by Ellen Sims
text: Genesis 1-2:3a
One stands all alone. Two form a pair. Three become a community.
Exciting things can happen when three come together as J, D, and I learned this weekend when our unholy trinity descended upon Demorest, Georgia for the annual meeting of the Southeast Conference of the UCC. My experience of the annual meeting was enhanced three-fold by my companions. But I admit the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has not always enhanced my Christian faith. After all, who understands “one God in three persons”? In fact, it was only in my final year of seminary that I found any value in that orthodox conundrum. But I revel now in the Trinitarian idea of God as relatedness: God is community. God is sacred energy or flow that connects us.
Although no explicit scriptural reference to the Trinity exists, today’s Hebrew Bible reading is one of only a few Bible verses that can be construed to hint at the doctrine of the Trinity. Look back at Genesis 1:26. What part of that verse can be understood as a reference to God as Trinity? “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” Notice anything strange? (Congregation points out God speaks of “us” and “our” as if there are others present.) Some have wondered how, at the dawn of creation, the Creator could be addressing others–and if the others are the other two members of the Trinity.
Yet the original writers and readers of this verse did not have a doctrine of the Trinity. Judaism today certainly does not acknowledge the Trinity. Some scholars believe this verse is simply evidence of the vestige of an earlier polytheism that persisted over many centuries before being completely extinguished from the culture of the early Hebrew people. As many early Christians increasingly exalted Jesus’s relationship with the Creator, they puzzled how to understand Jesus as divine in the context of monotheism. Three hundred years and much brilliant thinking and fierce fighting and charges of blasphemy later, the idea of “one God in three persons” (as we sang in a hymn earlier) crystalized. Again, the doctrine of the Trinity developed without explicit scriptural support but as an intricate solution to a theological puzzle.
But here’s the bottom line for me: the Trinity does point to a God that is fundamentally relationship (Love). Trinitarian doctrine might intrigue some, but what nourishes me is the idea of God as a community of equals. And we who are made in God’s image become fully human when our “I” becomes a “We” — when we love the other as much as we love ourselves, the union of three being particularly holy. Bringing a third person into the flow of love between two persons (as when a couple adds a child to their home) suggests that community can continue expending, taking love to a new level of self-giving. That is divine.
Of course, the perfect explanation or word or image for the sacred will always be just out of our reach–even for poets like Mary Oliver, who expresses the elusiveness of the sacred in her poem “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?”. Listen for her imagery set out in trinities:
There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.
the bird flying away.
The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.
The snake slides away;
the fish jumps, like a little lily,out of the water and back in;
the goldfinches sing from the unreachable top of the tree.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come,
some shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree—
they are all in this too.
And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world
At least, closer.
Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish;
the unlooping snake.
Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold fluttering around the corner of the sky of God, the blue air. *
How do we ever hope to fathom God if poets and theologians admit they fail to find words and pictures for awe-filled experiences of the Holy? For Christians, the human Jesus who became the eternal Christ is the best revelation we have of the divine. I’m not ready to give up all human-like mental pictures of God! No. Jesus remains for me the very best depiction of the Divine, and Jesus’s way of self-giving love is the very best way of enacting the Sacred.
For that matter, the Hebrew creation story that opens our Bible insists that we were created in the image of God. So God is a part of us and, as Christian scriptures say, the Christ dwells within our very human hearts.
But increasingly, Christians recognize a bigger God. So Tillich named God the Ground of All Being, the foundation upon which all that exists has being. Others use the term Ultimate Reality because God is that which has ultimate value and is the really real. I like Marcus Borg’s term The More. Yes. God is MORE than we can know or experience and that which is always becoming even more. But it’s no wonder our Jewish friends do not presume to speak God’s holy name. Maybe verbs rather than nouns get us closer to saying Sacred things.
But here is where Trinitarian theology offers us so much more than we had assumed. The Trinity pictures not three gods and not even three persons as we think of persons, and not so much the actions of persons—but the interactions of a “a communion of persons” (LaCugna 84)**. God is relatedness and mutual interdependence, says the Trinity, and this communal existence is what we 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[ii] (LaCugna 91). The Divine is recognized in the actions of love. Self-emptying love among a community of equals is the kind of love for which the Trinity is the prototype. If I’m losing you here, let me say it again as you learned it long ago: God is love. God is the One who gives love, and the One who receives love, and the love itself flowing between them. God is what happens between and among loving human beings. God is loving energy and process and connection.
The Trinity says further that love is not exclusive but is ever-enlarging. God’s love does not close off the possibility there are new ones to love.
Before we turn our attention to an artistic rendering of Trinitarian love, I want to describe a more mundane example of that love that I used in a sermon several years ago. I begin by introducing Julie and John, two of our daughter’s childhood Sunday school teachers, who co-taught children in ways that made everything fun and made every child special. Actually, John was in charge of the fun; Julie was in charge of John, whose methodology the parents sometimes questioned, but whose loving influence on the children was undeniable. For instance, John taught the children a not-so-secret signal to use during the worship service. When John, a choir member, adjusted his glasses during worship just so, the children in his Sunday school class understood him to be saying “hi” to them, and they were told to reply to him by rubbing their noses. I think John was signaling more than “hi.” He was saying, “You are special.” He might have also been implying: “And I have my eye on you.”
John and Julie empowered the children when, for instance, they encouraged the children to come up with a name for their class. For weeks they kept the class name a secret before announcing to the church that they had become the WLSTPTWA class. No one outside the class knew what the acronym stood for. Eventually the children disclosed, with broad smiles, they were the “We’re lots smarter than people think we are” class. At our daughter’s wedding, the former members of the “We’re Lots Smarter Than People Think We Are” class gathered for a photograph with the bride and with their adored teachers, Julie and John.
But John and Julie had created more than enduring friendships among that group of children. Knowingly or unknowingly, the class had practiced being the Trinity. The opening ritual on Sunday mornings began as John greeted the first child to enter the classroom that day by offering his chair to the child. The chairs were arranged in a circle, and John sat near 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 would greet that friend by name, get up, and insist that the new child take the special chair. If the peer 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. This was a joke, of course. This is not how children interact. It was a game. The children laughed at the ritual. But they also loved it. And think about the way they came to embody in that ever-enlarging circle the self-giving love of the Trinity, which is best defined as a loving community of persons. As Carrie Newcomer sang at the start of the service, “There’s Room at the Table for EVERYONE!”
The Trinity’s loving community is pictured perhaps most insightfully by the 14th century icon painter Andre Rublev. What his three figures convey is love as an ever inclusive interaction—as they incline their heads to one another, and gesture as they talk, and keep their postures open to one another, no figure being excluded. Notice also 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 enacted through imperial commands but through gentle invitation, not for the purposes of adoration but for communion and mutual love and self-sacrifice.
The Trinity is best understood as metaphor or picture rather than a doctrine. It invites us not to believe certain things are true but to live out that truth. 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 its 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 embody.
Richard Rohr reminds us in his latest book that “the Way of Jesus is an invitation to a Trinitarian Way of living, loving, and relating on earth as it is in the Godhead. We–not you–are intrinsically like the Trinity, living in absolute relatedness. We call this LOVE. We really were made for love and outside it we die very quickly” ***
I love the picture of the Trinity.
Do I believe in it?
I am living within it. May that circle remain open!
*Oliver, Mary. “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?” Why I Wake Early. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004, 8-9.
**LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. “God in Communion With Us: The Trinity” in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. (Note especially LaCugna’s interpretation of Rublev’s icon.)
***Rohr, Richard and Mike Morrell. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. New Kinsington, PA, 2016, 46-47.