Delivered at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School:
According to the fourth-century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, the doctrine of the Trinity was the trending topic of his day. He claimed that everywhere you went, people were sharing their theological opinions: whether you were asking for change at the market, inquiring about the quality of the bread being sold, or visiting a bathhouse, you would run into someone who wanted to share their personal theology with you (Oratio de deitate Filii et Spiriti Sancti). In other words, “doctrine” or Christian “teaching” was akin to what we see regarding politics and sports in our society today. It’s what animated people! Can you imagine the equivalent of an ESPN, CNN, or Fox News that is dedicated to Christian theology? Or people arguing about the Trinity, en masse, on Twitter as they argue about politics and sports. I can’t. (And maybe that’s a good thing!)
Today, for better or worse, only some Christians want to discuss the Trinity. I can’t say that I blame the rest. Throughout the history of Christianity, one of the quickest paths to being labeled heretical by your fellow Christians has been to try to explain the Trinity in a way that they find unsatisfactory. It seems that every analogy and metaphor—from three-leaf clovers to water in the form of a liquid, a solid (ice), and a gas (steam)—can lead to accusations that you’ve misunderstood one of the central teachings of Christianity. For this reason, many have found comfort in side-stepping discussions about the nature of the Trinity by using the one phrase that can provide an escape from complex theological debates: “It’s a mystery!” And this isn’t wrong. In some sense, it’s wise. Christian theology is often at its healthiest when Christians admit that the Christian God is “ineffable” (a fancy way of saying that our God is beyond our ability to describe with human language). But I’m not in a position to avoid talking about the nature of the Trinity tonight. After all, it’s Trinity Sunday!
So, I want to emphasize the value of the doctrine of the Trinity with regard to how it shapes us as individuals seeking personal, individual spiritual nourishment within a diverse, pluralistic community, like St. Thomas. Our goal can’t be to revisit the philosophical, theological, and metaphysical arguments that led to the present shape of the doctrine—after all, it took many of the most prominent minds of Christendom several centuries to iron out the specifics. Instead, we’re going to skip directly to the practical implications of Trinitarianism.
II. The Trinity as Unity-in-Diversity
We must begin with the earliest Trinitarian language which is found in the texts of the Christian New Testament. While attempting to maintain fidelity to the Jewish theology they inherited, the earliest Christians spoke of the Creator God in a unique way. There was a recognition that the Creator God had been experienced afresh with the appearance of Jesus. For example, as we sampled in our excerpt from the Gospel of John (16:12-15), the Gospels report that Jesus’ followers were invited into a dynamic relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. As a whole, John’s Gospel claims that Jesus Christ prayed to and spoke about God the Father, that God the Father spoke to and about the Son, and that the Holy Spirit was actively sent from the Father to the Son, but also that the Son promised that he would send the Spirit who would draw Jesus’ followers into the divine life. As their Lord and Christ, Jesus spoke of the divine nature in such a way that the earliest Christians understood as revelatory what he had said regarding the nature of God, but also it seems to have aligned with their own experience of God in Christ and through the Spirit.
III. Experiencing God through the Son and the Spirit
Our other reading from the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (5:1-5) sketches the Christian experience of the Trinity as the One who saves us. Paul wrote:
“Therefore, being justified (or made right) by [Christ’s] faithfulness, we have peace toward God through our Lord Jesus Christ whom also we have access into this grace in which we stand and we boast in the hope of the glory of God. But not this only, but also we boast in afflictions, having known that afflictions produce steadfastness; and steadfastness, character; and character, hope; and hope does not humiliate because of the love of God that has been poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit—the one gifted to you!”
Paul’s audience had collectively experienced reconciliation and peace with their Creator, God the Father, and they were growing together as a community through their collective struggles, into a fuller understanding of God’s love. This peace and reconciliation had been experienced through the crucified and resurrected Son, Jesus Christ. The shared, internal confirmation of this reality was actualized by the Spirit. Notice how Paul presents the experience of God: with regard to the peace we find with God, the touchpoint—if I can use that word—is the Son. The Son is the one by whom we find peace, but we don’t experience peace with the Son alone. You can’t separate your experience of Jesus from your experience of God the Father. Jesus provides us with the human face that helps us see the invisible God. Similarly, the love we experience is the love of God the Father, but the touchpoint is the Spirit. When we consider the whole testimony of Scripture, we know God the Father is Love and loves us by sending the Son (1 John 4:16; John 3:16) and that the Son has loved us, even commanding that we love each other as he has loved us (John 15:12). But here Paul says that this love is something we can experience, we can know, we can feel because of the Spirit’s work in us. The Spirit is the divine touchpoint for experiencing the love of the Father and Son.
IV. Embracing Diversity and Plurality within the Trinity
As you know, I’m a Social and Religious Studies Instructor at TMI Episcopal. In this capacity, I teach courses on comparative religion. One component of these courses is that I lead field trips to various sacred sites in San Antonio. While visiting other religious communities and listening to the various presenters as they teach my students about their beliefs and practices, I often experience what the theologian and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor calls a “holy envy,” where you see something in another religion that you respect, or maybe even wish was part of your own religion. These encounters make me rethink my own Christianity anew. For example, when I take students to the local Hindu temple in Helotes, they see a variety of murtis or images of the various Hindu gods. This may seem to be an aspect of Hindu belief and practice of which Christians should be critical. But when you talk to Hindus about the various murti, many will explain that each murti is analogous to how multiple TV channels can show the same event. Let’s take the State of the Union address, for example. Everyone who watches it wants to hear what the sitting President has to say, but everyone approaches it through the means that are most natural to them. This means some will watch on ABC, others on CNN, others on Fox News, etc. Same event; different platforms. Similarly, for many Hindus, the divine is one—similar to what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe—but how you access the divine is multifaceted and people are invited to approach the divine from where they are through the murti that most resonates with them. Each murti or god is a different channel emphasizing a different aspect of the one and same divine reality.
Christians sit at an interesting place within the schema of the world’s religions. Like our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, we place a strong emphasis on the oneness of God but unlike our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, we want to emphasize internal diversity and plurality-in-oneness. In some sense, this connects us with our Hindu neighbors, though, unlike our Hindu neighbors, we place greater emphasis on the unity of God. But what’s important for my current point is that we can learn to think of the Trinity with the help of our Hindu neighbors. We speak of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Whatever worship we give one, we give the Trinity, ultimately. But the plurality-in-oneness gives our minds more ways to perceive our God and to be open to our God based on our present needs, past experiences, and the state of our mind and heart.
For the individual who needs a majestic deity who provides assurance that in the chaos of this life, there is a sovereign One above it all, holding it all together, guiding everything towards its ultimate purpose, the Father is our divine touchpoint. For the one who asks the question (that the musician Joan Osborne asks, “What if God was one of us?” What if God participated in this “workshop, of filthy creation”— to take a visual from Mary Shelley—the Son is our divine touchpoint, sharing in our human frailty, but also showing us the way as humans to be the imago Dei (image of God) that we were created to be. For the one who needs a sense of presence, of experience, an assurance that we’re not alone in this world, the Spirit is our touchpoint, bringing us into the divine life. But in all these ways that we can experience God, we experience the Trinity holistically, through each touchpoint. We experience the one Creator God who is Trinity but we experience the Trinity as we need it at that moment wherever we are in our life through the Person that acts as our touchpoint.
This is depicted beautifully in the cover art by Kelly Lattimore found on your handout. If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s an opening at the table. The Trinity sits for a shared meal but the internal divine nature isn’t closed off to us; there’s an opening for us to join. You’ll see that we’re invited to experience the Triune love of God. It may be that you find that invitation is made possible through reflection primarily on the Father, or on the Son, or on the Spirit, but however you approach you get the whole Trinity. And when one Person of the Trinity interacts with us, we get the whole Trinity. As the fourth-century Bishop and theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, wrote (Letter 11.2), “For the union of Persons in the Trinity is in the Catholic faith set forth and believed, and by a few holy and blessed ones understood, to be so inseparable, that whatever is done by the Trinity must be regarded as being done by the Father, and by the Son, and by the Holy Spirit together; and that nothing is done by the Father which is, not also done by the Son and by the Holy Spirit; and nothing done by the Holy Spirit which is not also done by the Father and by the Son; and nothing done by the Son which is not also done by the Father and by the Holy Spirit.”
Now, if the language of Father, Son, and Spirit creates a hurdle, our Triune God goes beyond language. (Remember, God is ultimately ineffable!) As the 14th-century English theologian and mystic, Julian of Norwich reminds us, and as Kelli Lattimore has depicted it, we are free to think of God through feminine language as well, if the masculine language is prohibitive or feminine language more inviting (since language is but an arrow pointing to God, not God in God’s self). In her book, Revelations of Divine Love (LIX), Julian points out to the reader that “we receive our being,” our very existence, from God through Christ just as we receive our existence through our mothers. Therefore, God, and Christ, are Mothers to us. The Triune God self-reveals as who and what you need. Julian says that God says to us, as an invitation, “I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness of all kind of things, I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfillment of all true desires.” And this is what I want you to remember on this Trinity Sunday: Christianity has long taught that we share one God, Creator of us all, and this unifies the Church and potentially humanity but this one God is internally pluralistic, relational, Trinitarian. And the Trinity’s plurality meets our human plurality so that in all our difference—even in our differences of language and imagination—we can find God as unified individuals. We don’t have to become homogenous to experience God as Christians; our God can meet all of us at different points simultaneously, as we see here in this setting tonight. And you—especially you—are invited to approach this God just as you are.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.