Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday following Pentecost, in which we celebrate and mark the peculiar doctrine of the Trinity. And it is… peculiar… because of its uniqueness among world religions, and how difficult it has been throughout history to define and understand. We believe it, and we teach it, and we try to talk about it coherently, but in the end, sometimes trying to describe the Trinity and how we can believe in one God that exists in three Persons is a lot like trying to describe what a rainbow looks like to someone who can’t see.
And yet, Christians from long, long ago believed in the Trinity, and considered it to be one of the central teachings of their faith. So much so that in the Athanasius Creed—one of the most important statements of belief on the Trinity from the early Church—so much so that it reads that one cannot be saved unless they believe in the Trinity.
It’s a Creed that we as Episcopalians may not be terribly familiar with because it didn’t appear in our prayer books until 1979, and it’s far in the back, on page 864, in a teeny-tiny font in the section titled “Historical Documents of the Church.”
It’s content begins by saying that “the catholic faith (the universal faith) is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence.” Beautiful, succinct, and easy to bear if you were to just leave it at that. And this same language we also hear in our collect: That we acknowledge the glory of the trinity, and worship the unity of the one God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also hear it in the preface to our Eucharistic Prayer today, that God exists in Trinity of Persons and Unity of being.
Now, returning to the Athanasian Creed, we hear such things about God such as that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all of the same substance or being, that they are all equal, all eternal, all glorious, all unlimited and infinite. And yet, though there are three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—they are not three gods, but one God.
And here is where we can go off into the weeds. We ask, how can it be that there are three persons but one God? And we look to the world around us to help us to understand. Maybe God… maybe God is like an apple? You know, it has three parts—the red skin, and the white flesh, and the black seeds inside of it! That must be what God is like! But of course, the Trinity is not like an apple. Or maybe God is like water? Depending on temperature it can be a gas, or a liquid, or a solid! That must be what God is like! But again, God is not like water. Or like St. Patrick taught when spreading the Gospel to the people of Ireland, maybe God is like a three-leaf clover. One leaf is like the Father, another like the Son, another the Holy Spirit, but they are all one plant. But God is not like clover.
The great and magnificent glory of God is that God is not like any of these things, and the reality of the Trinity is that it’s a wonder and a mystery.
But, one might point out that our Scriptures don’t use the word Trinity, nor do they do much to describe for us how God can be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God, three names and distinct Persons. But what they DO do for us is demonstrate a sort of trinitarian understanding from which the doctrine of the Trinity could spring up.
For starters, it’s from the Old Testament that we arrive at the oneness of God. For instance, in Deuteronomy, we read, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one.” Or, in other words, this Yahweh who delivered us from slavery, that is the one and only God. This became the basis for monotheism in Judaism, that unlike the other nations around them that believed in many Gods, the Hebrews believed that there was only one. And it continues to be the basis of our commitment to monotheism–that the God that the Jews worshipped in the Old Testament is the God that Jesus talked about in the New Testament. The one and only God.
But do we see the threeness of God in the Old Testament? After all, if this teaching is correct, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have existed throughout all eternity, then this was true of God throughout biblical history, all the way back to Genesis.
As it is, we *may* see evidence of this in the first verses of Genesis, which tells us that when God created the cosmos, the Spirit of God was there, hovering over the waters. And later in Colossians we read that all things came into being–all of creation–through the Son. So in this we see the work of all three Persons of God working together to create the world around us. The Father is creating through the Son with the Holy Spirit present with them.
It’s also possible we see the threeness of God in the three visitors that come to Abraham and Sarah, promising them a son in their old age, and discussing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham and Sarah are in their tents where they were living the semi-nomadic life, and they are visited by three men, two who visit Sodom and Gomorrah to observe the behavior of the citizens there while the third talks about judging them for their sin.
And what we see foreshadowed and hinted at in the Old Testament, we find more developed in the New Testament, in the teachings of Christ and in the writings of the Epistles. Not perfectly developed, but more visible.
For example, we have the first few verses of the fifth chapter of Romans before us today. In them we read that we have found peace with God through the work of Jesus Christ, and that because of Christ we have hope of sharing in the glory of God. But not only that: we can take comfort in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces hope, and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Spirit which has been given to us.
I love that. The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Spirit which has been given to us. While all this about the Trinity is confusing and continues to be confusing, that’s something I can wrap my head around! That the love of God has been poured out into our hearts, though the Spirit which has been given to us.