The Mystery of the Trinity
Today is Trinity Sunday and I know for many of my colleagues, it is one of the more difficult Sundays to preach. Trying to explain the Trinity is more difficult than trying to explain the vast and expansive nature of the universe. There is still so much mystery about our universe and even today, science is exploring concepts like “Dark Matter,” “multiverses,” and theories of expanding vs. contracting universe. So, how then can even fathom the mystery of the Trinitarian God that brought into existence all we survey? To try and understand the mystery of the Trinity, it requires our intellect and our heart. Let me give you an example.
I had a flight student that was an amazing intellectual person. He was an engineer by trade. He dreamed of flying from place to place for his business in order to save time and avoid the long lines at the airport. He understood all of the aircraft systems, the FAA regulations (there are so many), and he grasped the theoretical physics of how an aircraft can fly. However, he did not have a deep connection to aviation, and as a matter of fact, he really did not enjoy getting up in the air at all. The emotional draw of aviation never happened for him. Intellectually he understood it all and could quote all the regulations, but his desire to fly was a practical endeavor, and the joy of flying was never a part of his pursuit. Unfortunately, his intellectual exercise in concepts prevented him from actually learning, or even gaining the motivation to learn how to manipulate the controls. My star pupil never soloed, never earned his pilot’s license, and never became an aviation-loving pilot.
Exploring theology intellectually, especially the doctrine of the Trinity requires us to explore concepts, theories, and yes, even the heresies. So please, don’t get me wrong, I believe critical thinking is essential to our faith, but if our exploration ends there, we miss what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We overlook the relational nature of our faith. We miss the point. Faith it is all about the head, and the heart.
Facts, Figures, and Heresies, oh my!
In seminary, I wrote a paper on the Doctrine of the Trinity, which was supposed to be written in such a way, that I could teach the concept in a classroom setting. I researched many theologians, quoted the many Trinitarian Heresies, and offered a feeble, yet educated concept of the Trinitarian doctrine. I have no idea how, but I got an A on that paper. There are two important things I learned from that assignment over ten years.
First, we have been wrestling with the mystery of the Trinity from the earliest days of our faith. The language we use to speak of the inner life of God has its origins with Tertullian, a 2nd/3rdcentury Christian apologist. “Tertullian invented the word “Trinity” (Latin: Trinitas)” which he used to attempt an explanation of the God who is one, and yet mysteriously and relationally is also three (1). He like us used imperfect human language to explain Trinitarian theology, a concept born out of experiencing God’s revelation within time and space.
While researching for this paper, I found this statement by 20thcentury theologian Karl Rahner, “God communicates Himself to humanity as He really is in the divine life.” Imagine that the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the inner life of God, is a holy and divine relationship of love, communicated through creation, through Jesus’ acts of self-giving love, and through the ongoing movement of God in the world. God’s action in time and space stems from a love that is inherent in God’s relational nature. Theologians have wrestled with this concept of “Three persons, one God,” and the idea continues to baffle all of us, but I want to offer you something that might give you a little glimpse into what I am talking about when I speak of God’s inner life.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Inside your bulletin is a color print of an icon written in the 15thcentury by Andrei Rublev. Iconography has a rich history in our Christian tradition, and icons remain more than ordinary paintings. Icons are works of art that draw us into a story through the imagery, metaphor, and symbolism depicted by the artist. Rublev’s icon is full of symbolism and has been interpreted as an icon of the Holy Trinity.(3)
Take a closer look at the icon for a moment. Some scholars say the person on the left represents God the Father, the middle – God the Son, and the right – God the Holy Spirit. You may notice that the characters’ body positions create a circle, and the circle is a Christian symbol portraying eternal nature of God. Notice that the features of the three faces are all the same, implying the oneness or same substance of three persons. Notice how two characters are leaning toward the one on the left, who in turn is leaning toward them in loving gesture.
Finally notice how the prominent colors of the garments show up in all three characters, but your eyes may be drawn to the color of middle character’s garments, the one blessing the cup and who some theologians say represents God the Son. In his garment, the blue symbolizes divinity, the brown color represents earth, his humanity, and the gold speaks of kingship of God. So, we have the circle, the three characters in loving gesture, the same face on each, the same colors in each garment, and the symbolism of the Eucharistic cup. Now, Rublev’s icon is in no way a full and complete depiction of the doctrine of the Trinity. Using it today, I may have even edged close to a heresy or two in my explanation, but the icon provides our hearts and minds an image of the Trinity that we might grasp hold of.
As icons are supposed to do, we get a glimpse into God’s inner life of love through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is God’s inner life presented to creation through the actions, work, and creative nature of God. God’s inner life of love pours out into the world in love. Did you happen to notice one very important feature of the icon? Look closely. Do you notice that there is an open spot at the table? That is where we come in.
Faith: From Belief to Heart to Hands
Bishop Michael Curry, recently preached these words and I quote, “Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: the source of all of our lives. There’s an old medieval poem that says: ‘where true love is found, God himself is there.” (2) Additionally, ancient theologian Augustine of Hippo wrote, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek Him the greatest adventure; to find Him, the greatest human achievement.”
At the table of God’s inner life of love, the source of love, Rublev painted something captivating. To complete the circle, someone must be seated at the table with God. In other words, “there is a seat at the table reserved just for you.” God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit invites each one of us, through this life of discipleship to take our place in the inner love and life of God. Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” We are called to be re-born by the Spirit and to enter into perfect love with God and each other. We are invited to be at the table of love, to be transformed, and to love as God loves.
Re-birth or spiritual transformation is not merely a mental exercise. Spiritual transformation is not merely learning all the doctrines and creeds and never taking your place at the table of God’s life. Love is not merely our claim, “Yes, I believe all that,” and that is it. Spiritual transformation takes us from belief, which is absolutely the beginning point, but then we must be moved to experience being loved and loving others. Bishop Curry preached this about love, “There is something right about it. And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love, and our lives were meant – and are meant to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here.”(2) My sisters and brothers, we are here to be loved, and to love.
God invites us to believe in him yes, but God invites us to be loved by Him and to love Him, and to bring the assembly of the beloved to others. The Trinitarian life of love requires us to believe, to receive grace, but to not sit back merely enlightened and educated, and watch from the sidelines and cheer Jesus on as he feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, heals the sick, or walks up the hill of Golgotha. Following Jesus means taking our place at the table of God’s inner life of love, and taking our place in mission, by coming along side him and doing what he does. Re-birth means being loved and loving others, and that my friends will require the changing of our minds and yes, our hearts. Being transformed by God’s grace, being loved and loving others, requires us to allow God, to change us, and to invite us into the divine, transformative life of God. It means allowing love to change how we live, and love, each and every day of our lives.
(1) Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology, An Introduction, Fourth ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 249