If you are a veteran of Sunday school or, perhaps, a graduate of a class that sought to get you ready for baptism or confirmation, you may have had the experience of encountering that diagram that maps out the Trinity. Do you know the one? If you aren’t familiar with it – or if you can’t quite remember it – don’t worry: turn to the back of your leaflets and, there, you will find it printed.
Here is a triangle. And here in the middle of it is the word God. Orbiting God, on the three points of the triangle, are the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Running between each of these three words and the word God is a double-ended arrow or, sometimes, as in this case, simple a line or a pathway. And in the middle of those three arrows or lines we find the word is. So, the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God.
On the exterior of the triangle, there is a second set of bi-directional pathways or arrows, each arrow running between the members of the Trinity. These are arrows of negation, they are labeled is not. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and so on.
You can cross-reference whichever way you like. Let’s take the example of the Holy Spirit, that frequently neglected member of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is God. And yet She is not the Son or the Father. The same pattern holds true when you examine the other two names on the outside of the triangle.
And now you understand the Trinity.
There are times when I have looked at this diagram and wondered if it was Christianity’s answer to Hans Christian Anderson’s 19th-Century parable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, if it was a kind of test. I thought: Dare I be the one in the catechumenate or the inquirer’s class to put my hand up and say, “I don’t understand”? Do you need to have the bravery of a child to be the one to blurt out the theological equivalent of, But the Emperor is naked! and say:
But this diagram doesn’t make any sense!
Now, at one level, this diagram really doesn’t make any sense – and nor, for that matter, does the reality that it describes: the Trinity. Here’s the hard part for us living in 2016. The level at which this diagram doesn’t make sense is precisely the level at which, today, we spend most of our time, it is precisely the level which we most privilege. This diagram doesn’t work as a fact or formula or data or even as a hypothesis. There isn’t – and I’m going to go out on a limb and prognosticate that there never will be – a peer-reviewed study that gives us the answer “Trinity.”
If basic math is explained well enough to you – say, 1 + 2 or 27 ÷ 9 – you can say: Yes. Yes I understand. Yes that’s true. Yes that’s predictable. The answer in both cases is “three.” The Trinity, however, refuses to be factual, it refuses to be predictable. Is the answer to the question that the Trinity poses “three”? Well, yes. But hold on, isn’t the answer to the question that the Trinity poses “one”?
Let’s back up a little. Let’s see if we can find a place of deeper meaning, a place where the Trinity makes a little more sense. A place where it is true.
Among the great stones that build the foundations of Christian faith – think of God’s creation of the earth, think of the Exodus from Egypt, think of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – the Trinity is unique in two significant ways. First, it isn’t unequivocally Biblical. Today is Trinity Sunday and, thus, our readings are focused on this holy triangle, on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But notice that none of the readings explicitly use the term “Trinity” and nor do any of them explicitly describe the reality that we see in our diagram. And that’s because, well, there aren’t any readings like that in scripture. It’s quite possible that, if you were to learn ancient Greek and borrow a time machine, you could go to visit Paul and say, “Tell me about the Trinity.” And Paul would respond:
“What do you mean?”
The second thing that sets the Trinity apart from the rest of the foundational elements of Christianity is that it isn’t a story. Or let me amend that, because this is where I’d like to spend some time with you this morning, the Trinity isn’t a story as we conventionally understand stories. The stories of Creation, of the Exodus, of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, have a rhythm, a plot, they more or less have a beginning, middle, and an end. So:
God created, and it was good, and God rested.
Jesus saw that the people were hungry, he shared food with them, and there was food left over.
The women came to the tomb and they saw that it was empty and they shared the news with everyone.
The Trinity doesn’t have that kind of plot. But I do want to suggest that it is a story nonetheless. It is a story that our ancestors in faith left for us about who God is. It is a story that is Christianity’s very best effort to respond scripture and, as importantly, to respond to our ongoing encounter with God.
Christians tried out some other stories first. They tried out a story in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were each God at different times in history (the Father is God in the Old Testament, Jesus is God in the Gospels, the Holy Spirit is God now). But that somehow didn’t work, it wasn’t true. And so they tried a story in which each of the three were different modes or forms of God, much as water can be a solid, a liquid, or a gas. But that story didn’t work either. And so they came up with the story that we remember and celebrate today, the story that we call the Trinity.
The Trinity is a story about paradox, about relationship, and about motion.
Paradox. The story of the Trinity is paradoxical because, as we’ve already discovered, no matter how hard you try, you cannot confine it to the realm of the intellect, you cannot make sense of it with your head alone. The Trinity is a bit like a Zen Kōan (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “Without thinking of good or evil, show me the face of your mother and father before you were born”). One of the things that the Kōan which is the Trinity says is this: God is always more than we can name or measure or contain or control. The Trinity declares that, as that brilliant and difficult old Saint, Augustine, put it, “If you understand it, it’s not God.” The Kōan, the parable, the paradox, the story which is the Trinity declares that God is not a puzzle to be solved, but rather is a mystery to be encountered.
Relationship. Notice in our diagram that everything – or everyone – is pointing at or flowing towards everything and everyone else. Everyone is in relationship with everyone else. The story of the Trinity says that God is who God is because of relationship. Together, the three persons who are one combine to make this holy triangle. (Forgive me if this is awkward or incoherent: we are at or beyond the limit of what human language can express right now. As one of my mentors says, “When I speak to you, I have to use words.”) I wonder if this relationship is what 1John is getting at what it declares that “God is love.” The story of the Trinity says that God is always reaching outside and beyond Godself, God is always seeking to connect. And that brings us to:
Motion. I’ve wondered sometimes if the Trinity was what was TS Eliot was getting at when, in Four Quartets, he wrote of “the still point of the turning world” and then (speaking of paradox) he went on to add, “there the dance is.” Here at the very centre of things, at the still point, is God. And here as well is the dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are not frozen in the past, they are not frozen in scripture, they are dancing right now. The story of the Trinity is that God is on the move. Notice that our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, tends to refer to our tradition as the “Episcopal Branch of the Jesus movement.”
If this thing we call church is, at its core, about trying our very best to be like Jesus, then the story of the Trinity is a big deal for you and me. Because being like Jesus means participating in the story of the Trinity. It means honouring this story, it means being a part of of paradox, relationship, and motion.
The paradox of the Trinity says that, yes, we are individuals, yes we are unique, yes we are the authors of our own stories, yes we are by ourselves on the outside of the triangle. And it says that, simultaneously, we are One we are an integral part of a bigger story, a story that involves every other living thing. The relationship of the Trinity says, Yes, You and I are called to me our brother’s keeper, You and I are called to be neighbour to the one who lies wounded on the side of the road, You and I are called to visit and clothe and feed the least of these. And the motion of the Trinity says that the work of God is something that is happening right now, something that is changing and growing and getting ever more wondrous, it is something that you and I are invited to move with.
The Trinity declares that the still point of the turning world is everywhere and, therefore, that it is here. This, this is where the dance is.