June 15, 2014
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
To my knowledge Trinity Sunday, which we observe today, is the only church festival that honors a doctrine. Also, to my knowledge, no one actually understands it. Nor do I know many people who would say that a comprehensive grasp of the nature of the triune God is a central tenet of their faith. People often grab for metaphors when talking about the Trinity. The image of steam and ice, but which are still water, but different forms is a popular one. Or three leaves on a single clover stem are still one plant. Or even the shell, the white, and the yolk of an egg are all part of an egg. All of these are helpful images of things that have different aspects but one identity. But none of them explain why God would exist in different forms. And—to my mind, this is the critical point—none give us reason to believe that it matters.
But we can’t ignore it. While there is no specific reference in Scriptures to the triune nature of God, as all three of our texts today demonstrate that the Bible does refer to God in different manifestations. Our text from Genesis, for example, talks about God creating the world while the Spirit from God hovers over the waters of the formless void. And later, in verse 26, when God creates human beings, the Hebrew very clearly reads, “Let us make humankind in OUR image, according to OUR likeness.”
Our epistle lesson from 2 Cor. wraps up Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth in a phrase that probably sounds familiar to many of you: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” To sum up God’s character as one abounding in grace, love, and communion sounds good to me. And our Gospel lesson from Matthew is probably the clearest reference to the Trinity of all: here Jesus himself instructs his followers to baptize and teach in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I suspect that just like us, the early church fathers (and they were all fathers, then) who tried to codify the faith in the Nicene and later, Apostle’s, Creeds, stumbled over the mystery of God’s nature as well, and were just doing the best they knew how. So they ended up with phrases like “God from God, Light from Light, Very God from Very God.” It’s not an x-ray of the nature of God; it’s poetry, and poetry is not intended to be understood in the logical parts of our brains. It is intended to invite us into an image, an idea, that baffles and delights us, or perhaps disturbs and challenges us. The idea that God is poetry works for me. I like a little ineffable mystery.
But at its heart, what is most central to the doctrine of the Trinity—the reason the Church keeps embracing and celebrating it—is the acknowledgment that God exists only in relationship. Three natures, three different forms of love, and yet each part equally God. All partners are co-equal in the business of being God—the responsibilities, the agony of rejection, the delight of prayers. No hierarchy of Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit. (layers with hands)—or, as one of my seminary profs sometimes joked, “the Old Man, the Young Man, and the Bird.” No chronological explanation—the Father came first, then the later person of Jesus, and then finally the Holy Spirit. Nope. All of them interacting through all of time and space in a completely equal but distinct relationship.
It’s like when I look into your eyes and I see myself reflected back as a pastor. That is surely part of who I am. If I look into David’s eyes, however, I see myself as wife. If I look into my parents’ eyes, the image reflecting back at me is that of Daughter. All of these are part of who I am. In the eyes of my friends, my colleagues, my hairdresser, my former students, I see different facets me. I am the same me, but depending on the context—the RELATIONSHIP—different aspects of my nature are highlighted or revealed. Added together, they give a complete picture of me. Perhaps that is what’s going on in our Triune God, too. Perhaps the different faces of God are necessary to express parts of God’s identity. But in the end, all the parts are really only different facets of the same complex and integrated whole.
Perhaps what we can take away from the doctrine of the Trinity is not precisely orthodox, correct beliefs about it. Perhaps we don’t need to bother with how to interpret the idea of the Trinity with eggs or clover or water or anything else that literally has three parts of a single whole. Perhaps the message is that we most resemble the Triune God we worship when we, like our God, are in close, reciprocal relationships with each other. Maybe what’s important is just striving to emulate Divine Relationship in practice. Maybe the best way to celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday is to say, to various people with whom we are in relationship, “I’m sorry.” “I forgive you.” “I need help.” “I understand.” “Thank you.” “I’m proud of you.” These kinds of interactions are what keep relationships thriving.
Not a one of us is able to exist completely in isolation. We need to receive and express love in order to be fully human. We need the opportunity to see ourselves reflected in another’s eyes in order to really see who we are. We need to offer and embrace grace, love, and community.
So let us turn to the Great Artist who brought us into being, asking again that God in all God’s variety, bestow life and light on us. Let us recognize that we are made in God’s image, and strive to honor that image in one another. Let it be, when someone looks in our eyes, that what they see reflected back is the image of a beloved Child of God. And let us hold tight to the promise that God will be with us always, even to the end of the age. Amen.