31 May 2015
Trinity Year B (RCL)
Scripture readings for Trinity Sunday are always a bit of a reach. We don’t find a doctrine of the Trinity clearly spelled out in Scripture — the best we can do is adumbration. The readings for Year B seem to hint at what it means to participate in the divine life of the Trinity. In the passage from Romans, Paul speaks of living according to the spirit, and being made co-heirs with Christ, participating in the divine life on the same standing as Christ. John speaks of being born of both water and spirit, and moving as the spirit wills. All of the readings present challenges to our understanding of God.
Christian theologians developed the doctrine of the Trinity as part of the process of making a Jewish understanding of God as involved in human history expressible in terms familiar in the philosophical language of the dominant Greek culture. To the platonist, God was infinitely removed from this transient world of matter. True knowledge was acquired by the soul by contemplation of the divine realm. Platonists (and gnostics) had to construct hierarchies of being to connect the realm of the divine and the material. For Plato, the demiurge made the connection between the realm of the ideal and this realm.
For Christian theologians it was necessary that the same God who occupied Plato’s ideal realm also created this world. Change and historical progression no longer represented decay, but were directed toward a divine goal. Part of the progress toward that goal involved that same God entering into this real of material and change and redeeming it. Multiplicity and change must have some place in the interior life of the divine, and the redemption of the physical (rather than a simple escape therefrom) meant that it also had to be taken into the divine life. It makes sense now even to begin to talk of a divine life — a concept Plato would have found foreign.
Maximos the Confessor (fl. early seventh century) said that creation and the individual creatures are the gifts the persons of the Trinity give to one another for the sheer delight of giving. This places love and delight at the heart of the divine being, and makes creation in its physical aspect an outflowing of that love and delight. With this in mind, John 3:16 begins to make some sense. God so loved the world, that he gave his only son — out of love and delight, God chose to involve Godself in the created order, and the Son’s gift of self and human nature back to the God for the delight of it now takes that order into the divine life. John has Jesus say to Nicodemus that one must be born both of water and spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God. Water in this instance can refer both to physical birth from one’s mother and to baptism. To enter the divine life takes a new identity.
Paul speaks of that new identity under terms of putting to death the works of the flesh. Our suffering with Christ (undergoing change) makes us heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ — brings us into the divine life. This is not an instantaneous change. Nicodemus begins his progress slowly, appearing several more times in John’s Gospel, each time a little further along the road.
Isaiah’s vision also takes us into the divine life. Isaiah is granted a vision of the divine worship, and doesn’t die. He acknowledges his own sin, and his participation in his people’s sin (woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips). A seraph takes a coal from the altar of presence and touches Isaiah’s lips, making Isaiah a participant in the offering to God on the altar. It is our self-offering (not self-sacrifice in the sense of obliteration of self) that allows that participation. Participation in the divine life is marked by the delight of the gift of self.