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Trinity, 05/30/2010

Sermon on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15 , by Frank C. Senn

It has been said that Trinity Sunday is the one day during the year when we celebrate a doctrine rather than an event.  That isn't particularly appealing to us event-loving modern people.  Discussion of doctrine makes some people's eyes glaze over and feel sleep coming on; it can be dry and boring.  But Trinity Sunday did not really develop in the Church as an opportunity to talk about doctrine; it developed as a day to show our love, our devotion, to the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us.

From the tenth century on there was a votive mass for the Holy Trinity that could be celebrated at any time.  In the western European countries this mass of special devotion to the Trinity was usually celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost.  In 1334, recognizing these facts on the ground (as we now say), Pope John XXII approved a Festival of the Holy Trinity on this day in the calendar for the universal church.  The day gained in popularity during the late middle ages during the time of the Black Death when people appealed the God the Holy Trinity to save them.  Many parish churches and colleges were named for the Trinity. 

So Trinity Sunday did not emerge as a day on which to reinforce doctrine.  It was a day of devotion, a day on which to show love to God.  As that long, repetitive so-called Athanasian Creed says, "We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity."  But then it does go on to add, "neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being."  So, OK, we are dealing with theology.  That's inescapable if we're dealing with God as Trinity.  But all the Creed wants to do is to preserve a mystery, and if we dig more deeply into the mystery of the Trinity we don't find theology but...a love triangle.

Yes, that's right, a love triangle.

Have you ever had the experience of being caught in a love triangle? I admit that back in my bachelor days I once had two young women competing for me.  Well, actually, they didn't know each other, so I shouldn't put the blame on the women.  I felt something for each of them.  It was finally resolved, but it was sure emotionally tense while it was going on.

Love triangles are intense because there are two sets of emotions running through you.  Do I love this one more than that one?  They may each be my heart's desire, but I can't have both of them because if one finds out that I also have feelings for the other there's going to be a time of reckoning, and that won't be very pleasant. 

Love triangles are not comfortable relationships.  Which is why they're fodder for innumerable dramas and novels and operas.  So why would I say that when we probe the mystery of the Trinity we find a love triangle?  It is because one of the things that most theologians agree on when considering the Trinitarian nature of God is that we are not so much talking about three individuals, but about three relationships. The Latin persona does not mean an individual but a role.  There are three roles being played by God that signal three interconnected relationships within the divine being. And the three interconnected relationships are a relationship triangle.  In fact, it was St. Augustine, in Book 7 of his treatise On the Trinity, who first saw this love triangle in God.  The Father loves the Son.  The Son loves the Father.  The Spirit is the bond between the Father and the Son.  So, said Augustine, God is the Lover, the Beloved, and the Loving itself.

He saw that love triangle in each human being.  There is the lover doing the loving, namely me loving myself.  There is the beloved who is the object of my love; namely, myself.  There is the act of love that flows from the lover to the beloved; namely my love.  So there you have what Augustine called the vestigia trinitatis, the "vestige of the Trinity" within each of us human beings made in the image of God.

But Genesis says that when God (a plural God, Elohim) created us in God's own image, God created us male and female.  Now that's more interesting.  And the Greek understanding of the Trinity is more interesting.  Augustine emphasized the One-in-three (hence his analogy of self-love), but the Greek fathers emphasized the Three-in-one, and had them doing a kind of divine circle dance.  (You see? Theology can be interesting!)  But the relationships within God don't turn into poisonous and divisive rivalries like they do in our love triangles.

            So in what way can I say the relationships within the Trinity are somehow like a love triangle? Well, because the persons of the Trinity love one another and co-exist so harmoniously within the Godhead that the divine love triangle also shows us what's wrong with our love triangles.

            Listen to some of the lines from today's readings. In Proverbs, we heard Lady Wisdom (a personified attribute of God identified with the Holy Spirit) singing, "The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. ...and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race" (Proverbs 8:22, 30b-31).  And in the gospel according to John we heard "When the Spirit of truth comes, ... he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears. ...  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine" (John 16:12-15)

            What we have in these texts are relationships in which one person of the Godhead gives himself over to the other persons. Rather than becoming rivals of one another, they delight in one another and strive to glorify one another.  There seems no limit to their willingness to give themselves to one another, and to give themselves to the strengthening of the other's relationship-which is precisely what destroys our love triangles.

Each person of the Trinity wants what is best for the other persons.  And they pass what they desire around to one another.  You can hear that in these passages in which one is said to speak the words of the other and to take what comes from one and declare it to the others. You can hear it even more explicitly in other passages where Jesus speaks of willing only what the Father wills and being one with the Father.

So the more we contemplate the love triangle of the Trinity, the more we see God's call to us to be like God and to love in ways which are not possessive and aggressive; to love in ways that do not seek the exclusion of the other or the glorification of ourselves. The more fully we imitate the self-giving love of the Trinity, the more we will be set free from the rivalries that poison our desires and mire us in sin.

This becomes, in our fallen human situation, an argument in favor of the sexual exclusivity of marriage rather than attempting a ménage a trois.  Because what each person wants and needs is the undivided love of the other and that's what we want to give to the other.  The Bible sees in the union of a man and a woman a reflection of the interrelationship of the persons of the Godhead with each other.  In actual practice, of course, the patriarchs and later the kings had multiple wives.  It always created situations that threatened the covenant between God and his people, and so polygamy was never held up as an ideal and Israel grew out of it.  If there is a third partner in the marriage, it is the progeny, just as Father begets the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

It is also the case that if the marriage is intact, the sexual exclusivity of marriage, when not mutated by rivalry and possessiveness, actually frees us to love in more open and self-giving ways in the other areas of our lives. In fact, the divine love triangle is a challenge to those possessive and clingy marriages that are characterized by a distrust that seeks to prevent any sort of intimate friendship with others lest they become, in fact, sexualized love triangles.

The beautiful and extravagantly self-giving love triangle of the Trinity is not only a model for us to imitate. It is also an invitation. Because just as these three relationships cannot only tolerate other relationships but celebrate them and glory in them, so too they eagerly look to draw others, namely us, into the life of that triangle of relationships. God is not a closed system, an exclusive love bond that has nothing to offer to those outside. On the contrary, God is intensely and overflowingly relational, and longs to draw us into his own life and love.  As Paul writes, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:5).

The God who created us in his own image pours out his love to embrace us and include us in his life.  We see that in the cross of Christ; there the self-giving nature of our God is revealed for all to see.  And Christ continues to give himself to us in bread and wine at the table.   As we draw near and receive the holy sacrament we are witnesses of that act of self-giving love because we are  recipients of that extravagant gesture, as the Trinity of Love reaches out to us and places the body of Christ into our hands and brings us into communion with himself.  Amen.

Pastor Frank C. Senn
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Evanston, IL
E-Mail: fcsenn@sbcglobal.net