Trinity Sunday. This is the only day on the liturgical calendar that is named for a doctrine. Most of the other days—if they have a special designation—are named for persons (like all those “saints’ days”), or events (like Pentecost or Christmas or Epiphany), or divine attributes (like “Christ the King”). But only one day—this one, the first Sunday after Pentecost—is named for a doctrine.
Part of the reason why is that the liturgical calendar is meant to be an ecumenical calendar. That means there has to be a high level of concurrence with regard to the dates, and—as you may have noticed—Christian denominations have a diversity of opinions about doctrine. That’s why there’s no such thing as “Transubstantiation Day” or “Predestination Sunday.”
Only the doctrine of the Trinity gets its own day. It’s one of the very few things about which most churches agree. I recall hearing someplace that 95 percent or better of all professing Christians take the Trinity as a matter of fact.
Unfortunately, that does not mean that the doctrine of the Trinity is easily explained! So, one of the challenges facing any preacher is finding a way to speak about the triune nature of God without either getting bogged down in technical theological language or lapsing into silliness.
Well, let’s ask the question: What is the doctrine of the Trinity all about, anyway?
The British theologian Robin Parry has said: “For many Christians the Trinity has become something akin to their appendix: it is there, but they are not sure what its function is; they get by in life without it doing very much; and if they had to have it removed they wouldn’t be too distressed.” 1
However, throughout Scripture—and throughout our Christian life—the careful listener will detect Trinitarian echoes. At Creation, the Father creates through his Son, breathing his Spirit into humanity. At the Incarnation, the Father sends the Son into the world by the power of the Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit.
And the church is the community of the Holy Spirit. Now, while there are a number of ways of speaking about the Trinity, it is this idea of community that I’m going to focus on here. Because—just like the church—God himself is a divine community. Let me explain.
In the 16th chapter of John’s gospel, we hear Jesus speak about “the Spirit of truth” who is soon to come. We also hear him say, “All that the Father has is mine.” Then, in the next chapter—as he is speaking to his Father, and praying for his disciples—we hear him say this:
“I ask … that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world … Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)
Here we are given a fleeting glimpse of God as he is in himself. Three times in this passage, Jesus speaks of the Father’s love for him. He prays that those who trust in his name may “see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” From all eternity, the Trinity has existed in love. God has always existed—not in isolation, but as persons-in-relationship. God is divine community.
But the Trinity is more than a community of love or a close family. It is a community of being. The persons of the Trinity share one being (or one nature). Jesus prays that those who believe in him will be one “as you, Father, are in me and I am in you.”
Then—still addressing his Father—he asks that his disciples may be one even “as we are one.” Father, Son and Spirit mutually indwell one another. Yet each one is as distinctive as coffee, cream, and sugar.
Yeah. Coffee, cream, and sugar. Once you mix them together in a cup, they become part of each other—and you cannot separate them out again. The Trinity is sort of like that. Theologians call this perichoresis.2 That’s a Greek term used to describe the “interpenetration” of the three persons of the Trinity.
Some have described perichoresis as a “sacred dance” which engages the three persons of the Godhead and expresses their essential unity.
Hmmm … that’s verging on theological gobbledygook, isn’t it? So let’s just put it this way: at the core of Trinitarian doctrine is the idea of community.
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples—which includes all of us believers—remains the same as it has always been: that we may all be one—not only one with each other, but also one with this Triune God whom we worship and serve. Think about that. Divine power is available to us because—through the work of the Holy Spirit—we are united with Christ, and united with his Father in heaven. If we are willing, in faith, to step into the circle of the sacred dance, then—together—we can get through the toughest of times. Together, we can get through anything!
Thanks be to God.
1 Robin Parry, Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (2nd ed.), Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2012, p. 14.
2 Perichoresis (from Greek: περιχώρησις perikhōrēsis, “rotation”) refers to the relationship of the three persons of the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to one another. Circumincession is a Latin-derived term for the same concept.