Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Celebrating the Trinity

An image of the Trinity in Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece

Patrick Comerford

Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 4a; II Corinthians 13: 11-13; Matthew 28: 16-20.

May I speak to you in the name of Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This evening we are celebrating the joys of our Trinitarian faith, using Sunday’s lectionary readings that reflect key Trinitarian teachings. In our Old Testament reading, we hear of God using the plural form to express God’s joy in creating the whole of creations: “Let us make Adam in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion ... So God created Adam in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 26-27).

Thomas Hopko of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary argues that if God were not Trinity, God could not have loved prior to creating other beings on whom to bestow God’s love.

This love or communion of God as Trinity, which is extended to us in the communion of the Church, our koinonia (κοινωνία) or fellowship, is the climax to the Apostle Paul’s message to the Church in Corinth in our Epistle reading (II Corinthians 13: 13). It is not just the Trinitarian faith into which we are baptised, but the love or fellowship of the Trinity, and this is at the heart of our ministry and mission (Matthew 28: 19-20).

Yet many clergy tell me they are frightened of getting into the pulpit on Trinity Sunday and some will use any excuse to avoid preaching that day.

Perhaps their difficulties and fears were well explained by Dorothy Sayers, the playwright, translator of Dante, and author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, who was also a respected Anglican theologian and writer on spirituality in her own right.

Over 60 years ago, Dorothy Sayers came up with a whimsical definition of the Trinity: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible – the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult.”

For many Christians, the Trinity is incomprehensible, and has nothing to do with daily life.

It appears that many Christians behave as Unitarians when it comes to their spiritual and prayer life:

There are those who see God in Christ but in Christ only, and address all their prayers to Jesus, even in the Eucharist, when they should be addressed to the Father through the Son.

Or there are those who reduce to the role of Christ to that of a super logos, who frustrates the plans of a vengeful but distant God. Their Christology owes more to Arius than the orthodox understanding of the Trinity.

And there are those who criticise – and rightly criticise – others for neglecting the Holy Spirit, but who are in danger of neglecting the other two persons of the Trinity.

And then, for many more, it appears, the Son and the Spirit are merely manifestations of – or masks for – the Father, a concept condemned in the early Church as Modalism or Sabellianism.

Each separate emphasis is fraught with danger and is symptomatic of a drift away from appreciating the centrality of the Trinity to faith and life.

A “Father-only” image of God is in danger of reflecting power-lust and a need to dominate on the right, reducing God to an idol or mere totem; or, on the left, of reducing God to a mere metaphor for goodness, however one decides to define “goodness”.

Similarly, “Jesus-only” images lead to moralistic action by Christians on the theological left or individualistic pietism on the theological right, and a “Spirit-only” emphasis brings real dangers of either introspective escapism or charismatic excesses.

Yet these images are real throughout the Church, because the concept of the Trinity often appears irrelevant, due to poor teaching in our churches and what I think is a prevailing anti-intellectual climate.

Those who do venture bravely into the pulpit on Trinity Sunday are often reduced to explaining away the Trinity as a “mystery” that they expect “mere” lay people not to grapple with.

As Christians, we are baptised in the name of the Trinity, with that formula we heard again in our Gospel reading this evening. But I fear there has been a visible and audible decline in Trinitarian emphases in worship and liturgy.

Many of our prayers, canticles and psalms should end with praise being given to the Trinity. But when they do, the Gloria often provides a liturgical but thoughtless full stop rather than a statement of faith.

Worship that becomes Unitarian in this way becomes a transaction between an external deity and an autonomous worshipper. And it is not possible for a collection of separated and disconnected individuals to become the community of faith, to enter into the life of the Trinity.

The general decline in the Trinitarian character of worship, theology and life in the Church today parallels a decline in rigorous intellectual thinking. This is typified in the decline in social emphasis in our time, typified in the infamous claim by one politician that there is no society, that there are only individuals.

But we can only be human through our relationships; we can only have self-respect when we know what it is to respect others.

The Church is primarily communion, a set of relationships, exactly as we find in the Trinitarian God. Christianity is not a private religion for individuals; personal piety is only truly pious and personal when it relates to others and to creation.

In today’s anti-intellectual climate, it is hard to imagine the passions raised by the earlier debates on the Trinity, which led to patriarchs being deposed, priests banished, and a Pope such as Honorius I being declared a heretic. Arguments about the Trinity evoked deep passions at Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon, and they continue to be the most divisive issue separating the Eastern and Western Churches.

Today, the Church needs to recover a teaching of the Trinity that is not divisive and yet is relevant. There is a certain truth in the adage that man has created God in his own image and likeness. Our attitudes to the Trinity shape our models of God, and our models of God either shape or are shaped by our attitudes to the world: a unipolar God is an authoritarian model; the Trinity is a communitarian, inclusive, embracing, co-operative model.

Authoritarian or monist models have dominated the Church for centuries, providing male, authoritarian images of God. But in the New Testament and in the Early Church, the words used for the Spirit (pneuma, πνευμα), wisdom (Sophia, Σoφíα) and the Holy Trinity (Aghia Triadha, Αγία Τριάδα) are neuter and feminine nouns.

Monist models of God help to confirm men, particularly men with power in the Church, in their prejudices. The Trinity is inclusive rather than exclusive of human images.

During the Nazi era, the German theologian Erik Peterson (1890-1960), argued that monist theologies tend to legitimise absolutist and totalitarian political and social orders, while Trinitarian theologies challenge them.

The Trinity means that as humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, then it is not just as individuals that we reflect God’s image, but that when we are a community we are most human and most God-like. In the true community, each is valued, each takes account of the other, each has an equal place, contribution and voice. True community cannot concentrate sole authority, privilege and infallibility in one gender alone, let alone one member.

A recovery of the reality of the Trinity has radical implications for our models of the Church, for authority, service and inclusiveness in the Church. It implies respect for diversity and seeks a communal form of unity that respects, desires and even encourages diversity in the community of faith.

Compared with the great social and political challenges facing the Church, discussing the Trinity may seem to many to be as relevant as debating the number of angels on the head of a pin. Yet the Trinity is not only the archetype of all created reality, but without a fuller understanding of the nature of the Trinity, the Church will never be able to apprehend the truth of the infinite goodness of God.

The love and coinherence or perichoresis of the Trinity is a joyful dance that is at the heart of our understanding of God’s love for us and for creation, of our fellowship with God and one another, and of our understanding of our ministry and mission. Without a proper teaching on the Trinity, the Church will continue to provide answers to social and political questions that make God more like an idol than like our model for a loving community.

And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God the Eternal Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at the College Community Eucharist on Wednesday 21 May 2008