Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Trinity: The Lover, the Loved, and the Love

Trinity Sunday
Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5.1-5; John 16.12-15
Sunday, May 22, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

Who is God? This is the great question that we seek to explore every Sunday. But even more so on this day –Trinity Sunday.

Every Sunday of the liturgical year focuses on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Even Pentecost, which we celebrated last Sunday, while focused on the coming of the Holy Spirit, recognizes that this was in response to a promise that Jesus made to his disciples. The coming of the Spirit is the continuation of Christ’s presence and ministry in the world.

But today is different. It is the only Sunday in the entire year that is dedicated not to the teachings or events in the life of Jesus Christ, but to a doctrine of the Church – the Trinity. This is because the Trinity is so central to our religion. Despite its centrality, it also happens to be one of the most difficult things to comprehend about Christianity.

According to the doctrine of the Trinity, we believe in one God who is comprised of what theologians rather unfortunately refer to as three “persons.” “Persons” is really a misleading label, as we are not dealing with persons as in corporeal humans. Jesus notwithstanding. But we are stuck with that term. These three “persons” are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These three “persons” are distinct, but at the same time are of one substance or essence or nature. Despite being distinct, each “person” is wholly God. One God in three “persons.” Three “persons,” all of the one, same substance.

The difficulty we run up against in trying to explain this is that there is no explicit description of the Trinity in the Bible. The term is never used in the Bible. Furthermore, there are few references, and the meanings of those that do exist are not always clear or obvious. In fact, references can easily seem to contradict one another. Now there are numerous texts dealing with each of the “persons” individually. And there are also many references to the interrelationship between various “persons” of the Trinity.” But there is not much in the Bible that really bring it all together in a coherent manner. The closest we come is when Jesus directs the 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” (Mt 28.19). Based on the disparate information in the Bible about these three “persons” and how they relate and interact, theologians have developed the doctrine of the Trinity to describe a great mystery of our faith. One God being comprise of three “persons. Three “persons” that are each totally and completely the one God.

It’s enough to make your head explode. The reality is that God is ultimately beyond our limited comprehension. Therefore, any explanation of the unknowable is, at best, incomplete and simplistic. Perhaps the most important thing is how we experience God in our own lives.

So, I ask you, who is God? Who is God for you? In one word, or a short phrase.

[pause for responses]

One of the descriptions that I heard was that God is love. This is one of the simplest descriptions of who God is. Yet perhaps one of the most theologically sound. And perhaps one of the most accurate. In fact, in the First Letter of John, the apostle writes, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 Jn 4.8). One of the original twelve disciples who knew Jesus – God the Son – firsthand. Who learned about God the Father from Jesus himself, who experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, boiled down the essence of who God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is to that of love.

In the first few centuries of the Church, there were many debates about the nature of God and of the Trinity. Because of this, heresies abounded. Part of the reason we have creeds such as the Nicene Creed was an attempt by the early Church to make a clear statement about what we officially believe regarding the nature of God. These debates were generally resolved by middle of the fourth century. But then was opened the way for further discussion and attempts to clarify the exact nature of the Trinity. And we’ve been trying to find the best way to describe it ever since.

One of the brilliant theological minds of the early Church, indeed of all times, was Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the latter half of the fourth century and the first part of the fifth century. Augustine was a prolific writer, and one of his dissertations concerned the Trinity. He opened “On the Trinity” with the statement “The following dissertation concerning the Trinity, as the reader ought to be informed, has been written in order to guard against the [misleading arguments] of those who disdain to begin with faith, and are deceived by a crude and perverse love of reason” (Basic Writings of St. Augustine, Vol. 2, p. 687). In other words, we attempt to approach the subject from a rational perspective – virtually impossible given the nature of God and the Trinity – instead of from a faith perspective. Augustine argues that if we really must provide a rational description of the Trinity, the best we can hope to do is use analogies from our own human experience to offer an explanation for what is unexplainable.

He then proceeds to enter into the subject based on faith. And he does that by building on John’s statement that God is love, feeling that love best illustrates the nature of the Trinity. Of his own experience Augustine writes, “Now when I . . . love anything, there are three things present: I myself, what I love, and love itself. For I cannot love love unless I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. So there are three things: the lover, the loved and the love” (Basic Writings of St. Augustine, Vol. 2, p. 790).

Love, by definition, is the embodiment of that which is both personal and relational. Using this analogy, Augustine argues that God’s nature is both personal and relational, based on relationship that is communicated in the divine love exhibited by and expressed between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the one who loves. The Son, Jesus Christ, is the one who is loved. And this is made possible by and through the Holy Spirit, which is the outward expression of divine love. This love is also shared in the relationship that God has with us, with each “person” playing its part in how we experience the divine love they share.

God as Father who spoke into being all that is. The Father who is not a distant being, but one who is personally involved in creation. The Father who created humankind in his image and likeness, specifically to be his beloved creations. In fact, God is so personally involved in creation, particularly with respect to humanity, that God became human. God as Son, Jesus Christ, through whom God was able to directly relate to us, showing his love for us in a direct, personal way. The most intimate being that God was willing to become flesh to die for our sins. The Son as God in the flesh, who expressed God’s love for humanity by being willing to die for our salvation. And God as Holy Spirit who provides the ongoing expression of God’s love. To continue that direct and personal relationship with us, the Father and the Son sent their own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, to be an ongoing, transformative presence in our lives. To be a source of strength and support. To be a guiding beacon. To surround us with God’s love. 

Each of these “persons” is fully God, but represents to us a particular aspect of who and what God is. We need all three to be able to relate to who God really is, and to have a fuller understanding of who God is.

This analogy, like any analogy, is not perfect. It does not, nor did Augustine intend it to, address all the logical, theological, rationale concerning the nature of God as Trinity. No analogy could possibly completely explain something as mysterious and incomprehensible as our God. As the three “persons” that are our one God. But where Augustine’s analogy has the advantage over all others is that it is based on the primary attribute we ascribe to God. That it is based on the primary attribute that we see in each “person” of the Trinity. That it is based on the primary attribute that we see in the relationship between the three “persons.” Love.

Because of this, we are able to maintain Augustine’s preferred starting point – not logic, but faith. Faith that we are the beloved of God, the object of God’s love as exhibited by each of the three “persons” of the Trinity. But even more so, we have an analogy that also serves as a model for our own lives of faith – of what it means to worship this incomprehensible God that is Three in One and One in Three. And that that love is expressed through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the manifestation of the love shared by and among the three “persons” of the Trinity.

Bearing the image and likeness of God, we ourselves bear a kernel of that divine love that is inherent within and among the “persons” of the Trinity. We are the lover. The object of that love that we bear, just as for God, is the Body of Christ – that is, the community of the faithful. That is, each other. We live most fully into God’s love, into the experience of the fullness of the Trinity, when we love one another with the divine love that is made possible in and through the Holy Spirit. In this way, we do not seek to explain the mystery of the Trinity, but to experience that holy mystery – to live and experience the joy and the mystery of God’s love.

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