Three and One: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Trinity Sunday

 
Lectionary Commentary for Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday (Year B): Isaiah 6:1-8 and John 3:1-17

Big Picture:

1) This Sunday is often celebrated as “Trinity Sunday,” an opportunity to intentionally reflect on one of Christianity’s most important (and baffling!) ideas.  Every church is - among other things - a kind of schoolhouse, a place where we move together through an annual curriculum of learning and contemplation, and this week, the mystery of the Trinity takes center stage.  

2) Next week nearly six months of “Ordinary Time” begins, during which this year’s walk through the Gospel of Mark (and occasionally John) will continue.  From now through late July, for example, the gospel readings will move chronologically through Mark, week after week.  And by the way, in this context “Ordinary” doesn’t mean humdrum - rather, it comes from the word “ordinal,” meaning “related to a thing’s position in a series.”  Think of Ordinary Time as an ordered, deliberate, six-month step-by-step pilgrimage through the story of Jesus’ life, with Mark as our primary guide this year (and John helping out here and there).

3) The ancient doctrine of the Trinity arose out of early Christian reflection on scripture and their experience with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  For them, encountering Jesus was somehow encountering God directly - and at the same time, Jesus spoke of God as both distinct from him (as when he prayed to God, or spoke of God as the One who sent him) and yet nevertheless “one” with him.  There was in some way both a “two-ness” and a “oneness” in play, and so Christians sought out ways to express this mystery with poetry and precision.  Likewise, the earliest disciples experienced encounters with the Spirit as encounters with God directly - and at the same time, Jesus spoke of the Spirit as a guiding, challenging presence distinct both from him and from the One to whom he prayed.  And so arose, over time, the church’s doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that God is properly conceived as both Three and One.  Not three Gods - for that would miss God’s oneness.  And not merely One - for that would miss God’s threeness, and wouldn’t do justice to the strong sense early disciples had of encountering God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, rather than an esoteric picture of God “up there” (too often the doctrine’s reputation today!), the teaching’s quite practical upshot is to cast a vision of God “down here and everywhere,” creating, redeeming, and sustaining creation at every turn, with every unfurling leaf and blooming peony.  In a word, the doctrine is ultimately about a world saturated with divine presence, and a God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

4) Since the mature doctrine emerges out of the first few centuries of the church’s reflection, it’s unlikely that John specifically had it in mind as he wrote, and even more unlikely, of course, that Isaiah did.  Rather, the teaching emerges from the church’s retrospective reflection on scriptural passages like these, as our ancestors sought to make sense of their experience and what they subsequently interpreted as clues in even the most ancient texts in their sacred library.  In this way, Christian theology always emerges out of the community’s dialogue over time, and accordingly, the church’s understanding often grows deeper and wider over the centuries than any given text’s author may have originally conceived.  Put another way, we can think today about the Trinity through the lens of Isaiah’s text without projecting today’s Trinitarian thought onto Isaiah himself (or onto John, for that matter).  This is part of what it means to have a biblical canon: texts and ideas born centuries apart can illuminate each other regardless of what their original authors may or may not have had in mind.

5) This week’s passage from John overlaps with the passage from just a couple of months ago, during Lent.  This week we’ll focus on the passage’s connections with the doctrine of the Trinity.  For another angle, you check out that Lenten commentary here.

Scripture:

1) The passage from Isaiah is one of the classic stories of “call” or “vocation” in the Jewish and Christian treasury.  Christian interpreters have retrospectively discerned trinitarian clues in at least two places: first, in the seraphim’s “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and second, in the apparent unity-and-plurality embedded in God’s question, “Whom shall I send, who shall go for us?” (Isa 6:8).  But if we take the passage as an ancient glimpse of what later Christian thinkers came to conceive as the Trinity, the passage illuminates that doctrine in at least two other ways.  First, the “Holy, Holy, Holy” character of God leads precisely to the seraphim exclaiming that divine glory isn’t confined to any specific location or "person," but rather fills “the whole earth” (Isa 6:3).  And second, God’s unity-and-plurality is here bound up with an act of calling and sending.  In short, the triune God’s glory fills the whole earth and is intimately, actively involved in our lives, calling and sending us in service to God’s mission in the world.

2) Shortly after Jesus’ provocative disturbance-of-the-peace at the Jerusalem temple, Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, visits Jesus by night.  Nicodemus has begun to suspect that Jesus has indeed “come from God” - though he’s not yet convinced.  He has questions about what Jesus means by being “born anew” or “born from above” (the Greek phrase can mean either), a phenomenon Jesus then characterizes as being “born of the Spirit.”  This is a late-night, clandestine conversation between two people, and Jesus’ words are part of an attempt to persuasively explain his identity and mission to an interested, well-educated Jewish leader who has asked to hear more.  To make his case, Jesus alludes to the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 21) and to Abraham and Isaac (“gave his only Son”; John 3:16; Genesis 22).  And along the way, he makes reference (implicitly) to God as Parent, and (explicitly) to God’s Son and God’s Spirit.

3) Again, the point here isn’t that John had a “Trinity” in mind as he wrote, at least not in the sense that later Christian teachers more systematically developed the idea.  Rather, this passage lays out the sort of raw material out of which those later teachers undertook that development, like a lumberyard from which carpenters later build a house.  For John, Jesus is God’s “only begotten” sent to save the world, and the Spirit is the advocate God sends to guide the church after Jesus’ departure.  Later theologians discerned in this narrative an implicit Trinity, three “divine persons” (the One doing the sending, Jesus, and the Spirit) who are nevertheless co-equal and unified with one another.  Here as elsewhere, the very idea of the Trinity arises out of the early church’s lived experience with Jesus and the Spirit.  Viewed from this angle, the Trinity is like three movements in a symphony, or three steps in a cascading choreography of salvation.

Takeaways:

1) This is a perfect week to reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity, a crucial teaching with which many Christians are unfamiliar - and which others understand to be too vague, esoteric, or downright weird to be of much use in their daily lives.  Revisiting the doctrine as a valuable, eminently practical teaching is therefore a pressing task - and a great place to start is to recover its origins in the lived experience of the early church.  Encountering Jesus, early disciples found themselves face-to-face with Immanuel, “God with us,” the good shepherd who seeks and finds and saves the lost.  And likewise, encountering the Spirit, early disciples found themselves heart-to-heart with God, the guide and advocate who makes the church possible and sustains creation at every turn.  In the end, the doctrine of the Trinity is about a God who is living and active in our lives: creating and recreating us, redeeming and sending us, guiding and empowering us.  Thinking about the doctrine through Isaiah’s vision, we may catch sight of how the world is drenched in God’s triune glory, “Holy, holy, holy.”  Thinking through John 3, we may discern a Trinitarian shape to the story of salvation itself.

2) Here’s another practical vision of the Trinity, this one from C.S. Lewis.  Imagine “an ordinary simple Christian” at prayer, Lewis says, his voice crackling over the airwaves in one of his famous radio addresses (the same reflections he eventually collected into Mere Christianity).  Her prayer is directed toward God - but it is also prompted by God within her in the first place.  And at the same time, as she prays she stands with Jesus and within Jesus as part of the Body of Christ (recall how Christians typically pray “in Jesus’ name”).  In short, as this “ordinary simple Christian” prays, God is three things for her: the goal she is trying to reach, the impetus within her, and her beloved companion along the way - indeed “the Way” itself.  Thus “the whole threefold life” of the triune God “is actually going on” around and within her - and as she prays, she “is being caught up into the higher kinds of life,” which is to say, into God’s own life, three and one, one and three (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 4.2).