Trinity Sunday | John 3:1-17
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
It is the most Christian of beliefs—the idea of the Trinity. Other religions and story traditions have saviour figures, even gods and heroes who die and are resurrected. Other religions espouse multiform expressions of the divine—little gods, greater gods, gods of every shape, form, nature and purpose.
Only Christianity embraces the concept of the Trinity, three in one, one God expressed in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit. There are all sorts of explanations, endless theological views, all manner of descriptions. We have a host of clever illustrations. Clover leaves. Pretzels.
Though we claim we believe that God is one, we act as though these three persons were separate, untethered, more like generations of a family than aspects of one God.
Take God the Father. When we speak of God the Creator, we think of the Father. After all, how could the universe have come into being if God did not have a long white beard? Ridiculous question? Fine, you try to imagine it without those paintings in the Sistine Chapel popping into your head.
And who does evangelical Christianity expect to return but God the Son? It is Jesus, riding on a cloud, surrounded by angels, never the Spirit, and almost never the Father unless one’s church is particularly inclined toward judgment and hellfire. No, it is almost always the Son, with a beard that is darker and shorter. You know it’s true. Look at the illustrations in any illustrated Bible. The Father is left behind, presumably in heaven which as everyone knows is up there in the sky, and the Spirit is nowhere to be seen, while a very intense and fairly young man rides into the picture. There are always clouds and angels.
God the Spirit is more radical. We have our symbols, to be sure—a white dove, the fire of pentecost, even the wild geese of Irish tradition. (The Irish were always a little different. Ask them yourself if you don’t believe me, and they will proudly own up to it.) Like fire and wind, the Spirit is unpredictable, difficult to describe.
All of these images of God have one thing in common: each is an expression of what we expect to get from God. That’s right—our ideas about God spring from what we expect from God and what we want from God. From the Father we expect power and knowledge, and so we imagine a white haired king. The Son gives us ferocity of love, the healing touch, restoration, and so we imagine the energy of youth. The Spirit meets our desire for the mystical, for mysterious inner communion with the God who is Other, and so we think of fire and wind, birds in flight.
God does not live to meet our expectations. Our concept of the Trinity enables us to contemplate the Otherness of God, but the Otherness that is God does not exist to fulfill our conceptualization.
In other words, we may be a little like God, but God is not like us. And our faith should not be concerned with whether God meets our expectations. Our faith should not be based on what we hope to receive from God. Our faith should be simply that God is, for God’s own sake, in God’s own way.
In his novel Looking for Alaska, John Green retells this story:
Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, ‘I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.’”
[Green, John (2008-08-14). Looking for Alaska (p. 174). Penguin Young Readers Group. Kindle Edition.]
The point this wonderful woman made is remarkably similar to the conclusions of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). In his work On Loving God, Bernard explored the various reasons we might love ourselves, others and God. While we might love God for those things we seek to receive, or in response to the power or abilities of God, the greatest reason to love God is God—loving God for God’s sake, without thought of gain or obligation.
Trinity Sunday is a perfect time to examine what we expect from God. It is a day to confess what we hope to receive in exchange for our acceptance, devotion, worship, and faith. All of that needs to be put aside. We may even, for the moment, lay aside our understanding of God as these three relatively defined persons.
At the end of our theology and our understanding, there is faith. Somewhere beyond our expectations and our explanations, God is who God is. In the moments of our deepest need, we are not seeking anything from God. We are seeking the presence of God.