Grace Presbyterian Church
May 31, 2015, Trinity B
Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Three in One, One in Three
Today is Trinity Sunday, the last major Sunday observance before the liturgical calendar stretches into the long, green processional of Ordinary Time, at least until October or November. It’s a curious commemoration, one in which instead of a particular event, a theological concept is the subject of the day. And it just happens to be one of the trickiest doctrinal concepts of all being marked, one that contains a whole host of possibilities for leading the pastor astray.
Indeed, the early history of the church is dotted with theological attempts to grapple with the doctrine of Trinity, which later came under official condemnation of the church and led to creedal statements attempting to steer believers away from such unorthodox beliefs. Some tried to argue that one or the other of God the Son or God the Holy Spirit was somehow “less equal” to God the Father, such as Arianism, Psilanthropism, or Pneumatomachianism; teachings that stress the unity of God to the point of denying the Trinitarian nature of God, such as Patripassianism or Sabellianism; or teachings that stressed either the divine or the human nature of Christ to the exclusion of the other, including Nestorianism, Monophysitism, or Docetism, the latter of which taught that Jesus’s entire physical existence was an illusion. That would make the whole Holy Week and Easter cycle rather superfluous, to say the least.
Even attempts to draw analogies to explain the Trinity end up running aground on some sort of heretical concept, even such famous attempts as the three-leaf clover or shamrock supposedly used by St. Patrick of Ireland to explain the Trinity. According to those who spend way too much time thinking about these things, Patrick (had he actually used that metaphor, which is not certain) would have been guilty of partialism, or the teaching that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit individually could not be regarded as God, but only the three in combination could truly be regarded as “God.”
Even those attempts to explain the Trinity that actually pass theological muster can be more convoluted and confusing than helpful. Take this line from the Athanasian Creed, one of the earliest of creeds, created as a doctrinal response to some heresy or other:
“Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son, uncreated is the Spirit. The Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, the Holy Spirit is infinite. Eternal is the Father, eternal is the Son, eternal is the Spirit; And yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited.”
It’s little wonder that one of the most popular social media memes of the last few weeks has been one which offered the following advice to pastors preaching on Trinity Sunday: say nothing, and show pictures of kittens. I fear, though, that somebody out there is sharpening up their critical knives for an argument that kittens are somehow heretical.
Not helping the cause is the fact that scripture nowhere explicitly states or develops anything that could be truly called a doctrine of the Trinity. That is not to say that the idea of the Trinity isn’t there; it is only to observe that the concept is more or less assumed without ever being explained to any degree.
One could point to the stories out of the Book of Acts that we’ve been examining since Easter; as Jesus – God the Son – is about to be taken up from the disciples, he promises that the Holy Spirit – God the Holy Spirit – will come to the disciples to empower them to proclaim the good news. A similar, and even more explicit, formulation is found at the end of Matthew’s gospel, in the Great Commission, in which Jesus commissions the disciples to go to all the nations and make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
Similarly the language of Trinity is found embedded in today’s readings from Romans and John. Jesus’s discussion with Nicodemus could easily have been used for last week’s observance of Pentecost, particularly in its observation of the qualities of the Spirit, here being described by no less than God the Son.
Paul, grappling with how to explain the great eternal inheritance of believers, makes recourse to the language of Trinity as well. The Spirit (as in God the Holy Spirit) becomes the enabler of believers, the one who enables us to put to death the works of the flesh and to be “adopted” as children of God (the Father), and joint-heirs with Christ (God the Son).
In short, scripture is a lot less interested in explaining the Trinity than it is in describing how God has moved and acted in the world, using language that expresses “God in three persons,” to quote the first hymn we sang today. And yet, as the second hymn of the morning puts it, “God is one, unique and holy,” even if “never single or alone.”
Trying to nail down exactly what’s going on in the doctrine of the Trinity ends up seeming like a fool’s errand. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe, in fact, it has a very beneficial effect on us, when we come to realize that the more we demand certainty out of God, the more we demand that we must know exactly what’s going on, the farther we are from actually following and living in the Spirit, living a life that looks as much as possible like the life Christ lived. That the Trinity is, is one thing; trying to dissect in fine detail what exactly that is or how it works might just be what John Calvin would call “inessential.”
Still, though, there are some important lessons we can take from the understanding of God as Three in One, One in Three – enough to justify a Sunday on the liturgical calendar.
For example: If God is Three in One, One in Three, God is inherently community – “never single or alone,” to return to that hymn. If even God lives in community, how can we possibly think we are suited to go it alone?
Let’s extend that a little further. We are taught from way back, alluding to Genesis, that we are created “in the image of God.” Most of the time we tend to interpret that as saying that each one of us, individually, somehow reflects or contains something of the image of God even in our finite created-ness, and I don’t particularly intend to argue against that, but what if the idea of God as Trinity, Three in One, One in Three, opens up another possibility here? What if it is in all of us – the whole, messy, beautiful diversity of humanity – that we see the image of God? Might that possibly change how we relate to one another? Might that challenge us to take yet more seriously the whole business of being a church, being a community, being together as followers of Christ, taking care of one another? One would hope so.
But there’s also another angle to this whole business, that God expresses God-ness in three, specifically.[i] Not two: three.
Think about it. Two is an “even” number; three is an “odd” number. We say “two’s company, three’s a crowd.” We speak of the “odd man out,” or of being a “third wheel.” We speak to each other “face to face” or “one to one,” not “one to one to one” or “two to one” or “one to two”.
A three-way conversation, for example, requires more energy than a conversation between two people. There are two different trains of thought or perspectives to keep up with, not just one. It can be difficult for us to focus equally on two other folks instead of one; we can, if we’re not careful, end up being the aforementioned “third wheel” as the other two end up chatting merrily away. Three is work.
Even with God we can sometimes face the unwitting temptation to “dualize” God, particularly we in more mainline denominations. We can’t really ignore God the Creator, the one we most often simply call “God.” And the life, and teaching, and death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes up the core of our faith, and indeed the very one who is our way, truth, and life. Given the prominence of those two “persons” in our theology, the third “person” of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, can fall into a kind of neglect or forgetting (particularly when we haven’t just observed Pentecost a week ago), despite the theological reality that it is the Spirit who most represents God with us in our now, in our everyday living and acting.
Even the historic confessions of the church can sometimes seem to fall into this trap. Look in your bulletin at the Apostles’ Creed, the Affirmation of Faith we will speak together in just a few moments. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” is the very first thing we say, and it’s hard to say much more than that. There follows a very substantial evocation of Jesus Christ, all the way from being “conceived by the Holy Ghost” to his being “seated at the right hand of the Father, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
And then…”I believe in the Holy Ghost…” and without any description or explanation we’re immediately off to the church. Not much of a way to speak of the third person of the Trinity. They didn’t cover this in church history or worship classes, but I can’t help but wonder if this is why we observe that day, and do so the week after Pentecost to boot; to shake us out of our tendency to “dualize” God and forget the full triune communion through which God relates to us and through which God abides with us.
It can seem a little messy at times, it can be unwieldy, it can be hard for us to comprehend, and it certainly isn’t easy to understand. But this is how God interacts with humanity across time. One can even argue that the Bible reflects this in its unfolding of God’s action in humanity; the Old Testament, the Pentateuch in particular, reflecting God the Creator, God’s choosing and delivering of a people; the Gospels unfolding the intervention of God’s Son in the world; and God the Holy Spirit unleashed in the world in the Book of Acts and thereafter.
God relates to us as community; God relates to us in a way that challenges and illuminates how we relate to each other. We may not be very successful in explaining the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from it.
For the God who is Three in One, One in Three, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “Holy, Holy, Holy” (138); “God Is One, Unique and Holy” (135); “We All Believe In One True God” (137); “Come, Thou Almighty King” (139)
 I am indebted to Karoline Lewis, “Dear Working Preacher: The Necessity of Three,” Working Preacher 24 May 2015 (http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3627l; accessed 30 May 2015.