Readings for Trinity Sunday online here.
The Sunday after Pentecost is known as Trinity Sunday. I never quite know how people will react to that news. Over the years on this day, more often than not, I’ve heard preacher after preacher studiously avoid the subject. It’s a subject we tend to avoid. Mention the Trinity, and you’ll often get at least two reactions: people start to look uncomfortable, or else they just yawn.
We can understand the discomfort, can’t we? Just take a minute to think about all the battles Christians have fought over the Trinity. When those early bishops met to hammer out the Nicene Creed, they quite literally started hammering on each other as tempers flared. And when they were done they wrapped things up with a concluding paragraph that I’m glad we don’t recite. It says, in effect, “If you disagree, you’re as good as dead.” And over the years, when people did disagree, some of them wound up quite literally dead. Christians claim to be a community that’s based on good news, but when you see how nasty people could get over an issue like that, you start to wonder what’s good about it. Surely it’s better not to go there at all.
Today there’s a brand new reason to get uncomfortable. Over the past fifty years churches have been locked in debates about God’s gender. I know some Christians who can’t stand to hear God called “Father” anymore, and I know other Christians who bristle just as much at hearing God called “Mother.” I think we need to speak of God in ways that are faithful to the message of Scripture, but I think in the past we’ve been too content to settle for language that makes God look like nothing more than a giant male. That’s not faithful to Scripture. In the first reading for today the speaker is Lady Wisdom: “… at the crossroads she takes her stand; … at the entrance of the portals she cries out” (Proverbs 8:2,3). She’s the one that early Christians like St. Paul identified with Jesus—Jesus is Lady Wisdom come to dwell among us. There’s some real gender-bending going on here, and there’s more like it in both Testaments. We’re not very Biblical if we try to cover that up. That means we’ll have to keep trying out some ways to speak of God that aren’t very familiar. And that’s one more reason to be a little uncomfortable when we talk about the Trinity.
But discomfort’s not the only reaction. Lots of people find the Trinity boring, or at least irrelevant. The mystery writer Dorothy Sayers wrote that to the average churchgoer the Trinity means: “The Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the whole thing is incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult—nothing to do with daily life or ethics” [Creed or Chaos (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1949), p. 22]. She has a point. Go to a seminary library and look through the books devoted to the Trinity. Most of them get pretty murky, really fast. There’s something about all those puzzles—all that three-in-one and one-in-three stuff—that hooks theology nerds like me into playing mind games to the point that we can forget why we ever cared in the first place. It gives theology a bad name. And it only reinforces the suspicion that the Trinity has nothing to do with daily life. No wonder people yawn.
But rest assured, this Sunday is not about celebrating an academic puzzle. It’s not about taking an ancient formula and using it to club people over the head either. It’s not about celebrating a doctrine but a life—nothing less than the life God lives with us, in us, and through us. We’re celebrating a way of living with God that began to take shape soon after the Church’s first Pentecost. Listen to how Paul puts it: “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit [who] has been given to us” (Romans 5:1, 5). In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:15), but Paul pushes the idea one step further: All that God has is ours too. That’s the doctrine of the Trinity in a nutshell: God holds nothing back from us; God is utterly self-giving—and I mean utterly self-giving. In every gift God gives to us, God gives nothing less than God’s very self: “true God from true God.”
I wish I could draw everybody a picture, but of course I can’t. The Nicene Creed offers us one picture—“Light from Light”—and that helps. The source is light, the beam is light, the reflection is light. Not bad, but still too impersonal. And the trouble with any picture is that you can step back and look at it without getting too involved. But you can’t do that with God. God holds nothing back, gives nothing less than God’s very self to us, so we can’t step back from God. We can’t stay uninvolved when God is already thoroughly involved with us. If we want to have even the slightest inkling of what that means, what difference it makes, we’re just going to have to live it.
Now how do we do that? Well, if God is God’s gift to us, maybe we should start seeing ourselves the same way, as gifts—gifts to each other, gifts to God, and even gifts to ourselves. Lady Wisdom says, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:30-31). Wisdom is the Creator’s delight, the Creator is Wisdom’s delight, and so is the human race and the whole inhabited world. Can we learn to delight in one another that way, to delight even in ourselves?
It’s not an easy thing to do. After all, we’ve made quite a mess of things. It’s amazing the number of ways we come up with to deny our own giftedness to each other. But God has resolved never to give up on us, to love us into repentance and into new life, no matter the pain we may cause God. Even now, in all this mess, God is stubbornly bent on making gifts out of each of us—gifts to each other, gifts to God, and gifts to ourselves.
And so we too need to stubbornly resolve never to give up on one another, to love one another into our own unique giftedness. It’s something we can’t do off by ourselves. One of the deepest puzzles about our lives is that we discover our own individuality only in our life together, only by working at community. And we become a community only as we each learn how to be our own unique selves. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that the same thing holds true for God. Even God’s uniqueness happens in community.
So on Trinity Sunday we celebrate the community that God is. But just as importantly, we celebrate the community that God makes of us. Look around you. Look at the people you know best and at the people you hardly know at all—and at the people you just can’t stand. Surprising as it may sound, you’re looking at the very life of God, happening among us right now. You’re just as much a part of that life as any of the rest of us. And that makes all the difference in the world.