The Relational God

Reference: Isaiah 6:1-8 and St. John 3:1-17

The Trinity is regarded by many as the ultimate theological complexity. Preachers often dread Trinity Sunday, baffled by how to explain the unexplainable.  The great controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, which shaped the historic understanding of the nature of God, seem today to be remote and obscure. Those historic concepts are tough to relate to moderns, who often do not trouble much about defining incarnation and whose doctrine of the Trinity is rarely mentioned as such and is pretty vague besides. Popular explanations can glide smoothly past Arius, Athanasius, Nestorius, the Monophysites and the other players of Nicea and subsequent discussions, at times reflecting all of the divergent views, at other times expressing the mind of one or the other of them without being aware of the connection, or for that matter caring about it.

Perhaps even more common is simply to note the great mystery involved, and advising people to take it on faith. There is merit in this. We cannot access the mind of God, nor would we understand it if we could. God has revealed some things to us, which we partly grasp, but has not revealed many other things, probably because our wee minds could not understand.

Thus, instead of presenting the Trinity as a profound doctrine, something to theologize about, I would suggest starting somewhere else. The Trinity may be commented about in doctrinal terms, but the Trinity is not a doctrine, not an “it” or abstraction. The Trinity is a living being, deemed a “he” because in English grammar we have no way of indicating living personal beings without giving them a gender. The important point is that he is a living being, very God himself. “Trinity” is synonymous with “God,” a name for the Almighty who has no name. While the term “trinity” emphasizes that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is the same one God.

Thus, the tale of the Trinity is not basically a theological study but rather a love story. The next time someone sings “O perfect love” at a wedding, keep in mind that the only person currently capable of perfect love is God. The story of the Trinity is the account of the seamless perfect love among the three persons of the Godhead. The important point of Trinity Sunday is to emphasize that the three love so completely that they achieve a mystical union of absolute oneness. When Jesus talks about two becoming one flesh in the sacrament of marriage (see Matthew 19:4-6), he is referring to the kind of theosis which has its perfect model in God’s internal love.

The Gospel for Trinity Sunday reflects this well. John 3 is not an abstract discussion at all, but a very direct dialog with the seeking Pharisee Nicodemus about the need to be born again in baptism, which concludes by identifying God’s motivation of love in sending Jesus to the world (John 3:16), the extension of the Trinity’s love reaching outward to the world. The love which motivated our creation now is intent on our salvation from the mess we have made of that creation (saving us from the consequences of our self-made catastrophe, basically). Because of our pivotal role in the governance (=stewardship) of the earth, God is saving the whole world from the man-made disaster, not just some favored humans. The Greek in the text uses the term τον κοσμον, meaning the entire creation is loved, and will be restored through the actions of the Incarnate one.

The Old Testament lesson for Trinity Sunday is Isaiah’s apocalyptic vision of the Lord (Is. 6). It is a picture of the awesome, overpowering and cosmically dynamic God, just in case we are warping into sentimental thoughts of a sweet Jesus playing a kind of therapy-dog role in helping us cope with life. In contrast, Isaiah is devastated by the encounter, and the immense gulf between his being and God’s, both in terms of omnipotence and of holiness. Yet even here, once the contrast is clearly established, the Trinity reaches out in forgiving love to Isaiah, bridging the enormous gap through the compassion of the Almighty.

The two lessons together give a message of perfect love pulsating through the Trinitarian God and flowing out to all creation: “O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity…” (Collect for Trinity XI, BCP 1928), expresses the concept very succinctly.

Can we understand God the Trinity? Can an ant, apparently one of the more intelligent and organized of insects, understand humans? The answer is, not very well, and from a very skewed and narrow viewpoint. But, more importantly, can I know the love of God?  The answer is a resounding affirmative. The God who loves ravens and lilies and no doubt ants, loves you even more, says Jesus (see Luke 12:24-31).

That love comes to you in baptism, as Jesus explains to Nicodemus, to be born again into the loving family of the Father, absorbed into the Body of Christ and chrismated with the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit. The sacrificial and loving action Jesus was sent to accomplish has been fulfilled. Our God does not come to us, as Jews and Muslims expect, in a book of rules and concepts. He is among us in person. We are incorporated (from “corpus,” body) in the Body of Christ in theosis, a relationship closer than close, marred only by our sin from reaching the perfect love of the Trinity.

The explanation of the Trinity is not best seen in a theological textbook, but in the question of Kojak, a TV character of Telly Savalas: Who loves ‘ya?