Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

Three or Four or Gazillion? — Sermon on Trinity Sunday

Dana Petersen

It’s Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost’s celebration of the Holy Spirit, the first Sunday of the long period in the church year between Easter and Advent. Trinity Sunday.

Yesterday when I returned from my trip to Texas, I took two books off the shelf to skim for today’s sermon. One is Women and Religion: A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Thought, edited by Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson, 1977 (Book review). It is a collection of readings revealing attitudes toward women in the religious thought of the Western world. The second book is Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism (by Alvin F. Kimel, Editor, 1992), a collection of essays arguing for the necessity of the language of the orthodox trinitarian formula: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There are several arguments for the traditional formula. Let me lift up three. One is that those are the names God “himself” gives us and we therefore can use no other names to gain access to God. This argument says essentially that these names are like code words that we have to use because we don’t know the language-except for what God reveals from “his” throne.

Another argument for the traditional formula of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is that it is scriptural. Although the word trinity is not to be found in the Bible, the theology developed in the second through the fifth centuries based on passages such as today’s from John wherein Jesus speaks of the Father and of the Spirit of truth in relation to himself. The two clearer examples are the end of Matthew (when Jesus commissions his disciples to teach and baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit) and the end of 2 Corinthians (with the benediction that combines the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.)

The third argument for the traditional names is that we experience God in three persons, as father, as son, as spirit. I thought of that argument when I read the Proverbs passage. If we were to formulate a “trinity” out of the Hebrew Bible, it would be creator, wisdom, liberator, spirit. Oops, that’s four. Let me try three: Yahweh, Hokmah, and Ruach-God, wisdom, spirit. If we look at the ways God is experienced in the four lectionary readings we have for today, we see Woman Wisdom in Proverbs; creator in the Psalm; Father, Jesus, Spirit of truth in John; and God, Lord, and Holy Spirit in Romans.

Feminists look at these arguments and introduce some thoughts that are pertinent to today’s also being Peace with Justice Sunday. It took me a long time to see the value in this name: peace with justice. Then I heard it explained in terms of revolution among oppressed people. Let’s use the slaves in Egypt as an example. When they were under Pharaoh’s thumb, there was peace. Then Moses on behalf of the slaves started a war of plagues on behalf of the Hebrews. It could be said that everything was fine until Moses (and God of course) started stirring up trouble. Well, there may have been peace, but there was no justice in that situation.

One might use the example of Guatemala. Who broke the “peace”? Was it the rebels who wanted freedom or was it the government who denied justice? One might use the example of women. Who breaks the peace? Women who want to be seen as equal humanity or the culture which declares female to be lesser than.

The “lesser than” has been going on a long time. Just a sampling: the second-century Gnostic belief that women would be equal in heaven when they would become men. Tertullian in the third century, who is credited with first using the word trinity in reference to God (291) wrote that “women are the devil’s gateway who destroyed the image of God, Adam.Augustine, who lived in the 5th century and is probably the most influential Christian theologian of all time, wrote (291) “Woman does not possess the image of God in herself, but only when taken together with the male . . . . But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together.Thomas Aquinas, outstanding theologian of the twelfth century, taught that females were defective males. Karl Barth, named by some as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, said, “she would not be woman if she had even a single possibility apart from being man’s helpmeet.

Now none of us still believe that stuff-do we? But the language of our scriptures and our tradition still reflect that mindset. At the very least our language often still acknowledges male as the generic human from which woman differs.

Am I insisting that you use inclusive language for humanity? I’m recommending it as a matter of justice. Language has power. The words we use not only reveal what we think, but shape what we think. Am I insisting that you use inclusive language for the Holy One? Of course not. But I am asking that on this Trinity Sunday, this Peace with Justice Sunday, you consider whether some justice may be as easy to achieve as paying attention to what you say and how you say it. But changing your language isn’t easy. It’s hard. I’ve been working for 25 years on my language and the generic masculine still slips out because it is built into our language and thought patterns.
Augustine and many other church “fathers” didn’t believe that women were created fully in the image of God. If you do, I encourage you to work to let your language reflect that. Maybe equal esteem for women is a new thing that God is trying to teach us. Wherever you stand, may God bless our efforts to be faithful.

Biblical Reference: Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31, John 16.12-15

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