The Feast of the Trinity is a celebration that is of relatively recent date in the church calendar, dating, officially, only from the fourteenth century. Easter, of course, goes back to the first century. In good part, its late arrival on the liturgical calendar was due to the reasoning that God as Trinity is celebrated every Sunday in all sorts of liturgical invocations of the Trinity, and hence no special day was needed. It isn’t just the liturgical invocations. The Trinity is invoked throughout any service of Christian worship in both word and form. Prayers of proper form usually address themselves to God the Father, or some modern substitute, and the prayer then concludes with words to this effect, “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.” We baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, as Jesus bid us to do, and we have not baptized unless we do it in this name. In communion, the prayer of great thanksgiving always has a trinitarian form, moving from creation to redemption in Christ, to the gift of the Spirit. Moreover, the act of communion involves the trinitarian shape of God in our salvation, for, in communion, by the Holy Spirit we are brought into Christ’s life, and, thus, into God the Father in whom the Son dwells. In the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds we confess our belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, one God. At this church, we conclude every meeting with Paul’s trinitarian benediction. So, there is nothing more observed in Christian worship and nothing more central to it than the Trinity.
But, I think this is actually all the more reason for the church to mark out a special Sunday to celebrate God as Trinity. God the Trinity is central to Christian life and worship, and, therefore, demands special attention as much as Christ’s Incarnation does or as the giving of the Holy Spirit does. Indeed, if one thinks about it for a moment, she or he will quickly realize that, if God were not a Trinity, then there would not be such a thing as the Incarnation of the Son, for there would be no Son of God to become incarnate. In short, there would be no Christmas, nor Easter either. There would be no Pentecost when the Spirit is given. There would, in short, be no Christian faith; at best, there would be some sort of generalized helper God – as there is in much of our culture.
Yet, despite this centrality of the Trinity to Christian life and worship, ministers and priests, if they are even brave enough to make observance of this Sunday, quake at the thought of having actually to say something meaningful about the Trinity. For most Christians, that God is a Trinity remains one of the most opaque of all the articles of the faith. But, that is really all the more reason, then, to take time to observe and reflect on the Trinity, for until we have laid hold of the fact that God is a Trinity, we will be like the three blind men who each grasped one part of an elephant. The one who had hold of the trunk thought it was a snake; the one who had hold of the leg thought he had a tree and the one who had hold of the tail thought he had a bush. Similarly, we may have the various parts of the Christian faith, but without understanding that it is God as the Trinity that makes them all cohere, we will mistake their overall nature, and probably not even get the parts right, either.
Now, I suspect that the reason that so many people, ministers included, shy away from trying to say anything about God as Trinity is the fact that God is one God, yet three persons, but not three gods, is a mystery. As such, no matter how long you talk, you aren’t going to enlighten people about how three equals one and one equals three. In fact, the longer you talk like this, the darker things tend to get. It doesn’t seem like there is much of anything that you can say that will shed light on the situation.
But, that is because trying to explain the Trinity with our poor language is a lot like trying to show people the sun in the sky by turning a flashlight on it. Explanations, like flashlights, are useful for illumining things that are darker than they are, but are not very helpful when the object is brighter than the light that they can shed. The fact of the matter is that, in the end, God’s nature is a lot brighter than we are and casts more light on us than we can ever cast on it. But that doesn’t mean that we know nothing about it. That God is a Trinity is not a secret about God that needs illumination by our rather poor lights. Rather, God’s nature is what sheds light on us and illumines our way. It is something that God has revealed, something that God has made known about God. It ought to illumine our talk, even if our talk can’t illumine it.
Consider plainly and simply why we talk about God as a Trinity in the first place. It is not because the Trinity is a theory that we came up with to test the outer limits of how far people are willing to believe without having a clue as to what they are confessing. Rather, we talk about God as a Trinity because we know, first of all, that there is a God, and that there is one God only. As St. Paul says, “ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things that he has made.” We also know such a God through his promises to and deliverance of Israel, and through the Law that is to make us holy as God is holy. But, we above all know God in Jesus Christ, who reveals what God is like to us. Avoiding any proofs of Christ’s divinity but the most obvious one, one philosopher simply observed that when she thought of Christ she couldn’t help but think of God. We know that Christ is not the same person as the one he called “Father,” for he prayed to the Father; he promised to make the Father known to us even as he felt the absence of the Father on the Cross; he was raised by the Father. We know that the Holy Spirit is not the same person as God the Son, for the Spirit is given to us by the Son precisely in order that we might become part of Christ’s life and thus be united in him with God the Father. None of that is a secret; we have been talking about it loudly and clearly for two thousand years.
That is not only out in the open, it is also illumining in the light it sheds on human life. The God we worship is a God who, while transcendent and awesome, is also a God who gives himself to us, who makes himself be known, and makes himself be known not so that we may be impressed but so that we may draw closer to him. In the way that God deals with us as the generous creator of all that is, and in the life, death, and rising of the Son, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are taught what the real ends of life are – that is, life in God. We are taught that God is with us and for us. We are also thus taught how we are to live in community with each other. We are not to use each other, but, as God does, we are to reveal ourselves to each other and be open, and most of all we are to give ourselves as gifts to each other. Were God different, the way that we should lead our lives would be different, too.
So, what we explain morally and spiritually begins here in these elemental things; they shed light on life. I think that is why it is so difficult to explain them. They are what lets us do well everything else we do. They are in a sense beyond words, but they are the very things that let us talk the way we do, and that is what makes them so hard to discover in words, for they always remain behind every word we speak truthfully. Marshall McCluhan once quipped that we don’t know who it was that discovered water, but we can be pretty sure that it wasn’t a fish. What he meant by that was that to fish water was simply the way things are. With respect to God, the Trinity is the way God is as we know God, and we should not worry too much about whether we can explain it. We should simply make it the spiritual air we breathe, and I dare say, if we do that we will find that it will make sense of everything else.
But that hardly means that we should take it for granted. This is not an indifferent matter, for if God has shown us this about God, if this is what God wants us to know, and if this is the way God wants us to talk, and if this is the way that God wants us to breathe, then we need to take it very seriously. For this reason, we particularly need to always keep in mind that whatever we say about God ought to be kept within the limits of what we know about God, which is to say within the limits of what God has shown us about God in creation and in the life, death and rising again of the Son, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit. We ought never to say less, and we ought not to say more.
I say this not just for general reasons, but also because it can make a very big difference to us now. American life has, since its very beginning, always been filled with talk of God, and that is no less true now. Candidates for office declare their religious sentiments, or obscure them as the case or their political need may be. We judge them on those statements. We worry about prayer in schools and public displays of religion. Conservatives openly declare what is God’s will; liberals loudly declare that there isn’t much we can know about God anyhow-- of that they are certain, and on that basis are willing to declare all religions as different ways to one end. Which is to say, they, too, think they have a clear idea of what God’s plan is.
Now, what strikes me about a lot of this talk in the public square is how ungodly it is. By that, I mean simply that at one and the same time it says too little about what we know about God, what God has told us about God, and it also says way too much. It says too little when the God it talks about is simply a creator of power and a dispenser of personal favors, a lawgiver, a designer, but essentially a God, who is no particular mystery since this god is simply human power and lust for power written large, very large indeed. This God is perhaps awesome, but is no particular mystery, although he is apparently capricious and inscrutable. This is not the Trinity whom we know in the beauty of creation, and also in the Son, the one who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” This is not the God whom we also know in the gift of the Spirit who brings us into God’s own life. This God being talked about so often and so glibly is largely a tribal god, but one that most primitives in fact would be ashamed to own up to.
All this talk that falls so short of what God has shown us about God says also, at the same time, way too much about God. This sort of talk declares far too confidently what God wants, as if God were a divine butler waiting on our needs. That happens on both the religious conservative and liberal sides, and it happens without anyone ever checking the only evidence we have of what God really wants, namely the history of how God has revealed himself in the Son and the Spirit.
Now, we cannot avoid the debates we have. Many of them are quite serious. We also need to recognize that there are some people who are talking in them who really do know what they are talking about, even if they are on different sides. Conservative Catholic bishops are talking with full knowledge about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and if liberal Christians disagree with them, there ought, at least, to be common ground on which to discuss things. There is on that common ground the possibility of at least understanding the other side better. But we also need to recognize that many people who are talking very loudly, and some of them may even be on our side, whatever side that is, and they do not know what they are talking about. Or, at least, we need to recognize that they are not talking about the same God as we do when we pray to God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For those are not just names, and they are not arbitrary. They are revelatory of the way it is with the God who deals with us in Jesus Christ. We need to talk about that. That is why we should also never take the Trinity we worship for granted. Even if it is in the air we breathe, and the way we talk, we need to learn how to talk thoughtfully about God, and to talk well.
We need, for example, whenever we hear talk about God to see it we can translate it into trinitarian language. We can begin to do so, simply whenever we hear talk about God, by asking what would Jesus the Son do? If the Son wouldn’t do it, and the Spirit wouldn’t give it, then you can be pretty sure that the one Jesus called Father didn’t propose it either. We can talk about God’s plan, but we do need to talk about God’s plan, not the plan we would like God to have. The only way to talk about God’s plan is to look what God has done in sending the Son and giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit. We know that plan – that God wants to draw us into his life. That is the Trinity. I don’t know about other plans.
Knowing what we do about the unknown God, we need to talk about God using the knowledge that God has given us in revealing God to us as a Trinity. Let that knowledge be a sharp sword that divides us from all false talk about God, and let it be God’s gift of love that we may be brought into God’s life, which is why God has made God known to us.