Today is Trinity Sunday, when we focus on Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, a.k.a. Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit.
Trinity, the concept of three gods in one, is not found in the Bible. Romans 5:1-5 includes references to all three, but no set dogma about the Trinity emerges until about three centuries after the last books of the Bible were written.
We’re going to unpack some ideas about the Trinity and then talk about what that means for us today, as twenty-first-century Christians.
First, some input from you: What images come to mind for you around the term “God”?
How about “Jesus”?
And “Holy Spirit”?
Here are some further images that the Bible study group came up with last Monday evening.
God: all-powerful/omnipotent; creator; eternal; all knowing/omniscient; a single being with great imagination to make everything we can see/touch/feel; harsh; judgmental; comprising good/bad/all of it; ten feet tall, old, stern, male, beard, long robe; loving; forgiving; comforting; Father—ideal father, strong, knowledgeable, patient, supporting, wise. We did not mention any feminine images for God.
Jesus: God becoming human; brother; friend; teacher; model of an intentional life; humility; purpose-driven; healer; listener; peacemaker; rabblerouser; bad-ass—didn’t back off from religious leadership, gave them fits; prophet; savior; judge sweeping in on a cloud; miracle worker; compassionate; carpenter; bastard; agitator; table turner; disruptor of status quo; one who includes everyone; son of God; redeemer; social justice leader; inspirer. For whatever reason, none of us mentioned baby in a manger.
Holy Spirit: manifestation of Hope; comforter; doorway to what is beyond the five senses—a reality that we cannot see; wind; breath; flame; personal experience that is different for everybody; Divine Mystery; flow of energy; verb, movement; process: inspire (take Spirit in) and expire (Spirit goes out); depth of our being, where souls are—not superficial; connecting; everywhere, including inside us. We did not mention a dove, although that image appears at Jesus’ baptism.
After the Bible study group brainstormed all these images, we read the passage about Wisdom from Proverbs. Wisdom is another divine image, a personification that is female. Spirit is sometimes also personified as female, although in the reading from John today it is male.
As we know, God in the Bible is almost always referred to with male pronouns. Usually I alter the readings to make God gender neutral, but since we’re talking about images for God, we can look at this historical practice of portraying God as male. Does God have a gender? Is God beyond gender? How do we feel when we hear God referred to only as male? When we pray the prayer of Jesus, we call God “Father Mother,” but that’s an alteration we have made. We try to broaden the lens through which we perceive God so as to be less patriarchal and more inclusive. But I notice that when many of you talk about God, God is still “he.” Yet here is Wisdom, clearly female, working with God from the beginning.
In the gospel of John, the Divine appears as Word, capital W: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That sounds very like the description of Wisdom in Proverbs, with God from the beginning. With both Wisdom and Word, there is a sense of them working in and through God to infuse people with their essence. They are not part of the Trinity, but clearly they are images of the Divine.
Jesus tells the disciples, in our reading today from John 16, that the Spirit of truth will come to them later. There’s another image for Spirit: truth-teller.
And here’s one more. The faith community on the island of Iona, in Scotland, depicts Spirit as a wild goose. This is an image with Celtic origins. Unlike the gentle dove, a wild goose is unpredictable, swooping in without warning, honking loudly, fighting back when threatened. Geese stick together, take care of each other, fly in a V formation to create aerodynamic efficiency that extends the range of the whole flock.
We create images in an attempt to imagine the unimaginable, to wrap our minds around some sliver of the Divine. The Trinity tries to standardize three basic images of the Divine: as creator of all that is; as human incarnation of that holiness; and as intangible energy moving within and among us today. Through the centuries, people have drawn lines in the sand to fight over their understanding of the Trinity. For example, was Jesus fully human? Fully divine? Somehow both at once? This was fodder for much debate in fourth-century Councils at Nicaea and Constantinople, and a Google search will show that this is still a hot topic in certain circles. And is the Spirit divine? Did it come from God, or from God and Christ? Bishops debated these theological issues for months at these councils, and those who disagreed with the final rulings could be banished. There were real consequences for perceiving the Divine in ways that did not conform.
So how do we understand the Trinity today? Dr. Wil Gafney writes:
The church has largely settled on one way of naming God to our great poverty. The blessed, holy Trinity is one way and only one way of naming the God of many names, the God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God. It is not the only way and it is not my way….
God is beyond numbering and naming. The scriptures use many more than three names or images to describe God and do not limit us to any. And the scriptures do not mention the Trinity at all. Three names make a nice poetic flourish. But God is not bound or limited by our limitations. God is One, and Two – Incarnate and Incorporeal, and Three and Seven (the “seven spirits of God” in Rev 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) and God is Many and Ineffable. [UCC Sermon Seeds for June 12, 2022, Sermon Seeds: All Truth - United Church of Christ (ucc.org).]
So on this Trinity Sunday, I invite us to become more aware of the filters through which we perceive the Divine, and to understand that these are primarily reflections of human attempts to describe the indescribable, to articulate what is beyond words. People have profound experiences of the Divine sitting on a mountaintop, or staring at a lake, or watching a child being born or a loved one take their last breath. The holy is in all of it, and sometimes we become especially and profoundly aware of its presence. Trinity is a human effort to turn that experience of the Divine into doctrine and dogma, to put rules around it. Trinity puts the Divine in a box with labels.
But God is beyond labels, beyond words, beyond understanding. We gather every Sunday to practice connecting with that divinity that is in each and every one of us, that sparks when we get together, that is capable of transforming our lives for the better and making our world a more just and compassionate place. We yearn for that connection and understanding, for that sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves and giving our lives to answer God’s call.
So in the UCC we read our Bible, we debate and discuss, we ask lots of questions, and we don’t expect everyone to settle on the exact same answers or beliefs. And that’s actually great. We don’t ask whether the Bible is factual; we look for the truths in it, whether they actually happened or not. We reach for the love in this faith journey, the acceptance, the forgiveness, the challenge to become the very best selves that God calls us to be. These are what we seek. And the overarching message in our Bible is that God loves us and is always, always there for us.
The poet Mary Oliver refers to God as “he,” but she also expands her understanding of how God is in everyone and everything.
If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.
He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert
He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing
He’s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician,
And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?
Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
[Mary Oliver, excerpt from “At the River Clarion,” in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (Penguin Press: New York, 2017), 87.]