Happy Trinity Sunday! It seems that as soon as we wrap our heads around the coming of the Holy Spirit, we have to wrestle with the mystery of The Holy One as Trinity.
Once upon a time, in the olden days before ordination, when I was a woman, I was teaching a confirmation class with a bunch of rowdy kids in NJ. One of our required topics was the Trinity. This was a seventh grade group, prone to silliness, especially when we had something serious to discuss. I cringed in anticipation of their reaction to Trinitarian theology. Alas, shamrocks were not in season, and with a certain desperation, I used a can of Three in One Oil to explain the Trinity to them. One God, three ways that God operates. Unfortunately, this was a class that the pastor chose to sit in for observation. And then he reprimanded me for teaching heresy, because the Triune God is three persons in one substance (instead of one substance with three functions). Who knew?
We learned two things. First, heresy is an easy task for people of good intentions and can be rather interesting. Second, publically scolding the Sunday School volunteer is probably not a good idea.
(Note to self . . . )
It is unlikely that many members of that class recall how to explain or define the Trinity. (Even church nerds struggle with the mystery). Most of the other lessons have faded from my memory. But I have a vivid recollection of the young people, with whom I had a total blast. It was all about the relationship.
I am a preacher who loves the Trinity. I see symmetry in threes. In my garden, the flowers are in triads. There are often three points in my sermons (and our ushers seem to know that, so they begin to move around when I get to the third). Still, it is nearly impossible to preach a coherent twelve-minute sermon on the God who is One and Three at the same time. The math and the logic are impossible, and no one completely understands the Almighty. Aside from saying that I have experienced God as Creator/Father and as Redeemer/Son and as Sanctifier/Holy Spirit, I prefer not to interpret the mystery. I daresay that many Christians do not find that doctrinal matters capture their attention. Does anyone here sit up at night and ponder the Trinity? (I think no one’s hand will go up in response to this . . .)
Our modern disinterest is, well, interesting. In the fourth century, the theology of the Trinity so captivated people’s imaginations that Christians went to war over it. Bishop Athanasius was dragged out of his pulpit in Alexandria and later exiled over a Trinitarian controversy. Arians in the Roman Empire fought battles over Trinitarian theology. Thinking about God as Three persons in One was so challenging, the church councils of Constantinople, Chalcedon, and Nicaea were all convened to consider the issue of how the One God could be a Trinity.
Religious conflict over the Trinity is not just the stuff of ancient history. In our time, political turmoil in Africa is exacerbated by the conflict between Trinitarian theology and the radical monotheism of Islam. In some places, the Christian theology of the Trinity is considered blasphemous or heretical.
We in the West are so used to invoking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that they do not impress or fascinate us any more. Since Don McLean sang about them 50 years ago, has anyone noticed? What can God as Three in One say to us, especially if we find the Creed difficult to embrace or when we may not feel inclined to be professional theologians?
The key to the mystery, and the reason we continue to observe a holy day devoted to the Trinity, is that the Trinity is all about relationship. The significance of the Trinity is precisely that God is in a relationship of perfect Love. God is not all alone up in the heavens. God is in relationship, in the way that we were created to be in relationship. And the Trinity is actually three-in-one plus one: God invites us to be in this kind of relationship even now. The relationship of the three members of the Trinity is a community of equals. Father, Son and Spirit are three persons who share themselves fully with each other. They are individuals who are also completely interdependent. They love each other completely, and their love changes the world. When they have a bad day, it is not due to argument, but because some outside event causes them to suffer for love. They are always together. They do not quit. And they long to include us in their love.
It is all about relationship. We are able to join a relationship of Love, standing in its center.
And isn’t that what we want to be part of in a faith community? In relationship with other people who respect us as individuals and share life with us. In relationship with people who love us and who treat us as equals. In relationship with people who want to know our names, share our sufferings as well as our joys, and use the energy generated by our worship to transform the world. (See? Three points).
Happy Trinity Sunday, my friends. Remember: It is not about solving an arcane mystery. It is all and always about the relationship.