“Trinity? You don’t really believe in that, do you? What the heck does it have to do with real life anymore?”
Today, if people care about the Trinity at all, it is often just to question how three persons (sometimes called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) sitting on some kind of divine committee together can add up to one reality with the umbrella name of “God.” Because 1+1+1 does not equal a really-big-1. This confusion is understandable, but not unresolvable. Keep reading if you want to learn some cool vocabulary to impress your friends with this weekend.
For starters, the Jews and Muslims, our sisters and brothers in faith, are very clear that God is undifferentiated. God is perfect (which means that God is whole) and God is one. They stress the unity and absoluteness of God as primary and foundational to all of life as we know it, which I, as a Christian, strongly agree with. However, in addition to the qualities of God-understandings that we share with Jews and Muslims—namely, that God is transcendent (more than everything) and, that God is immanent (present throughout the universe)— we also see God in Jesus the Christ.
This is what makes Christians unique—we’ve had these Jesus encounters that make more clear a relational God, a God who is at the core, the essence of community itself, a community of 3 personas, not a committee of 3 persons: We worship God—and the image and understanding of the God we worship is deeply shaped by modelling our lives after Jesus, who created loving and authentic relationship and community with all kinds of people, everywhere he went.
To Jews and Muslims, it often looks like we are worshipping Jesus, which is understandably problematic to them—-I am not comfortable with worshipping Jesus either, because in scripture Jesus never tells us to worship him, but he DOES often say to follow him—which we do with the help of the Holy Spirit (the 3rd persona of the Trinity) in our lives.
In the 4th century when the doctrine of the Trinity was written in what is present-day Turkey, it was of utmost importance for the church councils to decide if God and Jesus were of the same substance OR if Jesus as the Christ was a little bit inferior to God the Father. It was critical for them to discern if Jesus was begotten OR created as the Son of God because Emperor Constantine was also called the Son of God, and so the language they used to determine the primacy of Jesus in their concept of God was a really big deal then.
In the 21st century, as people thinking about Trinity Sunday coming up this week, it is enough to say that for followers of the Way, we don’t fully grasp God unless we’re looking at Jesus. The Trinity is defined by the amazing and surprising way that people have encountered the living God through the presence of Jesus Christ—as much today as when he was walking around in Galilee. The Jews had a long tradition of prophets, and yet many of the Jews said, “This man is something different. In his presence I feel I am in God’s presence.” Jesus is the reason we bother to try and understand the Trinity today—and it’s the reason we bother to be Christian, even in a culture where that is hard to admit sometimes.
Recently, I was asking the women in my interfaith bookclub to introduce themselves to one another and tell a bit about their spiritual or religious identity. One lifelong and very active church member in her 90s (yes, that is 9-0) said that she identified as Christian, but that she really didn’t call herself that anymore. She preferred to think of herself as “a follower of Jesus.” Why? Because of the many negative connotations associated with that word in the world today.
Would it surprise you to know that in 2009, when the Barna Research group polled US, unchurched young adults aged 16-29 about their perception of what the term Christian meant, that most of them used the words, “hypocritical, judgmental, and homophobic” to describe the people they had seen and heard call themselves Christian? I’d like to suggest that perhaps it’s time to take back the name “Christian” from those who would mar its radical beauty.
So in order to do that, let’s take a look at this: If our Trinity describes God as relational, as needing relationship to be whole and well, as being the essence of communion or community and not a rugged individualist (as we’re so accustomed to thinking of ourselves here in the West), what does that mean for us who are made in the image of God? Wouldn’t that mean that we, too, are relational at our core? That we, too, need authentic, loving community to be whole and well? That we’re not supposed to go it alone, but to rather go at life like our 2nd persona of the Trinity did?
Lord, help me learn to be as Jesus, fully dependent on you and not ashamed of being interdependent with everyone else, even those Christians I would rather avoid. Amen.