At first glance the three readings for Trinity Sunday do not appear to have a single thread, but together they provide three continuous points on the line of how the idea of Trinity developed. (The concept as we now think of it was only fully defined in the Council of Nicaea in 325.)
The writers of the Hebrew scripture, the epistles and gospels wrote to express the truth about God as they had experienced it. Their descriptions sometimes strain at the limits of language because they were trying to express a mystery for which no language existed.
When we read these passages today, informed by teaching and tradition, we can see references more clearly perhaps than the original authors did as they tried to express the different ways that they saw God’s work in the world. Yet we still experience mystery.
Isaiah 6:1-8 deals with the glory of the “One God”. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
After the angels cleansed Isaiah’s lips with a burning ember from the altar fire I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
The use of the plural pronoun us has no antecedent plural noun. It suggests that the Iin whom shall I send, is a “collective singular”. Many have parsed the words as alluding to a Trinitarian God, but in a way that the author did not understand. He simply recorded the vision as he recalled it. (Others have read “us” as referring back to both God and the seraphs.)
In Romans 8:12-16 Paul writes of the role of three persons. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.
As Paul tells it, the Spirit of God is a distinct and holy entity who works with each person to express his or her relationship to God the Father.
Paul’s intent was not to explain the theology of the Trinity. His purpose was to convince his readers that they, and we, share in Christ’s relationship to the Father as children of God through the work of the Spirit. He simply describes his experience of the three manifestations of God asFather, Spirit and Christ and sketches their affiliation in support of that argument. It is clear from this description that the Father, Son and Spirit work together to bring us into relationship and are intimately connected to one another.
John writes about Jesus’ self-understanding through his conversation with Nicodemus in the gospel for Trinity Sunday. (John 3:1-17) As with the previous passages in today’s readings the words live in a cloud of mystery that gives us some insight but still obscures the full meaning.
…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. … 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” …
Jesus does not elaborate on who the Spiritis, how she works, what her relationship is to God or what it means to be born of the Spirit. Still, we understand that there is a close connection between the kingdom of God, and this new birth in the Spirit.
Jesus continues, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; … No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. With these allusive words, Jesus assures Nicodemus that he has seen God and knows of what he speaks. The idea of seeing God and coming to earth to communicate his message was a significant claim in the Jewish world. Only great saints such as Abraham and Moses had done so.
Then Jesus adds, And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life… The snake became the source of life when Moses lifted up a bronze image of the snake so all the Israelites who looked on this reviled image could be saved from death by the bites of actual snakes. (Numbers 21:1-9) With these words, Jesus also foretold his own death as a reviled person who would nonetheless give life to those who look at him and believed.
More significantly for Trinity Sunday Jesus added, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life… He identifies himself as the self-giving Son of God who promises eternal life to all who believe in him.
Taken together these passages present an image of God as one who is lovingly related to the Spirit and Christ…and significantly, to us. The connection between them is the relationship of multiple persons to one God. Yet the mystery remains: how can this be.
- How do you think of the Trinitarian God? A shamrock, a la St. Patrick? A triangle? Something else?
- What is your dominant image of God? An old bearded man in a white robe? A dove? Jesus? Is it an image of plural persons? Something else? This image is significant as life’s circumstances and gender can affect how one prays.
- How would you talk about the Trinity if you were to give the children’s talk on Sunday morning?