The hope of the Trinity


A sermon on John 16:12-15 [for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

When my oldest child was just three years old, she asked me to explain the Trinity. I was thrilled that she wanted to understand God better, but also totally confounded.

Trying to answer that question - in words that even a spiritually and verbally precocious pre-schooler could understand - was more challenging than any of the heavily footnoted research papers that I wrote in graduate school. I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure that my answer was insufficient. The theology that they teach you about the Trinity is seminary couldn't help me. It's so esoteric, folded into complicated language that, as often as not, obscures rather than explains the mystery.

And so, the task of preaching about the Trinity, although slightly less impossible than trying to explain the concept to a three-year old, is still pretty daunting. What can I possibly say in the next 12 minutes or so that will clarify a theological conversation that has been going strong for nearly two thousand years?

It was while I was struggling with that question that I came across a simple, powerful reminder in a commentary on today’s gospel reading:

Timothy Adkins-Jones makes the point that : “Jesus seems to be doing anything but dealing with theological abstraction.” And then he goes on to remind preachers that “our mission seems to be to offer ways that the relationship Jesus describes in this passage, between Himself, the Father, and the Spirit, brings hope to an anxious people instead of wrestling with the particulars of the Trinity.”[1]

Of course, he’s right! Jesus wasn’t explaining theology, he was talking to his closest friends. He was saying his goodbyes on the night before he knew he was going to be killed, and he was trying to give them the reassurance that they needed to make it through the ordeal and continue with the work. He was offering them hope. And if that’s true, then what we need to discover in this gospel is not a clear understanding of exactly how the Trinity works, but rather what is it about the relationship Jesus describes that offers us hope.

My answer to that question comes in two parts: in the way that we are like the Trinitarian God, and in the way that the Trinitarian God is not like us.

First, how are we like God?

Of course, we are all “made in the image of God." That’s a pretty basic proclamation of the Christian faith… but that can be taken all kinds of different directions, and today’s gospel is much more specific about the image we share. It is an image that is fundamentally relational. Jesus, and the Spirit who is coming, and the One Jesus describes as Father, are all bound together in an interdependent, indivisible relationship. God is relational.

And that’s something we can recognize. Because who we are, the ways that we understand our own identities, and the experiences that bring the deepest meaning and joy in our lives also depend on interaction, on relationship.

This intrinsically human reality is a powerful theme of Delia Owens’ best-selling novel Where the Crawdads Sing. The book tells the story of Kya Clark, a young girl who raises herself in the marshes on the North Carolina coast in the 1950s and 60s, after being abandoned by every member of her family. She figures out how to meet her physical needs, through a sharp mind and ingenuous spirit. But while her experiences of betrayal and abandonment teach her to be fiercely protective of her freedom, and even of her isolation…. she cannot deny the deep human need for relationship. The need to connect with other living things, even if it’s just the sea gulls that she feeds and names on her little stretch of beach. And, what’s more, even in her isolation, she is compelled to share the learning and life she finds in the marsh, even if that sharing can only be established through words on a page that she sends off to a publisher. Her formative years are lived almost entirely alone, and her life is shaped by loneliness in ways that I doubt any of us can even imagine… but she still knows the deep truth that to be human is to be relational.

This truth is as unavoidable, as it can be terrifying. It would be much easier, much safer if we DIDN’T need relationships. For Kya, and – I would bet – for most of us, relationality is the source of our deepest pains and vulnerabilities.

But that’s exactly why I find HOPE is the revelation that GOD is fundamentally relational too. Because that means that our vulnerability, our need for connection, for the meaning-making of relationship, is not a mark of our weakness, but rather a mark of divinity, a reassurance that we are, indeed, made in the image of God.

Father Richard Rohr writes this about the relationality that Jesus describes in his goodbye speech to his disciples,:“when Jesus called himself the Son of the Father and yet one with the Father, he is giving clear primacy to relationship. Who you are is who you are in the Father, as he would put it. That is your meaning and your identity.”[2] Father Rohr recognizes that It is a deeply hope-giving truth, that God shares our relationality. That our vulnerability, and our need for connection comes from God’s very nature, because that means that God is the One who can ultimately MEET our deepest need.

But, of course, that’s where we often run into trouble, isn’t it? Because that’s a really hard thing to trust. Instead of opening ourselves to our fundamental nature as beings who NEED relationship, who need God, we try to guard ourselves against that need, just as the character of Kya does, hiding in her marsh. We idolize independence, and individualism. Self-sufficiency is lifted up as a mark of moral superiority. It’s one of the core values of our culture in the United States, even of American Christianity.

But if God is essentially relational, if interdependence is the image of God, then our value of individualism cuts us off from the Trinitarian God.

In his book Future Faith, pastor and theologian Wesley Granberg-Michaelson devotes an entire chapter to unpacking why this value of individualism should actually be recognized as a heresy – as a denial of who God is, and who we are in Christ. Because individualism – the moral position that we must rely on ourselves and protect ourselves first – rejects God’s very nature and God’s call to us to live in community, in relationship.

And that’s why I think we need MORE from today’s gospel than the hope that we are like God. We also need the hope that, in our current brokenness, God is NOT like us.

We need to see, in this reassurance from Jesus, the evidence that God’s inter-related nature is FREE of the perverting value of individualism. And that’s exactly what we DO see in these few verses from John’s gospel. We see the exact opposite of the me-first, looking-out-for-number-one, self-focused individualism that teaches us to fear interdependence and relational need. Instead, Jesus explains the perfect, self-giving freedom of the Trinitarian God:

“(the Father) will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For the reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:14-15).

This is NOT the context in which I am used to hearing the word “mine” used in a sentence. Rather, when I hear that word I associate it with the very first Italian phrase that Maddox spontaneously picked-up when we were living in Milan:

“Questo e mio!” “This is MINE!”

He was only two years old, but he had already learned that whatever the language, it was vital to be able to establish the priority of personal possessions! I’m pretty sure that we have ALL learned that lesson – early and often.

But Jesus didn’t.

“What the Father has is mine, and we are all about sharing.” The God whose very nature is relationship is not like us, because God knows that individualism is a lie. The God of the Universe, the Source of all life, and light, and power… the only one who could ever really have the right to say “this belongs to me and to no other”… God instead says “this is ours and we want to share it.”

So, there you have it. We are like God. And God is not like us. And this truth of the Trinity offers us the hope that speaks to our deepest need and to our deepest errors.

We are made for relationship, because we were made by a relational God.

And while we cling to our independence, God calls us to interdependence.

Together, this is the hope that we find in God’s trinitarian identity.

One other thing. One other hope that I find in this passage. It comes in verse 12, when Jesus looks into the faces of his beloved disciples and he sees the ways that they are not like him. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

Our relational God knows our limits. Knows our needs, and also knows that sometimes, no matter how wonderful the news, we just aren’t ready for it. So, if my sermon today has failed to explain the Trinity, or even if it has failed to connect you to the hope of our God who made you for relationship and who never tires of sharing with you… That’s OK. The Spirit of truth won’t give up on me or on you.

It’s not in God’s nature.

Thanks be to God.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4097

[2] “God is Relationship”, Daily Meditation for May 9, 2019. https://cac.org/god-is-relationship-2019-05-09/

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