While I have titled this sermon “Pondering the Trinity,” I don’t spend a lot of time pondering the trinity. Except in preparation for Trinity Sunday, which is the Sunday after Pentecost. Going through my sermon files, I see that in recent years, I have preached on three Trinity Sundays and each time found a way to pivot pretty quickly to something a bit more accessible in the real world. Because the trinity is tricky. The formulaic version that appears in hymns and prayers rolls easily off our tongues: “In the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit.” But there is more than just the liturgical language.
As Christians, we are part of the monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic tradition. We may take the Trinity for granted but it definitely sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam. It is a rather large sticking point, this idea that there are three Gods but its really one God. Not easy to understand for non-Christians (and maybe not so easy for Christians either.)
But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t a helpful concept. With these three parts of God we are reminded that there are many different images of God, even in the biblical tradition. There are different names for God and yet we sometimes still find a way to limit ourselves. Check out this book recommendation:
100 Names of God Christian devotional. From Adonai to Yahweh, each daily devotion ushers you into the very presence of God by having you reflect on who he is.
100 names for God and they are all male? Looking through the list, I’m a little suspicious of some of them. Are they really all names for God? Is it really God calling themself “Rose of Sharon” in Song of Songs? Isn’t that the woman waiting for her lover, describing herself as a Rose of Sharon? I guess it depends how you read the Song of Songs – and there are a number of ways to read it.
Nevertheless, it is not the number of names for God that makes Jews and Muslims uncomfortable. Muslims very famously have 99 names for Allah. The number of names for God in Judaism varies on who you ask and which Jewish tradition you consult, but it is somewhere between 7 and 72. So the issue between Christians and the other Abrahamic faiths is not the variety or number of names for God but this idea of Trinity: three names or images or concepts of God and yet they are one.
I don’t remember a lot of specifics from seminary but I do remember a particular professor saying that we dare not change the trinitarian language from “Father Son and Holy Spirit.” No making it into Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; or Rock, Redeemer, Friend. These are not the same thing at all, he said.
Still people try. At a controversial meeting of the Presbyterian Church USA in 2006 a report was presented that suggested that some new words might be used so that the Trinitarian formula was not so male in its language. New images open up space for more ways of understanding God and connect us to different parts of the biblical text. What about
– Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb
- Giver, Gift and Giving
- King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Spirit of Love
– Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation, Dove of Peace
I appreciate these attempts to expand our language. We can never fully explain God in words anyway, so why not keep trying new ways? While 30 years ago I thought my professor stuffy and stuck, I have come to understand that as we change language we have to understand what we gain from the original language. We have to be careful that we are not obscuring the gifts of the Trinity by getting creative with our phraseology. Not all three word phrases that seem to go together nicely capture the meaning of the Trinity – not that we want to capture God!
A gift of the trinity is that it uses language that models relationship, interaction and mutual support. Father, son, and spirit OR mother, child and breath are connected through family, through attachment to each other. The images are familiar enough that we can imagine the give and take, the interdependence and mutuality. Of course depending on our own family relationships, this image of God as father/mother/parent or son/daughter/child might be uncomfortable or painful. Even God as our most basic Spirit/breath was very difficult during the pandemic when breath seemed dangerous, when breathing was impossible for some without a respirator. Even the most tried and true images and metaphors fail sometimes.
Richard Rohr pushes further with the meaning of Trinity in his daily meditation. The Trinity is not merely mutuality but self-emptying. This is how the three persons of the Trinity relate: by living in an eternal self-emptying (kenosis), which allows each of them to let go completely and give themselves to the other. They are simultaneously loving and totally loveable, one to another.
This mystical understanding of the Trinity is why I am suspicious of some of the attempts at reworking the trinitarian formula. As beautiful as “Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation, Dove of Peace” are together, this triad lacks the relationship that is central to the trinity. “Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation, Dove of Peace” harken beautifully to the harrowing flood narrative from Genesis and Noah’s survival, but rainbow, ark and dove do not interact or relate with each other. They do not give themselves to the other. Similarly, another proposed alternate trinity – Rock, Cornerstone and Temple – are biblical images for sure but they are architectural, not relational, not “self-emptying.” (Though maybe the architects and builders among us want to push back? Maybe I am not poetic enough, or don’t appreciate metaphor enough.)
It is not that I think the images have to have a human element in order for us to relate to or encounter this amorphous mystery we call God. The trinitarian phrasing “the One Who Was, the One Who Is and the One Who Is to Come” has no explicit human element. Yet perhaps because it is placed in time, a human construct, this description somehow draws me in, helps me see the eternal relationship of the Holy to itself and to the world. “The One Who Was, the One Who Is and the One Who Is to Come.” Does it fit Rohr’s definition of eternal self-emptying: letting go completely and giving themselves over to the other, over and over again?
As confusing as the idea of the Trinity is, perhaps it was a necessary move. Was it a way to make Christianity distinct from Judaism since so many of the early Christians were Jewish? Did Christians need something uniquely their own, besides Jesus Christ as Messiah? While the idea of these different parts of God are very clearly found throughout the biblical text, they are not made one, at least not as a liturgical formula, until later. The only two places the phrase “in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit” appear in the bible are the passages we heard today, the very end of Matthew (28) and the end of II Corinthians (13.)
Soon after Constantine became Christian, and decided everybody else should be too, the Trinity became official church doctrine, in 325 at the Council at Nicea. Christianity was no longer an upstart, renegade religion; now it was supported by the Roman Empire. Jesus’ final words in Matthew 28 suddenly sound less like the comforting instructions of a poor rabbi, even a risen rabbi, and more like the dictate of a ruler:
“All authority. in heaven. and on earth.
has been given to me.
Go. therefore. and make disciples.
of all nations,
in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey.
everything that I have commanded you.
I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
I don’t quite know what to make of that shift in tone, the way the risen Christ sounds so regal at the end of Matthew. What does it mean? Where does it come from? Though the trinitarian formula is used, none of it sounds very self-emptying.
One of the things that I’m learning as I get older, now that I am 60, is that some of these questions of faith and doctrine are not easily, if ever, solved. For example, while the council at Nicea in 325, decided that Jesus was divine and there are these three parts to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Christians across denominations still don’t quite agree or understand what that means. And that is okay, we should continue to wrestle with what God is and how God works and what “God” means. These questions of meaning keep our faith fresh, keep us in relationship with this mystery we call God and with each other. As someone who loves questions (but also likes to get the answers right) I have to keep reminding myself, we will never quite get it right, or ever quite have the whole picture.
This is another reason the Trinity is a helpful concept. It keeps us humble as we try to grasp the complexity of God. When we think we really get it: the meaning of God the father or magnificent creator or origin of all things – then the light shifts and we catch a glimpse of Jesus – who gets hungry, and angry, and loves his friends but likes his alone time too. Finally something familiar, something to truly hold onto. Sit and rest a while with Jesus. And then the wind blows, the air shifts, the thick cloud of spirit obscures what we thought we knew. But it also provides a new kind of breathing space, a kind of guidance even in the midst of what some might call fog. But where did that fog come from? who created that fog? And the tumbling and wrestling continues. The self-emptying, letting go, being loving and lovable, Trinity.
This is the gift of the Trinity: it invites us into further exploration, it keeps us curious, and honest – about never knowing it all. And if we think we have finally captured God, well, then, that isn’t God, that is something too small and domesticated to be the mysterious God of the Trinity.
It’s okay if we remain curious, keep asking questions. And we have other essential work: to live well with ourselves, and with each other, to live well with our neighbors. It is yet another way to try and understand this one in three, three in one, self-emptying, letting go God. This is where Paul’s greeting from II Corinthians speaks to us across generations and miles and culture. May we find ways to live into this blessing.
Finally, sisters and brothers, siblings… agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you…The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.