by Ellen Sims
texts: Proverbs 8:1-31; Romans 5:5; John 16: 12-15
On third Sundays we offer a contemplative service that provides several prayer stations and a brief reflection in lieu of a sermon.
If the Christian faith is, as someone has defined it, believing fourteen unbelievable things before breakfast, then the Trinity must top that list of unbelievable beliefs. The Trinity’s arithmetic alone is confounding: 1 + 1+ 1 = 1? The fact that you’ll never find the word “Trinity” in the Bible keeps the doctrine vulnerable. And the 4th century councils that funneled all the questions about Christ’s divinity and humanity into a three-person container still labeled monotheism did not seal the lid on the matter. Preachers with poor theological training resort to comparing the Trinity to water with three states: liquid, gas, and solid (like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)—which is modalism, which is a heresy, which people who use that comparison tend to want to avoid. Preachers with good sense simply declare the Trinity to be a mystery.
Well, I had neither a bad theological education nor do I have good sense. So I’d love to dive in. But we reserve third Sundays for a contemplative service when I offer a brief reflection rather than sermon. And you can find previous Trinity Sunday sermons of mine online. So I’ll remind you that my favorite (still not entirely satisfying) image of the Trinity is an interactive, loving community of equals. The Trinitarian God pictures both an ever-enlarging community bound together in love as well as the ever-moving interactions of love between and within that community. In many ways God is more a verb than a noun, more the relatedness between the three persons of the Trinity rather than the persons themselves. Of course, there are many images for God, as our scriptures and songs today illustrate. The perfect words for the sacred will always be just out of our reach.
But here is where Trinitarian theology offers me so much more than I once had assumed. The Trinity pictures not three names for God, not three gods, and not really even three persons as we think of persons. The Trinity is more the interactions of a community of persons. God IS relatedness and mutual interdependence, says the Trinity, and this communal existence is what we can aspire to. To be fully human is not, according to the Trinity, a matter of self-sufficiency but instead requires mutual, self-giving communion with others (LaCugna p. 91). The Holy is recognized in the actions and results of self-emptying love among a community of equals for which the Trinity is the prototype or the origin. If I’m losing you here, let me say it again as you learned it long ago: God is love. Yes, God is the Source of Love, if love must have a source or initiator, so God is the One who gives love but also the One who receives love AND God is the love itself flowing between giver and receiver. God is what happens between and among loving human beings. God is loving energy or process or connection.
The Trinity says further that love is not exclusive but is ever-enlarging. God’s (dare I say?) polyamorous love is not the type that closes off possibilities for new ones to love.
This is the loving community pictured perhaps most insightfully by the medieval icon painter, Andrei Rublev. At our first prayer station today you’ll have a chance to study a copy of that 14th century depiction of the Trinity. What the artist’s three figures convey is loving and ever-inclusive interaction. Note how the three figures incline their heads to one another in conversation. See how they gesture as they talk. See how their postures remain open to one another, no figure being excluded and no figure more prominent than the others. And see how they remain open to us, making room for the next person to join their circle. God is not one person or three persons. God is communion that connects us and enlarges us. God grants space for us to enter. The Trinity’s circle is perfect and yet not closed, not completed. God’s power is not through imperial commands but through gentle invitation, not for the purposes of self-glorification but for communion and mutual love and self-giving.
Here’s a homier and imperfect image of Trinitarian love. Our daughter texted this week a summary of a simple conversation she had with our two-year old granddaughter. The setting: Georgia and Molly were loving on their rescued greyhound, the gentlest dog in the world. As Georgia and Molly were petting Doc, Molly asked her mother a charmingly ungrammatical question.
Molly: “Are you always love Doc?”
Georgia: “Yes, I will always love Doc. Just like I will always love you.”
Molly: “Oh! That’s so nice of me!”
Maybe Molly’s response can be translated as, “Oh, that’s so nice for me!” But the odd grammar of my favorite two-year-old could also be understood to mean, “Oh, that’s so nice of me to love him, too.” Or maybe “It’s so nice we can love each other forever.” I caught a glimpse of a sweet, everyday Trinity there, those three giving and receiving love—-with no thought of who in the circle might be getting more love or less love than another. And no doubt a circle that would widen to include Molly’s daddy when he came into the room. It WAS so nice. And it was going to go on forever, “always,” as Georgia told Molly. This is a God thing: to take three and form community that allows for a recursive, unceasing flow of love between each and all in the community. And it’s authentically “trinitarian” when the three can then include more and more into that ever-opening circle.
The Trinity is best suggested rather than understood — as an image rather than a doctrine. The Trinity makes a hospitable place for us to inhabit and imitate. In fact, “The Christian community is supposed to be itself an icon of God’s triune life” (Lacugna 106). We are baptized into this inclusive, equal community so that we become a living icon. If we can save the Trinity from those who would turn it into a math problem or a doctrinal test, it will picture for us the community we can embody. What if we imagine prayer in this moment as entering that circle of loving energy that comes TO you (with full acceptance, deep and gentle compassion) and THROUGH you to others and returns again to you and goes out to others. Imagine this: you are a conduit and intensifier of Love.
1) 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.