The Trinity: Not “what” but “who”!

By June 8, 2015 No Comments
Trinity Sunday, Year B, 2015 – Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

You have perhaps read or seen television stories about the terrible floods in Texas this past week or so. A couple dozen persons have died, some of them simply swept away – from their homes, from the road, from some place mistakenly thought to be safe. One father, I saw, lost two young children and his wife, who disappeared from a cabin while on vacation. Speaking of one of the children, he said, “I can only imagine her fear… what was she feeling? And I wasn’t there….”

Tragedies like this so often uncover the unbridgeable chasms between us, as people; ones that our deepest hopes cannot cross.
“What was she feeling…?”
My own family, growing up, was burdened with serious mental health issues. You often bang your head and heart against these things:
“I wish I could understand what you are sensing and thinking”, you say;
“Why can’t I get through to you?” you tell them;
“What was going on for them?” you wonder later, in the midst of the debris of breakdown.

Yet even in the best of times and relationships, this is the case: we are separate from one another. Our hearts and minds have limits beyond which they cannot go, just like our bodies do: I cannot know what another person feels or thinks. Nor can I share with them my most profound hopes, desires, and love itself. Nor can they do that to me. We remain fundamental strangers to one another. Believe it or not this is part of what we are dealing with today, on Trinity Sunday.

When we think of the Trinity, we often see it as a kind of solution to a problem; logical if difficult. I think this is a mistake. The Trinity, which we celebrate today, is not a “what”, to be sorted out. The Trinity is a “who”. And the difference is crucial.

Today is a culmination, in a way, of the Church year: there is the “coming of God” the Judge in Advent; the astonishing disclosure of this God as given in the flesh of Jesus at Christmas, and then the long dwelling with him in his mysterious human life – mysterious because shot through with strange power and authority. Teaching, healing, confronting, but finally suffering and dying as we encounter it in Holy Week. With the resurrection of this strange incarnate God, it is like a light is shown on the coming, dwelling, and inside-out undoing and redoing of our lives. This is thrown outward on Pentecost, as it were: Spirit, spirit! we are reminded; God is Spirit, entering, breathing, guiding, remaking, opening our mouths, so that the Jesus who is God, coming and dwelling, dying and rising, is now somehow made a part of us.

Who is this God? That is the huge question that comes at us in such a Church year that we follow every year. Who is he?, not “what is he?”. So, Isaiah closes his mouth, as he hears the Cherubim crying out: “Holy, holy, holy! This is the Lord of Hosts”, he hears; “the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is. 6:3). Isaiah does not ask for explanations. He bows in awe, humility and wonder. Who is this? He is God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We say, “Trinity”, rightly – although it took a long time for the church to say this. But the designation “Trinity” is important only if it is the answer to our question, “Who is this?”, only if saying “Trinity” leads us into the who-ness of God. Notice what Paul does here today in Romans 8.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” [Rom 8:14-17 RSV]

In speaking about God, as Father, as Son, and as Spirit, Paul tells us who this God is: he is God entering us, pulling us out of our fear, freeing us into the image of the Son, so that joined to Christ in his sufferings, we are taken up into the actual possession of the Father, “heirs”. This is who God is; this entering, joining, taking, being above all beings.

Christianity, the Christian faith, is always about “who”, never about “what” in the first instance. Because we are creatures, time-bound, limited, mortal – surrounded by the chasms of impossible difference – I am not you, nor you me – everything in the world necessarily comes to us as “whats”:
What is this paper I am holding?
What is this song we sing?
What is a voice, or a building or a sun or a day, or a person?

But human beings, as we know, are in a kind of struggle over this.

We are made in the image of God, so that the question of “who” nonetheless is always stirring in our hearts.

When, in Genesis, we hear of God creating Adam, the human being, Adam “names” all the creatures – the cattle, the birds of the air and so on (Gen. 2:20). These are “what’s”, if you will. What is this? It is a grasshopper! But once God has drawn out the woman from his rib, God presents her to the man, and the man exclaims “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman” (v. 23). The animals are “named” (shem), but the woman is “called” (quara). The difference is important: To be “called” is to be engaged, touched, invited – a calling out and to, betokens, not a “what” but a “who”; hence the two are “joined together”, that is, they come close, and hold on to one another.

Still, that is the best we can do as human beings; we seek to know fully the “who” of another person; yet we cannot quite make it; and we too often, almost always, fall back into the “what” of the object we “treat” in this or that way.

“I can only imagine her fear… what was she feeling? And I wasn’t there…”
That is, I wish she were a perfect “who” for me, and me for her – and not the object, the “what”, the little girl, washed away and drowned in a torrent.

I want to tell you the “who” of God; here it is: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. [Jhn 3:17 RSV”]. “Saved”, that is “made whole”, recreated perfectly. God sends the Son into the world that it might be remade into the fullness of its purpose – that human beings might be the “who’s” they are made to be. Who is God? The person who makes us persons; the Who who lets us be another who.

And this, John says elsewhere, is perfect love: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” [1Jo 4:9-10 RSV] Perfect Love: God sending his Son to die for us. Our minds and hearts must crack apart in the face of trying to understand this:

Instead of saying, “I can only imagine her fear… what was she feeling? And I wasn’t’there….”, God says: “I know your fear, O man and woman! I feel what you have felt. I am with you.”

He says this, because that is who God is: the Father, who knows the aloneness of his Son – “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps. 22:1; Mk. 15:34); the Father who feels the broken heart of His Son – “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?” (Lam. 1:1); The Father who comes to His Son utterly and wholly – “and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” [Luk 3:22 RSV]”

“Holy, holy, holy,” Isaiah cries out before God with the Cherubim. And so do we: for there is one Love, that carries us over every chasm of our created failure or limit, to know and touch and take to ourselves the one we love. There is one Love that takes us up so that what our love cannot do, this love must surely do – not the love of some hovering spirit for itself; not some truth planted in the cosmos around which everything revolves; not some Great God, who neither leaves nor enters nor crosses nor overcomes the boundaries that mark personhood.

There is no love, unless there is a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who is the Perfect Love.

Who is God?
My son Isaac, who is 21, is 1600 miles away, in Colorado, as is our daughter Hannah. Every day, I think: what is going on with them this moment? Sometimes I hear of their struggles, and I wish I could be there with them, and more than that, enter their hearts and make it right. But the fact that I cannot is part of what it means that I am a human being, and a human parent. My son and daughter have “left their father and their mother”; and this is as it must be. They have become their “own persons”, and while there is a necessary good to that, how my heart also weeps knowing that this necessity is also a wall, a moat, a wide river I cannot cross. My love is not perfect.

So this is what I do: I turn to God, who is most blessed and wondrous Trinity, and I pray to him. I listen to His word, and seek to follow the Son. Jesus, as our readings the past two Sundays have pointed out, gives us the promise of love: He sends us the Spirit of Truth, and “you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you”; and he then invites us: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” [John 14:17, 23 RSV]

We shall be one with those we love; our mortal flesh and minds and hearts will crumble before the truth that joins us together: for God; Father, Son, and Spirit, is One in Three, and it is He whom we follow and serve. Alleluia!

Sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on Trinity Sunday: May 31st, 2015.
Ephraim Radner

Ephraim Radner

Ephraim Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, an evangelical seminary of the Anglican tradition at the University of Toronto. Before moving to Toronto in 2007, he served as an Anglican priest in Burundi (Africa), Brooklyn (NY), Cleveland, Connecticut, and Colorado, where he was engaged in a wide range of pastoral and teaching ministries. Ephraim and his wife Annette Brownlee (Wycliffe College’s Chaplain and an instructor in Pastoral Theology) live in St. Matthew’s neighborhood, and relish the excitement and diversity of Riverdale. He assists the parish in leading worship, preaching, and teaching, (and sometimes with some music) and has been blessed by the witness and friendship offered by St. Matthew’s members.