Elizabeth Hyndman and I would often have very interesting and long conversations on many many topics. However, the topic that she was drawn to discuss the most was the theology of the Holy Trinity. For those of you who spent time with Elizabeth, I am sure that you too had conversations with her about the Trinity- her words are whispered throughout today’s sermon because it was impossible for me not to tackle this topic without thinking of her. Due to her love of St. Patrick she often used the image of the shamrock. As a lover of music I would often talk of the differences between melody, harmony and rhythm. Some of us may recall the children’s story version of H2O which manages to be a gas, liquid and solid. But the truth is none of these analogies do the trinity justice- in fact many scholars much smarter than I, would actually say they do damage to theology of the trinity. Last week we talked about how the Spirit is not always easy to explain and is better experienced then simply discussed. Well, let me tell you, if the Spirit is hard to explain, the Trinity is nearly impossible and it’s even hard to experience! I mean, the first major and probably greatest schism in church history happened over a difference of opinion over the work and flow of the trinity! And yet, today, we face a Sunday in the church calendar that invites us to spend a whole sermon talking about the Trinity. It’s about to get messy but thankfully our scripture passages today help us, a little.
In the Fall of 2020, at the request of Elizabeth, I led a six week Bible study on the Trinity. We used Jason Byassee’s book Trinity: The God We Don’t Know as our launching point. In his introduction he says that, “The Trinity is the God we don’t know. And we should change that.” But to be honest, even after doing this study, I’m still not fully convinced I understand the Trinity. Luckily Byassee also says, “We can’t understand God. A God we could understand would be an idol, one we could stuff in our back pocket, one we could dial in to do favours for us, like some kind of genie in a lamp. One thing I teach at church as a sort of responsive reading is this: I say, “If you understand it…” and they all repeat, “it is not God!”…we can’t possibly understand him. But God understands us perfectly well…This is how it is. You stretch your imagination and intellect to grasp the hem of God’s garment. And then God starts growing as a fast-multiplying zygote right underneath your ribs.” For Byassee the beauty of the Trinity, and as a result God, is that we can never fully understand it, but that should not stop us from trying or exploring the possibilities. This is clear as we hear the Gospel passage chosen for today.
What we hear is the tale end of a five chapter dialogue that Jesus gives at the last supper. It begins in chapter 13 when Jesus washes the disciples feet and ends with a prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples in chapter 17. This section is often referred to as Jesus’ Farewell discourse. What is woven throughout this conversation is that the trinity is a manifestation of God’s love for us. So really, we complicate trying to explain the Trinity by trying to explain love but that is indeed the focus of Jesus’ final words to his disciples. It begins with a threefold commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us- the words we hear at Maundy Thursday- and ends with prayer in which Jesus asks that the divine love he is sharing can be manifested through his disciples. This speech is so heavy and deep that even Jesus acknowledges that the disciples can not bear all the words at once. Through the work and experience of the Spirit they will, in time, be able to understand what it all means.
In truth, this is a very intricate dance, and if you know your dance moves, this is not a two-step, but a waltz, a very fast waltz, 1-2-3. 1-2-3, in which love is the movement and the Trinity are the dancers and in many cases, the movements are so quick and flow with such intensity that it is often hard or impossible to differentiate between the dancers- in fact, most scholars would argue that problems arise when we try to differentiate them. Jesus is the one who speaks these words of love, words given to him by the Father through the Spirit to us and then it moves again from Jesus back to the one who sent him. I watched a complicated lecture about this in which the person try to say the dance goes from God to Jesus to us to Spirit to us to Spirit to Jesus to Spirit to Us to Father to Jesus to Spirit to Us. But I got very confused! Meda Stamper says of this dance that it is, “the eternal love flowing from the one who sends, to the sent one, to the Spirit who dwells in us in abiding love and makes us love-bearers for, in and with God who sends us out into the world to bear witness to the Trinity with our love.”
Now, if you are still confused, and it’s ok, I am too, Jesus also admits that it is confusing. Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” The use of the word “bear” here is really interesting. Most translations indeed use that word while a few modern versions might use the word “understand”. When the Greek word for “bear” is used elsewhere in the New Testament it is always in reference to a physical bearing of weight. For example in John 19:17 while some translations say that Jesus carried his cross the correct translation would be, “he went out, bearing his own cross.” Basically, in this conversation, Jesus is saying that the knowledge of the trinity and love is so full, so heavy, so large, that we can not bear the weight of it all at once. But Jesus also reassures them saying that we’re not supposed to bear it all at once. Over time the Spirit of truth will come and guide the disciples. This is the trinity at work. By the way, the Greek word for guide can also be translated as “way”. Meta Stamper points out, “The Spirit guides us into the truth of the way, which is not a set of instructions, but a relationship with a person who loves us.” Makes sense? Well, sort of!
In his letter to the Romans, Paul also picks up on this theme that the Trinity is really a love story and sometimes love is hard. Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in Rome- people who knew what it was to suffer for their faith. While the extreme violence against Christians had likely not happened yet, they certainly experienced persecution. Hence his words that one should boast in their suffering because it produces endurance which produces character which produces hope. But one of the overarching themes in the letter to the Romans is that despite our differences in language, culture, and custom, we are united in our devotion and love to and from God.
As Byassee concludes in his book, “Love is the force with which God binds us to one another. And we cannot now understand God [The Trinity] without ungovernable signs of reconciliation, without indissoluble bonds of affection. And these three, the one who creates, the one who redeems, the one who reconciles, these three are one. Their love for one another is unfathomable. Our task in life is to become part of this company of fathomless mutual care.”
Look, I’m not going to pretend that this clears things up. At 97 years of age Elizabeth was still questioning and exploring what the Trinity meant to her. I hope that I not only live as long but that I too continue to question and explore. That is the beauty of God, in particular, the theology of the Trinity. A God we can understand is an idol, not God. It’s hard enough explaining love- let alone the love that flows from the Trinity. Yet, what Paul points out is that through the love that is poured out from God we are made inseparable from God and one another. All the forces that cause suffering in this world try to separate us but we are inextricably linked through the Trinity. We are a part of this dance too. Amen