Today the lectionary gives to us a gift from the church – today is Trinity Sunday. The reason that I say that it is a gift from the church is that the concept of the Trinity does not come to us directly from Scripture because the Bible does not use this language, this word ‘Trinity’, to describe God. Rather, in reflecting on the depth of God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ, the early church in its struggle to articulate the truth of God’s existence adopted this language of describing God as Trinity.
This comes to us as gift in the context of the struggle of humanity to know its creator and to understand the creation. In his book The Mind of God the eminent mathematician and physicist, Paul Davies, declared, ‘While we assume there is a design behind the physical reality, science can’t really tell us anything about the designer, the nature of God, or God’s relationship with human beings.’
To seek to understand God and to listen for the story of God does not mean turning away from scientific inquiry and reason but marrying it with the revelation of this very creator in our midst. For, to borrow a phrase from another physicist and theologian John Polkinghorn, to describe God as Trinity is not a case of doing some ‘speculative mystical arithmetic’ but is grounded in the very narrative of the revelation of God found in the scriptures.
Jesus’ claims concerning himself and his relation with God and the Holy Spirit give rise for us to speak of God in this way.
John asserts Jesus to be the eternal Word of God.
Jesus claimed that he was in the Father and the Father was in him and that those who had seen him had seen the Father.
The promise of the Holy Spirit is the promise of the Spirit sent from the Father, the same Spirit that was seen descending on Jesus at his baptism.
And, Jesus command to go and baptise in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit further makes this description of God appropriate.
Here in these passages, and others, we encounter God not simply as some monad but that God in Godself is a community of existence – a communion of being, to borrow the language of John Zizioulas.
If we listen to the very first story found in the scriptures this truth of God’s very nature as existing as a communion is found as we hear that we are created in God’s image:
“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
Here we find that to be made in God’s image is to be made male and female – not male or female, but both together – a community. To be in the image of God is to be one, yet one with distinct entities. The fullness of being human in the image of God is being humans together, just as God is one yet three.
This helps us to make sense of the statement that God is love. To love involves both a lover and an object of that love. If God in God’s very self is love then that love is a love expressed in the mutuality of existence of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
This gives to us the context of our own existence created to love and be loved by God and by each other – to do less than this would be to deny the reality of our being created in God’s image and thereby to deny what it means to be truly human.
Yet the narrative that unfolds in the pages of the scriptures is that this exactly what human beings do: rather than live in the communion of love whereby we exist as one for each other we as human beings continually seek our personal end, our personal gain.
The story of Adam and Eve is not some isolated event in prehistory but is each of our own stories – we deny the reality of our existence and seek more as if what we have already been given is not enough. And when we are questioned about this we try to blame someone else.
But God’s love for us is so deep that he gives to us himself, his son, the incarnation – Jesus with us to live for us. Here the work of God as Trinity becomes clearer and even yet more confronting. Jesus fully human and fully divine shares our human existence living in communion with God and the creation.
The culmination of Jesus share in our existence as well as our estrangement from God and each other is found in the cross and resurrection. The theologian JürgenMoltman describes Jesus death as an entirely Trinitarian event in which Jesus human cry of abandonment, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ is matched by the desolation of God the Father as he mourns the estrangement of humanity in the death of his only son.
Here we begin to have an insight into the concern of God at our suffering and of God’s will that this not be the last word for the cross without the resurrection leaves us without much hope. The Spirit descends into the realm of dead to – a place we assume is completely opposed to and devoid of God’s existence to meet Jesus there and bring him to new life.
To contemplate this is to understand that even in the place of death to which Jesus descends, a place of complete separation from God, Jesus is retrieved. The Eastern Orthodox churches speak of the days between Jesus death and resurrection as the time of his descent into hell. There is no place in this life or in our death that God has not been and that God cannot reach u even hell!
This God, who is love, loves us to this point of self sacrificial giving so that we might be with God eternally. The sending of the Holy Spirit to us makes us one with Jesus in his action for us and in the church we are made to be a sign of hope for the world as humans existing as human beings created in God’s image are meant to – as community.
The church is meant to be God’s people living in respect to how we were created and were recreated to live, but it does not take a genius to see that we do not live this way as the church, even though this is the church we believe that God calls us to be. Like those who lived before Jesus death and resurrection our fall into temptation, to live as if we are not in created God’s image and so to seek something other, is continually there.
The rampant individualism of the post enlightenment world, both modernism and post modernism, have so impacted on the belief of the western church that for so many our faith is simply and only private or personal matter. Evangelists continually emphasize our personal relationship with Jesus as being the central reality of faith, but unless we understand that as persons we are not drawn into a one on one faith experience but into the community of God’s existence which includes not only other people but the fullness of creation then we have turned away from the truth of the gospel.
To be Christian means to be the church – for the church is the body of Christ, it is the Church in the power of the Spirit. Bound together by God’s love and into God’s existence together we celebrate our risen Lord.
This understanding of the church came up in my lecturing on Thursday when I was quoting a passage from John Calvin’s Institutes written in 1559.
For when we believe the Church, it is in order that we may be firmly persuaded that we are its members. In this way our salvation rests on a foundation so firm and sure, that though the whole fabric of the world were to give way, it could not be destroyed.
Half of the students reacted to this understanding of the church expressing that whilst the ideal and imagery is great it had not been their experience of the church. Many had been hurt and burnt within the community of the faithful – a reality for most of us.
Yet within the arms of the church that we believe, the church that God has made through the power of the Spirit, our hope is that we do share in the Trinitarian life of God and we become fully human.
Calvin, being the realist he was, declared:
But in order to embrace the unity of the Church in this manner, it is not necessary, as I have observed, to see it with our eyes, or feel it with our hands. Nay, rather from its being placed in faith, we are reminded that our thoughts are to dwell upon it, as much when it escapes our perception as when it openly appears.
Being church is as much a matter of faith and an expression of God’s Trinitarian life as our hope in the promise of Jesus that we will find our way home in him.
The depths of the mystery of our faith stand alongside the mystery and wonder that is seen in the creation by the physicists and biologist and ecologists. Our unity with God who is Father, Son and Spirit, our unity with each other, our unity with all living things humbles us and gives to us place in this world, in our lives and with our God.
Giving thanks for this mystery we can echo the wonder of the great Albert Einstein:
One cannot but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one merely tries to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
So with him and millions before us and millions to come let us pass into silence before the mystery of the Trinity and seek the face of the one in three and three in one who loves us.