|Icon of the Trinity|
By Andrei Rublev
+ + +
Today is Trinity Sunday, the day the Church sets aside for preaching about that ancient and obtuse doctrine of the Trinity.
It is perhaps no accident that the Church saves this teaching moment for the start of summer vacations. And we are already in trouble. Listen to the opening words of Psalm 29: “Ascribe to the LORD, you gods.”
We’ve arrived quickly at the doorstep of multiple gods. As many a preacher has tried to do, my task is to make what sounds like three gods fit back into the package of one god.
Usually the senior pastor in a big church assigns this preaching task to a seminarian or an intern. But ours, Joe Lenow, took off last week just in the nick of time.
So it comes to me.
You may fairly ask, though, why we should care? What difference does it make if we understand this ancient doctrine?
And it must be fairly said that a great deal of blood has been spilled over many centuries by those fighting to the death over the finer points of the doctrine. Was Christ of one mind with God or of two minds melded into one? Was the Son subordinate to the Father or co-equal? Was Holy Spirit of the same substance with the Son or different, or both at the same time?
I know that these questions are not exactly high on the list of topics that command your attention. And how would anyone really prove any of this anyway?
Yet these questions once consumed people. We might ask why? We might start by reminding ourselves that those who came up with the concept of the Trinity were maybe not that different than us. They faced hardships and untold calamites, and life was certainly more precarious for them than it is for us. They tried very hard to grasp how God could be present in the world but feel so distant at times.
At its core, the Trinity is fundamentally a statement of the infinity of God and God’s infinite ways. It is a statement about how to experience God and who God is. The God of the Trinity is the Infinite One who is the spark that creates all things, and calls it good; the Infinite One who came in a particular time and place as a man called Jesus to show us how to love one another; and the Infinite One who is a holy spark living still within us and going infinitely where she will.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “spirit” is a female-gendered word, so it is perfectly appropriate, and biblically correct, to speak of the Holy Spirit as female. In fact, I’ve heard people recite the Holy Spirit section of the Nicene Creed using the female pronoun.
The Trinity gives us God as male, God as female, God as a living breathing being who is capable of reaching all people everywhere infinitely. The Trinity is another way of saying that all people are capable of experiencing God, each in our limited way, yet God is bigger than any of us can experience in only one way.
Yet it is also true that the idea of the Trinity solidified – some would say fossilized – into a rigid doctrine with hard religious boundaries. The seed of that religious rigidity is still with us in the Nicene Creed, that fourth century statement of religious doctrine that was written primarily as a loyalty oath for bishops.
I would hope you would hear the Creed as a prayer, but I realize that is not always so easy to do because it can sound like a doctrinal trap.
There is a way out of this from the depth of our tradition. We need look no further than, for example, William Temple, who was the archbishop of Canterbury in the darkest days of World War II. William Temple* once wrote that “Christianity is not first and foremost a religion; it is first and foremost a revelation.”
By that he meant that Christianity is defined by experience – a revealing – of the Risen Christ in our daily life as individuals and in our collective life as the people of God.
“It comes before us chiefly not with a declaration of feelings we are to cultivate, or thoughts we are to develop,” Temple wrote in a short book published in 1936. “It comes before us, first and foremost, with the announcement of what God is.”
This revealing of God’s self is not about the nature of God in heaven – the stuff of doctrine. Rather, this revealing of God’s self is about the nature of God in the world – the stuff of human experience.
And we experience this revealing of God not once, but many times, all through our lives, and every single day. If we can be aware of these experiences of God’s revealing, we might grasp more deeply our connection to God, to each other, and to every living thing.
If we are open to these experiences, much else in our life will open up and we will come to the central purpose of our life. We will discover how God calls each of us uniquely as individuals and collectively as the people of God.
Jesus himself talks of this revealing as almost as a riddle. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” he is quoted as saying in the Gospel of John.
Those words have been much misunderstood, translated by some modern people as a test of being “born again.” The words have become, for some, a badge of being doctrinally correct. But that is not what Jesus is getting at.
The phrase is a play-on-words with the double meaning of being both “born anew” and “born from above” or “born of the Spirit.” Jesus talks about an experience of God that happens over and over again, that transforms us in such a profound way that we become new people – changed – literally born anew every single day.
That kind of experience transcends rigid doctrines and creedal formulas, and nurtures us into becoming servants of each other and the world – the people we were created to be. As we grow into our own true selves, we might just find that other ancient words will ring true for us as they did for the prophet Isaiah:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
* William Temple, Christian Faith and Life, MacMillan, 1936, p. 34By James Richardson, Fiat Lux