May 27, 2018
The Trinity as a theological doctrine emerged from the disciples’ and early Church experience:
The disciples had experienced Jesus as a window onto God, in such a way that they could say, “In this man and his life we see God.” It wasn’t a planned theological step so much as a surprise. Think of Thomas, who, on being convinced that Jesus was really raised from the dead, blurts out in astonishment, “My Lord… and my God!!!”
And the early Christians came to understand that Jesus wasn’t God’s presence with us just once as a rescue mission, but was the eternal face of Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Similarly, after Jesus’ life on earth the early Christians experienced that the Holy Spirit was reconnecting them with Jesus, making his presence felt again. And they came to see that that same Spirit had always been moving within creation.
Creeds were later developed to define the doctrine of the Trinity, during times of battles for orthodoxy, e.g. with Arianism which maintained that Jesus was human and not fully divine; and with Docetism which held that Jesus was divine and only seemed to be human. The creeds attempted to spell out the Trinity, including the dual nature of Jesus as both fully human and fully divine, using philosophical concepts from a Greek context.
But what is the relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity to us now? The creeds that define it contain baffling language to modern ears. A colleague of mine once asked the people in a church service to stand for the creed, but then to sit down when they didn’t understand or agree with any word or phrase of it, and virtually everyone ended up sitting down.
But the core of Trinitarian doctrine is abidingly important for Christians to this day. It affirms, first, that Christians don’t believe in a vague “Something out there,” but in a God who is in relationship with us and all things; a God always loving us and reaching out to us.
It affirms that we don’t believe in a divine Christ who pretended to be human but wasn’t actually one of us, nor in a human Jesus who was just a great teacher: we believe in Jesus Christ – human yet filled with the divine, divine yet enfleshed among us.
And it reminds us that Christians don’t have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, because we believe in a Spirit who is, as the Nicene Creed says, “The Lord, the giver of [all] life”, the One who spoke and continues to speak through the prophets of each age – the inspirer of all wise and holy people.
But in the end, the Trinity has to be personal for us and experienced in our own day and our own way, just as the Trinity emerged in early Christianity through people’s surprised experience: “My Lord and my God!!”
I remember being driven as a child with my family through the beautiful, majestic highlands of Scotland when I was about ten, and as I gazed out of the window at this incredible beauty that I’d never seen before, it touched me deep deep down with the realization that this was God’s creation, God’s gift, and the truth of God’s existence as creator entered into me at a whole new level.
My experience of God coming to me as Christ was later. I wasn’t raised in a faith tradition that emphasized having a personal relationship with Jesus, so although I believed in him and knew all the stories, it was at arm’s length. What changed that was a period of terrible grief after my mother’s death, when my prayers hadn’t saved her and God didn’t fix it, but I experienced Jesus sitting down and weeping with me. God in Christ entering into my grief and sharing it, and ultimately healing it.
And my experience of the Holy Spirit has been forged over decades now of silent contemplative prayer – sometimes on retreat, almost daily in the morning with David – when I just sit and breathe, with no special words or intentions, and I become aware again, time after time, of the Holy Spirit breathing and praying within me; enabling me to carry on; strengthening me; joining me to the whole of creation that carries that flickering flame of the Spirit of God deep inside.
So the Trinity has become very personal for me. The theological concepts and words don’t matter so much. And I’m sure if I asked you how you’ve experienced God, the Holy, the Divine, Jesus, Spirit, you’d have stories to tell and moments to share as well.
That is our celebration this Trinity Sunday: this God whom we know as Father, Son, Holy Spirit and so much more, in a rich variety of ways. This God who creates, who walks with us, and who kindles a flame of longing within us. Notice how that’s