Today is Trinity Sunday. As far as church seasons go, it marks the end of our journey. The Church tries to teach us the truths of the faith on a yearly cycle. I’ve been highlighting the flow of the calendar since Lent because it is important to realize that in the church, we don’t do things randomly. The church goes through seasons so we do not just read about but experience different aspects of the faith. We kind of live through the Nicene creed in a way, as we move from lent to Easter to Pentecost to Trinity Sunday, which is, after all, about the truths of our faith and about the Trinity.
Last Sunday we celebrated the spirit coming down at Pentecost. Then on this first Sunday after Pentecost, we wrap it all up and celebrate the Trinity. Three in one and one in three. This should be a teaching sermon. But the Trinity is impossible to teach. There are a lot of cute examples of things that come in threes. I’ll get to those later. But really if we were going to examine the actual orthodox theology of the Trinity, we don’t have the language to explain what it really means when we say that the Trinity is three in one and one in three. After all, ours is a monotheistic faith; we believe in one God.
Yet the Trinity is described as three Persons who are con-substantial, or who are co-essential and co-eternal. What does that actually mean? “Essential” means of the same essence, like all of us in this room are essentially human, and then we happen to be male or female, tall or short, etc. But our basic DNA (or Platonic form if you are into Plato) is human. We all derive from one kind of DNA. And from that one, there are many kinds of us. The same is true for cows, birds, etc.
But there is only one God. You stop there. You don’t then derive many Gods from the one. God is just one. The Trinity isn’t three people who are all made of some separate “God essence.” There’s no God DNA repeating in each of them, like all of us being derivatives of the human form. That would me we’d have three derivatives, three kinds of God, like a Greek pantheon of Gods or something.
No. We have one God, unique and eternal. God doesn’t come from anywhere; God is not the derivative of anything. There is not a God Form that can be repeated like a human form can be repeated. All three share one essence. The Trinity is not three people hanging out together, like Nancy, Paula and Elena are three people who all have the same basic human DNA that is repeated in three different ways.
God is the beginning, the creator of all things. Unique. The only God DNA out there is God. All creation derives from God. God is not multiple or derived from anything. We SAY that the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, are the three PERSONS of the Trinity, but it doesn’t quite capture it because they are not individual persons, but one Godhead.
God is one. There is only one essence only one God.
But there are three. But it is one. I’m not very good with numbers, but even I know something’s wrong.
Do you see my problem? You either see the problem now or you are bored to death, or maybe even both. (Somebody STOP the pastor from talking!) Who knows?
When we were talking about this at our Bible study, someone reminded me that three is a prime number and cannot be divided. And then I thought, that sounds like a good explanation right there. So since we don’t really have the philosophical language to understand the Trinity, plenty of people have nifty ways of describing it that are more relational. You could say the Trinity reflects our own mind, body and spirit. Another way to conceive of the Trinity is to call it the lover, the beloved, and the feeling of love. A more modern analogy would be to call the Trinity a wick, candle, and flame. But the one I like best is the idea of water, ice, and steam, three different manifestations of one element. The actual essence of water—the element that makes water—remains the same (co-essential in all three), even in three very unique forms. That is probably the closest we can get.
If you are at this point completely lost, the reason why I put you through that painful exercise is that when we are talking about God language should in the end fail us. Sometimes we domesticate God a little too much; we think we’ve got God figured out. It is actually important for us to realize that God is not supposed to make sense. We can find symbols and metaphors that help us understand God better, but God is too big for our small human DNA to grasp.
In the end, this is an un-teaching sermon. The Trinity is one of those things that reminds us that God is not homegrown in our own backyards. God is holy, full of glory, the creator of all things, not understood through our human categories, completely other. And it is this God that chooses to adopt us and bring us into an experience of his life as Father, son, and Holy Spirit.
The Trinity itself reminds us that God is not an object to be examined but a relationship to be had. And really, God became understood as a Trinity, not because someone thought it up, but because that is how people experienced God. They knew God the Father already in their prayers, in his kingship over Israel, in his creation. They saw, touched and experienced God in Jesus, and found healing in his name. They felt the power and the transformation of the Holy Spirit, taking outcasts and making them adopted children of God. They realized that somehow they were adopted as children of the father through the spirit when they called Jesus their own.
The Trinity is not something to think about, but something to enter into, to be born again through. It is not something that explained God. It was and is more an explanation of how God was experienced. But one truth the Trinity clearly offers us is that we will never know everything there is to know about God. And that means our relationship with God can always change and expand and deepen by exploring different parts of the Trinity that we might have been neglecting.
People actually feel closer to different persons of the Trinity at different times of their lives. There might be a time when the beauty of creation connects you to God the Creator. There might be a time when God as king is very powerful for you—God as holy and worthy of praise. Some feel close to God as a literal father-figure. Other people feel closer to Jesus as a healer and teacher, or to Jesus as risen savior who has forgiven us our sins.
Some feel very connected to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. People often get comfortable in one way of seeing or talking about the triune God. So I encourage you to change it up, to not domesticate or start to take the fullness of the Trinity for granted. If there is an aspect of the Trinity you are less close to, or less connected to, try deepening your connection.
Maybe you wouldn’t admit it, but maybe you talk about Jesus or the Holy Spirit less than God the father. Or maybe you have a problem with God as father, or Jesus as divine—whatever it is. It’s okay. You are not supposed to have all the answers.
But, what are you missing out on by not exploring that part of who God could be for you? Try entering more deeply into contemplation or relationship with that part that you don’t usually talk about as much. Or that part you are not as sure about. The point of the Trinity is that we are never done exploring and experiencing who God could be for us.
We have this miraculous adoption to the father, through the son in the spirit. We are born again as children of God the father, through belief in Jesus, in the power of the spirit. And as children of God, we are never done growing up and changing our relationships with God. A child does not need to know the DNA of his or her parent (doesn’t need to understand all there is to know about biology or humanity or philosophy) to explore and experience all the aspects of what being in a relationship is about. And it is the same with our relationship with God.
Throughout our lives we will grow into very different understandings of who God is to us. But when we think of theologies like the Trinity, remember they were first experiences of relationship. The best way to understand them is to go more deeply into our relationship with God and be open to how being a child of every aspect of the Trinity might change us and change our understanding of the depth and breadth of God.
The Reverend Sonia Waters
Christ Episcopal Church
June 3, 2012