For centuries, Christians have been wrestling with the idea of the Trinity, but in the end we have a God who cannot be contained.
Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
The Holy Trinity, year B
texts: Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17
The love and joy of the Triune God be with you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today being Trinity Sunday, I should stand before you and eloquently explain the doctrine of the Trinity, perhaps even using a three-leafed clover metaphor, as St. Patrick did centuries ago. On the surface, the idea of the Trinity seems pretty straightforward—three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. Simple enough, right?
The reality is that battles have been fought, and people have died, because of differences in understanding this core element of our faith. There are many heresies defined by particular ways of describing the Trinity, and the eastern and western churches are still divided in part by nuances in this doctrine. And yet the Trinity stands, and we confess it here at Mount Olive each week in the creeds. “We believe in one God, the Father the Almighty . . . . We believe in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord . . . . We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life . . . .”
I am sure you will be relieved to hear that I will not attempt today to sort out the two millennia of conversations, and arguments, and councils that have wrestled with the question of the Trinity. Far more important for us here today, I believe, is what does the Trinity mean for us? Why does it matter?
Although the word “trinity” never appears in scriptures, the images in our readings for today reveal a lot about the Triune God. In Isaiah and the psalm, we hear about God called Lord, seated on a throne, surrounded by seraphs singing “Holy, holy, holy!” Isaiah is surrounded by the majesty of God, and feels completely inadequate. This is God, Lord of the Universe, deserving of glory, before whom none of us, truth be told, are quite ready to stand. The full majesty of God makes us quake in our boots, at least a little bit.
The power of God revealed in waves crashing on the ocean, in the flashes and crashes of powerful storms, in the silent formidable presence of enormous trees centuries old. God’s majesty surrounds us, overwhelms us, and although it touches us, we can’t quite bear to touch it. It is no wonder that Isaiah’s first response is, “Woe is me! I am unclean, and yet I have seen the Lord!” And it is a miracle of grace that prepares Isaiah, so that he cries “Here am I. Send me!” And God invites not just Isaiah, but us, you and me, to go out for him, to witness to his glory!
Jesus tells Nicodemus about God-in-flesh, God who comes to us in human form so that we can have life, be saved. God loves us enough to give us God’s very self, to be in relationship with us, on our terms. And in that relationship, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, our brokenness is redeemed, and our joy is made complete.
God enters fully into our suffering, as well as our joy. God-in-flesh embraces our grief at the death of a loved one, and shows us through the resurrection that death will not be the final word. God enters our joy at the birth of a child, revels with us in the beauty of creation. God sits with us, eats with us, laughs with us, cries with us. Because God revealed Godself to us in Jesus, we know that God is not only majesty and splendor and power, but intimately involved in our everyday life. Because God became fully human, we know we are never alone. We have a God who understands what it is to be human!
The Spirit is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Trinity for us to understand. It’s like trying to capture . . . well, the wind! “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” The Spirit empowers us to recognize who we are as children of God, and it is only through the Spirit that we call God Abba, Father. The Spirit in breath brings life to dry bones in the desert, anoints and calls the apostles in fire at Pentecost, calls Jews and Gentiles alike to baptism in the days of the early church. “The wind blows where it chooses . . .”
Revealed in the Trinity, our God is all these things for us—majesty and power, a fellow traveler intimately acquainted with our human experience, one who tells us who we are and empowers us to witness to the world. There are three persons in our one God. And when these persons come together in the one God, something happens that goes far beyond division of labor, each person filling their appointed role. It cannot be adequately captured in any one metaphor, although I am sure you can imagine that doesn’t stop me from trying!
In Quest for the Living God, Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson describes the Trinity as three persons in a dance that never ends. “The three circling around in a mutual dynamic movement of love, God is not a static being, but a plentitude of self-giving love, a saving mystery that overflows into the world of sin and death to heal, redeem, and liberate.”
Johnson presents an image of God in relationship with Godself, equal, fully grounded in love. This is the motivation for creation—God did not create the world to follow law or to do God’s will, but to be in loving relationship with God and the rest of creation. And the Triune God is a God of constant movement, changing, circling, over-flowing. As hard as we may try to neatly define the persons in the Trinity and understand it, God will not be contained.
Paul tells us that we have been given a Spirit of adoption. We are not slaves, but adopted as children of God. The Triune God who is constantly creating, moving, loving, healing, inspiring, transforming. We have been adopted not just as children of God the Father, and not just as brother of Jesus, but adopted into this creative, moving, loving, healing, inspiring, transforming Trinity. We are adopted into the love that overflows into our broken world.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses . . . and so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” We are adopted into the Trinity, and we are called to follow the Spirit where it chooses. Not to understand, not to define, certainly not to limit—for ours is a God who will not be so easily contained. We are children of the Triune God, and we follow the wind.
Thanks be to God.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2007), 213-214.