Today is Trinity Sunday – when we celebrate the Holy Trinity. Tonight, I don’t intend to preach on the readings, but want to think a while about this enduring mystery.
There is a rather nice cartoon on Youtube in which St Patrick attempts to explain the Trinity to a couple of local farmers he meets. He makes various attempts to explain the Trinity with examples – like a three leaf clover, water existing as water, ice and steam, a man being a father, a brother and a son…all of which are (correctly) shot down by the two not so dim farmers, who go so far as to mention exactly which heresy Patrick is stating.
Eventually, Patrick loses it, and recites the statement on the Trinity from the creed. After a few seconds of digesting it, the farmers simply say “Patrick, why didn’t you just say that in the first place”
I think those farmers are right. Sometimes we overthink things.
The Trinity is mysterious; it should be. The Medieval theologian Meister Eckhart said :
“Thou canst understand nought about God, for He is above all understanding. A master saith: If I had a God whom I could understand, I would never hold Him to be God.”
We can’t understand our God completely. So, what do we understand when we talk about the Trinity?
There is one God who eternally exists as three distinct Persons — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is often stated as ‘God is one in essence but three in person.’
In the Bible, we have a number of examples of God being three in person – we read of the Father as God, Jesus as God, and the Holy Spirit as God. And at Jesus’s baptism we get a wonderful demonstration – Jesus is baptised, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove and the Father in Heaven says ‘This is my son in whom I am well pleased.’ And the Holy Spirit is a ‘person’ as well – not some sort of mystical ‘Force’ like in Star Wars.
Just think how our Christian life starts – or how I started tonight’s sermon. We’re baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – not just in Jesus’s name, or in the name of the Father.
Each person is fully God; we’re not talking about the persons being a third of God each – each of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is God entire.
And there is one God – we are told this numerous times in scripture.
Now, I have to admit that this does all sound rather strange to us mere mortals living in a three dimensional world where we’re used to things being distinct and separated.
Theologian and apologist Norman Geisler explains it this way; while essence is what you are, person is who you are. So God is one “what” but three “who’s.
The three ‘whos’ are quite capable of referring to themselves as ‘I’ and the other two as ‘You’. And so we can have relationships between the three persons within the trinity. The Trinity is thus not a splitting of God’s essence or being in to three separate parts; it’s described as an ‘unfolding’ of God’s single essence in to these relationships.
And that was one thing that the early theologians agreed upon; that what was important wasn’t the gender or exact nature of the three persons of the Trinity, but the relationships between them.
Do the persons have ‘jobs’?
We often hear people says that ‘The Holy Spirit is working through them’. The pattern of our prayer is to pray to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is that which moved over the water in Genesis in the act of creation. We might think that, therefore, Father, Son and Holy Spirit has some sort of skill set special to them. But that’s not so – of single essence, and being totally God, whatever one person of the Trinity is involved in in our lives, the others will be involved with too.
It’s been said that the Father is the Infinite one, Jesus is the Imminent – coming in to being with us – one and the Holy Spirit the Intimate person of the Trinity; of course, there is also intimacy and infinity in the person of Jesus, and a sense of imminence and intimacy in the Father, and so on.
God is not only more complicated than we imagine Him to be; He is more complicated than we CAN imagine Him to be!
However, it’s fortunate that we don’t have to be able to fully understand God for us to be in a relationship with him. And that’s what I’d like to think about now – how our relationship with God, how we worship Him, how His love for us is manifested – is intimately linked in with the Trinity.
It’s often said that the Bible is the story of God’s relationship with human beings; in the Old Testament, with the people of Israel, and in the New Testament we see that relationship expanded to all peoples.
But for us, our own Christian belief is about our relationship with God; and with the Trinity that can get quite complicated!
Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr suggests that the perceived roles and functions of the persons in the Trinity are not that important; what matters is the relationships between them, and, as we are in a relationship with God, we’re also intimately involved in the relationships between the persons of the Trinity. Which, you must admit, is pretty special.
In his book ‘The Divine Dance’, Rohr suggests that we might like to reflect on the Trinity when we cross ourselves, rather than just allowing the act of crossing ourselves to become a ritual without thought or prayer.
At the head, home of our mind and source of all our intentions and actions, he suggests we honour the person of the Father; as we move down to our chest, over our hearts, reflect on the person of the Son – the fleshy incarnation of the Trinity. And finally, sweeping from shoulder to shoulder, reflect on the Holy Spirit
And finally tonight – one of Rohr’s prayers:
God for us, we call you Father.
God alongside us, we call you Jesus.
God within us, we call you Holy Spirit.
You are the eternal mystery that enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,
Even us and even me.
Every name falls short of your goodness and greatness.
We can only see you in what is.
We ask for such perfect seeing—
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
Reader Joe Pritchard