Trinity Brings Unity: Hope for a Divided World
Not long ago, my parish was offering the Prayers of the People as part of our Sunday liturgy. Worshippers were free to raise their own voices and add their personal petitions to those of the Book of Common Prayer. As we did so, two seemingly different prayers arose from our midst. One prayer was for the protection of police officers and first responders. Another was for the protection of protesters and all those seeking justice and reform. These prayers were not pre-planned or well-thought-out; they were spontaneous and heartfelt offerings to God. Yet, they were harmonious. Unlike other petitions I’ve occasionally heard over the years, neither prayer bore any trace of bitterness or antagonism. Neither prayer was attempting to stake and defend a claim. Rather, in that holy moment, both prayers belonged.
It is often said that nature abhors a vacuum. It should also be said that the Creator of nature abhors a dualism. We live in a nation locked in ideological division and participate in a culture that revels in combat, competition, and win-lose scenarios. But God does not. Surely, one of the most striking and enigmatic features of Jesus’s earthly ministry was his routine refusal to abide by the simple laws of duality. He possessed an astounding ability to move between the horns of a dilemma, to answer a question with an even greater question, and to bring new and unexpected possibilities into being. It seems that this capacity was one of the signature marks of his authority. It made his teaching and preaching unlike that of the Pharisees and scribes. It caused his hearers to step back, think, and think again. Even today, his words still push and prod us to look beyond our complacent categories and ready ways of carving up the world. So much of what we hear each day reinforces our divisions. So little of what Jesus says pays them any heed.
Consider those worldly voices which foment rage at our cultural, political and national enemies. Righteous anger, they tell us, is the only acceptable weapon in a war of values. Yet Jesus insists otherwise, “I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and he sends rain upon the righteous and upon the unrighteous.’” (Matthew 5:44-45)
Consider also those who warn of the danger of extending mercy too quickly to those who injure us. Forgiveness, they suspect, only perpetuates our victimhood and oppression. It must be replaced by an unyielding justice. Yet, when Peter asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus spills over in extravagant clemency: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
The same holds even for those voices anxious about merit, responsibility and prudent stewardship. We do not have endless resources, they point out, and surely, what we do have should not be given away by those who have not counted the cost. Yet Jesus upends even this sensible discussion with his astounding Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15)
Truly, we can point to any number of voices clamoring for our attention as they emphasize and amplify our culture of fear, mistrust, uncertainty, and false dichotomies. In the face of every howl of protest, Jesus boldly reassures, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)
Like Nicodemus, we may puzzle over these answers. We may find ourselves spluttering in reply, “How can these things be?” Perhaps there is more wisdom in that question than we realize. Being is the crux of the matter. What Jesus knows in his being is the truth of the Trinity. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, and God is not a dualism. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This revelation of the very nature of God as both one and three, as unified and yet related, sets before us a life that is greater and more mysterious than the world would have us know—a communion of true and lasting reconciliation and peace. The Trinity, and only the Trinity, brings unity. To know God as Trinity is to know that it is possible to experience otherness without violence, difference without rupture, distinction without separation or lack. It shows Isaiah’s vision to be rooted in Divine reality: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them….they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6, 9)
The more we contemplate the Trinity, the more we come to see that the Christian doctrine of God has never been a solely intellectual matter. The Trinity is not only what God is. It is also what He does. The Triune God opens up creative ways of living in the world that are manifestly scriptural, liturgical, sacramental and ecclesial. We can and must experience this Triune life as it emerges in the midst of our own. The Sunday my parishioners united in prayer was a simple, beautiful example. No longer were we merely tacking a Trinitarian formula on the end of our intercessions: we were tasting—for a fleeting moment—the reality of Trinitarian life.
To say and believe this is not to deny sin, suffering, or the painful struggle of existence in a fallen world. The Trinity is not faith in progress, Hegelian dialectic, or the insuperable power of comprehension and compromise. East of Eden, real choices have to be made and real separations must be endured. And yet, the Trinity does change things. The truth of God as Trinity loosens the grip of duality by shifting the metaphysical ground on which we stand. It is possible to creatively move through conflict and division, to ask greater and more expansive questions, to bring unforeseen and life-giving possibilities to light. We can, by the grace of God, rise above the harsh logic of duality. Our judgmentalism can fade. Our hearts can soften. Our warring strife can cease.
This is the great and glorious gift of knowing God as Trinity. Precisely because the Triune God is not in competition with us, He can create new life in us while allowing it to truly be our own. This is the very heart of our call in Christ, the mystery of New Birth that Nicodemus wrestled with in the dead of night. We are called to greater strength, greater truth and greater love than a world built on dualisms can hold. We are called to the life of the Trinity.
Brian L. Rebholtz is the Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Auburn, CA. (saintlukesauburn.org) He’s fascinated by Bible design, preaching, metaphysics and the spiritual life of human beings. He is married to Catherine, a small animal veterinarian, and lives in a home filled with books, animals and children.