This 14th century icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev beautifully pictures the recursive, self-giving love of the Trinity that makes room at the sacred shared meal for an ever-expanding community.
by Ellen Sims
texts: Isaiah 6: 1-8; John 3:8
(On Sundays when we offer a contemplative service in which we experience prayer in varied ways, I share a brief commentary on scripture rather than a sermon.)
In this brief reflection on our texts for Trinity Sunday, I’m going to share a little history, a little math, and a good measure of Christian spirituality.
Let’s start with some church history. As you know, no word that can be translated as trinity appears in the Bible. Even the idea of the Trinity isn’t set forth. Instead, the idea of one God/three persons developed amidst a series of theological explorations and debates aimed at reconciling Jesus’s divinity with monotheism. Unlike most ancient religions, Judaism was firmly monotheistic (at least long before the first century CE), and the earliest Christians were mainly Jews. By the time the Fourth Gospel was written in the early second century, the early Christians had continued to elevate the status of Jesus to such an extent that Jesus was understood as divine. So how could Jews, or those who came directly from that tradition, worship two gods, as it might have seemed by their divinization of Jesus? The doctrine of the Trinity began with that theological challenge.
Let’s now do some math. It may seem that acknowledging Jesus’s divinity gave the early Christians a duo, not a trio, but John’s gospel also describes Jesus’s promise that he would leave his followers with a comforter or advocate. In fact, on Pentecost Sunday last week we read about John’s Jesus promising that an Advocate would be sent to his followers after he was gone. If Jesus was speaking of an additional divine expression, Christians might add up three divine beings. For the next three centuries, theological contortions and political intrigue resulted in the final orthodox position that the one God exists as three persons or hypostases: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. And in this theological arithmetic, one plus one plus one equals . . . one.
But what if we look at the Trinity not as a historically divisive issue to resolve nor a math problem to solve but rather a spiritual reality to experience. What if ineffable God is not quantifiable? What does the symbology of the Trinity contribute to our experience of God?
The Trinity tells us primarily that God is relationship. God is relatedness. Or put it this way: relationship is holy; community is sacred. “Ah,” you may say. “Why isn’t God depicted as two? After all, the most basic relationship is between two people.”
But a duo is at risk of being so insular that the rest of the world is dismissed as “not part of us and our precious partnering.” Think of the way a couple who add a child to make a three-personed family and whose love then goes to another dimension. An old Three Dog Night song expresses the limits of the numbers one and two: “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do. Two can be as bad as one; it’s loneliest number since the number one.” I’m not at all saying that a couple’s love is incomplete without a child or that loving partners don’t know the fullness of love. But I am saying that deep love does find a way to spill out onto others. Love gives itself away.
If we think of God as a COMMUNITY of three, we participate with a God who can continue embracing more and more. We then expect to experience God in community, in reaching out to another, in valuing diversity, in expanding love infinitely. What if God is interelatedness itself—-not a person but the ever expanding relatedness that is LOVE and LIFE itself?
From John’s famous 3rd chapter, I want to emphasize just one verse today from our Gospel lection: [Jesus said,] 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.”
There is mystery in the movement of the Spirit, this third “person” of the Trinity. We are not tasked with knowing the origins of the Spirit or understanding where it’s headed. God the Spirit is mystery: a wind blowing where it chooses. And we don’t have to know and understand its origins and its direction. We may simply hear the sound of it. But mainly we’re going to imagine and participate in the Trinity rather than dissect it and justify it.
We can look at the Trinity as a frustrating, confounding, insoluble riddle–or as a beautiful poem so charged with love it can’t be translated into prose. Today we want to simply listen to the sound of the Trinity, and praise it for offering us relatedness, and maybe follow its wild and illusive activity to deeper places of love, to a relationship with God we call community.