UCC Beliefs: The Triune God
I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now. But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, she will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. She won’t draw attention to herself, but will make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that I have done and said. She will honor me; she will take from me and deliver it to you. Everything the Father has is also mine. That is why I’ve said, “She takes from me and delivers to you.” John 16:12-15 (The Message, modified)
When I have conversations about CCC, and the United Church of Christ in general, there is one question I get more than any other: What do we believe?
My answer: It’s complicated.
On one hand, we are not the kind of people who like to impose our beliefs on other people. When you come to a church like CCC, there is no doctrine to which you need to ascribe. We are not going to read the Apostle’s Creed and ask you to sign on the dotted line with your affirmation to be a member (I know churches that do ask their members to do that, though). For some people who came here from creedal religious traditions this can be difficult. If you were brought up Catholic, your experience was ordered by church dogma that has been passed down for centuries. If you were brought up Presbyterian, the church was governed by creeds and confessions, which are standards of faith and practice, subordinate only to scripture itself. We don’t have that in the UCC. Our spiritual ancestors were English separatists who fled from the creedal traditions and abusive authority that they thought oppressed the human conscience. In the UCC we have no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members.
On the other hand, we listen closely to historic creeds and confessions. We think they have something to say to us today. It’s just that we believe they are testimonies of faith, not tests of faith. It’s more important for us to live together in covenant than it is for us to believe the same things. In other words, our church is held together by people coming together in agreement on who God calls us to be a community, not on what we believe about a particular creed or statement of belief.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
But we do believe things in the UCC. In fact, we believe in the Trinity. “We believe in the triune God: Creator, resurrected Christ, the sole Head of the church, and the Holy Spirit, who guides and brings about the creative and redemptive work of God in the world.” I lifted that right from the UCC webpage.
Do you know what the “Trinity” is? Can you describe the Trinity? Could you tell someone else what the Trinity means? Most times, it has no significance in our daily lives. I have yet to be stopped on the street and asked to defend the doctrine of the Trinity. It has never come up at a family holiday meal. I’ve had to talk about other difficult things: racism, environmental catastrophe, bad politics, and why bad things happen to good people. I’ve never been asked to defend the Trinity.
In traditional language, the Trinity refers to God as Father, Son, & Holy Spirit – three specific “persons” who share one “essence”. We proclaim it every Sunday when we sing the Doxology, whether we use the traditional language or inclusive language; Creator, Christ and Spirit. Every Sunday, we bear witness to a belief, a reality beyond words, even if we don’t quite know what it really means. And like a lot of things we cannot fully explain or understand, we use stories, and parables, and metaphors to try to get it to make sense.
Legend has it that St. Patrick used a shamrock to teach about the Trinity –three identical leaves with a common stem.
Another metaphor is that the Trinity is like the Sun. Just as looking directly at the solar disk of the Sun is to risk injury to eyes, so it is that the Heavenly Sovereign should not be taken lightly. Just as the Sun’s light illuminates the world, so has Jesus enlightened the world through his life and teachings. Just as the Sun’s heat enables life on Earth, so does the unseen activity of the Holy Spirit give life.
Another metaphor is water, which can take the form of liquid H2O that irrigates farmlands, steam that powers engines, and ice that forms majestic glaciers. As H2O has the same molecules but takes on different forms, so it is with God – three persons, one substance.
Or, imagine God as an egg. You have the yolk, the shell and the white part. All the same egg, but very different from one another. The shell is not the yolk, the yolk is not the white, you get the idea.
Some relate the Trinity with metaphors of birth. God, the creator, gives birth to Christ the eternal Word. The Spirit is the midwife of the new creation, who receives the word and give it to the world, nurturing and strengthening it along the way. This is how I understand what Jesus says in John 16. Jesus shares everything with the One he calls God the Father. The Spirit takes the work of Jesus, sent to us by God, and delivers it to us.
Of course, each one of these metaphors is associated with a historic heresy of the early church. Many teachers were denounced, ostracized, and excommunicated. If the UCC was around back then, we would have taken them in as members. At any rate, if you want an explanation of the Trinity, then pick your heresy. Or else affirm an untenable orthodoxy.
If I was going to be an early church heretic, I might pick a theology called “modalism”. Modalism said God is a single person who, throughout in three modes or forms; Or you could think of it as God revealing God’s self by wearing three different masks or personae; sometimes as Parent/Creator, sometimes as the Christ, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit.
God the Creator generated worlds within worlds from amoebas to zebras, genomes to galaxies, from the universe to the multiverse.
God the Christ walked among us to show compassion in the grace and grit of human life and demonstrate the power of suffering love, wholeness, and salvation.
When we experience the work of God the Creator and God the Christ in life-transforming ways, when we have visions of a more just, humane, compassionate world and find the courage to put those dreams into action, that’s the work of the third person, God the Spirit.
That’s my heresy. You pick yours. The key here is that we do believe something. We may not always be on the same page. I don’t require you to parrot my beliefs to be part of the church. And I don’t allow anyone to bind my conscience. What we can do is affirm the basics.
It’s not just that we believe it. We think we need to live it out. In our church, we believe the idea of God as Trinity should have some transformational effect on how we live our lives together as a community at work in the world. That work begins with loving, healing relationships.
God is not one single, solitary, self-sufficient monarch on a throne issuing orders that must be followed. If God is a Trinity, God’s being is love. God’s being is community, and the different persons are dependent on one another. That’s why we try to use different kinds of language for God, when we pray, when we sing hymns or when we write all those words in the bulletin. It’s easy to get stuck with just one image, or one word even. If you get stuck thinking of God as the old grandpa in the sky – or a mean judge waiting to punish you, or an absentee parent, then the doctrine Trinity helps shake us out of that sludge.
The Trinity helps us embrace diversity in ways that honor God and one another. The Trinity is a way to help us understand what it means to have unity in the midst of diversity. Like God, we all take on different forms. Some of us have a passion for peace; others, a passion for political freedom. Some of us have a passion for life and its sacredness, others, a passion for forgiveness and mercy. Some of us have a passion for a literal interpretation of the Bible, others a passion for a more open interpretation of the Bible. Some have a passion for evangelism, others, a passion for justice. We are diverse, but of one substance. We are all created out of love and meant to relate to one another in love. Love is the essence that connects those three persons of the Trinity. And love connects is as we look for common ground and universal threads that bring us together without demanding that we all be the same.
We were created to be a wondrously variegated church, a delightfully diverse community, a people of differences and of relationship. Look around at who the Spirit has brought here. It’s incredible. Go forth and discover more of those marvelous differences. And may God, Creator, Christ, and Spirit be in each one of our relationships with each other.
Prayer: God … Mother and Father; Savior and Friend; Spirit and Teacher, Unity and Trinity; Lover and Judge; Wind and Whisper; Liberator and Captivator; Lamb and Lion; Suffering Servant and Almighty, enable us, to celebrate our oneness in you and the shared inheritance of your world. Prosper our work as we seek to build bridges of love, understanding and cooperation, that, transformed and renewed by your Holy Spirit, we will be no longer strangers to one another. Together, as diverse members of your world, we always give you glory. Amen.