Today marks a day that can worry many pastors and preachers: how on earth am I going to preach about the Trinity! And throughout history, people have hauled out many analogies: there’s the three leaf clover where each leaf is to symbolize the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But of course, this is sort of problematic because that suggests that God is somehow three separate things. Then there’s the analogy of the egg: there’s the shell, the white part, and the yoke; but again, same problem, it suggests that God is actually three separate substances, or things.
So people decided on another analogy (and this one is probably my favorite because I was hugely into the Transformers as a kid). If you know anything about the Transformers, you know there was this character named Optimus Prime. Now Prime, as he was called, could transform between three different types of things: a robot, a command center (where all the transformers hung out to plan how to defeat the Decepticons), and finally, a transport truck. Now the problem with this analogy – in terms of applying it to God – is that it suggests that God is one thing – the Father, in the Old Testament, then he sort of transforms into something completely different when the Son is born into our world becoming incarnate, and doing ministry here on earth. And then finally, he transforms to become a third thing: the Holy Spirit who does some other stuff like makes people speak in other languages or leads people into some new truth. So God becomes sort of like this ‘transformer’ always becoming something new.
And here’s the thing. It really took people quite a while (hundreds of years and several really anger filled councils) to figure out exactly how God who claims to be one, could be encountered in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I mean, let’s face it, when you hear or when we pray the collects or the offertory prayer before communion, or the prayer after communion or the blessing at the end of the service and you hear, ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, surely it must sound like either we’re praying to three different gods, or to a god that can change forms at different times in different places right?
I don’t think that it’s actually possible to understand how God can be one and yet three. But our Church has insisted that God is one substance, one being who is simultaneously three Persons. This means that all three Persons we name in the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are identical, except that they are not each other. Confusing right!! I think that ultimately we have to hold this a little bit loosely because we don’t have any analogy (a comparison, that is, with any created things) that can make sense of who God is, because there is no one or nothing like God in any way. He is completely unique and unchanging. He doesn’t become who he is by moving from Father to Son to Holy Spirit, or showing up in history in these forms or persons. He is, who he is, as He himself says to us in Exodus: I am who I am, eternally unchanging. So our trying to compare him to someone or something else isn’t really going to help us.
Now the Orthodox have this really helpful way then, of thinking about God. Because we can’t compare him to anything or anyone else, the Orthodox said, okay well then how can we know God. And some brilliant theologian amongst them said, well, we can say what God is not. In theology this is known as apophatic knowledge: defining what God is not. So we’ve already said that unlike all the things he’s created, he doesn’t change; he is not becoming something else, which would imply that he was imperfect and had to come to perfection. We can say that he is not impotent in what he created. What he made will come to pass because he is perfect, what he made is perfect, and so because he is our maker, he will bring what he made to its perfection. He is not created and therefore he is not finite. Because he alone simply is, without having been created by something else, we can say that he is the creator of all that is, the sustainer of all that is and the one who brings everyone of us to perfection just how he made us.
Now see this stuff is actually really important. It’s not abstract and it’s not philosophy: it’s actually the testimony of Scripture itself. This is what the early Church was doing at the councils: it was reading Scripture and saying, how can we make sense of this God whom the Scriptures tell us about. How can we love the one God and no other gods (how can we make sense of this in light of Father, Son/Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit we find in Scripture), how can we love neighbor and enemy (who is our neighbor when we are not of the same race, religion, language, culture, etc; and aren’t we supposed to destroy our enemies, what sense of this are we to make given the testimony of our Scriptures). This is why it took our Church hundreds of years even to come up with the Creeds that we read: it took hundreds of years to make sense of God’s testimony about himself that is recorded in the Scriptures. And guess what, the Church has had to examine these Scriptures and our testimony about who God is and how he calls us to act and react in every age, again and again and again, for God is the sole and eternal source for us to understand who we are at any moment in time, as our creator, our sustainer, our redeemer and our final end.
So what does this mean for you and I here and now. What importance does this seemingly so abstract idea of the Trinity have for us. Well one reason we say the creeds, along with reading Scripture every week, is because we need to remind ourselves continually, given our changing contexts, who God is, and who God is not. Let’s imagine for a moment that we fell into thinking that God was actually three different things – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit representing our present. You see one of the things we could easily do, or claim is that the Holy Spirit is leading us into our personally chosen truth. And guess what, this has been done throughout history in the early centuries by the Montanists, in the medieval period by spiritualists who thought a third age of the Spirit had arrived, and at present, the Holy Spirit has been turned into a bit of a ‘choose your own adventure’ book where individuals and Churches all claim that he is leading them into their own personal perspective of what the truth is:, using church funds to buy a giant yacht, being the only group to recognize the end times, or leading someone to choose whether or not to marry someone or go to grad school or pick a stock, etc.
Apophatic theology – thinking about what God is not so we can figure out what we can say about who he is – can really help us here. You see it presses us back into the Scriptures where we find God with his people. Does the Holy Spirit operate on its own? Heck no. Jesus told us in the Scriptures last week, that the Spirit testifies about the things that he, Jesus, heard from the Father. So there is your first clue: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit don’t each say or do things that would be self-contradictory: the things each Person says and does conform to the one being that God is, the same God, the one God who speaks to us in the Scriptures. So in every single act or word that we hear from God in Scripture, it is the one God who acts; what the Father does, so the Son and Spirit share in this work (see for example how this manifests in the transfiguration or in Jesus’s baptism or in Jesus’s sayings in John).
So then one thing we have to be really careful about is imagining that we can write off what is said in Scripture in one place because that’s just what the God of the OT, the Father said, whereas Jesus or the Holy Spirit are doing a new thing. Presuming this is an act of self-justification, not of faith. You see in our Gospel lesson today when Jesus says, ‘go therefore, and make disciples in all the nations,’ he is equipping us not to ‘do a new thing,’ but to do an old thing: the thing God gave to us through Abraham and Moses that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ: to love God and to love neighbor and even, to love enemy. Why? Because as Jesus said through the Scriptures that unless people encounter Jesus Christ they cannot come to know their Father who in his Son Jesus sustains them in his perfect ordering of their lives, through his Holy Spirit. And how do they encounter this Jesus who gives them life? That my friends, is where you and I come in. They encounter Jesus as we live his own life, in our unique ways, in our relationships with other people. For us to be the hands and feet, the mind and eyes, the ears and hearts of Jesus, we must know this one God: Father Son and Holy Spirit. In him, as we come to know him, our lives become the testimony of God’s love for everyone he created, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I want to conclude by sharing a reflection from a colleague of mine, Scott Sharman, a priest and theologian in the Diocese of Edmonton. He writes: “One of the mysteries we are invited to learn from the concept of Trinity is about the coinherence -- the overlap, so to speak -- of persons. The three persons of the Godhead share one and the same essence. We can say, therefore, that Divinity is so perfected in love that the three persons are not in fact able to be divided from one another at all, even if they are still rightly able to be distinguished.
From this it follows that if we, as human beings, are created in THIS image, we have the basis for some pretty radical conclusions about social justice: We are called to be persons who come to understand ourselves to be so deeply interconnected with all others that the idea of using someone's race (or gender, or sexuality, or anything else) as a reason to hate or exclude them from us becomes nothing less than a form of heresy.
Another principle we can receive from Trinitarian thought is that the persons of God are mutually kenotic. In other words, they exist to give themselves over entirely for the sake of the good and glorification of the others, even at personal cost.
Here again, if we, as human beings, bear THIS Divine mark in us, than our lives ought also be marked by a willingness to give ourselves away in compassion for everyone else; especially those who are neglected, excluded, and oppressed; even when facing up to this reality is hard.
I think it comes down to this: One of the best ways to honour the great mystery of the Triune God is to put it into creaturely actions -- to tell the truth about racism in our midst (and all the other isms that keep people apart), and to pour ourselves out to dismantle systemic abuses, whatever the personal cost.” AMEN.
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during his childhood. He attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which he continues to do to this day.