(Photo compliment of Litchfield, Manchester)
The doctrine of the Trinity is believed and embraced faithfully by most Christians regardless of the denominational tradition. This doctrine, whether we understand it or not is central to our worship and ministry
Over the years theologians have struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity. Some of the questions which have been mooted are, Are there three Gods or one? Was Jesus a creation of God, but not really God? Are there three different modes in which God appears to humanity? Some of the responses to these and numerous other questions about the Godhead have led to great heresies within the church, and even today the church is not short of these heresies and heretics as we seek to make sense of this doctrine. The church regrettably is so polarized around these differences making the ecumenical dream of unity a nagging nightmare.
Whereas the scripture does not offer a systematic study of the Trinity, there are clear references to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Matthew 28:19, when Jesus commissioned his disciples to “ Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…,” and also 2Cor 13:14, where the Apostle Paul ended his letter to the Corinthian Church with the benediction, The Grace of The Lord Jesus Christ, The love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you . This doctrine of the Trinity can be regarded as the outcome of a process of sustained critical reflection on the testimony of scripture, confirmed by ongoing Christian experiences within the church over the years.
As the church has embarked on this journey of making sense of the teachings of scripture and its lived experience, a journey we can admit has never been easy. For the words, formulas and concepts coined over the years as a way of giving expression to our understanding that God is three yet one are always going to attempt to say something which is not only a logical impossibility, but a mystery which our human language cannot competently express. I recalled one Friday evening as I was at the Chaplain’s office at the University, and heard an agitated knock on the glass door of the office. I was not expecting anyone but low and behold there were about four or five students standing outside who pounced on me with the question, ‘Chaplain, how can we say there is one God and that Jesus is God when the Bible says that Jesus prayed to the Father? Immediately I thought, for these students, this was a heavy one, in responding I indicated, that yes indeed this was a difficult doctrine but was based on the bible’s teaching, of God being Father, God being Son and God being the Spirit. But how can that be they asked, as that is three persons and not one. I wasn’t sure what faculty they were from, but I used the illustration of the molecular formula H2O, which is water at room temperature, ice or solid when frozen and gas when heated, to illustrate the point. Three distinct expressions but the same basic formula. By no means was this a perfect picture of the Trinity, but it provided in a limited way a concept we can work with even as we try to understand the mystery of the Trinity. This seemed to have satisfied them for the moment and they left with something to think about.
In seeking to understand the mystery of the Trinity, some believers may wonder, why God seems to confuse us in this way. Or ask, does God want us to fail or miss the point? Clearly, that could not be God’s intention, the very opposite is more like it, as the Trinity is God’s way of demonstrating God’s love. It is God’s chosen way to redeem, to reconcile and to restore humanity to fellowship with Himself. So before you think confusion, even if you cannot understand, think Love. This is God’s way. St Paul Got a sense of this long before the Creed was formulated in the 4th century, as in writing to the vexed Corinthians, and appealing for unity he offers, the unity of the triune God as the basis for unity in the Corinthian Church. He appeals for unity instead of disunity or discord. He appealed to the church to let the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that condition of privilege and relation, that favour and acceptance with God, be given priority. May that grace of Christ which no one could earn or deserve, banish self- assertiveness, and self –seeking, two of the attitudes which create disunity in a community. This grace was shown by Christ in living and dying for mankind.
It is the love of God the Father, declares the apostle, that puts attitudes like jealousy and anger to flight. These are no good for a healthy vibrant, whole community. This is the love which Paul speaks of was demonstrated in the death of Christ. God commended his love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died (Rom 5:8).
It is the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity who creates koinonia (fellowship), among the brethren; such fellowship has no room to accommodate quarrelling or factions as was being experienced in the Corinthian Church.
This benediction of Paul highlighting the triune God, underlines some characteristic of the triune God which I believe are instructive for us as a church today. I want to suggest just two of them
- The Trinity reflects a community which demonstrates how God chooses to be and to reveal Godself to the world.
- The second characteristic of the Godhead that is instructive and inspirational for the church is the Communication of God’s Love.
The Trinity is about community- a community of beings, of closely connected persons whose relationship is characterised by equality, harmony and mutual self-giving. Each member of the Trinity is a distinct person, yet none is greater than the other as each works together in harmony and in mutual self-giving. When you read in Philippians that Jesus the son did not think that his position was something to hold unto, but he emptied himself of all he had, he became poor so that we might be rich. The principle of equality in the Godhead is important to understand in a world where hierarchy is critical in institutions, in organizations and even in the church. It’s an important virtue to embrace where favouritism goes with economic, social and even political status. It’s necessary to affirm the value of equality in a society where persons are valued or devalued by so many manmade categories designed to deliberately discriminate.
The community of the Trinity offers a model of how communities can be constructed and sustained. It’s a community that highlights relationships. The relationship of the members of the Godhead facilitates the Unity of the triune God. This relationship highlights the value and worth of each member of a community. For the church, It demonstrates the gifts each brings to the community and indicates that there is a place for everyone in the community. For the church, relationships cannot be overlooked or given a minor place. Healthy relationships hold a community together. A healthy relationship where each member feels valued and included will contribute to community sustainability.
It is very easy for church communities to become little sacred ghettos, where there is constant navel gazing, or where it allows the selfie mentality to become a normal way of being and behaving. When a church focuses on itself not with a critical eye to determine what can be changed but to look at itself for celebration and praise, “selfie’, it can become dysfunctionally exclusive and sectarian, and alienate those who could become potential members. The relational understanding of the Trinity must allow the church to ask, is there space for the other? Is there space for those who are different, who according to Paul are aliens, foreigners, and strangers? Is there a place for those who may not be perceived to be an elite club, who do not speak in tongues, who prefer to worship quietly, who may be differently abled?
The community of the Godhead suggests that there should be no barriers to relationships. That the relational model in facing the world should be hospitality rather than hostility; that the church should be attending to the stranger bruised and battered by greed and lack of self-control, rather than passing by on the other side; that the church as a community must be engaged in the construction of bridges, not walls. By saying this we can see how the community of the Godhead challenges not only the church but the wider society. Harmonious relationship not only among humans, but humans and the non-human environment is more sustainable than exclusive and exploitative ones.
This is God’s chosen way to communicate His love to the world. It might seem complicated. It might seem confusing, but this is the way God chooses to assure humanity of God’s love and forgiveness. The Trinity is God’s way of communicating the divine purpose. It is God’s way of communicating God’s mission. The mission is at the very heart of God, it is this love which binds together the Holy Trinity which overflows to all humanity and the rest of creation.
Driven by love God the Father has consistently reached out to rescue fallen and estranged humanity. God has spoken through the Patriarchs, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and through the judges and the prophets. Challenging men and women to repent of their sinful ways and drawing them back to Himself. God subsequently came to earth Himself to dwell among men, to live among us and to offer a new way of living and to reconcile us to Himself. Christ died and rose again to demonstrate the depth and extent of God’s love. Then the Holy Spirit came as sanctifier of the church.
In a nutshell, we are saying that the Trinity marked by self-emptying, self-sacrificial and self-giving love, was God’s perfect plan of salvation for lost humanity. The Trinity was God’s sacrificial way of saying to the world, I love you, I want you to come back to me, I want you to experience eternal life, and I will spare no effort to make you aware of my love.
The Trinity then is our source of motivation and inspiration to take God’s mission into the world. When Jesus gave the great command to his disciples to add members to the church and be engaged in disciple making, He also reminded the Church of God’s eternal presence through the Spirit. It seems so hard to get this message over, but that’s what God desires.
As the church communicates God’s Love she must not be restricted or limited in any way by its physical and social realities. No human element should be a barrier or hindrance. God found a way and God invites us, sends us and assures us He will always be with us.
The church is without excuses then. The church must find a way within a pluralistic, postmodern, secular culture- to get this message across. Where children are abused daily and are trafficked for material gain; where gangs use deadly weapons against each other daily and where kids have developed just one way of settling conflicts- violence. It's imperative that the church finds a way. God sends us, in an ever growing digital age, where technology is not a setback but an opportunity; not our master, but can become our servant, we must find a way and we must not stop as God is with us.
So the Trinity offers a model of God’s desired community, marked by equality, harmony and mutual self-giving; it demonstrates how God communicates God’s love, let us practice what we have seen, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
(Christ For Today – June 11 2017 – Rev. Trevor Edwards)