Faith Works 6-6-09
What's a Trinity, & Do I Really Need One
Trinity Sunday is traditionally the Sunday after Pentecost, the first Sunday of "Ordinary Time," the long slog through the church calendar to Advent, with the green paraments on the altar (or table), Bible stand, and vestments.
Personally, when I've served churches where there were paraments, I always liked to keep the red paraments of Pentecost out through the first Sunday of July, if only to even out the wear on the long suffering green ones.
Trinity Sunday is also traditionally ignored even in the liturgically oriented churches that might be more likely to keep track of such things. Like Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of Ordinary Time just before the first Sunday of Advent, it tends to get shoved to the back of the preaching and worshiping cupboard and not even get taken out and shaken out on the one day they could claim.
Quite frankly, the very concept of the Trinity tends to get short shrift, and quite a few Christians aren't sure even why we need the idea. Other than a few lines in very old hymns about "Three-in-One," we don't go there much, and end up being de facto unitarians (nothing personal to Unitarian Universalists, who at least know why they're Unitarian!), since the theology behind the Trinity doesn't get often unpacked. It doesn't "do" much in practical terms, and in our pragmatic, non-theological age, even many committed Christians think of the Trinity as being out there with Purgatory and the Apocrypha, largely optional and basically unnecessary holdovers from an earlier age.
On the eve of Trinity Sunday, I'd like to suggest you give this another thought.
Like most key elements of Christianity, it begins with Jesus. As Romans declared their emperors "Son of God, Prince of Peace," they elevated each one into a raucous pantheon of divine beings, a Mount Olympus filled with heavenly condos, and a contentious owners association where Zeus may hold the chairmanship, but the members don't always listen to the decrees from the top, and the roster keeps changing. Tiberius, Nero, Caligula, Caligula's horse: there was plenty of room on that mountaintop for expansion.
Christians said, in keeping with their Jewish roots, "No, there is one God, Lord over all, creator of all that is and was and ever shall be." So who is this Jesus whom you call Lord? Greeks and Romans alike pointed out that if Jesus was God, then his prayers were to . . .
What does it mean to say that God decisively intervened in human affairs through a person in first century Palestine? When Christians say that, if you would see and understand God, you can look to Jesus for all you need to know, though not all there is of God, how does that work?
It is essentially out of the question "what does it mean to say that Jesus is God incarnate" that the doctrine of the Trinity arises. Beginning with Jesus' own words about his relationship to his Father, the early church wrestled with the right way to express who the Son is until 325, when the Nicene Creed was written, stating that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God . . ."
And how does the Holy Spirit, manifested on Pentecost (which we observed last Sunday), relate to the Father and the Son? In fact Eastern and Western Christianity still have a subtle but resonant disagreement on this question, going back over a thousand years (think "filoque").
But the essence of Trinitarian belief goes back to the need to say two things at the same time: "The Lord our God, the Lord is One"; and also, "Jesus is Lord." Unitarian belief takes most of the pressure off that debate by saying that Jesus is not in any specific or unique way "of one substance with the Father." He may be the exemplar or focus for our human sense of who God is, but that's it from a Unitarian perspective.
Trinity Sunday is another opportunity for us to ask ourselves "Who is this Jesus? What does it mean to call him the Christ, the Son of God?" And gets us closer to the question "what does Jesus tell us about God?" Which is the heart of the matter.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what you think about the "filoque" clause in the Nicene Creed at email@example.com or follow "Knapsack" @ Twitter.com.