An introductory note: This sermon contains an extended excerpt from Robert Farrar Capon’s book, The Third Peacock. While this excerpt places a great deal of emphasis on the goodness and delight of creation, it is important to note that the subtitle of Capon’s book is “The Problem of God and Evil.” Anyone interested in a wonderfully frank and unconventional theological exploration of the tension between a good creation and the reality of evil and suffering should really take a look at this book. Originally published in 1971, it was reissued in 1995 as part of Capon’s The Romance of the Word: One Mans Love Affair with Theology.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
onight we mark and celebrate Trinity Sunday, the only day in the liturgical calendar that is set aside to mark not an event in the life and ministry of Christ and of his church, but rather a doctrine. That might strike you as making for rather dull raw material for the preacher, particularly compared to the kind of stuff we’ve had on the plate over the past few months; the Passion story, the various resurrection stories, the ascension, Pentecost. And now I get to offer some complicated intellectual gymnastics to account for this Christian idea that God is Triune? It can tough sledding to try to lay it all out in a linear and ordered fashion, after the manner of what is called the Quicumque vult, or Athanasian Creed; one of the three recognized creeds of the ancient church. Let me offer a bit of a sample:
Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite…
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It continues at length in this manner… but I won’t. Not that creedal statements aren’t important—and following the sermon we will stand and together proclaim the Nicene Creed—but they don’t tend to set imaginations on fire.
Igniting imagination is, however, very much what is intended by that creation story that we proclaimed just a few minutes ago. I had us read it in a liturgical fashion partly as a way of helping us all to hear it anew—with such a long reading, it is easy for minds to drift off—but also because many Old Testament scholars believe this first creation narrative from the book of Genesis was actually crafted as a liturgical and poetic proclamation. That’s a really helpful perspective to have in mind when you read the story of the six-day creation, partly because what it does is to remind us that there is no necessary conflict between the biblical text and the modern earth sciences, paleontology, and even evolutionary biology. When the self-declared atheist Richard Dawkins holds up the sciences as a proof for the non-existence of God—reasoning that if he can show the six-day creation story isn’t scientifically credible, religion must be false—he’s actually heading down a blind alley.
The questions of science—the mechanics of how things happened—are simply not in view here. Instead, what this first chapter of Genesis does is to point first to the creator, and then proclaim something very critical about the created world: it is good, and uttered by God. This is a perspective quite unlike those of the other cultures of the ancient near east, and its uniqueness is even more pointed when the text comes to the sixth day.
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Humanity, marked with the dignity of being created in the image of God, and as such entrusted with a level of responsibility not given to the other creatures. Created, too, for community and relationship, which is at least part of the force of the phrase, “male and female he created them.”
Such a view of things would have seemed utterly odd to other cultures in that part of the world; a counter-theology to systems of thought that feared that the world was simply a plaything of the gods, or that the only humans who mattered were those in places of power and privilege.
From its earliest days, the church has heard this creation narrative as being essentially Trinitarian, regardless of the fact that it originated centuries prior to the birth of Christ. That has partly to do with the phrase in the second verse about the Spirit of God “moving over the face of the waters,” as well as with the fact that when humans are formed, God says, ‘Let us make humankind in our image,” but it was not just these things. It has also to do with bold statements made in the Gospel according to John and in the Epistle to the Colossians that place Christ—the “Word”—at the beginning of all things; “the firstborn of all creation” in whom “all things in heaven and on earth were created.”
The creation as an act or expression or outpouring of the God, who is eternally Father, Son and Spirit. Ah, but now this sermon could now very easily head in the direction of trying to give a rational accounting of this doctrine, and while that can be intellectually invigorating in its own right, it isn’t much fun on a Sunday night. Time for a bit of Robert Capon… I know that I read this to you three or four years back, but I can think of nothing better to offer than what Capon himself admitted was a “crass analogy.”
Let me tell you why God made the world.
One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things—new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix us up a batch?” And God the Holy Ghost said, “Terrific, I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Ghost put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and grapes, horseradishes and tigers—and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and he said, “Wonderful! Just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Ghost could think of to say was the same thing. “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together, “Tov meod!” and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing. And forever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Third Peacock)
“Crass analogies are the safest,” Capon claims, because we all know “that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other.” But he is on to several really key things here with his analogy. That creation is a joyous outpouring of the life of the Trinity, and that the point of the whole works is delight—delight of the Creator and of the created—is in fact a remarkably sophisticated take on the “why” of creation. It is a feast, a Trinitarian party, a dance; and in eighth century, the Syrian monk John of Damascus worked with the idea of ‘perichoresis’, meaning ‘mutual indwelling,’ or a kind of swirling, weaving Trinitarian dance. And it didn’t simply happen a long time ago, but is happening ever and always. Were the dance to stop, the world would cease to be.
A final word from Capon: “The world is not God’s surplus inventory of artifacts: it is a whole barrelful of the apples of his eye, constantly juggled, relished and exchanged by the persons of the Trinity. No wonder we love circuses, games and magic; they prove we are in the image of God.”
Created for community, marked with dignity, and entrusted with real responsibility for the world in which we live, may we be swept off our feet in the festal dance of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.