Trinity (Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15)

I am going to tell you a story I have told before about a meeting I was part of many years ago to plan a ‘Baptists Today’ conference… Baptists Today, to fill some of you in, was a conference for Baptists from all over Australia ‘exploring’ – just like our church goal – ‘what it means to follow Jesus today…’ And I was very overawed by the august company I was in! I knew Andrew Curtis, the director of the Baptist inner-city work I had been part of, but there was also Valerie Cox, a director of Baptist Community Services and passionate feminist, Paul Turton, an edgy young city pastor from Melbourne, Tim Costello, who may not actually have been there, but I picture him being there. And, of course, the eminent scholar and minister, Rev Thorwald Lorenzen. And me, a pregnant theology student – so this is a long time ago!

The main item of business for this first session was to choose a topic for the conference, so we went around the room.

“It has to be the environment,” said Paul Turton, diving in early, “how we think theologically about the environment is one of the most pressing issues of our time.”

“That is true,” said Tim, “But how we treat the poor is where our focus should be.”

“No, it’s not just about poverty,” said Andrew Curtis, “It about marginalisation. It is about being denied the rights and freedoms that all people deserve. Think of our Aboriginal communities!”

“All that’s very well,” said Valerie, “but the fundamental issue of the relationship between men and women has to be addressed before anything!”

Now at this point I was sweating a little. What would I say when it was my turn? But fortunately, Thorwald was next.

“No, no,” said Thorwald. “You are all wrong. These are not the main issues of our time. The main issue – the thing we must understand – the thing we must address is the Trinity! If we do not address the Trinity, it is pointless addressing anything!”

I can’t remember what we decided on in the end, but I do remember that stunned silence.

But I was reminded of Thorwald’s words again as Trinity Sunday approached and as I looked at a lectionary essay by writer Debie Thomas for this week.

Even at the best of times, [she writes] it’s hard to get excited about Trinity Sunday…. Needless to say, we are not living in the best of times. …. the Covid-19 pandemic continues to devastate our planet. All over the world, catastrophic headlines darken our days. Many of us are tired, heartsick, anxious, and overwhelmed…. Some of us are facing economic uncertainty or ruin…. Some of us are devastated by the divisions and inequalities that infect our communities…. Some of us are barely hanging onto belief in one God. Now the Church wants us to contemplate three? Why? …. The deeper question [is]: Why should we care? What difference does the three-in-one make? Fine, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So what? Given the state our world is in right now, why should the Christian doctrine of the Trinity matter?

And she goes on to talk about why the Trinity matters. Why in Thorwald’s words addressing the Trinity – being shaped as a community by our worship of “one God in trinity and the trinity in unity…their glory equal, their majesty coeternal”, as the Athanasian Creed states, matters.

So, following their lead, I want to address three aspects of the Trinity that need to- that must – shape us as a community of God’s people.

Firstly, the Trinity reveals that the God we worship, that we model in our service, is dynamic – unchanging, yet constantly changing, revealing Godself to us in a range of different ways. The term used for this is ‘perichoresis’, a word derived from two Greek words ‘peri’ meaning ‘around’ and ‘chōreō’, ‘to go, or come’; meaning ‘going around’ or ‘encompassing’. Some have described this as a ‘dance’ – but choreography, although it sounds similar, is actually a different Greek word, ‘choreia’. So, it may be a helpful image – but not semantically correct one! Pastor and author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “..the doctrine of the Trinity.…is our confession that God comes to us in all kinds of ways as different from one another as they can be. The other mystery is that God is one.… All we can do is decide whether to open ourselves up to a God whose freedom and imagination boggle our minds.”

The image that comes to me to reflect the dynamism, the ‘perichoresis’ of the Trinity is that of a river, the river we heard of last week, in John 7:37-39, when Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty comes to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow river of living water.’” This is a reference, we’re told, to the coming of the Holy Spirit on believers.

‘You never step into the same river twice,’ said the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus and, in the same way, just as our world is changing, so the empowering of God, the equipping of God, is always new, always fresh, and always surging and sustaining, giving life for all that God calls us to do.

As our Romans reading said, God’s empowering love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and, as our John reading said, that Spirit of truth will continue to encourage us and guide us. Let us draw on these life-giving images as we go on as a community of faith.

Secondly, the Trinity reveals that the God we worship is communal, that we are to be a communal community.

In his book, God, where are you? Gerard Hughes writes, “When studying theology, I found the Doctrine of the Trinity the most difficult, boring and irrelevant to everyday life. Now, it seems to me the most exciting and relevant….’In God we live, and move and have our being.’ In Christian understanding, there are three persons in one God, so united that each shares totally with the other two.… We are made in the image of God. Essentially, we too are, insofar we are in relationship with the rest of creation…. [Who we are] is something we discover through our relationships…”

The image that speaks to me of the communality of the Trinity, and of our community, is that of the Spirit of God coming on the church at Pentecost. God was present “as divided tongues, as of fire,” the text says, “on each one of them”. The Trinity, a trinity in unity, “neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence”, as the creed says, becomes visible among us when we value the gifts of each person and bring those gifts together for ministry.

There has been too much talk of my birthday already, but I was remembering this week my 5th birthday, and how I had to be taken out of the party and spoken to sternly by my mother because I had objected, during ‘pass the parcel’, to the lollies and small gifts people found, when they unwrapped the layers, going to them. After all, it was my birthday party! I’ll take all the presents if I want to! There was a scene…

And the same thing sadly happens over and over in the church. We grieve the Holy Spirit, we do not embody the Trinity when we fail to value each person, each person’s gifts, and to work together. We are called to be shaped like that birthday cake image of early church – all of us tiny birthday candles on a cake that is to be shared by all.

Finally, the Trinity reveals that the God we worship, the shape that shapes us, is invitational.

And the image, of course, that comes to remind is this – the well-known and much-loved icon of the Trinity painted by Russian Andrei Rublev in the early 1400’s.

Here we see three figures seated around a table. They are distinct and yet their positioning and their gestures towards each other create a unity. The Father, dressed in gold, gazes at the Son. The Son, in blue and brown, the colours of divinity and humanity, gazes back while gesturing to the Spirit. The Spirit looks to the Father while pointing to the Son. The attitudes of all three indicate respect yet their equal placement symbolises equality.

And at the centre of their circle is a chalice holding a calf’s head, a traditional symbol indicating that the relationship between these three is not one of domination or aggression or manipulation, but of self-giving, sacrificial love. Also striking is the larger image of a chalice formed by the outline of the figures of Father and Spirit.

As our Romans passage this morning tells us, there is suffering in being formed into the invitational shape of God, and yet, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character [more of the character of God], and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts [and into the waiting chalice of our communal life] through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

As a whole,” Debie Thomas writes, “the icon exudes adoration and intimacy… But it also exudes openness. There is space at the table for the viewer of the icon. For me. For us. …the point of the great Three-in-One is not exclusivity…but radical hospitality. The point of the Three is always to …extend the invitation, to make the holy table more expansive…. Likewise, the closer we draw to the adoration of the Three, the wider and more hospitable our hearts must grow towards the world.

As a community that is shaped by the Trinity, we go on exploring what it means to be a river of life, dynamic as our God is dynamic in our world today, gathered flames of fire, building inclusive and caring and diverse community as God does, and a table open to all others, sharing the invitation of God – embodying the self-giving image of God – in our words and our actions – as God’s trinitarian people.