In the Image of the Trinity: Trinity Sunday, Year A

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA
June 11, 2017
Trinity Sunday, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
Psalm 8
or Canticle 13

+ + +

What would it feel like to be your truest, fullest self?

I don’t mean that in a glib way, like in a magazine article or an Internet link with a title like “10 Ways to Be Your Best Self Today!” What would it like to be utterly the self you were created to be, and utterly full of God? What would it be like to feel the Holy Spirit at work in you to unblock all your gifts and dissolve away all your stuck places like so many knots out of a stiff muscle?

There’s a story of two ancient Egyptian monks. One went to the other and asked, “Father, as far as I can, I say my little prayers, I fast a little, I meditate, I live in peace and I try to purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the older monk stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame. And he said to him, “Why not be changed utterly into fire?”[1]

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday. And the Trinity is not an abstract doctrine that says the meaning of the universe is the number three. It’s a distillation of the lived experience of the early Christians who had found themselves transformed by following the risen Jesus, and then changed at least for a moment into fire at Pentecost by the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first Christians were astonished to find that the Jesus they had known in the flesh was somehow at the very heart of God, so much that they could no longer speak of God without Jesus. And that the Spirit propelling them into ministry was also somehow the presence of God, God sent from God. So even in that first generation they began to grapple with language to talk about these three ways they had come to know God.

We see them starting to do that in the New Testament readings we heard today, giving us phrases we still hear in worship today. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore.” “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And they also looked back into the scriptures they already knew, and they began to find glimpses of that triune God by reading the old stories through a new lens.

Before the creation, Genesis says, “a wind from God,” swept over the empty waters—but the word “wind” in Hebrew also means “Spirit.” And then God creates in a particular way: by speaking—by the Word. Spirit and Word, present at the beginning, active in creation. The second-century bishop Irenaeus called the Word and the Spirit “the two hands of God.”[2]

And Christians have found another glimmer of the Trinity later on in the story, when God suddenly switches into speaking in the plural, a sort of royal we: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” This is the only point in the story where God speaks this way, and maybe it’s significant that it happens when God is about to create a being that shares in God’s own image. It’s as if to say that what it means to be in God’s image—what it means to be really human—is to be in the image of the Trinity. If we are going to be fully ourselves, that means we are invited to share in the same kind of life the Trinity shares.

Now the inner life of God is beyond our knowing. But one thing we can say is that if God is one and yet is also Father, Son, and Spirit, then there is community and relationship and mutual love at the very heart of God. And if we are made in God’s image, that means that God, for some unfathomable reason, is inviting us to participate in that community and relationship and mutual love. Not that we are God—we weren’t present at the creation; being God is not our job … thank God. But being filled with God is. Sharing the life of God is.

Maybe you’ve read stories of experiments from the twentieth century where an ape has been raised with a human family. Sometimes amazing things happened: apes learned to sign, ride a tricycle, eat with silverware. But the experiments have always ended badly, with the apes growing unmanageable and being sent away. Today they’re considered inhumane. Because an ape isn’t meant to live as a human. It’s not created in the image of a human. In becoming more human, it becomes less itself. But being adopted by the Holy Trinity is different. Because we are made in God’s image, living in God’s family makes us more like God and more ourselves.

Now I hardly have to tell you that that image of God in all of us has been marred and smudged. Instead of sharing in the Father’s care for creation, we threaten to destroy our planet. Instead of sharing in Jesus’ kingdom values, we set up systems where some dominate and others are left behind. Instead of sharing in the Spirit’s unity, we divide into tribes and define ourselves over against one another.[3] C. S. Lewis wrote that we were created to be mirrors of God, but the mirror of humanity is cracked and dusty.[4]

The good news is that the story of Jesus is a story of restoration. Because another part of the mystery of the Trinity is that even when we separate ourselves from God, God doesn’t remain separate from us. In Jesus the Word of God becomes human, and for the first time we see what it looks like not to have that image marred and smudged. Jesus shows us what God looks like in human form, but just as amazing, he shows us what it is to be fully human: a live lived in perfect love of God and others. And the Spirit, working within us, can restore us into our own fully human selves. That doesn’t mean clones of Jesus, as if we all had to be first-century carpenters; it means adopted children of God who each reflect God’s image in our own irreplaceable way.

That same bishop Irenaeus writes in another place, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive; and the life of a human being is the vision of God.”[5] That’s the life you and I were made for: to be fully ourselves and full of God, to be changed into fire. And God won’t give up on us until we share that life, the life of the Trinity, on this side of the grave and beyond.


[1] The story of Abba Lot and Abba Joseph, available in many translations in print and online.

[2] Against Heresies 4.Pref.4.

[3] A note here: all of God’s work actually belongs to all of God. But there are certain aspects that are traditionally associated with each of the three Persons. This is classically known as the doctrine of appropriation.

[4] E.g., in Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 164.

[5] Against Heresies 4.20.7.

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