“Theology begins and ends with real life,” said Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary on his podcast this week, “Something happens that creates a need for new ways of thinking about God.”
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” said Jesus in this week’s gospel lesson, and I think he meant the same thing. We usually think the disciples were too emotionally fragile to hear his further teaching that night he sat with them around the dinner table for the last time before his death. But what if Jesus simply meant that they needed other experiences in their lives before his further instruction would be useful? What if they needed to wait those 50 days between Jesus resurrection and Pentecost, to experience that fearful and confusing waiting before they were ready to step out in public to preach Jesus to the world?
Now please hear me clearly, this is not me saying “everything happens for a reason”, a saying that troubles me deeply. What I’m saying is what Paul writes in our reading from Romans 5: There is some connection between our experiences, especially the hard ones through which we suffer, and the development of our faith and hope. “We boast in our sufferings,” he writes, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
In my own experience that progression through suffering to hope is not such a straight line as that sentence indicates. However, my experience does begin in suffering and end in hope that does not disappoint. And my experience, along with the similar experience of others, has always created deeper, more resonant theology in my life. Through my hardest experiences, I have come to a more complex, more enduring understanding of who God is, and how God works in the world.
One recent example of this has to do with the Trinity, and I want to share it with you this morning. Before I do that, though, I want to acknowledge that there may be some here this morning who cannot bear this theology right now, who are too much in the midst of their own struggle to hear it. It is a Trinitarian image related to pregnancy loss, miscarriage. When I first began to read in the month after my miscarriage last summer, it was too much, and I had to put it away until a later time.
That said, I want to share it because it is a powerful image of how the doctrine of the Trinity is as alive as the God it represents, in the lives and experience of believers these 1600 years after it was first adopted by the church.
Serene Jones, a feminist theologian and now the president of Union Seminary in New York, has worked with many women struggling to understand what their faith has to say when they lose a pregnancy, some of them many times in a row. As she talked with these women, she found that their common desire was for some image of God standing with them as women ravaged by grief at the loss of hoped-for children. She suggests that the Trinity is just the place to find that image.
For centuries, Christians have been hard-pressed to explain what happens in the whole of God when Christ, a part of Godself, dies. What transpires within the whole of God when one of its members bleeds away? Martin Luther stressed the importance of the fact that God takes Christ’s death into the depths of Godself. “The Trinity thus holds this death. The first person holds the second, who undergoes death, united with the second by the power of the Spirit. But how can the living Godhead hold death within it?” (Trauma & Grace, 149)
But, Serene Jones suggests that woman who have suffer the loss of a pregnancy, like me and many of you, may have just the right language to understand this mystery. “A woman in the grips of a stillbirth, has death inside her and yet does not die. Consider the power of this as an image for the Trinity. When Christ is crucified, God’s own child dies.
For the God who sent this child into the world bearing the hope of God’s eternal love, this death is a death of hope, the hope that the people who see this child will believe. It is the death of a possibility that has never been, the possibility of true human community. Further, because the God who bears this loss will not turn away from God’s people, God is in a sense rendered helpless in the face of this dying. God cannot stop it; and yet by letting it happen, God also bears guilt for it. And perhaps most wrenching, this is a death that happens deep within God, not outside of God but in the very heart— perhaps the womb— of God. It is a death that consumes God, that God holds, making a grave of the Trinity. And yet, like the women we [know who have experienced pregnancy loss], this death-bearing grave of a God paradoxically does not die but lives. And She lives to love yet again and to offer to the world the gift of the future.” (Trauma & Grace, 150)
This image points us to the same difficult truth that Paul lays out in Romans 5: that love persists in the midst of suffering, even God’s own suffering, and it is that love that redeems us. The Spirit which held the Father and Son together even in the grave has poured that love into our hearts too. That love holds us together when we are dying too, when we hold the death of others in our bodies and hearts, when our suffering seems big enough to drown us. Because of God’s Spirit within, reminding us of all that Jesus is and did and taught, we have peace with God and hope for the future.
Such peace and hope are exactly the gifts that I needed from God after my miscarriage, and this new image of the Trinity provided it. That is the sole purpose of all the explaining we do about the Trinity: to help the struggling faithful make sense of their experience in a way that draws us closer to God. Good theology is useful, even life-saving, and if it doesn’t do anyone any good, it’s not good theology.
The Trinity matters, theology and doctrine and well-thought out explanations of faith matter, especially where people are suffering. Theology is one of the ways the Spirit of Truth still comes to Christ’s people, saying the many things Jesus didn’t have time for, speaking to our hearts just at the moment we are able to bear them.
So your experience matters too, as you seek to understand the way God’s life is interweaving with your own. The more you can share the stories of God leading you from suffering into hope, the more real this God of ours becomes in the lives of those who hear our stories. It’s not easy to do this, sharing about our suffering, but when we risk being vulnerable with each other and the world, the Trinity comes alive in our midst. And wherever God comes among us, we find that hope that does not disappoint.