School is out, or soon will be, and that makes it time to do some real studying. When better than Trinity Sunday to apply our minds to the deeper mysteries of theology? To help me introduce this topic to you I am calling on the work of two eminent scholars. Tony Kelly is a modern Australian theologian whom I met a decade ago at St. Norbert College's Theological Institute. Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was a Christian apologist in Carthage, North Africa, around the year 200. Their thoughts, along with the words of Simon Peter's letter, help give substance to this morning's overview of the Trinity.
The Lord our God, the Lord is one. [Deuteronomy 6:4, NIV]
We believe in one God, yet we also talk about a Trinity. Christianity has always held fast to the monotheism of our Jewish ancestors. Jesus quoted this passage from Deuteronomy as the first of the commandments: "The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" [Deuteronomy 6:4-5, NIV].
Christianity maintains this belief in one God and has added even more emphasis on unity by our insistence that everyone and everything in the whole universe is united in this one God. The passage which returned most often to my mind as I was considering the theology of Trinity is this from the 4th chapter of Ephesians: "There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God and Father of all [hu]mankind, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all" [Ephesians 4: 5-6, TEV]. This unalterable monothesism is repeated throughout the epistles and by the Fathers of the church and it is echoed by theologians down to the present day.
Yet Jesus also talked about "my Father and I" and promised "the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send" [John 14:23, 26, TEV]. The apostle Peter in just one verse writes about being "chosen" by "God the Father", of being "made a holy people by his Spirit", and of being people who "obey Jesus Christ" [1 Peter 1:2, TEV].
"No one," writes Tony Kelly, "can reasonably deny that the Scriptures describe a divine communion of Father, Son, and Spirit" [page 181].
The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
The actors of those days didn't use microphones; instead they ware character masks with built-in megaphones. The technical term for this mask was persona (from sounding through the mask). from this word we have the phrase, "One God in 3 persons".
We believe in one God; how then can we talk about a Trinity? One of the easiest and most understandable answers is that God is one, but God comes to us in three ways. Centuries ago, this idea was expressed in terms of the parts an actor plays: One God, playing 3 parts.
We see this point of view in our liturgy for today. We have affirmed that "We know God as Father", as a loving parent "Who fills our lives with good things". We have claimed that "We know God as Jesus Christ, the Word who became a human being", who "has made God known". We have proclaimed that "We know God as the Holy Spirit, who reveals the truth about God." One God, known in 3 ways.
A similar approach is taken in our scripture from 1 Peter. God the Father gives us "great mercy" which shown in "new life". From this great gift grows "living hope" and confidence in the promise that we will be "kept safe" and receive "rich blessings". [1 Peter 1:3-5, TEV] This is a description of one character of God, the role of loving provider and protector. One way in which God interacts with us is as a loving Parent.
God is also known in the person of Jesus Christ. The passage from 1 Peter says that we "love him", which is true because, in Jesus, God relates to us as a friend. Such friendship gives rise to a "glorious joy". Through Jesus' love for us, we "are receiving salvation" [1 Peter 1:8-9, TEV] The second way in which God interacts with us is as a caring Friend.
Then again, God comes to us as Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspires our insight, our loyalty, our confidence, our courage. As Peter writes, the Spirit is "pointing", inspiring "careful search and investigation". The Spirit "revealed" and "announced" the truth from God. And the Spirit also brings "power", inspiring people to do God's will. [1 Peter 1:10-12, TEV] The third way in which God interacts with us is as inspiring Power.
One God comes to us in three roles, and in this way we learn about God. But this is Trinity Sunday, and I would be remiss if I did not delve deeper.
The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
"The limited expression of theology, inevitably linked to a linear exposition of what it understands, predictably gives the impression that each of the divine three is just one aspect of God," writes Tony Kelly. But this false. Kelly goes on to explain, "The Father is Love as infinite self-giving, hence all that God is. The Son is the expression of this self-giving, hence all that God is. The Spirit is God, lovingly and truthfully given, hence all that God is" [page 179]. We believe in one God, fully present to us.
If linear exposition is inadequate, then perhaps we should turn to more poetic language. Christianity has a rich tradition of using analogies to hint at things which we are unable to state directly. In our daily life we experience many things which, in lesser ways, exist only as a unity of three.
Our congregation's tradition is to light a single candle on the communion table. One candle, one flame, one God. But what is a flame? Is a flame made of the wax which has been melted and then vaporized by the heat? Is the flame really the heat and light which radiate throughout the room? Or is it the burning, which tranforms the fuel into heat? There can be no burning without the fuel. The wax will not vaporize without heat. The heat and light will die away unless the fuel is burned. Fuel, heat, and burning: Only together are they a flame.
I was in the woods, watching the river rippling over the rocks. What makes a river? On the side of the hill there are some seeps where the water comes out of the ground and flows down the side of the hill. These are not rivers, because there is no channel; the water just flows through and over the ground. At the base of the hill is an old riverbed, and along the old channel are some quiet pools. This is not a river, because the water no longer flows. There is no river without all three. Channel, water, flowing: Only together is there a river.
Et cum radius ex sole porrigitur, portio ex summa,
sed sol erit in radio, quia solis est radius
nec separator substantia sed extenditur.
[a matrice non recessit set excessit] …
Iste igitur dei radius, ut retro praedicabatur, delapsus in virginem quandam et in utero caro figuratus nascitur[,] homo deo mixtus. Caro spiritu instructa nutritur, adolescit, adfatur, docet, operatur et Christus est. [Tertullianus, xxi.11-14]
A third analogy is modified from an idea of Tertullian. At the center of our solar system, the sun is shining. From the sun, rays of light pervade the universe. When a ray of sunshine reaches earth, it warms and illuminates whatever it touches. In Tertullian's exposition, the sun is the source of light, like God the Father. The rays are like God's Spirit, pervading the universe; the Spirit is sent from the Father yet it is not separate, just as the ray of light is not separated from the sun. "This ray of God," Tertullian writes, touched "a certain young woman" and was shaped into a human body, "was born, grew up, prayed, taught, worked, and is Christ" [xxi.14]. Sun, rays of sunshine, illumination: Not one exists without the others. Father, Spirit, Savior: Not one exists without the others.
All these analogies help us to understand the mystery of the nature of God. Much more of our life is mystery than we usually admit, so it should not be surprising that God is mystery. In our everyday life, it isn't hard to find three things which, together, make something which does not exist except in their unity. Trinity is mystery, but mystery is part of our lives.
All these analogies help us to understand the mystery of the nature of God, but they do not explain it away. Tony Kelly reminds us that to someone fully conscious of the Mystery, "… trinitarian analogies seem too pat; they are too successful in explaining the mystery and deducing it from an all-too-knowable divine essence" [page 256].
Quod vero immensum est, soli sibi notum est. Hoc quod est, deum aestimari facit, dum aestimari non capit. [Tertullianus, xvii.3]
These analogies can't erase the ignorance we feel when faced with the reality of the unlimited God. Tertullian says, God "who is truly immeasurable, is known only to himself." In God's life, we find God and God and God. God is mystery, and we learn humility.
The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
The mystery of the Trinity is too profound for us to grasp or for us to contain it within our understanding. Every time I begin to get a picture in my mind I find that it dances away from me. I can never quite get a clear view. I'm not alone. Early theologians, frustrated (I believe) by their own efforts to hold an image of the Trinity, applied the Greek term perichoresis to God as Three-in-One.
Perichoresis: it just means "dancing around". What a happy way to express their frustration! For God's "dancing about" is purposeful and orderly. It is not the random movements of a dust particle in a sunbeam but a dance in which each person of the Trinity steps aside to show us the next. In the Dance of God we can watch love acted out. God is the One who dances Love for us.
Quod colimus, deus unus est. [Tertullianus, xvii.1]
Here we find a more profound meaning to the Trinity. "What we worship is One God" [Tertullian, xvii]. Yet it is also true that the Lord our God is a community, a living communion. We know God only through God's self-revelation – and God is revealed as Trinity. God's essential unity is revealed to us not in separateness but as mutuality. God's essential character is revealed to us not in static categories but as incessant activity, or rather as one single but unceasing act of self-revealing, self-communicating, self-giving love. In God's own self, at the very core of who God is, God is dancing Love.
I don't have any visual aids, no dancers to come up and dance the Trinity for you. (I do know a perichoreographer, but the Dance of God is a lot to ask of any artist.) So again I must ask your imaginations to help me. Imagine, as well as you can, God alone. But God, who contains the fullness of all things, is never alone in the way that we can be alone. We separate ourselves from God, but God is always with God. And God loves God and God lives Love and God gives love. And this is how I visualize the Dance of Love:
The Father, in love, yields place to the Son, who yields place to the Spirit, who yields back the the Father, who yields to his own Incarnation, who yields to his own Spirit, who yields to the Creator, who yields to the Savior, who yields to the Advocate, who yields to Self-giving Love, who yields to Saving Love, who yields to Upbuilding Love, who yields to the Father, who yields to the Son, who yields to the Spirit, who yields, in love.
So God reveals God. So God reveals Love. God, in God's own self-revelation, models for us what it means to live love. God is incessantly yielding about, and so we learn how to live.
Spirit of Love, we praise you in the long, tender care and dreaded letting-go of parenthood; we praise you through the years in all the moments of joy, fidelity and forgiveness of lovers content to grow old together. We praise you in the simple generosity of the young, and in the tentative wonder of sweethearts. Praise to you in the great passion of our prophets, in the lonely deep searching of our teachers, in all the humble tasks of those who awaken each morning to do the world's work with care and daily faithfulness.
Praise to you, too, most Holy Spirit, in the terrible bravery of those giving their lives in vast urgent human causes, for the protection of the weak, for the making of good laws, for the curing of disease, all for a better, more hopeful human way. … And praise to you for all the unsuspected, unknown loves and the dreadful toll of those dying uncomforted and forgotten save by your Love.
And praise to you in the incredible love of the countless poor who always have enough to share; and in the love of those who have treasured and defended our humanity when it was defenseless and fogotten by most of us. …
All of these loves I reverence, and to all such loves I join my own, with the hope that the great loves may enlarge and redeem the lesser, and that the pierced heart of all the world might unite us all in the one great ecstacy of Love, so to bring us joyfully to the light. …
American Bible Society. Good News Bible: Today's English Version. 1976.
International Bible Society. New International Version. 1984.
Kelly, Anthony. The Trinity of Love: A Theology of the Christian God. Michael Glazier, Inc., 1989. (The prayer on page 260 of this work is quoted from pages 55ff of Kelly's earlier work, Love Remains: A Meditation on Christian Love. Spectrum Publications, 1979.)
Tertullianus, Quintus Septimius Florens. Apologeticus. T.R. Glover, editor. Loeb Classical Library. G.P. Putnam's Sons, MCMXXXI. The English translations given here are my own.