by Ellen Sims
Texts: Proverbs 8, John 16: 12-15
Like sausage, the doctrine of the Trinity is easier to swallow if you don’t know how it was made. So I won’t recount the intellectual gymnastics and brutal politics that went into cooking up that doctrine. Nor am I going to try to explain how Trinitarian arithmetic concludes that 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. Nor will I claim that it’s the “begotten-but-not made/true-God-from-true-God” words of the ancient creed that compel me to love a three-faceted God. What I want to affirm is the Trinity’s “threefold experience” of the Sacred that exists beyond me, walks with me, and lives within me and a Spirit-infused world.
Theologian Elizabeth Johnson, quoted by Carl Gregg, is attuned to the Trinity’s poetry: “Early Christian letters and gospels are filled with [a] threefold cadence that appears in hymns, pithy greetings, confessions of faith, liturgical formulas, doxologies, and short rules of faith” that flexed a “monotheistic view of God” to “incorporate Jesus and the Spirit. . . . [Early Christian] language expanded creatively to accommodate their threefold religious experience.”
This imagery for an experience of the holy helps me see God as more than theory, more than a super being, and as something other than an authoritarian male. It opens up the interesting possibility that the Divine exists as community.
By that I don’t mean the Trinity is a heavenly three-person board of directors. The ancient church councils’ concept of God in three persons meant something very different from what moderns mean by person. To say that God is three persons in English wrongly implies three distinct consciousnesses, three divine entities. But Trinitarian language affirms a rich unity of God.
The idea of the Trinity can expand our concept and experience of God beyond a gendered being and prevent us from deifying masculinity over femininity. Yes, the traditional Trinitarian phrase is “Father, Son, Holy Spirit.” Since a heavenly dove was a biblical symbol for the Holy Spirit, theologian Sandra Schneider jokes that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit sound like “two men and bird.” Mary Daly famously warns that when God is portrayed solely as male, then male becomes God.
Certainly the human Jesus called God his Father. But there are many other biblical images for God, even God as a mothering hen. Certainly the historical Jesus was masculine. But Christ, the logos/word that existed from the beginning, is not a male human. And the Hebrew word for Spirit is feminine. If we use only masculine images for the divine, we end up elevating men over women.
You’ll recall that on Easter Sunday I baptized Luke “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the ancient baptismal formula. Then, like many UCC and other ministers, I added, “One God, Mother of us all.” The Trinity can stretch in that direction. St. Augustine gave names for the Trinity that included God the Lover, God the Beloved, and God the Love. John Calvin included the metaphor for God as Mother/Child/and Womb of Life. The picture such formulae create is of a God that is inherently and essentially relational. (See Carl Gregg’s excellent commentary.)
And that is the theme of the Rublev icon you see at the top of this blog entry.
The Trinity expresses that the very nature of God is a life that gives, a life shared selflessly in a loving, infinite community of equality. The Trinity is a way of saying something about the love of God active within Godself: God is relationship and relatedness. God’s nature is love. God IS love. God exists as communion. God is union. We exist in God as and through relatedness. Remember we talked about the movement of the Spirit last week? If God is love, what flows within and emanates from the Trinity’s energy is a current of love, an unending dance.
The word trinity does not appear in the Bible, but after the fourth century councils created the doctrine, Christians later searched the Bible for hints of it there. Some used a Christian lens to see the Trinity in the Genesis 18 story of Abraham’s hospitality to three strangers/angels who then announced Abraham’s wife would bear a long-awaited child. This is the story upon which the icon painter Andrei Rublev based his famous image of the Trinity. Connecting this picture of the Trinity to the Genesis 18 story of hospitality emphasizes that hospitality within community (hospitality in its most extravagant sense) is the essence of the divine.
This picture of the life of God (or what some would name as Ultimate Reality) also helps us appreciate a sacred equality among the three divine figures. God is experienced as a community of equals. Note the gender of the figures seems androgynous, gender-fluid, we might say today. Note the mutuality among the figures, who relate to one another without hierarchy. We don’t simply notice their interactions, however. We’re drawn into them. There is space for us at the table. Within the scene, God is less a personality and more a process. God happens between us. God is verb, not noun. God is community, not individuality.
The Trinity teaches a spirituality of relationship. The holiest of living is in united, communal relationships—not in isolation. The Trinity affirms that we are made for mutual relationships. The Trinity opposes human systems that set one person in power over another. One heresy emerged that tried to explain the Trinity as God the Father being the king or monarch over Christ and the Holy Spirit. A divine monarchy has been used historically to justify different types of hierarchy. But an orthodox understanding of the Trinity defeats any attempts to elevate some persons and subordinate others. If we are made in the image of God, subordination is unnatural. We should be living in ways that match what the Trinity pictures for us.
Catherine Mowry Lacugna observes: “One has the distinct sensation when meditating on the [Rublev] icon that one is not only invited into this communion but, indeed, one already is part of it.” And the cup in the center of the open table is of course the sacramental sign of our communion with God and with one another. “This icon expresses the fundamental insight of the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, that God is not far from us but lives among us in a communion of persons. . . . We should also not miss the significance of the eucharistic cup in the center, which is, of course, the sacramental sign of our communion with God and one another” (84).
Well, you may be ready for an everyday image of Trinitarian community by now. When our daughter was in 4th and 5th grade, her adored Sunday school teacher created an opening ritual that began each class. John greeted the first child to enter the classroom each Sunday by offering his chair to the child. The chairs were always arranged in a circle that had a little space in it near the door to the classroom. John initially placed himself in the chair nearest the door, so when the first child entered, John in effect gave up the nearest chair for that child’s convenience. When the next child entered, the first child was expected to greet that friend by name, get up, and insist that the new child take the special chair. John and the first child moved down a chair each. If the new person entering politely offered to sit elsewhere, the ritual required that the one offering his or her chair would, in mock seriousness, reply, “But I insist” and gesture with a flourish. Whenever the next child entered the room, the person in the closest chair at that time would rise, welcome their friend by name, and give the best chair to them. In case you don’t know, this is not how children normally interact. It was a joke, a game. The children laughed at the ritual. But they also loved it. And think about the way they came to embody the self-giving love of the Trinity in that ever-enlarging circle.
This is the very community pictured insightfully by the medieval icon painter, Andrei Rublev. Study again that image of Rublev’s icon. I think this fifteenth century iconographer gets it right. What his three figures illustrate is loving, mutual, ever inclusive, unending interaction. See how they incline their heads to one another in conversation? See how they gesture as they interact? See how their rounded postures make a circle as they remain open to one another, no figure being excluded? And see how they remain open to US, giving easy access for the next person to join their circle?
God is not one person or three persons. God is invitational communion that connects us and enlarges us. God grants space for us to enter. The Trinity’s circle is perfect—yet not completed. God’s power is not through imperial commands but through gentle invitation, not for the purposes of adoration but for communion and mutual love and self-sacrifice.
Last week a Muslim gave what I consider a Trinitarian graduation speech. Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Center for Islamic Studies, urged the graduates of Colgate University to “think of success as a communal experience.” While most graduation speakers probably called the class of 2016 to a pursuit of individual excellence by giving their personal best, Safi encouraged graduates to inhabit and transform communities.
“I want you to examine your circle of compassion and find out how deep and wide it is,” he said. “Are your three favorite people Me, Myself, and I? And no more?” (That may be an unholy trinity!) If so, he explained, you have compassion at the level of ego. He continues:
You make the circle of compassion a little bit bigger, and you get beyond yourself, and get to the level of the family. Great! You’ve got to nepotism. Hooray!
You push a little bit beyond that, make the circle of compassion a little bit bigger: I love my area, my state, and no more! Great! You’ve got to provincialism.
You push a little bit more, push it to the level of the nation, and no more. Rabid nationalism.
You push a little bit more: I love people who have my shade of skin, my race, and no more. You’re a racist.
You push a little bit more, to encompass the people who pray the way you do (or do not do), you are a religious chauvinist.”
He sums up this process: Expand “your circle of compassion until every sentient being and every human being is included. No exceptions. Welcome people into that circle of compassion.”
That’s what the picture of the Trinity tells us to do.
My friends, God desires our presence in the dynamic, generous, interpenetrating inner life of God. God invites us to love other creatures as we are loved by God.
The Trinity pictures a hospitable place for us to inhabit and imitate. We are baptized into this inclusive, equal community so that we become a living icon. Look one final time at Rublev’s icon. Imagine that you are being invited into that space, invited into the communion, invited in to invite others.
PRAYER: Triune God, we are grateful for the beautiful individuality of humanity. We celebrate each person’s uniqueness. But we are also thankful that your varied humanity can enter into the flow of your love in union with you. Amen
Gregg, Carl. Lectionary Commentary: “Bring Many Names: Progressive Christianity on Trinity Sunday” (for June 19, 2011) Patheos. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/06/lectionary-commentary-%E2%80%9Cbring-many-name-progressive-christianity-on-trinity-sunday%E2%80%9D-for-june-19-2011/).
Johnson, Elizabeth. Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 2008), 204-205.
Lacugna, Catharine Mowry. “God in Communion With Us: The Trinity” in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.
Safi, Omid. “The Problematic Idea of Success.” On Being. May 19, 2016. http://www.onbeing.org/blog/omid-safi-the-problematic-idea-of-success/8682