God Has Never Been Lonely, but the Trinity is not a Clique
When I was little, I often wondered, didn’t God get lonely before creating humans? If it is true that God has always existed, which I believe it is, hasn’t all that existing gotten boring by now? Or, at least, wasn’t it boring before we human beings came on the scene to liven things up a bit? What did God do up there, I wondered?
The idea of the Trinity is central to our faith. Christians are baptized into “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” You will often hear in a benediction when church is ending, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Each Sunday as we bring our tithes and offerings to God, we “praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him, all creatures here below, praise him above, ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Wrapped up in the Trinity is an answer to my childhood question of, “Didn’t God used to get lonely before he created us?”
Starting with Scripture
You may already know that the word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible. But the idea of the Trinity is all over the pages of both testaments. Genesis 1:2 talks about the Spirit of God as hovering over the waters. We know from John 1 that Jesus the Son was present in creation and even before. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word [or, Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” From the very beginning of creation, even long before creation, God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Romans 8:12-17 is another Trinity-revealing passage. It says that we are led by the Holy Spirit to call out to God our Father, and that as we do so we become aware that we are not only God’s children, but that we have a most holy and awesome sibling: Jesus, the Son of God.
But lest we be tempted to think that this Father, Son, and Holy Spirit language is speaking of three distinct gods, we have the words of Jesus in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.” And Jesus prays to the Father in John 17, “All I have is yours, and all you have is mine” (17:10), “You are in me and I am in you” (v. 21), and, “We are one.”
So on the one hand the Scriptures reveal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct roles at times, and you have Jesus praying to the Father just as you and I do… but on the other hand, you have Jesus saying things like, “I and the Father are one.”
I once read somewhere that God is not and never has been confused about his identity. But it took the early church a good four centuries to make sense of all this! The early church councils gave us the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed, both of which contain this understanding of one God as three persons. The “one God” part of it means that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all are of the same substance, or essence. The “three persons” part of it means that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have distinct parts to play, with each other and throughout human history. The “three persons” also means that this is a personal God we worship.
Theologians use words like “co-equal, co-eternal,” and “of the same substance” when describing the Trinity.
Just go outside for some analogies
As we try to wrap our head around this core Christian doctrine, nature gives us a few analogies. They’re all imperfect and break down somewhere, but they at least get us in the ballpark.
Saint Patrick of Ireland is said to have used the three-leaf clover in his missionary efforts–though the clover is one, it has three leaves that join together.
And we have H2O. It’s one molecule or group of atoms: two Hydrogen atoms bonded to one Oxygen atom. Yet we see H2O in three different expressions: in liquid form it is water; in solid form it is ice; and in gaseous form it is steam.
Or, we can think about music, where a building block is the triad–three distinct notes which, when sounded together, make one chord.
A few years ago my wife and I were in Minnesota, visiting family. We received a wonderful gift of tickets to see the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The first piece they played was by 19th Century composer Felix Mendelssohn, “Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor.” Here is the first movement:
I was mesmerized from the very beginning. Mendelssohn wrote the trio for piano, violin, and cello. At times the three instruments blended into one beautiful unity, at other times I could hear each distinctly. The program notes put it well, saying, “There is great equality among the voices, and their exchanges show Mendelssohn’s gift for instrumental interplay.” Equality, yet interplay. 1, yet 3.
Rublev Writes an Icon
This idea of interplay in the nature of God is fascinating to me. Though Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio was 30 minutes long, I never once got bored. The music was too beautiful for that. We’ve seen from Genesis and John that God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit even before creation. There were three persons living in community together. And if any of you have ever had a roommate or are married or have lived with other people, you know that living in community is anything but boring.
We start to get an answer to my childhood question. God was not bored before he created us. God was never lonely. The three persons of the Godhead were in constant, joyous, life-giving community with each other.
In the early 1400s, a Russian painter and devout Christian named Andrei Rublev painted a famous icon called The Icon of the Trinity (above). This icon is also known as The Hospitality of Abraham, since it is based on one level on the story in Genesis 18 where Abraham and Sarah show hospitality to three angelic strangers who come to them to share the good news that they will have a son at long last. (We had this as part of the lectionary a couple of weeks ago.) But the icon on a deeper level represents the three persons of the Trinity, sitting around a table together. The persons of the Trinity are here shown to be in community with each other.
Rublev shows that God is of one substance or essence by showing identical faces on the three figures and an identical staff that each holds. The same color blue clothes each figure, showing the unity even in the diversity of persons, but Rublev also varies the clothing on each to highlight the three distinct persons of the Trinity. Their heads tilted at different angles and their hands making different gestures also show the diversity found among the Trinity. Yet Rublev shows that God is of one substance in that the three persons are seated around one cup and table.
When we want to get to know a person better or deepen bonds of intimacy, that often takes place over a shared bite to eat, a cup of coffee, a dessert, or a full-blown lunch or dinner. This meal in the icon, this table shows God’s communal nature. So if this is going on long before the creation of the world, God would have never been bored or lonely.
In Rublev’s painting the three persons of the Trinity are not only gathered together in the communion of a meal, but they also appear to be sitting together around a literal communion. On the table is a cup with a small piece of meat inside. The immediate reference here is to Genesis 18:7 where it says Abraham “ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it.” But Henri Nouwen writes that in the icon this meat is also “the sacrificial lamb, chosen by God before the creation of the world.” It is the body of Christ, right there on the table, together with the cup. The Trinity is in communion or community with itself, and also, it seems, preparing to share this with others.
Communion that invites you to come on over
God invites us into this communion of the Trinity. 2 Peter 1:4 says, “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature….” We participate in this community of the Godhead. Jesus prays in John 17:21, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”
In writing about the communal nature of God, author and Episcopal priest Tim Jones, writes:
…That multilayered communion [of the Trinity] doesn’t become a clique, doesn’t turn inward upon itself; it overﬂows. It spreads out into an embracing larger whole, inviting others (like you and me!) in, saying , “Come on over.” …God is used to conversation. Used to dialogue. …ready. This God invites me, in fact, to join in on a conversation already going on, one that has been going on for a very, very long time.
We become part of the family. We are adopted into this communion.
And as we grow closer to God, as we participate in the communion of the Trinity, we realize that we share this same communion with each other.
Key to our human existence is our connectedness to each other. No one is an island. We are not merely individuals left to find our way in this world. To live individualistically is to miss out on what God has modeled for us from the beginning of time. We do with each other what we see God doing in himself. That is, joining together in loving community.
We never have to be lonely again!
As we join with each other at the table, we join with God in a conversation that is already going on, “one that has been going on for a very, very long time.”