“God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!”
We sang these words with joy as we entered into worship this Trinity Sunday morning. You might more readily associate the idea of the blessèd Trinity with a headache than with joy but the doctrine that God is at once one and three should, I believe, be seen as an invitation to praise and worship and into the life of God rather than as an insoluble intellectual puzzle, which we often turn it into.
Christians down through the centuries have tried to make sense of the ways they have encountered the divine by asserting that the God we worship is at the same time one being and three persons. This is the Sunday in the church year when it’s traditional for preachers to attempt to explain this holy mystery by means of a number of more or less unsuccessful analogies. But I’m going to break with that tradition.
The main reason I’m going to break with that tradition is this: as I was thinking and praying about what I could say that would throw some light on the Trinity for us all — myself included — it struck me that the doctrine of the Trinity is another way of saying “God is love”.
If you take only one thing from this sermon, I hope that it’s that statement.
The Trinity is another way of saying “God is love.” What do I mean by that? The revelation that God is love is at the heart of Christian faith. We proclaim “God is love” in as many words every Sunday as we approach the confession. And we proclaim it in the Eucharist as we remember the Lord Jesus laying down his life out of love.
Of course, we understand God’s love for us primarily as it is expressed to us. We understand God the Father mainly as the One who brings all things into existence and sends the Son; we understand God the Son mainly as the One who redeems us from our sin, heals our brokenness and sends the Spirit; and God the Holy Spirit mainly as the One who sustains and renews us, leading us into all truth.
But if humanity had never been created, if God’s fingers had never worked the heavens into being, would God still be love? If the creation and creatures were not there to receive and return love, would it still make sense to say that God is love? The answer must be an unequivocal yes. For God has been love from all eternity. What, then, does it mean to say that God not only is love but that God was love when there was nothing, no universe to love, and will be love even if heaven and earth pass away?
What gives us the confidence to state that God is love in this profound and everlasting way is the doctrine of the Trinity. Because God is three persons, we can say that God’s nature is relational. The heartbeat of God, if you like, is relationship, communion, love.
This is what we are saying when we recite the creed, affirming that the Son is “eternally begotten of the Father” and that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father”. It is not as though God was one in the beginning and then, when Christ was incarnated and the Spirit came, God split into three like some sort of divine amoeba; no, there always has been one God in three persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The beginning of John’s Gospel teaches us that the Word — that is, God the Redeemer, the Son — existed before all things began. And our reading from Proverbs this morning speaks of Wisdom — often associated with the Holy Spirit — in terms that are redolent of such pre-existence.
It is important that we be careful in how we speak about the Holy Trinity. I have used predominantly the traditional terms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I am nonetheless profoundly aware that this very male language can shrink our understanding of God. It is vital that we balance this with feminine language for God and with imagery that pushes us beyond gender, such as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. The metaphors used in the Bible do some of that work but our understanding of how power is gendered requires us to renew that effort.
At the same time, we must watch that we don’t end up using language that leads us think of the Sacred Three as just different aspects of how God reveals Godself to us, as if there were one God who just looks different from three different angles. If we do that, we lose the richness of our distinctive Christian understanding. Most significantly, although we could still say that God loves us, we lose the basis for saying “God is love”.
The God we proclaim in our prayers, our creeds and our hymns is a God of relationship, of communion, of love. And the language of Father and Son, for all its problems, makes it clear that we are talking about relationship and community. Some writers speak of the Trinity as a dance between the three persons. Others speak of God as hospitality, of the Father, Son and Spirit making room for one another, being “incomparably hospitable to each other” [see Daniel L Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding p82]. That’s a profound image to meditate upon as we approach the table prepared for us to enjoy Christ’s hospitality.
Whatever metaphor helps us to conceptualise the Trinity, it’s clear that God’s nature is self-giving. We understand that primarily through Christ’s giving of himself for us. But our Gospel reading today indicates that this selfless giving of self happens within the Trinity. Jesus tells his disciples, “All that the Father has is mine” and says that the Spirit will “take”— or “receive” — “what is mine and declare it to you”. A mutual, a reciprocal giving and receiving underlies the life of the Trinity.
That self-giving, of course, is not confined to the internal life of the Trinity. For God gives of Godself in creating the universe. God gives of Godself in redeeming us from our sin and brokenness. And God gives of Godself by making the life of God available to us through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.
God is love. God is self-giving. God is incomparable hospitality. This should lead us, as God’s children, into wonder, praise and adoration. But it should also lead us — who are invited into the life of the blessèd Trinity — to emulate our heavenly parent as we interact with our neighbours.
A world riven by hatred, violence and threats, a world breathing warfare and breathing down the neck of climate catastrophe, a world filled with division and derision needs that hospitality, selflessness and love.
The challenge that thinking of God as Trinity poses us, then, is much less how to get our heads round the fact that God can be both one and three and much more how we demonstrate in our lives — our actions and our words; our pockets and our presence — that God is love.