Jesus said, Whom do men say that I am? And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or other of the old prophets. And Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple. “And Jesus answering, said, “What?”
Memories of Trinity Sunday 2014 come to mind as I sit to write about the Trinity for tomorrow’s sermon. It was my first Sunday in the parish having accepted the call to come to St Martin’s just before Easter that year. Trinity Sunday will be forever associated in my memories with the anxieties of new beginnings. Through the haze of half memory, I can still recall my first day at Harewood Primary School, sitting on ‘the mat’ – a large carpet, where in those days children gathered to listen to the teacher, with all the other little kids in Miss Lamb’s primer one (first grade) class. I remember someone pinched my back. I turned round to see the impish grin of one Mark Bradley, beaming back at me.
Jumping forward in time, I remember my university chaplain exclaiming Trinity Sunday – ridiculous! How can you celebrate a doctrine as if it’s an event? Although most of us would not put it like this, most of us feel at best ambivalent about the Trinity. As the tongue-in-cheek parody I quoted at the beginning captures, the Trinity while understood as something of a doctrinal necessity, is not particularly relevant to the increasingly difficult task of believing in the modern world.
Are we not all monotheists now?
Therefore, the gobbledygook of three distinct persons in one God seems to be just that – gobbledygook to the modern mind. So we moderns like to pick and choose in a process of mental slight of hand. One says: for me it’s Jesus, he’s my pal. Another exclaims: for me it’s God the Father, this feels more respectful. And yet another contests: No, no , it’s definitely the Holy Spirit for me, I feel the power.
For the Bishops and theologians of the first four centuries of the Christian era, the wrangling and frequent bloodshed that accompanied their gathering in the great Ecumenical Councils, and which at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 produced the doctrine of the Trinity, the task was not to try to explain God’s nature, but to protect it. You see, the first Christians had had this overwhelming experience of God in three distinct contexts. As Jews, they believed in God the creator of the world, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, and the Israelites. Yet, through the man Jesus and the events of Easter they had come to experience God in the here and now, first as a human being living among them and then after his death, through an experience of spiritual empowerment, which they associated with the spirit of Jesus returned to earth and active among them, empowering them to continue the work he had begun.
Less is not always more
The Trinity emerges from a bloody period which one writer has referred to as the Jesus Wars. as a way of protecting the relationship between Jesus and God from being streamlined, forced along one of two directions. The first was to say that Jesus was God masquerading in human form – a distinct godman, come down from heaven to live for a while among mortals, much as the classical Gods of antiquity had done. This idea was embraced by the monophysite faction – God as one nature party. The second direction was to say that Jesus was what today we would call an avatar – an exceptionally spiritual human being, but only a human being. God remains God and Jesus, like Mohammed was simply his messenger. This faction became known as the Arians, named after their chief proponent, Arius. An astonishing amount of blood was shed in pitched street battles and backroom assassinations before the official position emerged in the form of the doctrine of God as three persons in one God. Thus the evolution of the experience of God among the first Christians, an adherence to the Jewish concept of God as one, not many, became reconciled, well sort of.
Perspective from the 21st Century
The demand in each generation is to interpret the Christian Tradition, handed on to us from previous generations so that it empowers us to engage with life as it’s lived, not as it was lived in an imagined previous golden age. For the Christians of the first four centuries, the currency of intellectual thought was Aristotle’s logic. Now the reality today is that few of us use Aristotelian logic to navigate our way through the complexities of life and faith in action. I know some who regret this, but it is as it is. The modern mind has been profoundly shaped by the advance of a psychological worldview.
There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities are also the product of our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. The person I experience myself being is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me.
Rublev’s famous depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons, lovingly gazing upon one another offers a pictorial metaphor. In Rublev’s depiction of God the Holy Trinity we catch the echo of the conversation we hear God having in Genesis, let us make humanity in our own image. God is not a singular entity, but a relational one.
When we put together the ancient echo in the Genesis record of God’s internal conversation with our current psychologically shaped experience of the fluidity of identity, we arrive at the realization that for us, in our period of history God’s nature takes on a poignantly, relational quality.
The Tradition of the Trinity ascribed masculine identities to the relational elements – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as he, he. In our own period, it’s important to know that God is not gendered. The importance of the traditional male ascriptions to God lies not in being gendered but relational. One way to avoid the gendered terms and still retain the relational elements is to see God as Lover, God as also Beloved, and God as Love-Sharer. It’s common to hear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit referred to as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. The problem here is that these terms denote functions, not relationships. It is the relational quality within the community of God that commends itself so powerfully to people living increasingly in a world where relationality, its presence or absence, is the measure of meaning and an indicator of quality of life.
Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer. Celtic prayer to the Trinity.