June 5, 2020
A reflection for Trinity Sunday from your Lutheran Anglican Roman Catholic Interchurch Committee, LARC.
LARC has been meeting regularly for over 20 years now, since we began in preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000. We are clergy and lay from the Christian churches with episcopal leadership in south-western Ontario. Over these years, we have organized events, led retreats and shared resources, all oriented towards ecumenism. We work to understand the convergences and divergences within our traditions, hoping for a time when Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” is answered.
One of our areas of convergence is belief in the Trinity. We hold in common the expressions of that belief found in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. We profess them publicly in our various liturgies. Our ancestors in faith formulated these expressions. The words we use today are theirs, albeit usually in translation. But words are slippery things, changing meaning over time and space. The questions arise again in our time: What is this Trinity in which we believe? What difference does it make that God is Triune? What is a “person” anyway?
As our various congregations mark the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity this year, we offer this reflection. We sometimes hear, or give, at this time in the Church year, explanations of the Trinity. What we notice is the ongoing struggle to articulate our belief. We are uniformly bemused by the fact that our experience of God is something that is beyond our various interpretations. When we try to speak of or write about or explain this experience in a logical, coherent way, we always end up with something less than adequate.
We’re in much the same situation as Jesus was when he spoke about the Reign of God. He told us it’s like a mustard seed; it’s like a pearl of great price; it’s like yeast in flour; it’s like a net catching fish. Each of these word pictures or parables offers a glimpse. But none explains or describes it fully. As each of these word pictures, and others, proved inadequate, Jesus offered another. And in the end, he showed us. The Reign of God is experienced.
So too the Trinity, the name our ancestors in the faith have given to the reality of God. We need to remember that the experience came first. As people struggled to describe their experience, they offered various analogies for the Trinity. Lutheran Satire illustrates some of the seemingly most likely ones them in a slightly irreverent way (https://lutheransatire.org/media/st-patricks-bad-analogies/). All were deemed heretical in the time before our creeds were finalized. The Creeds as we have received them were formulated in response both to the experiences the early Christians had of God and to the heretical expressions of those experiences. To repeat, the words of the Creeds came after the experience. And words are never adequate to communicate an experience.
That said, more modern thinkers continue the attempt. Karl Barth (1886-1968) suggested that we change the wording of the Creeds to profess the Trinity as “one God in three modes (or ways) of being”. He contends that the word “person” has substantially changed in meaning since the fourth century and now includes the attribute of “self consciousness”, thus implying that there are three “personalities” in God, which is the heresy of tritheism. In her 1941 The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy L. Sayers, an Anglican theologian better known as the writer of the Lord Peter Whimsey detective stories, focusses on Genesis 1, noting that God is creator and that we are made in God’s images and likeness. She contends that her experience as a creating artist, integrating Idea, Activity, and Power mirrors God as Father, Son and Spirit. Richard Rohr, in his 2016 The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation expounds at length on the idea of perichoresis: 3 persons engaged eternally in an ongoing, interweaving choreographed dance, all moving as one, precisely and fluidly, to create a meaningful work together. In doing so, he draws on the Agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity, a result of Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue, issued on March 1992.
For many of us, these various attempts do little to clarify our confusion. We still do not “know” what the Trinity is. But maybe that’s okay. That God is beyond definition can be considered liberating. After all, we can’t even define ourselves, never mind the person next to us, much less the relationship between us. In the words of St. Augustine, “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”
So, why then bother to have Trinity Sunday at all. It’s the only major Christian festival that celebrates a doctrine of the church rather than an event in its sacred history. If we can’t understand the doctrine, what is there to celebrate? What is there for us to take away from the celebration and live throughout the coming week?
We celebrate Trinity Sunday because it helps us be truly Christian. It helps us notice and claim what is unique about us a members of the Body of Christ. It helps us focus on the ideas about God that are implicit in all attempts to describe the Trinity. It helps us ask the right questions about what it means to be Christian in the world today.
If God is One, and we are made in the image and likeness of God, how are we are called to reflect this oneness? To be single minded in the pursuit of what is True, and Good, and Beautiful? To be in solidarity with all peoples, indeed, with all of creation? What else?
If God is Three in One, and we are made in the image and likeness of God, how are we called to reflect this diversity? To value the diversity of life which surrounds us, no matter how annoying (think mosquito)? To value the existence of all persons, no matter their (dis)abilities? What else?
If God is Relational, and we are made in the image and likeness of God, how are we to be in relationship? Flexibly? Equally? Creatively? Affirmingly? Persistently? How else?
If God is Love, and we are made in the image and likeness of God, how are we to love, to be love? With passion? With compassion? With selflessness? How else?
None of us alone, nor all of us together, can hope to answer these questions definitively. But each of us and all of us can lean into the questions, knowing that God, around us, beside us, within us, continues to call us into life.
So this Trinity Sunday, let us gather (remotely) to profess our faith, without worrying about understanding all the words. Let us proclaim the Creed (not read it) out loud, boldly, together. If someone falters, someone else can help out. When someone falls out, someone else can step in. It’s like the biblical image of Moses praying for the well being of the people of Israel with Aaron and Joshua holding up his arms. Then having professed our faith together, let us support each other in living that faith everyday, everywhere, every way. Let us individually and collectively be the image of the loving, diverse, relational One who made us.