The Sunday after Pentecost is, by tradition, the Feast of the Holy Trinity. As feasts go, it’s relatively late (14th Century). There is, I suppose, some logic to it liturgically: with the Holy Spirit cleary onstage (Pentecost), we pause to recall what the language we use throughout the year means.
- In the Eucharistic Prayer, we pray to the Father, asking that by the action of the Holy Spirit the bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Jesus.
- We baptize in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- We bless in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Let me come at this from three directions.
First, the doctrine of the Trinity guards against misunderstanding our Scripture and liturgy. We confess God as the Creator. So the fundamental divide is between Creator and creation. Where do we put Jesus? Jesus’ actions and words, actions like forgiving sins and words like “I and the Father are one” pointed towards either Jesus being fully divine, or the Jews having been right to hand him over to Rome as a blasphemer. The description favored by many today, Jesus as a very good person, was simply not in play. Good people don’t go around pardoning sins committed against other people, or identifying themselves with God; they’re too aware of their distance from God. So, one of the early desert fathers on his deathbed. His disciples are assuring him that his holiness makes him a shoo-in; he responds: “Oh my brothers, I’ve not yet begun to repent.”Scripture and our liturgy are only coherent if we confess Jesus as fully divine.
And the Spirit? Likewise on the Creator side of the Creator/creation divide. Texts like today’s Epistle and Gospel become really strange if we give another answer.
Why does it matter that Jesus and the Spirit are on the Creator side of the Creator/creation divide? I’ll grossly simplify. Jesus says to Philip “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). So we don’t need to fear a hidden god behind Jesus, good cop/bad cop on a cosmic scale. Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary…”; the Father: “But not the preacher!” Jesus leaves and the Spirit comes. So now we’re stuck with the B-team? No: the Spirit is fully divine.
So Christians worship three gods? No. All the New Testament writers were Jews, and the Shema was firmly written into their DNA: “HEAR, O ISRAEL: THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE” (Deut. 6:4 JPS).
Do we know how Father, Son, and Spirit are one? No. Remember the Creator/creation divide. We’re on the creation side, and our analogies only get us so far. The technical language in the Nicene Creed (“of one substance with the Father”) serves to guard the mystery, rather than explain the mystery. Some of the church fathers spoke of the Son and the Spirit as the two hands of God, and, as metaphors go, that’s not a bad one.
The Doctrine of the Trinity: rather than having a very distant and uninvolved god off there somewhere, we have a loving Father extending his two hands. One hand: Jesus Christ, who has taken on our flesh, who knows well what it is to live as a human being. The other hand: the Holy Spirit, God moving in our midst, not only empowering the Church, but also working throughout the world to spread the knowledge of God’s love made known in Jesus.
Father, Son, Holy Spirit. So God is more like a man than a woman? No; God is beyond gender, and Scripture uses both masculine and feminine images. But. The conduct of too many men, some hijacking “God the Father” to justify their violence and violations, have desecrated this language, leaving deep wounds. With the psalmist:
O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance;
they have profaned your holy temple;
they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble. (79:1)
So when Paul says we “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom. 8:23), that’s also about the damage done to the language God’s given us. Who would have guessed that Paul’s “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7) is understatement?
Second. We say “God is love.” But what possible sense does this sentence have before the creation? The confession of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit responds to this question with unexpected beauty. God is love, because love has existed eternally between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The fundamental reality of the universe is not a solitary god, but the Unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternal community of love. From this community God created us. We are created for this community. So as God invites us into community this is not about forming a new community, but about entering into the Dance that has been going on for all eternity.
Third, in today’s Gospel reading Jesus prescribes the form of baptism: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This command, this use of the Divine Name, is primarily not an invitation to contemplation nor to writing thick theological tomes, but to action. It’s like the revelation of the Divine Name ‘Yahweh’ to Moses from the burning bush. What Yahweh wants of Moses is neither contemplation nor theologizing, but to return to Egypt to bring out the people. Here, on another mountain, Jesus employs the Divine Name, and again in the context of mission. He commissions the disciples—and with them, ourselves—to a task which encompasses all our lives: “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
At various points we naturally wonder what we’re going to do with our lives. Today’s reading reminds us that we Christians don’t ask this question in a vacuum. How can I best respond to this commission? How is my life—in whatever form it currently takes—also going to be about making disciples? We’re always already witnessing to something; how is my life witnessing to my participation in that Community which is the Holy Trinity?
I began this homily by recalling the ways our weekly worship is profoundly trinitarian in form. So the Trinity exists only within these four walls? No. We speak to and through the Trinity here also so that we can recognize the work of the Trinity everywhere.
And this is the invitation that this day presents: to live the coming week with the senses fully awake to the presence of this Triune God. The loving Father continues extending the two arms—the Son and the Holy Spirit—to embrace us and to draw us into a dance which has no end.