An address for Trinity Sunday: Readings – Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31 John 16: 12-15
One of the things our early Christian forebears struggled with was a paradox. They agreed there was only one God, and their faith was a monotheistic faith, but the one-ness of God wasn’t as one dimensional or static as they had thought. They had met Jesus, or heard stories of Jesus, human like us, and yet revealing God in a way unseen before. And now there was a power and presence in their midst they called the breath of Jesus speaking into their lives in a new dramatic way.
God was not an unknown God, a vague mysterious being out there beyond the clouds but was known and experienced alongside, and even speaking from deep within. One of the images from their culture that helped them make some sense of this was from the world of Roman theatre. There one actor often played multiple parts in a play simply by wearing a different mask. This phenomenon gave them an idea. Maybe God could be thought of as an actor in the world wearing different masks. The one-ness of God was upheld but within this one-ness they came to see there was a dynamic diversity. In Christ and though the Spirit they claimed God was alive in the world in new ways. And as they pondered and debated a radical new understanding and teaching about God emerged. They had to create a whole new term to convey it …. and that term was the Trinity.
I need to say we are embarking on an impossible journey today because books and books have been written about the Trinity and it still remains a mystery. It is at best an idea that helps us draw closer to God, but at its worst it simply confuses and divides. Our Muslim brothers and sisters shake their heads in horror saying we are making the one God three.
I might say this term was particularly helpful for the Irish and for St Patrick because they quickly cottoned on to the shamrock as an image for this new understanding. One shamrock leaf has three parts, and those of you who have looked into Celtic Christianity will recognise the motifs that originate from the image of the trinity. The Celts were very familiar with the idea of interconnectedness and they quickly resonated with the idea that God was best seen in interconnectedness and community. If God exists in community maybe we also find life in community.
There were other images that became popular including that of a spring of water which has an unseen underground source, a spring or fountain where it becomes visible, and a stream that flows from it. In all three parts it is the same life giving water but it is experienced in different ways….. hidden, gushing, and journeying out into the world. All three parts contain the same substance, water, but you see the water in different ways. Images help us understand.
The three parts to the Trinity picture of God were described by our forebears as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
First through Jesus and his good news they had come to know and relate to God in a parental way. Like a parent God was the source of all creation, the giver of life and existence. They saw God’s parental love as source and wisdom that guides, corrects, surrounds, and watches over us in a manner that is seen in the very best of parenting. It is a gracious, longing presence that gives freedom to choose, but which goes on seeking the best for the child. They called God the Father, and there were reasons why they only rarely used motherhood to describe God back then. Today if we were formulating the idea of the Trinity for the first time we would include both motherhood and fatherhood to speak of God’s creating and parental love. It’s not an easy task to redefine our traditions in light of now. It takes time.
Secondly in Jesus they saw God in the life of a fellow human being who walked with them. God was not some far off remote presence, or something that was unseen such as a hidden source of water, but God wanted to participate in the life of the world. If you have seen me you have seen the Father Jesus says in John’s gospel. God had broken into our human world as a visible spring of water, a human being born as one of us – Jesus. Our forebears called the gift, the Son, partly as a reaction to the proclamation of the world around them that the son of God was the emperor of Rome. No said the Christians the true light of God wasn’t the emperor but is seen in Jesus the crucified one. He is the raised up by God from the power of death. He is the true spring of life.
Through Jesus and his good news they also experienced a third reality. Within them and around them they felt a presence that called them to reshape their lives and the communities of which they were part. A burning fire within, a rushing wind, a gentle breeze whispering. There was a power alive within, around them building bridges across divides, reconciling, forgiving, boldly proclaiming a new way of life. The water of eternal life was flowing like a river in their midst transforming lives, giving courage to be different. They called this outpouring of God, the Holy Spirit.
The Trinity was an attempt to put into words the radical way the early Christians were rethinking and freshly experiencing God in the aftermath of their encounter with Jesus. Through God’s parental love, through Christ’s revealing life, death, and resurrection, and through this unrelenting wind blowing inside and outside the fences they felt they were caught up with a God who while beyond and over us, walked with us, and stirred fires within us. The new teaching or doctrine about the Trinity helped them see God in a life giving way reminding us that the word doctrine and doctor share a common root. Both doctor and doctrine are supposed to help us find health and wholeness.
You may be shaking your head and saying this is all over the top and the doctoring power of the Trinity really is academic claptrap.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been challenged with the view that the God of our scriptures is a violent bloodthirsty God. It is one of the main reasons people reject organised religion. Look at the conquest of Canaan by Joshua as he led the Hebrew people into the Promised Land. The first target was the city of Jericho where not only all the people were killed, with men women and children totally wiped out with the exception of Rahab and her family, but also all the animals…. Anything that was alive was brutally slaughtered – at the command of God we are told. Joshua was leading an invasion of Canaan and wanted to terrorise the inhabitants into submission, but does this way really reveal the heart of God? Our forebears in giving us the doctrine of the Trinity brought a healing picture of God. Creation is sometimes brutally violent, but consider how such violence sits with Jesus, who instead of picking up a sword would rather be tortured and killed. Imagine how this sits with the reconciling, connection building Spirit who descends upon us like a dove. The Trinity invites us to see three faces of God and through seeing all those faces we come closer to the heart of God.
A temptation of any religion is that it becomes frozen in time. Seeing the Trinity like a spring of water that is flowing should alert us to the possibility that we have more to learn. Jesus told us the Spirit would guide us into more truth when we were ready to bear it. The Spirit dances within us, breathing the life of God, proclaiming the sanctity of all life. It took nineteen centuries before we proclaimed slavery was evil, and even longer to proclaim the equality of women. We are still struggling with the learning that human sexuality can take different forms. The Spirit is now breathing of a new revolution in how we live in harmony with the gift of creation, how we use resources, and how we can no longer treat the earth as a giant garbage disposal unit that can deal with all our extravagant lifestyles. There is a dynamic changing face of God in the Trinity.
We are used to seeing ourselves as isolated individuals. Our protestant faith has emphasised individual responsibility. The Trinity sees God characterised by ‘living in relationship’. God is characterised not by a single entity but by a community with different faces. I wonder what that has to say to us in an individualistic world. If God exists in creative tension I wonder if we can’t give witness to a community where we celebrate creative tension instead of hiding our differences. If God exists as the melding of different faces, maybe we can see more clearly the value of the different faces in our community.
Let the mystery of Trinity speak to you.
Dugald Wilson 16 June 2019