–we’ve been doing this all throughout history. What has happened more recently in the lower part of our state is nothing new. There’s been a lot of upheaval here in the last months, and people have gotten up from the table, they’ve left the room, they’ve removed their presence from us. We’re left incomplete without them, our church body isn’t whole because we’re missing them. All our “persons” aren’t here.We worship a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three person, one unified God. The first thing we learn about God in Genesis is that God is singular–it wasn’t, “in the beginning ‘gods’ created the heavens and the earth.” The three persons of our Triune God aren’t grabbing for the spotlight, crazed to be heard, insisting on their own way or their own distinctiveness. In the first words of the first book in which God tells us about himself, we meet a creative, compassionate, life-giving, self-sacrificing God.We live in a time and culture that emphasizes individualism. Our grades in school, our paychecks at work, our email addresses, and our cell phones have one name on them, they belong to one person individually–each of us. It’s easy to forget that we can’t rely on ourselves, that thinking of individuals as the building block of society is a rather modern notion.This week, Jordan and I are leaving for a trip to see cathedrals in Northern France. We’ve been doing research and I’ve been calling on my Gothic Cathedrals class from undergrad to prepare. Did you know that most of those famous cathedrals took more than 100 years to complete? Not only was life expectancy shorter then, but people who were masons, working hard on the building wore their bodies out even sooner – even 3 and 4 generations might pass before the work was done.Most of those cathedrals are known for the town in which they’re located–Chartes, Cologne, Amiens–the identity is based not on a particular architect or stone mason, but on the community, the whole. The whole church and community as one. The name of every person who worked on the building isn’t written down or remembered – what they knew themselves to be working toward wasn’t their own glory or their own kingdom or for the importance of their particular voice, but to glorify, point toward, lift up God’s name, God’s identity.
The church, God’s people on earth, Jesus’ hands and feet in the world–us–existed long before we came along, and will be around long after we’re gone. Our work is not to be heard or to be remembered or to be concerned and proud and angry about what makes each of us so terribly unique, but to do as Paul exhorts us in this morning’s epistle reading from 2 Corinthians,
“11 Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
13 All the saints greet you.
14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” (13:11-14, NKJV)