Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Of the Trinity

Matthew 28: 16-20

Today is Trinity Sunday. It's an odd little day, in this era of emphasizing what we have in common with everyone else, to have a day that is all about what makes us different. And in the world body of religions, the doctrine of the Trinity is the one that makes is stand out more than any other.

In short, the trinity is the doctrine of God the Father, God, the Son, and God the Holy Spirit being three, but also one. When we sing the Gloria Patri every week, we are reaffirming this basic tenet of the faith. Listen to what the words actually say:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, amen.

You may be interested to discover that the Trinity it self is not a Scriptural concept. Yes, it is true that passages like today speak of the formulation of the trinity we use, and there are other places where it shows up, and yes, there are even some old Testament passages that seem to place God in a setting where he is represented by three angels, or other devices, but Trinity as a word and a concept is extra-biblical.

It comes from one of the early councils of the church, from those early days when the church was trying to figure out what it was, and what it wasn't. Nicea, in 325, made the affirmation that the Father and the Son were of the same substance, which was an odd claim to make at the time, but was in response to a group of people called Arians who believed that Jesus was somehow less than the Father, more of a creature. Their belief was that there was a time when Jesus was not. The council of Nicea stated that he was of the same substance, that there never was a time when he was not. Further councils claimed that the Holy Spirit was sent by them, as well. This makes the Holy Spirit part of the same substance, as well.

All that being said, the church hasn't really ever nailed down how the trinity works. It's one of those declared "mysteries" of the church, the things that we claim to be true but can't explain. Most of the time, now, when we talk about it at all, we talk about it as a way to understand how god manifests God-self in the world. God the creator, God the redeemer of the world, in Jesus, and God the sustainer, in the person of the Holy Spirit.

It is important to the Christian faith to believe that Jesus, in his spiritual, original state, be seen as the same as God--then Jesus' sacrifice of himself on Good Friday lets us know that the love of God didn't just come from a nice, brave guy who seemed to have more of a spiritual connection, but that the Spirit of Jesus was the Spirit of God God-self, and he gave of himself.

But this is how the mystery comes in--Even though Jesus is seen to be of the same substance as God, and of one being with God the Father, God the father didn't die on the cross. There wasn't a three day period when there was no God. And that's part of why the Trinity is, in the end, a mystery.

Throughout Christian history, trying to picture God has been difficult. Some medieval paintings show the Trinity as a man with one head, but three faces. Most of the time, we try to do it by symbol. That's where the shape of a triangle comes from in Christian art. The symbol you see on the front of your bulletin is another attempt. That's called a Triskele, and is popular in Celtic symbolism, and you can see some pretty intricate ones. They all depict the concept that the trinity, no matter how you turn it, is the same, all the parts have the same value, and that it is all one thing, because it can be drawn all with one line. It is also a symbol that God and earth, humans and the universe are all of one substance.

There have been many other ways to try to symbolize the Trinity. St. Patrick's famous three leaved cloverleaf comes to mind, how the plant can have three leaves, but still be one plant. An author named Joseph Girzone, the author of the Joshua books some of you may know, talks about the Trinity as a light bulb, how you can experience it three ways--you can touch the glass, feel the heat, and see the light, but it is still one item. Others have used the fact that water is one substance, but can exist stably in three forms,--steam, ice, and liquid.

Some other folks talk about the trinity in terms of relationships. One article I read from a pastor in Illinois named Mary Anderson said it in these terms. To most of you I am pastor. To Joe, I am daddy, and to Donna I am husband. I am still the same guy, but all three experiences of me are different. Yes, it is true that there are others who have different experiences of me, as a son, as a teacher, as a friend, so the analogy does break down a bit, but what it does do, in the midst of the breakdown, is illustrate that the Trinity is a way of talking.

It gives us words to use about how we understand God working in the world. We do not believe in three Gods. We are mono-theistic, we believe in only one God. But we experience that God in three ways, historically. God created the universe. That's way one. God saved us from our sins, that's way two. God is with us, now, guiding us in our everyday lives, and that's way three. Because we believe those three things, we have to explain how that works. This is the claim we must wrestle with, the burden that passages like Matthew leave for us. And ultimately, it is beyond our comprehension. Even the most intelligent, bookish, highly trained theologians take the term "mystery" and tape it over the Trinity. It's true, we just don't know how. But our experience doesn't lie.

So we celebrate the Trinity, we think and write about it, and we continue to claim it as our unique calling card. Happy Trinity Sunday, in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer!

1 comment:

  1. Greetings

    On the subject of the trinity,
    I recommend this video:
    The Human Jesus

    Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

    Yours In Messiah
    Adam Pastor