Trinity Sunday marks the beginning of a long season of “ordinary time” in the church. The Lectionary marks the next set of Sundays between Trinity and Advent as “Sundays after Pentecost.” They could as easily be marked as “Sundays after Trinity,” which might, in fact, keep the Trinity in our minds.
There are all kinds of ways to talk about God, all kinds of images of God. Throughout the Bible, God is envisioned as rock, as sheltering shade, as warrior, as judge, as creator, as pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, to name just a few. God calls the worlds into being with a word, speaks to Moses in a burning bush, and calls to Elijah in a still, small voice. There are many more pictures of God, each one expressing a little bit, a fragmentary glimpse into who and what God is.
There is one way of talking about God, one name of God, though, that somehow, even through it seems at to be mostly an impenetrable mystery, expresses the totality of God. That name of God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a way the church learned to express who God is. The formulation appears only once in the Bible – when, at the end of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells to the disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This is the only instance in which the Trinitarian formula is used in the gospels; and there is substantial scholarly agreement that this is actually not the words of Jesus, but of the early church as it struggled to deal with who Jesus was.
It was a problem which was to exercise the Church for over three hundred years. And those three hundred years might well be termed the Age of Heresy. For in the struggle to understand how God could be three distinct and separate “persons” yet still one complete being, a great many unorthodox beliefs arose, beliefs which became known as “heresies”.
There were those who decided Jesus wasn’t really human, but was God in disguise (Docetists). For them, Jesus didn’t really have a real solid body or suffer on the cross, because God, the Almighty, the Creator, couldn’t possibly suffer like any ordinary human being. Then there were those who believed Jesus’ sufferings and crucifixion were necessary for salvation, but thought Jesus didn’t really die, but only appeared to die (Marcionites). They believed, therefore, there was no resurrection of the body. Another group believed God existed in different modes (Modalists). Sometimes he would be in the Son mode as Jesus, sometimes in the Spirit mode, sometimes in the Father mode. But he couldn’t therefore be all three at the same time. And there were those who believed that only the Father was really God. Jesus was created by God, but didn’t share either God’s divine nature, or his essence, his Spirit (Arians). So Jesus was a bit like Superman, but wasn’t actually God. Yet another lot believed Jesus had a divine nature as well as a human nature, but that the two natures were completely separate (Nestorians). Sometimes Jesus would be acting in divine mode, at other times he’d be in human mode.
There were all shades of opinion in between. At one time one idea caught on, at another a completely different idea. There were huge splits in the Church. Massive quarrels and dissension raged. The arguments became such a scandal in the Church, in this body of Christians supposed to love each other, that all the bishops finally got together in the year 325 at the great council of Nicea. At this council, a statement of belief was agreed and signed by all but two of the bishops. And so the Nicene creed was born.
After Nicea, Saint Athanasius continued to struggle against the Arians, those who believed that the Son and the Spirit were less important than the Father. The Athanasian creed is the one that stands as our Affirmation of Faith today. It is one of the most complete statements of Trinitarian thought that exists. It was probably composed after his death, but it bears his stamp. As you read it, note the repetitions. Each characteristic of God is given equally to Father, Son, and Spirit. Over and over again. All are uncreated, infinite, eternal. Each is individual, yet all are so intimately related that they are truly one.
It’s hard to know how three can be one. And Christianity has been accused of having three gods. No visual representation can capture the idea of Trinity, of three persons who share the very same substance, the exact same DNA, if you will. Yet that’s what we are told.
Why does it matter? That’s the question each of us must ask. Why does it matter if God is Father, Son and Spirit? What does that have to do with our faith?
The Trinity matters because it is about relationships. The Trinity shows us that God seeks relationship, and that God calls us into relationship. There can be no isolation, no loneliness because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We are drawn into the mystery of the community of the Trinity by Jesus who has said he goes to make a home for us with him and his Father.
If we are drawn into that community, is it not also our job to establish holy and loving relationships in our own lives? If we are, indeed, created in the image of God, we are the face of God on earth. Can we then stand by while some are hungry, some are lonely, some are ill-prepared to face the world? Can we stand by while children struggle and become lost or while adults struggle with hopelessness?
We are called to involvement because we are called to be a part of community, called to the relationships that are modelled for us in the community of the Trinity. We are called to involvement with the community of faith gathered here and with the larger beyond. Listen to the call of the spirit and then come to the table to be nourished for the task.
Text adapted from Trinity Sunday Sermon, First Congregational Church (no longer available)
Image from Canterbury Stained Glass