Asking the new parish curate to preach on Trinity Sunday is a time-honoured tradition around the world. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Trinity Sunday is a good day for clergy to avoid preaching, because it’s the one Sunday of the year devoted to a church doctrine rather than something Jesus said or another festival. And yet it always seems timely to celebrate the Trinity today because it follows and picks up the themes of Pentecost last week so smoothly.
At Pentecost, the disciples had their time of waiting answered with the arrival of the Holy Spirit. It was an amazing event of flame, wind and commotion which filled everyone with joy and boldness, and from that point, the message of God’s love, grace and ongoing presence spread out across the world. The waiting was over; the new mission was underway.
But as the church grew, inevitably the diversity of people from different areas and cultures meant that it became clear not all Christians were speaking the same language of faith.
It was about 300 years after the first Pentecost when church leaders of the known world were able to come together and attempt to set out what Christians were to believe officially about the relationship of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, notably in the form we now know as the Nicene Creed. This was not a simple process!
Words like ‘official’, ‘authorised’, ‘orthodox’ and so on always tend to suggest that there are lines being drawn – that decisions are being made as to who is in and who is out; who is to be welcomed as a fellow believer and who is to be shunned as a misguided heretic. It is clear that the adoption of the model of the Holy Trinity, our three-in-one God, is a model reflecting lengthy prayer and debate and immense theological and political negotiation and compromise.
Although the word ‘Trinity’ itself does not actually appear anywhere in the Bible, in today’s Gospel reading from the end of Matthew we hear the parting words from Jesus which have become known as the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is by far the clearest expression of God as Trinity to be found anywhere in the Gospels.
But is simply reciting the Nicene Creed and assenting to it sufficient to be living in a way that reflects a Triune, Three-in-One God?
It’s been said that the Sermon on the Mount tells Christians how to live, but not what to believe; while the Nicene Creed tells us what to believe but not how to live. Clearly we need both so that there is agreement between what we know, what we believe and what we do.
Our three-in-one model of God only works if we put it into practice and let it drive our lives every day; in what we say and do; in how we engage with people? How do we know if we’re really reflecting God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
I think one answer is literally found in the number 3. The idea that the Godhead consists of three persons, three faces of God, immediately challenges what is often called binary thinking. If we find ourselves dividing people mentally into two groups, for example, people who are valuable and people who are not worthy of our time, then we are engaging in binary thinking. What’s wrong with binary thinking? My answer is that it’s an unhelpful way of thinking because it is likely to lead us away from the truth. By over-simplifying every emerging issue or problem into an ‘us and them’ situation: friends v foes, good people v bad people, we are probably searching for some kind of certainty, but we are very likely to find ourselves discarding logic and truth. God is not binary. By focussing upon a dynamic, flowing Holy Trinity where there cannot be a hierarchy, there cannot be two static sides, where no one person is subordinate to the others, we find our minds being drawn to considering more than two solutions to a problem – we search for a third way, a different approach to a situation.
In a time of great complexity and social upheaval, the ability to move beyond binary thinking is becoming more and more crucial. By way of illustration, during this week, we have all seen many disturbing and violent images from the streets of the USA, initiated by the excruciating public death of a black man in custody. Although I join with numerous Church leaders in denouncing the American leader’s use of a Bible and a church as props for a political photo-opportunity, much more concerning than that particular event is the underlying racial inequity still prevalent in that country, and it must be said, in ours. The Australian record of indigenous incarceration and black deaths in custody is abysmal and disproportionate. In both countries, applying broad and careless labels to groups of people does nothing to heal a country in crisis; instead, it solidifies the sense of division. Us v them; good v bad. When we say no to binary or dualistic ways of thinking and yes, to third options and creative, lateral, imaginative approaches, we find ourselves considering far more possibilities for solutions, and more grounds for hope for a peaceful and reconciled future.
Stepping away from binary or dualistic thinking implies a surrendering of certainty and that may feel uncomfortable. But Jesus never said following him would be comfortable. The path we choose as Christians will often be dark and difficult, but as we travel, it may be helpful to recall what the model of the Holy Trinity has to offer: we know we have value because we have been created in the image of God the Father; we know we are loved because through the life, death and raising to new life of Jesus, we have been redeemed; and we know we have purpose because through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, unveiled at Pentecost, we have been sanctified and transformed. Created, redeemed and sanctified, we know we are never alone, for as Jesus promised in his Great Commission, he will be with us always, to the end of the age. Amen.