Consider the Trinity
TRINITY SUNDAY | Is 6:1-8; Rom 8:12-17; Jn 3:1-17
Once upon a time, I used to be a Unitarian. It’s true. I used to belong to the Church of the Greater Fellowship, which is special non-geographical UU parish for those who cannot, for some reason, attend regular services. Since I was the pastor [here / at Grace North Church] at the time, I could not attend a UU parish on Sunday mornings. So, I belonged to the church of the Greater Fellowship.
I used to despise the doctrine of the Trinity, in fact I was openly hostile to it. More than this I hated having to preach on Trinity Sunday, and my sermons were often diatribes against the doctrine. I want to publicly apologize for those now—I’m deeply sorry and not a little bit chagrined.
Trinity Sunday is the only feast day named for a doctrine, which makes it either really special or really dubious, depending on your perspective. As I have said in the past, there is a difference between dogma and doctrine. Dogma is a fence, intended to keep some people in and some people out. Doctrine, however is a medicine, and its primary purpose is to heal, specifically, to cure souls. That is why “doctrine” and “doctor” come from the same root word.
I’m not going to spend any time on dogma—it is fiercely despised, and for good reason. But when it comes to doctrine, the important question is not “What do I have to believe?” as we so often assume, but “From what do I need to be healed?”
Since the doctrine of the Trinity is such a brain-busting conundrum, we might be tempted to say, “headaches,” as in, “We need to be healed from headaches caused by nonsensical teachings.” And… I feel your pain. At worst, the doctrine of the Trinity is an impossible contradiction, at best it is a paradox. But…most things that matter in religion are paradoxical.
So let's examine the things that the doctrine of the Trinity is saying to us, and see what sort of healing ointment might be found in this paradoxical jar.
Let’s start out by looking at the members of the Trinity themselves. Using relational language, the First Person of the Trinity is traditionally known as the Father, and that is how Jesus speaks of God in the gospels. The person of the Father is that aspect of God that is transcendent—it tells us that there is a guiding intelligence that is above the created order. This part of God is distinct from creation, rules creation, and loves creation. This part of God is either timeless or ancient. It is from this part of God that all things arise, including the other two members of the Trinity. For those who feel like the world is chaotic and no one is in control, this is a healing teaching.
Proceeding from the Father is the Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. The Spirit is that aspect of God that is imminent—it tells us that God is not separate from creation, but bound up with it—in, under, and through. This part of God is not distinct from creation, but infuses creation with life, with breath, with the greening power that Hildegard called veriditas. Were it not for the Spirit, we would not be living beings, but dry and empty husks of lifeless flesh. The Spirit is the ubiquitous presence of God in all things and in all places. For those who feel like God has abandoned them, that God is not with them, this is a healing teaching.
Begotten of the Father is the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, also known as the Christ. This is the part of God that stands in solidarity with us. Defined most broadly, the Christ is what you get anywhere the Spirit and matter are in union—this is the Cosmic Christ, transforming all of Creation into divinity. Defined most narrowly, the Christ is God’s creative expression, the song sung first by the Lady Wisdom at the creation of the world, and later it is the song sung by Jesus, the man of Nazareth. The Christ is that part of God that speaks our language, that feels our sorrow, that meets us face to face, looks us in the eye, tells us the truth, and takes us in his arms and calls us “beloved.” For those who feel like God does not love them, this is a healing teaching.
There’s enough good news for one sermon right there, but let’s go on. The Trinity is an expression of the Hebrew sh’ma—“Hear, O Israel, our God is one God.” The doctrine tells us that these three persons are somehow united in one God. They are never in conflict, but are united in will, united in purpose, united in self-giving love for one another and for creation. For those of us who feel fragmented, pulled in a hundred different directions, or at war within ourselves, this is a healing image of multiplicity in harmony—not only that such is possible, but that it is divine.
The Trinity also proclaims that God is many. We have named three faces of God, three ways that our ancestors encountered and envisioned God—but God’s faces are infinite. There are no limits to the forms or the voices or the ways that God comes to us, speaks to us, comforts us, and loves us. Our Hindu brethren really got this one right—God has a million faces, we only need to find the one that speaks most deeply to our own hearts and serve that face with devotion. For those whose image of God is idiosyncratic, or to whom God comes in an unlikely or an unexpected form, this is a healing teaching.
The Trinity teaches us that the fundamental building block of reality isn’t carbon or atoms or even consciousness—it’s love. It is in and through the love of the Father and Spirit that the Christ receives vitality and life. It is in and through the love of the Father and Christ that the Spirit receives power and purpose. It is in and through the love of Christ and the Spirit that the Father receives identity and meaning. John says, “God is love,” and the Trinity displays this as no other image can. Self-giving love is the very definition of God, and in wantonly expressing and lavishing love upon one another, the Trinity lavishly bathes all of creation in the love that is spilling over from their love for one another. For those who feel there is a shortage of love in this world, this is a healing teaching.
The Trinity shows us that God is community. Here are these three beings in intimate, loving communion with one another, and because of this, it is in community that the life of God is most abundantly experienced, it is community that is most transformative for our souls, it is in community that the power of God is most perfectly and profoundly manifest in our lives. George MacDonald said, “The one principle of hell is ‘I am my own.’” The Trinity shows us that even God is not God’s own—that God is held in a relational web of love, responsibility, and accountability. And it is in this web that God most abundantly thrives, and so do we. For anyone who is tempted to isolate themselves, tempted to cut themselves off from others, this is a healing teaching.
All of these are healing teachings, but I believe the most healing teaching about the trinity is also the most mystical. This is the doctrine of perichoresis, which means “to go forth surrounded.” That’s a little opaque, as theological terms often are. What it’s getting at is the notion that God the Father is not separable from Christ or the Spirit, Christ is not separable from the Father or the Spirit, nor is the Spirit separable from the Father or from Christ. The three are part of one another, they are in one another, they live through one another. Charles Williams favored another term for this: co-inherence. The Father, Christ, and Spirit co-inhere.
Because of this, when we have fellowship with one, we have fellowship with all. This is Good News. Another healing doctrine of our faith is that of original sin. Basically, this teaching tells us to relax, it’s not our fault, we are all wounded. And among the things that are wounded are our relationships with God. The doctrine of perichoresis tells us that as long as we are on speaking terms with one member of the Trinity, we’re pretty much good to go. Our feelings will not get in the way, so long as we can reach out to one, can love one, can embrace one. For if we relate to one, we relate to all, if we have fellowship with one, we have fellowship with all, if we have the love of one, we have the love of all. For those of us who have been given abusive images of God in the past, this is healing teaching.
But we are also included in this mystery of co-inherence. The members of the Trinity co-inhere with one another. When we are baptized, we become one being with Jesus—after which we co-inhere with Jesus. And thus we are ourselves adopted into the Godhead. We become one with Christ, and Christ is one with the Father and with the Spirit. Thus as baptized people we are in God and God is in us, because we are in Jesus and Jesus and his Spirit are in us. It doesn't matter how we feel about ourselves, or how successfully we live into this union. It isn’t up to us. We don’t need to feel any performance anxiety about this union, because this union is completely gift, it is totally grace, it is the expression of the love of God for God, which now includes us. We “go forth surrounded” by God, perichoresis. This too, is a healing teaching.
“But wait!” you might say, “What about non-Christians?!” Now don’t make me get all snippy on you. That's like saying “We can't discuss how nourishing Mrs. Lopez’s enchiladas are, unless we discuss Mrs. Wong’s eggrolls.” Our Hindu and Buddhist and Muslim brothers and sisters have their own life-giving and healing doctrines, and they do and should hold forth on them. And on another day I may hold forth on them myself. But on this day, I celebrate THIS doctrine, because this doctrine is ours and it is good, and it is healing, and it is….baffling. Thanks be to God for gifts we cannot comprehend or explain.
Let us pray…
God, we cannot count the many ways you have come to us.
Yet these three ways, these forms, these “personas” are holy to us,
they are trustworthy, and we celebrate and give thanks for them today.
Which is to say, we give thanks for you and celebrate you
and the love and communion and divine life that you share with us through your child, Jesus.
Help us to hold our doctrines not as cudgels, but lightly, as healing ointments
that speak to the very things that vex our souls, that tax our bodies, that burden our minds.
For your desire is always for healing, until everything broken is whole.
We pray this in the creativity of the Father, the ubiquity of the Spirit, and the loving embrace of the Christ. Amen.