Threefold Life: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Trinity Sunday
Trinity Sunday (Year C): Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31 and John 16:12-15
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 Luke will continue. From now until November, the gospel readings will move chronologically through Luke, week after week, with only a couple of minor exceptions. And by the way, in this context “Ordinary” doesn’t mean humdrum - rather, it comes from the word “ordinal,” meaning “related to a series.” Think of Ordinary Time as an ordered, deliberate, six-month step-by-step pilgrimage through the story of Jesus’ life, with Luke as our guide.
3) The ancient doctrine of the Trinity arose out of early Christian reflection on scripture, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. For his earliest followers, 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 both a “two-ness” and a “oneness” in play, and so Christians sought out ways to express this mystery with poetry and precision. Likewise, early 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 sense 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 blossom. 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 the author(s) of Proverbs 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 Proverbs 8 without projecting today’s Trinitarian thought onto whomever wrote Proverbs 8 (or John 16, 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.
1) The passage from Proverbs is a poem delivered by a personification of Wisdom: she proclaims it from the “crossroads” and “portals” of the city’s economic and civic life, addressing her words to “all that live” (Proverbs 8:2-3; see also 1:20-21). Christian interpreters have retrospectively discerned trinitarian clues in her declaration that she was present and active “at the beginning” of God’s creative work (Proverbs 8:22,27,30). Translated later into Greek culture, this basic idea is expressed in John’s prologue as the Logos, the eternal divine Word through which God creates all things, and which is “made flesh” in Jesus (John 1:1-4,14). And from a different angle, this poetic portrait of Wisdom also resonates with John’s description of the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth,” the One “who will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).
2) Preparing his followers for his departure, Jesus assures them that it’s actually “to your advantage that I go away” - since his departure will make way for the Spirit, the “Advocate” (Greek Paraclete, literally, “one who is called alongside,” as a teacher is called alongside students, a lawyer is called alongside a client, or a guide is called alongside a traveler). The Spirit will teach them things Jesus hasn’t taught them yet: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13).
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 features 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 three-part 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 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.
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, decidedly 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. Encountering the Spirit, early disciples found themselves heart-to-heart with God, the guide and advocate who makes the church possible and sustains creation. In the end, the doctrine of the Trinity is about a God who is living and active in our lives: creating and recreating, teaching and guiding, protecting and empowering. Thinking about the doctrine through Proverbs 8, we may catch sight of how Jesus embodies divine wisdom and the Spirit draws us more deeply into living out that wisdom. And thinking through John 16, we may discern a Trinitarian shape to the story of salvation itself.
2) Another way the idea of the Trinity is practical is that it casts a vision of God as fundamentally relational, constituted by relationships between Father/Mother, Son, and Holy Spirit. And if human beings are created in the imago Dei, then in our own way, we must be fundamentally relational, too, constituted by our relationships with God and one another. This is an important message to proclaim in an era too often dominated by individualism, isolation, and loneliness (particularly in the West), and in any case is a helpful reminder that relationships aren’t just something we “do” - in a deep sense, relationships are who we are. (Thanks to Rev. Carol Johnston for emphasizing this point!)
3) Here’s one more 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 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, Lewis says - 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).