The Trinity: God as love that overflows itself

Liz Stuart, 12 June 2022

Proverbs 8: 1–4, 22–31; Romans 5: 1–5; John 16: 12–15

When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.

What is your original face before you were born?

What is the colour of wind?

Today is Trinity Sunday. It rounds off the great festivals of Easter and Pentecost with a celebration of the nature of God revealed in those festivals.

I wonder if you are familiar with the concept of a koan from Zen Buddhism. I opened this sermon with a few. A koan is a phrase, a story or a tale used in Zen Buddhism basically to break the brain of the monk out of binary thinking and plunge it into ambiguity, paradox and mystery. There are no answers to a koan. That is not the point; the point is to think differently and in the process encounter something of the mystery in which we are all existing.

I like to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as a sort of Christian koan. It is often said that no priest likes to preach on Trinity Sunday because it is so easy to fall into heresy when speaking of the Trinity. You end up either over-emphasising the three persons, so it feels as if we worship three gods not one, or you so emphasise the unity of God that you elide the three persons into modes of one being. It is a theological minefield.

I think it is important that we allow the doctrine of the Trinity to break our theological brains. I do not believe we can ever adequately explain how God can be one God existing as three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial persons, but it is important we think about it and enter into the mystery of it in order to know something of the nature of God.

The first thing to say is that the doctrine of the Trinity may not make much intellectual sense because it is an expression of experience rather than dogma. It expresses the fact that some monotheistic Jewish people came to believe that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth they encountered the presence of the living God. And after they no longer had access to his physical presence, they continued to encounter him and the God who shone through him in some mysterious but dynamic way they labelled the Holy Spirit. It may have made little theological sense, but it was the reality they experienced, and the doctrine of the Trinity attempts to capture that experience. However, words and philosophical concepts have from the beginning broken and burst apart under the strain of trying to capture the mystery of the living God.

Words and philosophical concepts have from the beginning broken and burst apart under the strain of trying to capture the mystery of the living God.

What does the doctrine of Trinity teach us about that living God and the implications for us? First, it teaches that God is a relationship: the members of the Trinity enjoy inherence – the state of being indwelling in each other.

I wonder if you have ever heard of Charles Williams. He was an author and member of the Inklings group with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. He took the idea of inherence very seriously, arguing that not only do members of the Trinity experience inherence but the Church as the body of Christ shares in this relationship, so we as Christians are porous to one another and are able to bear each other’s burdens. He set up a group called the Companions of Co-inherence, a group of people who volunteered to carry other’s spiritual, emotional or physical burdens. So you could be anxious about something and I could volunteer to take that anxiety on myself. To many it sounds bonkers, but I think it is rather beautiful and perhaps has something to teach us about the nature of prayer and healing.

Crucially, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is not a couple but a society. We can only speak and understand God as love that breaks the bonds of twoness and overflows itself. The Trinity is constantly being broken open because the love within overflows itself into another, but also towards us. God cannot keep love, his very being, to himself. That is what Creation, Incarnation and Pentecost are about: the divine cracking open and pouring itself out on us. And it tells us how we, the body of Christ, should be – loving each other so much that our love overflows us. Unity is only found by breaking ourselves open to the world around us.

What is the sound of God breaking open? I would suggest that at least in part it is the sound of the hungry being fed, the oppressed being freed, the broken healed and the earth laughing in flowers, and refugees being welcomed not deported to Rwanda because of the colour of their skin.

What is the sound of God being broken open?