The excellent Elizabeth Stoker (whom you should follow) was recently asked to deliver a sermon on the Trinity. Since this is a topic I often think about but have never really written on, her excellent sermon has inspired me to take a crack at the exercise. Here goes, and thank you to Elizabeth for inspiring me…
We don’t talk about the Trinity often enough. We don’t think about it often enough. We often have a tendency to think about it as an abstruse, technical theological concept that has little relevance to our daily lives as Christians.
The Incarnation—the fact that Jesus Christ is both completely a man, and completely God, the ruler of the Universe—is an equally incomprehensible mystery, but it seems more “relatable.” In our daily lives as Christians, we can take comfort in the fact that, in the Patristic phrase, “God became man so that man could become God.” The Incarnation tells us that whatever suffering we encounter, the God-Man takes it on for us. The Incarnation tells us that the God we worship is a God of total self-giving in love who invites us to share in His love. The Incarnation tells us that God, who is greater than we can conceive, can and wants to be united with us as humble bread and wine.
But what does the Trinity tell us, in our daily lives as Christians?
To answer that, we have to ask what the Trinity tells us about God. Perhaps the most important Biblical passage about the nature of God is Exodus 3:15 when God, appearing to Moses as the burning bush, describes himself with the mysterious tetragrammaton, the sequence of letters we translate as “Yahweh” or “I am the one who is.” According to the Tradition of the exegetes, here, God describes himself not as a being, but as Being with a capital B. God is Being itself. He is the sheer act of being, the one who sustains all existence, the one who is the very nature of being.
Of this Biblical One God, who is Being itself, the apostolic Christian Tradition tells us something else: this one God is also one in three divine Persons. God is Father, God is Son, God is Holy Spirit. And yet God is one. What are we to make of this mysterious idea—an idea that the Tradition of the Church tells us is a fact?
One way to understand it that has been really helpful to me was explained by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his book Introduction to Christianity. If we keep in mind the Biblical idea that God is the nature of being itself, we see that the Trinity tells us that the nature of being itself is being-in-relation. Being, all being, is being-in-relation.
This is radical and transformative.
As Ratzinger writes, this turns on its head twenty-five centuries of philosophy. From Socrates to Sartre, philosophers have debated the nature of being, and they have always described being as (to use non-philosophical language) that which is basic, autonomous. If it is in relation to something else, then it is not being itself. The doctrine of the Trinity flips that on its head.
But nevermind the philosophy. If Exodus tells us that God is the nature of being itself, and if the Trinity tells us that God is a being-in-relation, then it means that the nature of all being is being-in-relation. You. Me. We are all beings-in-relation. Our relationships are not things we do, they are not outside of us, they are part of us. Our very nature is to relate to other persons, because the very nature of being itself is being-in-relation. We are made for—in every sense of those words—relationship. Relationship with the Triune God, who is the very act of being itself, and relationship with all other beings.
I don’t know about you, but that has completely changed my daily life. Once this idea of the nature of being as being-in-relation hits you, it’s like stepping out into the world after hours in a dark room. Everything is brighter, the colors are more vivid. Everything that exists is made for relationship. And so am I! And so is the God who sustains it all!
Of course, the divine Persons of the Trinity are not just in any relationship. They are in a relationship of complete and eternal self-giving. They are one, even as they are separate. Another way to express this is that God is Love. God is Being itself, and Being is being-in-relationship, and this relationship is self-giving in love.
It turns out that the chorus of the Blues Brothers song—“Everybody needs somebody to love/You, me, everybody”—is a profound, and profoundly true theological statement. Everybody. Needs. Somebody to love. Love isn’t a nice thing to have. Relationship isn’t a nice thing to do. It’s the very nature of being itself. You, me, everybody. Including God, since that’s why He created us in the first place.
Far from being an abstract theory with little relation to our daily experience, I have found that the doctrine of the Trinity profoundly changed how I look at God, at the world, at my brothers and sisters, and at myself. Because the Trinity reveals to us the most profound truth about the nature of all being.
There’s another bishop who has profoundly influenced my view of the Trinity. It’s a little something that was said by the Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware. He was talking about prayer. And he said—I’m paraphrasing—I pray to Jesus Christ. But why is it that I pray to Him? Because He is the Son of God. And how is it that Jesus is not just a figure from the distant past, but is present in my daily life? Through the Holy Spirit.
I find this very profound. In particular, I find it tells us two very important things about the Trinity.
First, it tells us that Jesus is the Way. In the famous parable, Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, but in the same parable he also described himself as the gate through which the sheep pass. Jesus is the gate through which we can begin to walk into the Trinity. Jesus makes the Trinity manifest for us. Because the Father is one with the Son, and the Son is one with the Father. Because wherever there is Jesus there is the Holy Spirit, and wherever there is the Holy Spirit there is Jesus. Our relationship with Jesus, through His Word, through the Sacraments, through prayer, is a relationship with the Trinity, and Jesus is the Way to intimacy with the Trinity.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, it tells us that the way we can relate to the Trinity is not just through abstract thinking, but through prayer. Maybe the fancy-talk about being-in-relationship impressed you as much as it did me, maybe not. But one thing is certain, which is that a prayerful relationship with Jesus Christ draws you into intimacy with the Trinity. Through simple prayer, through this awareness that whenever we commune with Jesus Christ we also commune with the other persons of the Trinity, and the way we understand them as they are reflected through Jesus, we can have an intimacy with the Trinity which is greater than any philosophical treatise. Through prayer, through the sacraments, we walk with the Trinity and the Trinity walks with us.
Because this is the fundamental, radical truth of Christianity. God doesn’t just want us to serve Him. He doesn’t even just want us to love Him. He wants intimacy with us. God doesn’t love us, He is love. He is mad love. Love unto dying of the Cross. Love unto being consumed as bread and wine. He is love because He is being-in-relationship, and because He is all being, we are beings-in-relationship, called to be the love that the Triune God is.