Like many good Christians we probably acknowledge the Trinity every Sunday, and most days in between. “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” or Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier speak of a threefold God and roll off our tongue. Yet most of us struggle to say what we understand by three persons in One God. And what does it really matter to us if we do not also understand ourselves as invited into the Oneness?
Long before the Reformations the Lateran Council of 1215 declared a concept known as the Incomprehensibility of God. Basically this acknowledges that whatever we say about God can at best be true in some ways but never the whole truth. A contemporary way of saying this would be to say that our best theological statements can never be more than approximations and metaphors for the true nature of God. And it is good to remember this before we begin to think about the Trinity. Our most sophisticated Trinitarian ideas can be no more than clumsy abstractions of the one true seamless, almighty, transcendent, imminent, mysterious, self revealing, unknowable Holy One!
Part of our struggle I suspect is because some of the early conceptions of the trinity were very mechanistic or functional. God sent Jesus the Son, with the right hand, and sent the Holy Spirit with the left. In effect a pyramid with a hierarchical relationship between the three in which the Father was clearly the first and superior member. Another similar model refers to the Father sending the Son who then sends the Spirit. A sort of chain of command. This is also a hierarchical understanding of relationship within the Godhead. The creeds use this sort of language because of the timeframe in which they were developed. However, a broad review of Scripture does not reveal a single pattern of sending, or proceeding. In different places Scripture describes the three persons of the Trinity in different patterns of relation. The three interweaving with each other in various patterns of saving activity.
More recent models have included the idea of perichoresis, a Greek word that refers to circling, as in a dance or like birds spiralling in the air. Such images point to community being at the heart of the trinity rather than monarchy, not so much an absolute ruler as a threefold household economy of grace. God, who is love, lives in loving relationship within God’s own self. A self that overflows outward to embrace the creation and seeks out us creatures.
Richard Rohr talks about the nature of the Trinity being that of flow, of relationship, like a waterwheel always outpouring love. He notes that some Christian mystics taught that all of creation is being taken back into this flow of eternal life, almost as if we are a “Fourth Person” of the Trinity. And so I believe that we are in some ways.
Our readings this week all seek to inform us of the nature of the members of the Trinity and something of how they are one. The reading from Isaiah speaks to the awesome, fearful, power and majesty of God. And yet even here, in the holiest of holies within the temple, there is an invitation, a leaning down to, a cleansing, so that mortals might be included.
And in our brief and beautiful reading from Romans this week we have the tender and inclusive image of family: “When we cry ‘Abba, Father!’ it is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Why would the lectionary writers include this reading for Trinity Sunday? Is it just because the word spirit is used? I would suggest that it belongs because it describes the way in which we are brought into the communal dance of the trinity. We who call upon the name of God are embraced as children – intimate beloved images of God – in the same way as Jesus understood himself to be one with God. We are not merely tolerated in the presence of God but included as those who belong – heirs. And not only as those who belong but as those who have a part to play. If we join in his sufferings, his humanity, his radical love of neighbour, we will be part of his glorification.
All of a sudden thinking about the Trinity is not just abstract and about the correct naming of God. Thinking about the Trinity leads us into the arms of God and then back into relationship with those we find our lives entwined.
And we have a similar theme in Jesus word’s in John’s gospel: “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The image of Spirit as wind is helpful and insightful in another way as it links us with wind and breath. Both of which are images of God’s activity in the world at the beginning. However it does mean using an invisible force as a metaphor for an invisible being. For the mystics among us this is delightful, for the practical saints it may be a little confusing or irrelevant.
This spirit - sometimes subtle, sometimes incisive, sometimes a gentle sighing breeze at evening, and sometimes a fierce wind in off the desert – blows through us, around us, communicating the divine’s love for us, connecting us with the deepest love of our heart, giving voice to our inarticulate cries to God. Because of the Holy Spirit, God the Father is not distant. Because of the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Son of God is not absent from us. For the Holy Spirit, God’s own self, moves within us, and between us, so that we might be one, as Jesus and his Father are one. Through the activity of the Holy Spirit we are called into the dance and drawn into the heart of God’s own household.
And that makes all the difference. The Trinity, sometimes a confusing abstract concept, is also a witness, a testament, to something of the essential nature of God. At heart God is about love, relationship, desire and dance, flow and interconnection. Creation was an act of love and desire for relationship. And we who are creatures were called into being for the purposes of love, with the overwhelming desire to be in relationship with God and each other.
And the image of the Trinity reminds us that we are most at home in relationship with God and all of God’s creation. The household of God is a household that began before time to make room for all creation; a household that gives up all and bears all for its own; a household that gathers around the table; a household that grieves any who are absent; a household that rejoices each return.
If we are called to live in awe, love and communion within the embrace of the Trinity then this radically speaks to every aspect of our life. Our prayer life, our family commitments and our politics; our theology, our table fellowship and our community engagement; our financial decisions, our gardening practices and our creative endeavours.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come enfold us in the three that is one.