“Lord, who has formed me out of mud,
and has redeemed me through thy blood,
and sanctified me to do good;
Purge all my sins done heretofore:
for I confess my heavy score,
and I will strive to sin no more.
Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
with faith, with hope, with charity;
that I may run, rise, rest with thee.”
- George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”
Please, be seated.
Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, the day of the year when preachers are wont to tie themselves in knots attempting to explain one of the knottiest doctrines in the history of religion: how is it that three persons are one god? Today, a week later, we are at least one step removed from having to consider the arcane intricacies of God’s life in trinity. Instead, today, one week after Trinity Sunday and two weeks after Pentecost, we are moving back into ordinary time, that long slog through summer and autumn when we are less concerned with God in Godself and more concerned with God’s life with us. In making this transition, I invite us this week to turn back to the vision of God’s life in trinity while moving forward into God’s life with us by asking, “so what?” So what that God is one in three persons? So what that God is inherently relational? Where do we, human persons, you and I, fit into this “three equals one” equation?
Alas, addressing this “so what?” question requires decamping into an area of Christian thought that may actually be more arcane than the doctrine of the trinity itself: theosis; divinization; deification. The idea that humanity has the capacity, by God’s grace, to participate in divine life arises biblically from Paul and from John. For Paul, across the aisle in stained glass over the lectern, humans are adopted by God to be joint heirs with Christ, are resurrected body and spirit, and “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3: 18). John, right next to Paul in the window, puts the words in Jesus’ own mouth, as he defends himself from the charge of blasphemy: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” The refrain was picked up in the early church. So Irenaeus: “If the Word became a human, it was so humans may become gods.” So Clement of Alexandria: “the Word of God became a human so that you might learn from a human how to become a god.” So Athanasius, watching over us here in stained glass, “Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a human, so also we humans are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life.” So Augustine, also in stained glass: “But the one that justifies also deifies, for by justifying that one makes sons of God… To make human beings gods, that one was made human who was God.” This idea of theosis, of divinization, of deification, sounds like it must be heretical and yet it is at the very heart of the promise of salvation. You and I and we and us, all of us, every one of us, may participate, may partake, may share in the commonwealth of the divine life by the grace of God.
But how? How do we participate? How do we partake? How do we share? This is where things become difficult. Do we as human beings accomplish divinization? Is it a human work? Or is divinization something God does in us? If God does this work in us, how is it brought about? And how do we know if we are partakers in the divine life or not? There is no common Christian witness on these questions, and indeed it is precisely on matters of salvation and its accomplishment that churches most often divide.
This morning I would like to suggest that it might not be possible to arrive at an adequate response to these questions relying solely upon the Christian witness. I suggest that we move further afield to consider wisdom from beyond the confessional boundaries of Christianity. We only need fear doing so if we want to insist that God is so small as to be constrained to a single book, a single concept, or a single institution. If not, we may instead move forward confident that all truth is God’s truth, as the Holy Spirit of God leads us forward into the freedom of all truth.
Let us consider, then, a passage from the Zhongyong, the Doctrine of the Mean, a chapter from the Liji, the Book of Rites, a classical Confucian text. My dear friend and colleague, Bin Song, is here to read the text in Chinese and English:
“Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature. If they can fully develop their nature, they can then fully develop the nature of others. If they can fully develop the nature of others, they can then fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can then assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can thus form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.”
We hear in this text as well the prospect of human participation in trinity, although it would be too much to claim that the Confucian and Christian trinities are in any way precise analogues. Instead, what is helpful here is that, tracing back through all of the dependent clauses, the prospect of a human being forming a trinity with heaven and earth depends upon the absolute sincerity of that individual. “Sincerity” is the translation most frequently employed for the Chinese word “Cheng,” which has a rich set of resonances of meaning, including also truthfulness and realness. Sincerity for Confucians has a particular understanding having to do with restraint of the many competing desires that make up the self in order to arrive at a unified harmony among the desires and with the natural, cosmic order. Sincerity has to do with according oneself with the mandate of heaven.
Perhaps, then, a better translation of Cheng would be not so much sincerity as faithfulness. After all, faithfulness, for Christians, involves according oneself with the will, with the purposes, with the mandate of God. It is accomplished in many ways: in prayer, in spiritual discipline, in worship, in study, in sacrament, in service, and more. Most importantly, faithfulness is a partnership between God whose will is made manifest, and we human beings, who seek to accord ourselves with God.
A wonderful example of this sort of faithfulness comes in the Gospel according to Luke. Another dear friend and colleague, Greylyn Hydinger, reads to us from the seventh chapter of Luke in Greek and in English, to remind us that Christian texts come to us no more in English than the Confucian text we heard earlier.
Ἐπειδὴ ἐπλήρωσεν πάντα τὰ ῥήματα αὐτοῦ εἰς τὰς ἀκοὰς τοῦ λαοῦ, εἰσῆλθεν εἰς Καφαρναούμ. Ἑκατοντάρχου δέ τινος δοῦλος κακῶς ἔχων ἤμελλεν τελευτᾶν, ὃς ἦν αὐτῷ ἔντιμος. ἀκούσας δὲ περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν πρεσβυτέρους τῶν Ἰουδαίων ἐρωτῶν αὐτὸν ὅπως ἐλθὼν διασώσῃ τὸν δοῦλον αὐτοῦ. οἱ δὲ παραγενόμενοι πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν παρεκάλουν αὐτὸν σπουδαίως λέγοντες ὅτι ἄξιός ἐστιν ᾧ παρέξῃ τοῦτο· ἀγαπᾷ γὰρ τὸ ἔθνος ἡμῶν καὶ τὴν συναγωγὴν αὐτὸς ᾠκοδόμησεν ἡμῖν. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐπορεύετο σὺν αὐτοῖς. ἤδη δὲ αὐτοῦ οὐ μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας ἔπεμψεν φίλους ὁ ἑκατοντάρχης λέγων αὐτῷ· κύριε, μὴ σκύλλου, οὐ γὰρ ἱκανός εἰμι ἵνα ὑπὸ τὴν στέγην μου εἰσέλθῃς· διὸ οὐδὲ ἐμαυτὸν ἠξίωσα πρὸς σὲ ἐλθεῖν· ἀλλ’ εἰπὲ λόγῳ, καὶ ἰαθήτω ὁ παῖς μου. καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν τασσόμενος ἔχων ὑπ’ ἐμαυτὸν στρατιώτας, καὶ λέγω τούτῳ· πορεύθητι, καὶ πορεύεται, καὶ ἄλλῳ· ἔρχου, καὶ ἔρχεται, καὶ τῷ δούλῳ μου· ποίησον τοῦτο, καὶ ποιεῖ. ἀκούσας δὲ ταῦτα ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐθαύμασεν αὐτὸν καὶ στραφεὶς τῷ ἀκολουθοῦντι αὐτῷ ὄχλῳ εἶπεν· λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐδὲ ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ τοσαύτην πίστιν εὗρον. Καὶ ὑποστρέψαντες εἰς τὸν οἶκον οἱ πεμφθέντες εὗρον τὸν δοῦλον ὑγιαίνοντα.
“After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”
Here we find a centurion, not an Israelite, a foreigner, who recognizes that Jesus is under the authority of God, whose will is in accord with the will of God, and so he seeks to accord his own will with Jesus’ will, and thus with God’s will. Jesus has a fully developed nature, and so can develop the nature of others, in this case the centurion, whose nature develops toward faithfulness in response. Meanwhile, Jesus is able to “assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth” by healing the centurion’s servant. Furthermore, Jesus’ remarks on the faithfulness of the centurion, indicating that the centurion himself is more in accord with the will of God than any he has met in Israel. It is the centurion, and not the Israelites, who is moving toward forming a trinity, toward being divinized into the divine life. The centurion has chosen partnership with God through partnership and trust – that is through faithfulness – in Jesus.
What might it look like to form ourselves into a trinity with heaven and earth, into a partnership with the divine will and pattern offered for our divinization? Well, perhaps on this Memorial Day weekend it might look something like the President of the United States of America traveling to Hiroshima, Japan and declaring:
“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.
Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines…
The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”
Such a moral revolution cannot be divorced from divine will, from the pattern established by heaven and earth. As Dr. King reminds us, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” So too must we bend if we are to accord ourselves with the arc and participate in divine life. To be sure, we have among us those who would lead us who think heaven and earth should bend toward them. This is not the path of faithfulness leading to divinization, of forming a trinity with heaven and earth.
Rather, faithfulness means responsibly attending to our obligations in life in light of the full range of realities of our present moment and attending to the common good for the sake of our commonwealth. Faithfulness means socially responsible investing so that our livelihood is not at the expense of our neighbor, of future generations, and of the planet. Faithfulness means stepping up and stepping in, of saying something and doing something, when the inherent worth and dignity of any person is disparaged, denied, or denigrated. Faithfulness means establishing and nurturing common ground with the immigrant, the religious other, the disabled, the poor, the mentally ill, and anyone else our first inclination might be to avoid or ignore. Faithfulness looks a lot like the Gloucester Police Department reaching out and connecting drug addicts with treatment rather than shuttling them off to prison: responsibility AND justice.
Notably, faithfulness is not about belief. It is the confidence and trust of the centurion, not what the centurion believes, right or wrong, that are signs of his faithfulness, of his desire to accord his will with the will of God. Faithfulness is not believed, it is not known, it is not understood. Faithfulness is done. Faithfulness is practiced. Faithfulness is carried out. Faithfulness is action. Is this works righteousness? No! The whole point is that faithfulness is activity in partnership with God, and it is this partnership that makes us participants and partakers in the divine life.
In a moment we will sing a setting of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, a hymn declaring our intent to accord ourselves with the will of God, with the pattern and principle of heaven and earth. Celtic Christians had a profound sense of the presence of God, of their own participation as partakers in the divine life, of divinization, of deification, of theosis, of forming a trinity with heaven and earth. As we sing, may we reclaim the promise of salvation that we too might partake in divinity and form a trinity with God. Amen.
–Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†
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