God is relationship – Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday – 2016

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-giver[1]. Amen.

Whilst in the process of thinking about today’s sermon, I was reminded of the debate around alternate Trinitarian language – in particular the arguments against using the expression Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier in the place of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The heart of the argument is this: that the relational nature of the traditional language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is lost when Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier are used.

Language is important because it both describes our reality and defines our reality. That is, we use words to make sense of the world around us and those words then take on a meaning of their own, which in turn affects how we see the world.

A good example is the use of language to label other people – especially those who are different from ourselves. Up until the 1980s it was not uncommon to refer to a person by their disability. No one thought twice about referring to a person as “a spastic” or “a mongoloid”. In that way a person was defined more by their physical condition rather than by their personality or by their ability. Thankfully that use of language is by and large in the past. Today we might refer to someone as a person with cerebral palsy – acknowledging that they are a person first and foremost. The change in language use helps us to see people differently and helps them to have a self-identity that is distinct from their disability.

Despite dictionary definitions, words do not carry the same meaning for everyone. For example our experience of “Father” or “Dad” can vary from that of a loving, interested caring man, through that of a distant, indifferent man to that of an overbearing or abusive person. Our experience of our own father may determine our own understanding of what a father is. If our experience of “Father” has only been of someone who hurts or belittles us, we might find it hard if not impossible to apply that terminology to God. A woman who has been raped or sexually abused, might have the same difficulty relating to the maleness of Jesus[2]. It can be hard for such a person to believe that a man – even a man such as Jesus can really identify with the experience of a violent or unwanted sexual attack.

A greater understanding of issues such as domestic violence and rape has led the church to embrace a greater variety in the language we use for God and to a lesser extent for Jesus. This has two benefits. First of all it recognises that the bible itself refers to God in more than one way; that God cannot be confined by language; that God is neither male nor female and that while we might attribute human characteristics to God, God is anything but human. An examination of the Old Testament reveals that the language for God is not restricted to Father, but includes feminine and even inanimate language to try to capture the grandeur and ineffability that is God[3]. Secondly, broadening the language for God enables those for whom “Father” does not bring to mind images of gentleness, love and encouragement, to use language that does encompass those characteristics for them.

Of the three-persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the least bound by gender-defining language. This might be because the Spirit is the most difficult to conceptualise and also because the Spirit is never named other than by its nature.

The issue of language is more complex when it comes to the Trinity. An important aspect of the Trinity is the relationship between the three-persons, a relationship of inter-connection that is both a model for and a reminder of our relationships with one another. As members of the Body of Christ, we are invited into relationship with one another and more importantly into the relationship shared by the members of the Trinity.

There are many who argue that if we are to change the language of the Trinity from Father, Son and Spirit we will lose the sense of relationship, mutuality and intimacy that this formula implies.

I am a biblical scholar, not a theologian, but it seems to me that if we understand the nature of the Trinity to be relational it is not impossible for terminology such as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier to take on a relational aspect. Surely we understand that the Creator is the person within the Godhead to whom we attribute the creation of the world, that the Redeemer is the one who entered the world and was crucified and restored to life for our salvation and that the Sanctifier is the person within the Godhead who enlivens and sanctifies us in the present moment and until eternity. It is not the language that we use so much as the understanding of that language that gives it meaning[4].

In the final analysis, the Trinity is a glorious mystery that invites us into a relationship with a God who is beyond description and of whom we only ever glimpse the smallest detail. The Trinity is a wonderful gift extended to us through the church. It is a shame to waste time arguing over words when we could be letting ourselves be caught up into an experience of God that is impossible to capture and even more impossible to describe.

 

[1] From a version of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Zealand Prayer Book.

[2] There is a powerful poem written by a survivor of sexual abuse who, when confronted by the image of a woman on the cross, was able to understand that Christ knew her own experience and had been with her in her suffering.

[3] God is depicted as midwife (Ps 22:9), as mother (Is 49:13-15, 66:13, Ps 131:2, Is 42:13-15) and as giving birth (Is 42:15, Jer 31:20, Is 14:1, Ps 77:10; 79:8) not to mention as a “rock” and a “fortress” and other inanimate images in the Psalms and elsewhere.

[4] Attempts to develop inclusive language Trinitarian formulae that are also relational leads to such clumsy language as, “Parent, womb, birth-giver” or “The Parent, the Christ and the Transformer”.

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