Trinity Sunday (A)
11 June 2017
As we transition from the Great Fifty Days of Easter to the long season of ‘Ordinary Time’, we pause to observe Trinity Sunday: the Feast of the Holy and Blessed Trinity.
One of the ways in which this holy day differs from almost every other religious festival, is that it commemorates a doctrine rather than an event or a person.
This commemoration is observed differently in the East and West of the Church.
For those of us in the West, its contemporary observance stems from the decision of Pope John XXII (1316–1344 CE). It tends to have the character of a philosophical and theological puzzle. A religious Rubik’s Cube. Is anyone in the room smart enough to solve this puzzle?
In the Eastern Church—and especially in the Middle East—this is more of an existential challenge than an intellectual puzzle.
For Christians in Jerusalem and Nazareth this is something that cuts to heart of their identity. As Christians, as communities of the Triune God, this is a core belief that defines who they are, where they live, who they may marry, and where they will be buried—as well as much else in between. This doctrine marks them as targets for ISIS as well as the victims of hate attacks by Jewish extremists.
For me this is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have learned about God in the months since Advent Sunday. What have we learned about Jesus in that time? What have we learned about the Holy Spirit? How has our understanding of discipleship matured and changed?
If we tried to express this as mathematical formula, it may look as follows:
Advent + Christmas + Epiphany + Lent + Holy Week + Easter + Pentecost = x
The doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian variable after all we have experienced in this series of religious observances over several months in the first half of the Christian Year. From the perspective of Christian faith, the ‘value’ which equates to all these moments of revelation and religious experience is the realisation that we can best speak about God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.
Such a formula does not resolve all our questions, but it is the best we can do in light of the Christian mystery. To say anything less about God would be to deny one or more aspect of revelation and experience during these past several months.
God the Father
As I reflect on what we have experienced of the divine mystery these past several months, I am conscious of a deep immersion in the truth of Immanuel (“God with us”, in Hebrew).
Not only God with us, but also God for us. Indeed, God as one of us.
And more than that, God-not-faraway, distant and remote. But rather, God deeply embedded in human experience. Perhaps better: humanity enmeshed in the web of life, with God at its eternal heart.
As Christians, we can no longer think of God apart from Jesus who taught us to imagine God as our father.
Jesus has changed how we think of God.
We cannot imagine God apart from Jesus, and we cannot think of Jesus apart from God.
God the Son
Just as Jesus changes how we think of God, so we find it impossible to grasp the significance of Jesus without using God language.
This, of course, is where we part ways with Jews and Muslims.
Their experience of revelation and grace does not require them to think of God when they consider the significance of Jesus, nor to acknowledge Jesus when they think of God.
But we do, as that is the necessary result of our Christian experience of revelation and grace in the person of Jesus.
As Christians, we have a particular experience of God, and it centres on Jesus: the first-century Galilean Jew who we have learned to recognise as the ‘human face of God’.
God the Holy Spirit
The earliest Christian communities discerned a shared experience of the Spirit of God. This was what made them communities of hope and transformation, and this is the core religious experience at the very heart of our faith as Christians.
In the end, we are not simply people with particular ideas about God. Nor are we essentially people who appreciate the wit and wisdom of Jesus.
Either would be a good basis for a life lived with integrity and holy intention. Together those two orientations powerfully shape lives that are ‘holy’ and ‘true’.
But the heart of the Christian faith is much more.
It is a shared experience of the Spirit of God, the Spirit that penetrates and animates everything that exists. And it is always and necessarily a shared experienced, a community event. It always ‘we’, rather than ‘me’.
Like us, most of the earliest Christians had never met Jesus and knew almost nothing about him as a person. What they had in common was not knowledge about Jesus, but a shared experience of the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Life.
This is the profound mystery referenced in the familiar words of The Grace:
“… and the fellowship (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit be with you …”
This sacred Spirit at work among us, between us, and within us, is nothing less than the Spirit of God that brings all life into existence. But it is also the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of the Risen Lord among us: as Paul says in a mostly overlooked section of 1 Corinthians 15:
“… the last Adam became a life-giving spirit …” (1Cor 15:45)
The trinitarian circle is completed by the dynamic presence of the Spirit of God, who is also the Spirit of Jesus, and who is also the risen Lord among us.
For that reason, we are people of the triune God. We can do no less.
God remains always beyond our words.
But God is never absent from our hearts, nor from our shared experience of the depth dimension of life.