Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee that thou wouldest keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see thee in thy one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Trinity Sunday. We worship God in the Holy Trinity every week. But unless you’re a theologian, or at least a wannabe theologian like me, you may not see the point of reflecting much on the nature of this notoriously intractable doctrine of the Church. Of course there are others who have different ideas about the nature of God. To Muslims and Jews our talk of a Trinity sounds a lot like straight polytheism. Dualisms in which there are two equal powers, one good and one evil, are also pretty popular. But Christianity offers a distinctive way of thinking about ultimate reality not found elsewhere: a way that has a lot to teach us if we’ll let ourselves be taught.
This morning’s Collect states that the Trinity is an important doctrine, but doesn’t really say why. Is the Trinity just a point of doctrine that must be accepted and serves only as a kind of litmus test for who’s in and who’s out? Or is there good news there that deserves to be heard afresh? The Trinity is a mystery that tickles the mind, but is it good news? There are lots of mysteries I don’t comprehend, after all — the size of the universe, the power of music to lay my emotions open, the nature of free will — mysteries for which I’m grateful, because they affect me so powerfully and because their power is precisely in their mystery. I hope to show you that there the Holy Trinity is that kind of mystery and to think together with you about what it means.
Here’s something interesting: You’ve probably noticed, that both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed are arranged in three parts, corresponding to the three Persons of the Trinity. What you may not have caught is that all of them, Father, Son, and Spirit, are integral to creation. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth….And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord…begotten of His Father before all worlds…by whom all things were made….I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life.” They are separate persons, but their work is always unified. I think this is why we read Genesis Chapter One the Old Testament lesson for today. Almost no one would argue that the writer of Genesis was thinking of the Trinity in that passage. But pretty much all the early Christian readers of this passage agree that all three persons of the Trinity are actively present in creation. When God says, “Let Us make humanity in Our image,” all the early Christian interpreters agree, this is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit speaking to one another. But before that…let’s back up a bit.
In the beginning, God. Before the heavens and earth came into being. Before the Big Bang. Before there was any matter or energy or time. When there was no here or there, no now or then or yet to be, no times or places or beings or things. For endless eons of undifferentiated time: God. Christian theology teaches us that in this timelessness, God was “eternally coexistent in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (By the way, the traditional formulation is male, but we must understand that we’re not talking about maleness or femaleness, we’re talking about Divinity using human relationship as the metaphor. We should always remember the metaphorical character of these names.) The Father is the Begetter and the Source; the Son is the Begotten One; the Holy Spirit is the One Who Proceeds. These Persons are equal but not the same. One image I have for this is a musical trio: none of the parts is the same, and without their differentness there can be no trio. Now the terms “beget” and “proceed” sound a lot like there must have been a time when the Son didn’t exist yet, or a time when the Holy Spirit had not yet proceeded from the Father. But that’s a mistake, which is why the Nicene Creed says explicitly that the Son is “eternally begotten of the Father.” God, the One who lives in eternity and stands outside the universe of created things, this God has always been Three Persons in communion with one another so lovingly, so intimately and so deeply, that they are really one Being.
That communion is so close, that the apostle John could make the straightforward claim that “God is love, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” The thing about love is this: love requires an object. (This reminds me of a joke: Did you hear the one about the guy who loved perfectly? Neither did I. Seems the fellow was foiled by contact with actual people.) There must always be an object of love separate from oneself; it’s what love means. If God is love, then there is a natural threeness that is entailed. The lover, the one beloved, and love itself. The Doctrine of the Trinity, says Saint Augustine, is primarily about understanding that the basic nature of God is LOVE, and secondarily it is about understanding what God has done for us.
The love of God, if it were a little less potent, might have remained fully and beautifully expressed among the Three Persons of the Trinity, as it had been forever. But love is magic: the more you love, the more love you have to give. Love cannot be bottled up even by the infinity of God, but spills out and overflows, and a universe springs into being, a universe with the capacity to participate in the divine love-life. But note the heartache God endures as a result of this creation, which began almost immediately to resist God’s love. No sooner did creation spring forth than love took on a new attribute: self-sacrifice. When love is reciprocated, its selflessness is a joyful, painless thing. But when love goes unanswered the pain of it is incredibly hard to bear. But this God, oh He’s willing to endure the pain for the sake of His creation. So the Begotten One, saves the world by becoming part of it, in the Incarnation, the second great mystery of Christian teaching. He lowered Himself to become human, with everything that means. But through a kind of divine sleight of hand, this doesn’t debase God to being less-than-God; rather it elevates humanity to divine status. Saint Gregory Nazianzen, one of the great trinitarian theologians, says that when Jesus was crucified, raised, and exalted to the right hand of God, that was His humanity that was crucified, raised, and exalted, and our humanity with His. When we cry to God “Abba, Father” we do so in the power of God’s Spirit as children of God, a status to which we are elevated by means of Christ’s work. Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father” not so much because God is our Creator as because we are brought into the divine Sonship.
When we name God as Trinity, this is at least part of what we mean. This is a God who risks relationships even though they lead inevitably to pain and heartache. This is a God who, having created, is not satisfied to leave creation to its own devices, but continually steps in to redeem what would otherwise be lost. This is a God whose purposes cannot be thwarted, whose love is so powerful that even when He empties Himself He’s still too strong for Death! All that’s really good news, but here’s the bit that blows my mind: Because of what the God did in the human Jesus, humanity is brought into the life of the Trinity, where that same Spirit of love transforms us into persons worthy of communion with God. We already have glimpses of that communion even now, in the Eucharistic feast and in our love for one another. Because it is all God’s work, from creation to redemption to exaltation, we can have indomitable hope for ourselves and for one another, and indeed for the whole world. “Look!” says God, “I am making all things new.” This God, whose whole song is Love, simply cannot be stopped until the trio is joined by a whole choir.