Trinity Sunday, rcl yr a, 2020
St. John’s in Quarantine
GENESIS 1:1-2:4A; PSALM 8; 2 COR. 13:11-13; MATTHEW 28:16-20
I feel as though I should start off, today, with an apology—to both you and the reader of the first lesson. That reading is far too long, and certainly a bit obscure for Trinity Sunday.
It’s not an arbitrary choice to read the creation account though. Many Christians have read, in that first verse—“while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”—as a reference to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
This connection between God’s life, and creation, is underlined in a different way at the beginning of John’s gospel, where we get a prologue that places at the very beginning—at the creation—the Word. In a deliberate connection to the first words of Genesis, John writes, “In the beginning was the Word […]. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him[.]” This Word, present at creation, is the second person of the Trinity: the Word that becomes flesh in Jesus.
That’s a whole lot of intertextual gymnastics, though. Wind at the beginning of creation, wind that is interpreted as the Holy Spirit, in Genesis; a Word present at the foundation of the world, in John; and a God who creates, in both Genesis and John. All adding up, in a strange sort of arithmetic, to some semblance of the Trinity: one God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I don’t mean to be dismissive, or sound disparaging. Not at all. That’s partly out of intellectual humility, even if putting creation passages together, as I just did, to come up with a full-blown doctrine of the Trinity can seem, on the surface, intellectually dishonest.
It does appear, though, that in some of the earliest Christian writings, the Trinitarian shape of the Christian faith does begin to show very early on in Christian reflection on God—even if it’s more of a fuzzy contour of something, than it is a clearly defined teaching.
We see this in our other two readings. In Matthew, we have the baptismal rule, and the accompanying baptismal formula—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” There is messiness, in the New Testament, when it comes to baptism—sometimes it seems early Christians were baptized in the name of Jesus, and let’s not get started with baptism of the Holy Spirit, and the messiness of that! Alongside those other traditions, we can see, here in Matthew, one early tradition where Christian worship is clearly connected with an appeal to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the passage from Second Corinthians—written at least 15 years earlier than Matthew—we have another triadic formula. It’s what we’ve come to call the Grace, and something that is a deeply embedded part of Anglican prayer. It doesn’t say something as easily recognisable as Trinitarian, like Jesus’s words in Matthew, but we can hear the similarities. This translation puts it a bit differently than the Grace as we are accustomed to it, but it’s the same prayer: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
It would most certainly be dishonest to suggest that in these sorts of passages we have what would become the later, and far more fully developed Trinitarian theology that we find in the Nicene Creed we often say on Sundays. What we have in Matthew, and Second Corinthians, is more suggestive. Perhaps, as theologian David Ford might put it, what we find in Matthew and Second Corinthians is generative. They are the beginning of something, the beginning of an insight that would prove very fruitful for Christian reflection on God in later centuries.
There’s something else to notice here in Matthew and 2nd Corinthians: both connect their understanding of the threeness of God to worship and prayer. Baptism is an act of worship; Paul’s words are a prayer; both are connected in the Bible with a God who is, in some way, three.
This makes for a helpful starting point: the Trinity is not some sort of object (or three) available for us to understand, scrutinize, or manipulate to our own ends, but is rather that which animates, and gives life, to our worship and prayer.
In Romans 8, for example, Paul writes about prayer in familiar threefold language, this time of Father, Spirit, and Christ. In prayer, for Paul, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” And for Paul, if we are the children of God, “then [we are] heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” This is a difficult teaching—because for Paul, if it is the Spirit bearing witness in us when we cry “Abba! Father!” And we are then children of God —then “we suffer with [Christ].” We don’t suffer pointlessly, thankfully; we suffer “so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Feminist theologian Sarah Coakley makes this the centre of her Trinitarian theology, and it has a number of benefits; the Trinity, here, is not something with think about; here, the Spirit leads, praying within us, drawing us, in what she calls “a call and response of divine desire—into which the pray-er is drawn and incorporated.”
Here the Spirit, from within us, calls out to God: Abba, Father. And as we name God our Father, our Abba, we are made co-heirs of God’s kingdom with Christ the Son. We can’t even call this “experience,” as some might, as the basis of Trinitarian theology. For Coakley, this isn’t about “experience,” it’s about being incorporated into the divine life, where, as many people in both the charismatic and contemplative traditions would recognise—it is the Spirit within us who prays, not we ourselves. And as the Spirit prays within us, “groaning inwardly,” we are draw into God’s life.
And this, in its own way, is far more demanding than an attempt at understanding all the strange and wonderful flights of the intellect that have led to Trinitarian theology in its most robust and complex forms. What is demanded here is a loss of self, or perhaps a selflessness, that allows the
Spirit to pray within us, and by praying within us, to draw us into the divine life shared by the Father and the Son, and to be remade and remade and remade again, into the likeness of God.
It’s demanding; and its a process, not of figuring it all out, but of dwelling in God, “waiting for our adoption” as Paul puts it, suffering with the whole of this groaning creation, and yet confident that this is the way of God’s glory, our liberty, and the healing of the whole world.
May it be so, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Revd Dr. Preston DS Parsons