31 May 2015
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
There have been books written which attempt to trace the history of the development of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity—which typically address questions such as how the concept or conceptualization came to be; why it came to be; why it’s necessary at all; and most importantly they illustrate how almost everyone who made the attempt to get to the bottom of it, no matter how delicate and balanced the use of language, eventually reached that point where the whole project begins to wobble and falls to pieces. In some ways, these tales of the history of the Trinity could almost be the kind of textbooks that are required reading for students at Hogwarts or Brakebills—for you fans of Harry Potter or Quentin Coldwater. Books of magic spells in which the trick is in getting the language, foreign language, ancient language, just right, but which young students almost always get at least a little bit wrong, with disastrous results.
In the case of the Trinity, the key terminology is ancient, foreign and comes in two languages. The Western church father, Tertullian (second and early third century) who was the first theologian to write in Latin (the first to be published, anyway) and who was the first to use the word “trinity,” coined the famous Latin formulation: three persons, one substance (persona, substantia). But in the East, the language was Greek—ousia, homoiousia, hypostasis—language which is not only hard to pronounce but whose pronunciation today is disputed. (Ousia, from the verb “to be,” means “essence”, “the stuff of existence; hypostasis means “independent reality, or unique consciousness.”) Now bear in mind, the Latin speakers of the West did not understand the fine points made by the Greek speakers of the East, and vice versa. Some say the Cappodocian fathers—a Basil and two Gregorys (who made the most systematic use of the Greek language)—put the matter to rights; some think Augustine who described God and trinity in terms of human features like, mind, memory, reason, being, made the crucial breakthrough.
From our vantage point today, one is tempted to say that before, on the way to, and even after the “breakthroughs” there was a good deal of sloppy thinking, talking and writing going on in both languages. But the fact of the matter is—well there are two facts: one, as I have said before in other contexts, human language is simply not up to the task of mapping the theological genome of the Trinity, but it’s all we have; and two, even so, out of the centuries of theological mist have come some significant insights about Trinity, even if what is described in terms of the “what” of Trinity cannot be understood in terms of the “how”.
God is One; God is Three; God is Unity; God is Diversity; God is a Unity that entails Diversity. And, yes, there is plenty of rope here for me to hang myself if I attempt too much magic. Scripture explicitly affirms that God is One. But the biblical starting point for the development of the doctrine of the Trinity is that there are three different actors in the redemptive drama—Son, Father, and Spirit, as Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, our Gospel text today, suggests. It is John’s Gospel, too, so interested in the divine identity of Jesus, that goes the greatest distance in exploring the mystery of the Son’s inter-relation with the Father, pointing us into that mystery of the essential unity of three. For later in the Gospel, Jesus brings us right to the edge of the mystery. First, in the midst of a hostile audience, Jesus in the temple, reflecting on the work the Father has given him to do, says, “I and the Father are one” (10:30). Later with his disciples he responds to Philip who has asked Jesus to show them the Father:
“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (14:9ff)
Jesus and God the Father are related to each other as persons, as the expressions “I” and “Thou”, “we” and “us” suggest. John introduces us to the language of the “indwelling”: the oneness of which Jesus speaks (I and the Father are one) is a unity produced by mutual indwelling. But what does this language really suggest about the nature of God? And what might be in it for us?
One attempt to describe this relational unity, going back to the seventh century and the Eastern church, employs the Greek term perichoresis, which among other things, could describe the movements and cooperation necessary for dance. The point of understanding trinity unity in terms of a dance is that it combines threeness and oneness in such a way that they cannot be reduced to each other. All participants in the dance are required to make the dance whole. A single subject alone cannot realize this complex form of unity. It takes two to tango; but it takes three to trinity. Same point.
St. John’s Gospel is deeply theological, showing advanced insight into Jesus’ identity as the incarnate Son, and the nature of his relationship with God the Father. But the thing about John is that his chief interest in all of this really lies somewhere else. For John, theology, Christology, Pneumatology, the mystery of the Trinity—and don’t get him started on eschatology—each on its own and all of them together exist and are worthy of reflection only insofar as they shed light on who we are in relation to God!
It turns out, as we reach John chapter 17, that this trinity dance is an open dance:
“that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
If we add the Spirit to this mix, what we have is the Trinitarian fellowship of God as prototype and as location for the fellowship of the church. Jesus goes on to say:
so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
As St. John sees it, the church, truly indwelt by God in the Spirit sent by Father and Son, is to be the visible, living expression of Trinity here and now. What that living entails, moment by moment, day by day, is the subject of a “book” whose “writing” began long ago that is still being “written” by people like you and me today. And for all its immensity, it can be summed up in words from Jesus that John repeats four times: “that you love one another as I have loved you.” We take this word of Jesus from John as a command, a new commandment. But it is really a description of the dynamic shape of life at the core of divine Trinity. Each person of the Godhead yielding to the other, serving the other, sacrificing for the other, sustaining the other, producing a creative, indestructible, eternal unity-in-diversity. The love command is much more an invitation to take our place in the Trinity dance; to step into the space of life; to learn the new rhythms and movements so that we can each become together what God has designed us to be.
To describe the life and nature of God as Trinity requires multiple metaphors and models; but real understanding comes from stepping into the dance. A life of movement with rest, learning the rhythm of service and love, learning that “I,” “me,” and “my” are not bad words, but that in the Trinity dance they can become so much more meaningful when they are related properly to “you” and “your” to become an eternal “we” and “us.”
© 2015 Philip H. Towner