The Trinity is the Heresy

by

John 3:1-17
Trinity Sunday

 

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him
may have eternal life.

 

At the top of Mt. Nebo, just northwest of Madaba in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, there is a statue of a serpent lifted up on a pole reminiscent of the one Moses lifted up in the wilderness after the attack of serpents. You know the story from Numbers 21: The people complained about being out in the desert with nothing to eat so God sent some serpents to bite them. Lots of them died. Then the people said they were really sorry and asked Moses to pray for them, which he did. God told Moses, “Alright, then. Make a bronze serpent and put it on top of a pole. When people look at it they will live.” And that’s what happened.

 

That is the serpent that Nicodemus and Jesus were talking about in the gospel reading for this morning. The serpent was lifted up and that brought life to the people. Jesus was also lifted up on a cross, and his sacrifice to violence is what heals us from the wounds we all receive just by virtue of being alive. It’s a pretty good comparison. But, we really should follow it through to the end.

 

Do you remember what happened to the serpent on the pole? Well, it worked pretty well. People really were healed when they looked at it. Eventually, people were so enamored of the snake on a pole that they started burning incense to it and worshipping it! King Hezekiah made them destroy the serpent on a pole. It had become an idol.

 

That’s how the story of the serpent on a pole ends, and it is how the story of Jesus on the cross should end too. It has become too much of an idol, especially in certain branches of Christianity. The crucifixion should not be the object of our attention any more than the serpent on the pole. Like all idols, they have to be destroyed.

 

This reminds me of a story from Islam. It’s a story about Moses. In the story, Moses got a stomach ache and so he told God about it. God told Moses to eat the leaves of a certain kind of tree and he would be healed. Moses went out and ate the leaves and he was healed. For years Moses didn’t have any more trouble with his stomach. Then one day he had another stomach ache. Moses remembered what God had told him and so he went to the tree and ate some more leaves. Moses expected to feel better, but he felt worse instead. “God,” he said, “Why didn’t the leaves heal me?” God replied that healing was never in the leaves. Healing was in hearing and doing the will of God. Then God told Moses to eat the leaves of a different tree. Moses did and he felt better right away.  

 

We are looking for some way to relate to this God which is an unrelatable, complicated, impossibly incomprehensible being. So, we look to things like Jesus on a cross, serpents on poles, leaves, even doctrines like the Trinity.

 

Whether we call God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; or in nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti; or something more modern like Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer doesn’t matter. That is not who God is. Muslims have 99 names for God, all of them seem true to me and none of them seem to be anything near the whole. Jews have seven basic names for God, but the rabbis added some names, and the Kabbalists added some names, and they all seem right, and they all seem inadequate too. But there are not seven, or 99, or three Gods. Still only one. Still unmanageable.

 

The doctrine of The Trinity arose out of a need to say what was true and what was not true about Jesus, who he was, what kind of being he was. Good people did the best they could to figure it out and some of them, people we now call heretics, had taken some kernel of truth and made it their only truth. There can’t be any condemnation in that, though a lot of them did get burned at the stake. (#BadOutcome) The fact of the matter, though, is that we have replaced the heretical kernel of truth with the Trinitarian kernel of truth. There really are three expressions of God, and at least 3,000 more. The heresy is not in naming them, but in thinking that we can somehow manage the nature of God by naming and organizing it.

 

Here are some alternative Trinitarian formulations:

Oh, God… Beginning, Middle, and End.
Oh, God… Giver of life, Trouble, and Death.
Oh, God… Creator, Destroyer, Desolation.
Oh, God… Lover, Fighter, Weirdo.
Oh, God… The question, The Answer, The Wonder.

 

It’s all really just a reflection of us. What about you? If you have to reduce it to only three, what Trinitarian formula would you use? Can you recognize that the tired old patriarchal formula we currently use is really just the best people could do at the time, not the end-all and be-all explanation? Let the wind of the Holy Spirit blow in some new ideas, new names, new ways of thinking and talking about the one who is beyond words. And, if it turns out that you’re a little bit of a heretic, don’t worry. We all are.

 


Linda McMillan is currently in Amman, Jordan… Near Mt. Nebo.

Image: The Trinity. Andrei Rublev (1370-1430). Moscow

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Jesse George
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Jesse George

This piece reflects a gravely impoverished understanding of doctrine. Our Church is failing at catechesis.

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Michael Lilly
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I'm not quite sure I understand. Is the author saying that the Holy Trinity, expressed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as those Names are revealed in Scripture is not an authentic self-disclosure of the nature of God - albeit, explicated in and through terms of Greek Philosophy and defended by conciliiar condemnations against wrong thinking about that nature- and that the Incarnation is an outdated way of looking at God's intervention in history? If such is the case, I am saddened for her.

But, on the topic of three word explanations: I would use "O Lord our God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of the faithful..."

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Tim Mildenhall
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Tim Mildenhall

Linda, a genuine theological criticism of your hermeneutic.

You've mistaken the Bible for some other human-only authored text, contra Anglican teaching.

And your post perfectly illustrates why the Episcopal Church is diverging further and further from the historic (read genuine) Christian faith and its Anglican expression.

99 years since J Greshem Machen wrote 'Christianity and Liberalism' and his analysis is as clear today as 100 years ago.

You claim the mantle of Christian teacher but have discarded the Jesus who laid down his life for your sin.

The hymn of heaven, far from overlooking the cross, highlights it as the grounds of Jesus' worth:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.'

This is not meant to be an insult, but bluntly, it's kind of irrelevant how you think of God, compared to how he thinks about you.

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GerneyLee Carter
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GerneyLee Carter

Wow. I loved that.
I feel better after reading it.
We has the snake reading at church but I do not recall the ending.

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Andrew Agler
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Andrew Agler

I confess the title hooked me. I'm glad it did! Very good points made but I especially like the serpent/pole and crucifixion comparison. It's easy to see others idolize sacred objects, customs, or rituals but often blinded when I'm guilty of it.

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Joan cC. Oliver
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Joan cC. Oliver

Ms McMillan’s god is WAY to small.

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Joan cC. Oliver
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Joan cC. Oliver

Ms. mcMillan’sgod is way too small!

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Tomás Torquemada
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Tomás Torquemada

The heresy in this article is so fire, I was expecting it to come with rope and a stake. This author grossly disrespects our Lord by her contempt for the teaching of the apostles, the doctrine established by the ecumenical councils, and the wisdom of the Church Fathers. The Trinity is not an expression of poetry, or three names out of numerous possible ones. The Trinity is a factual description of the true nature of God. This is not negotiable, and if you disagree, you are not a Christian. Unitarianism is an insult to God just as much as Islam, Judaism, Paganism, Buddhism, and other Satanic falsehoods are.

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John R. Robison
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John R. Robison

And people wonder why I left The Episcopal Chirch.
Well, I now have another example of why.

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Vernon Sheldon-Witter
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Vernon Sheldon-Witter

I am sorry but this borders on heresy. The Mystery of the Trinity is beyond our understanding because it is GOD. Our Church is a great big tent, but you have stretched it out of shape. The Trinity is an Article of the Faith, born out of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea. That is enough evidence for me. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, but so does the Evil One.

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Silvia Gosnell
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Silvia Gosnell

I am, by all accounts, a progressive, liberal Episcopalian... active in a large, very liberal northeastern congregation. If in fact (as it appears at the time of this writing) my last comment was moderated out - perhaps because it was not supportive of the article - it would be yet another indicator that a kind of rigid orthodoxy is setting into our numbers... and that can never be a good thing.

[We've been slow to moderate over the Memorial Day weekend. Apologies. - eds.]

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John McGrath
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John McGrath

I once said of the Trinity: God's (the father) self-awareness is equal to God (the Son) and the love that flows between God and God's self-awareness is the Holy Spirit. But of course if this makes sense, and the Trinity can be explained, how could the explanation be true?

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John McGrath
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John McGrath

The Trinity was pushed by Bishop Eusebius, the Emperor's agent at the Council of Niceaa (and possibly the Emperor's cousin). Making Jesus God would enable the Roman (Byzantine) emperor to rule as God's stand-in on Earth. Jesus began to be depicted as a Roman Emperor rather than as the Good Shepherd of early Christians. Conformity to doctrine replaced love and amity as the mark of Christianity. Mohammed came into contact with Christians who emphasized the humanity of Jesus, some even to the point of avoiding belief in the divinity of Jesus. The Scriptural claims that Jesus claimed divinity can easily be interpreted in a more Jewish, non-Trinitarian way.

Ok, for my three: God here, God beyond here, God always.

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Palamas
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Palamas

You really need to get your church history from someone other than Dan Brown or James Carroll.

[In future comments, please use your first and last names. See our comment policy. - eds.]

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Ainslie
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Ainslie

An interesting, if challenging “explanation” is the Creed of Saint Athanasius (BCP 864)

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Elizabeth Kaeton
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This has been a fascinating discussion. Thank you. I am enlighted by each comment, especially the ones I disagree with. You've really helped me to re-examine my beliefs and my faith.

I love this comment: "There is a difference between mystery and nonsense."

And, this: "Sometimes having too many "beliefs" results in leaving "faith" wanting".

Thank you, Lindy, for your courageous and bold and faithful witness.

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Silvia Gosnell
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Silvia Gosnell

And... we've gone off the deep end. The conclusion ("It's all really just a reflection of us") says it all. Theology is really anthropology: a narcissistic reflection. The depth and mystery of three-in-one seems wholly insufficient to the author. So anything goes.
God help us all.

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Charles Mathewes
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Charles Mathewes

Well, I recognize I may be defensive about this, but this piece doesn't seem (to me) to take very seriously the long tradition of hard thinking about how to talk to God, or how in Scripture God invites humanity to talk about God. In general, to me--just to me--it seems less a coherent account of any Christian understandings of God and more a kind of lazy shrug. Actually kind of depressing to read, because it speaks to a larger failure to take careful theology seriously.

I recognize the theological discussion of these matters can seem pretty abstruse, but there are good books out there that will help you understand this doctrine, if you are patient and willing. For example, I would invite this person, or really anyone interested in the Trinity, to take a look at three theological books: Kathryn Tanner's JESUS, HUMANITY, AND THE TRINITY; Katherine Sonderegger's SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY I: THE DOCTRINE OF GOD, or Sarah Coakley's GOD, SEXUALITY, AND THE SELF: AN ESSAY "ON THE TRINITY".

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Leonard Clark
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Present, Liberating, Infinite

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Gary Woodruff
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Gary Woodruff

I have trouble understanding how Jesus Christ can be the Word of God and yet the crucifixion of Jesus can be turned into an idol. I'm also unsure how the Triune Name can be a human construct when the part of it which is debated (for "Holy Spirit" is not gendered, and there is no denying Jesus was male and therefore "Son" of God and Mary) is used to address God by Christ throughout the Gospels. Are we saying we are smarter and more enlightened regarding the nature of God than Jesus was? Are we denying the incarnation? I'm not sure, but these are my questions.

And then there's the idea that the persons of the Trinity are "expressions of God", which is absolutely not what Trinitarian theology teaches, so I'm not convinced the idea the author is critiquing is the same as the actual doctrine of the Trinity. Could this be the fruit of a misunderstanding? Could the author have framed this statement into a questioning of the doctrine rather than a dismissal?

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Daniel Reeder
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Daniel Reeder

There is much that God is. There is much that God is not. This essay, however, deals with none of that, and ignores over a thousand years of basic agreement between Christians on the nature of God. It is not heresy to follow what all Christians everywhere have believed. Nor is iconoclasm, which is the very basis of this essay, a virtue. Iconoclasm is, itself, a heresy, and is akin to the acts of Muslim Fundamentalists, who have been destroying sacred sites. This essay should give nobody comfort, as it sits squarely without Christian belief and the truths of Sacred Scripture.

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Tyler Richards
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Tyler Richards

What needs to be understood about the Triune God is that it is a mystery. And like all good mysteries sometimes throwing words at it actually makes a bigger mess. If we accept that the trinity is actually in cooperation with itself and then meditate on what that cooperation means for us as a people, there is deeper meaning and understanding to be had.

It doesn't matter how many 3 word adjectives you throw at God, they're going to come up short in the end. We know from our reading of scripture that there is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Hence the creation of the doctrine of the trinity.

As to the suggestion that we throw words at God like throwing spaghetti at the wall:

"Oh, God… Giver of life, Trouble, and Death."
"Oh, God… Creator, Destroyer, Desolation. "

I'm not sure that really gels with our theology of God. Some of that sounds like a really bad riff off Hinduism.

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Gretchen Pritchard
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A priest I knew in the 1980's said, "It's all metaphor, and all the metaphors are up for grabs." That was nonsense then and it's still nonsense. The fact that no one trinitarian formulation is adequate or complete does not mean that any old trinitarian formulation is as good as any other. "Creator, Destroyer, Desolation"? Nope.

If your spirituality is so apophatic that you can't bear to sign on to any one formula, fine. Then go with the Via Negativa: "God is not ... " and fill in the blank with as many intrinsically limited, inaccurate and finite names as you like. But do not fall into the silly, lazy postmodern cop-out of arguing that names -- words -- have no meaning at all.

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Ellen Brauza
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Ellen Brauza

Using the orthodox Names for the Trinity does not mean one imagines one is managing God, or fully understands the Trinity. It does mean that one is willing to accept the language of the gospels and the language used by Jesus. If that is no longer acceptable in The Episcopal Church, there is nowhere left for folks like me to go. Being fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ people means neither ACNA, Rome, nor Eastern Orthodoxy could ever be home. Are we so in live with new/now/next that the faith once given to the saints is to be jettisoned? I hope not, but a piece like this is worrisome.

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Elizabeth Kaeton
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Thank you for this comment and its honesty. It really helps me to understand some of the objections to this piece.

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Shivaun Wilkinson
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Shivaun Wilkinson

You belong. And many priests agree with you. We can love one another with a fully orthodox theology.

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Joe Rawls
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Joe Rawls

When Andrei Rublev wrote the Trinity icon, it's a safe bet he did not conceptualize God as Lover, Fighter, Wierdo.

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Father Lark
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Father Lark

Blasphemy in the form of Word Salad....Id rather not....thanks though

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The Rev. Christopher T. Wilkerson
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The Rev. Christopher T. Wilkerson

The Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead does not arise out of any need to manufacture anything to say about Jesus. That’s a ridiculous proposition on its face. The doctrine of the Trinity is everywhere implicit in the Holy Scriptures; it is impossible to study the Scriptures and not arrive at the conclusion that God’s divine nature is triune.

Also, St. Paul would have more than a thing or two to say about the nonsensical assertion that “the crucifixion should not be the object of our attention.” After all, as Christians, we proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified! The very Gospel according to St. Mark ends with the crucifixion!

This essay is neither daring, nor edgy, nor very well-informed.

These questions were settled well more than a millennium ago by the Ecumenical Councils.

There is no need to dredge up heresies that were thoughtfully and rightly discarded 1500 years ago in order to make Christianity seem “relevant.” Christianity has never not been relevant.

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Daniel Nieciecki
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Daniel Nieciecki

God is indeed mysterious, but one of the reasons and blessings of the Incarnation is that in Jesus Christ we have been given a Person with whom we can relate and have a recognizable personal relationship. Jesus, on the cross or not, cannot be an idol because he is the icon of the unseen God. It’s imposisble for the true and living God to be an idol.

The essence of the Trinitarian formula is the relationships between the Persons. If the “patriarchal” aspect of Father and Son is a problem, then “Begetter and Begotten” or “Lover and Beloved” work just as well.

I consider myself pretty open-minded, but I don’t quite understand the point of chucking out the beauty of tradition and revelation for no very good reason.

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Isabel Ogden
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Isabel Ogden

Just wanted to say the McMillian essay "Trinity is the Heresy" is excellent and very insightful, the best Trinity Sunday "sermon" I have ever heard (and I'm an elder, cradle Episcopalian)! Grateful for her gift of the essay.

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Ralph Pitman
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Ralph Pitman

Wow! I like this. courageous and faithful. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to preach this in my parish. But I like to think a I could have. Thanks

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Susan Russell
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Susan Russell

Love it! Here's how Trinity Sunday sermon ended at All Saints in Pasadena:

In closing, I can think of no better words on this Trinity Sunday to celebrate the mystery of the unity of the God who is the source of all love -- who loved us enough to become one of us -- and who sends us out into the world to love one another -- than this prayer by the awesome Reverend Yolanda Norton:

“Our Mother,
who is in heaven and within us,
We call upon your names.
Your wisdom come.
Your will be done,
In all the spaces in which You dwell.
Give us each day
Sustenance and perseverance.
Remind us of our limits as
we give grace to the limits of others.
Separate us from the temptation of empire,
But deliver us into community.
For you are the dwelling place within us
the empowerment around us
and the celebration among us
now and for ever.”
Amen.

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Andrew Agler
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Andrew Agler

Amen. I Love this prayer and I'm sharing! Such an authentic expression of confidence, faith , and love of not only the Divine but the Divine within.

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Joe Carlin
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Joe Carlin

What hubris to think you can improve upon the words of Our Lord.

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Tyler Richards
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Tyler Richards

I can't sign off on this "alternative" Lord's Prayer. There are a LOT of theological issues in it.

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Gretchen Pritchard
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How is this any kind of improvement on the simple and concrete words of the original? How is "sustenance and perseverance" any more meaningful than "daily bread"???

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Elizabeth Kaeton
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Why does every prayer have to be the exactly the same for everybody, every time?

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Vernon Sheldon-Witter
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Vernon Sheldon-Witter

Because the Lord Jesus Christ,the Savior said it that way when He was asked "Teach us to pray"

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Elizabeth Kaeton
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Sure, and he said it, no doubt in perfect King James version of English, with the BCP tucked under one arm and the KJV tucked under the other. As one Dean of Harvard Divinity School once said in his opening remarks on the first day of class, surveying all the earnest, intelligent young faces, ready and eager to embark on their year of theological education, "Lighten up!"

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Tyler Richards
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Tyler Richards

The problem is that this version of The Lord's prayer, which it is, throws out a lot of the theological ideas that the prayer Jesus taught his disciples held up as important.

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Joe Carlin
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Joe Carlin

Starting with Jesus teaching us to call God Father.

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Elizabeth Kaeton
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Well, Tyler, I don't experience it that way; rather I think it states ideas in a different way. Did Jesus say, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors"? Or, did He say, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"? Debtors and trespassers have different meanings, but each is meaningful to different people for different reasons.

Are the Roman Catholics wrong to leave off "for thine is the kingdom and the glory and the power" at the end? Or does that "throw out a lot of the theological ideas" that Jesus taught?

I also love the New Zealand m BCP version of The Lord's Prayer: "Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver. Source of all that is and that shall be."

Sometimes, I like the tradition and the familiarity of "my" version of The Lord's Prayer. Other times, I really need to hear the New Zealand version. The eyes of my soul are opened when I hear new language like this, and I have a deeper appreciation for Jesus. YMMV

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John McGrath
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John McGrath

Some Biblical scholars think that Jesus was being totally literal when he said "debts." That is, he was telling people to forgive others the debts owed them, as in a Jubilee year, but not waiting for the Jubilee. ... P.S. Thank you to this site for providing legible captchas.

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The Rev. Valerie Webster
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The Rev. Valerie Webster

If this piece leaves you flat, may I recommend a life-giving, nuanced perspective on our Trinitarian God: The Divine Dance: The Trinity & Your Transformation by Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell.

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Ainslie
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Ainslie

...or Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Holy Trinity: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity.

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