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The Holy Trinity (John 3: 11-18)

by T.V. Philip

T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

John 3: 11-18:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Today is Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday tells us that the God in whom we believe is one God in three persons. There are other religions which believe in one God. Judaism and Islam are monotheistic religions.

The faith of the Jew is: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God. For the Muslims, there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. The Christians also believe in one God, but in the Trinitarian God -- one God in three persons. Muslims and Jews ridicule the Christians as polytheists- believing in three gods. The pagans in the Roman empire resented the Christian criticism of pagan polytheism by pointing out that the Christians themselves are polytheists:

The doctrine of the Trinity is problematic, not only for outsiders but for Christians themselves. Many good Christians would be happy to say that they believed in one God instead of one God in three persons.

The doctrine of the Trinity remains merely a dogma which we have inherited from the past and has not become a living focus of our life and thought. This is true not only for the ordinary members of the church but also for the theologians. By emphasizing a doctrine of Christ without the whole perspective of the Trinity, theology developed in a very one-sided way and has come to be pre-occupied with the church as the body of Christ, with its structure, hierarchy, and its rules and regulations.

The controversies in the church are about its institutional structure, papacy, ordination of women, lay presidency at the Eucharist and so on. Such a one-sided development does not take seriously the faith in the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, one God in three persons.

Trinity Sunday not only reminds us that the centrality of our faith is rooted in faith in the triune God, but it also calls us back to experience the Trinity in our personal and community life. The experience of the triune God should shape our personal life and mould our life together. To speak of the triune God is to speak of a particular way of life.

For the early Christians, the centre of their faith was faith in a triune God. They lived in a world where pagans believed in many gods. The Jews believed in one God and did not accept Jesus Christ as divine. But the experience of the early Christians was that Jesus Christ was God. They also experienced the Holy Spirit as God. In Jesus Christ, the early Christians met God. ‘Those who have seen me have seen the Father’, said Jesus. This was the experience of the early church. Similarly, in experiencing the Holy Spirit, they experienced the presence and power of God. They believed that God was one but at the same time Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were understood to be divine. For them, if Jesus Christ was not God, we are not saved; and if the Holy Spirit is not divine, we are not sanctified. The early Christians were neither Jews who simply believed in one God, nor pagans who believed in many gods.

The challenge which the theologians faced was how to express the faith that God is one and at the same time affirm that Jesus Christ was divine, and the Holy Spirit was divine. The early theological controversies were about the formulation of the faith. It was to discuss this question that the first two ecumenical councils -- the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381 -- were held. Out of the discussions and deliberations of these councils, the church fathers were able to formulate a doctrine of the Trinity -- faith in one God in three persons. God as Trinity had happened in the experience of the early church before it was formulated into a doctrine.

What does the doctrine of the Trinity say about God? We shall look at one aspect of it. The doctrine of the Trinity simply says that God is love. Love is not an abstract impersonal entity. It expresses itself in relationships. When the doctrine of the Trinity says that one God exists in three persons, it means that God is a community of three persons in a relationship of love.

• The Father loves the Son in communion with the Holy Spirit.

• The Son loves the Father in communion with the Holy Spirit.

The Godhead is a community, a communion of three persons existing in a love relationship.

The essence of God is a relationship of love, a communion, a community which the church fathers called Trinity.

Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are a community of love. Yet they are three distinct persons. They are not the one and the same person. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not the Son. They are distinct and separate. God is a communion of three distinct persons different from one another.

The unity and oneness in the Godhead is not because the three persons are of the same or uniform nature. They are different, yet there is community and communion. We often think that for the sake of unity we need uniform structures, the same doctrine, the same language and culture, and all should become of one race and color.

The persons in the Trinity have distinct personhood. The fathers of the church were very eager to safeguard this distinction of persons in the Trinity and at the same time emphasize their oneness and unity. It is the love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit which creates this unity. It is not a unity of uniformity but a oneness of love, communion and fellowship of three distinctive persons.

The Greek word for communion or fellowship is koinonia. It refers to a shared reality. It means participation, partaking, sharing, fellowship and communion. Love communicates itself. The one who loves always gives herself or himself in the one who is loved. Because God exists as koinonia, a communion between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Father gives himself in the Son and the Son gives him self in the Holy Spirit. This is what the Gospel for today tells us. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son and whoever believes in him shall have eternal life’. Because of God’s love for the world, God has given himself in Jesus Christ for its salvation. What does it mean for us to believe in the triune God?

The triune God has communicated himself in Jesus Christ. By being united with Jesus Christ in faith, we share in the very life of the Trinity itself. Human beings, because of sin, are separated from God and from one another. Being united with Christ, in whom God has communicated himself to the world, we share in the very life of the Trinity, the life of a love relationship. That is what salvation means.

When the Bible says that we are created in the image of God, it means we are created to share in the very life of the Godhead -a relationship of love and community and communion with God and with one another. We become truly human only when we establish this relationship of love with one another. We become the image of God only when we reflect in our lives the communion and community that is in the life of the Trinity’

We are not created to be separate individuals, living for oneself alone. We are created for relationship, for community. That is what it means to be a human person. An individual is one who is isolated, self-dependent, self-centred or one who wants to do things in his or her own way, whereas a person is always a person in relationship with others, one who pre-supposes others, one who recognizes his/her dependence on others.

To be in the image of God is to be a person. In the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three individuals but three persons in relationship and dependence. The divine community of the Trinity images for us what it meant to be a person in community.

Sin is the temptation to think that everything and everyone else exist for our individual gratification and pleasure. Whenever we succumb to such temptations, we bring death and disruption to the world and to ourselves.

In our world today, there are two continuing tendencies with regard to human life and society, collectivism and individualism. In collectivism, all exist for the sake of society; particular persons and their rights are suppressed for the sake of the collective. In individualism, the opposite is true. A former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was once reported as saying that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. In this view, we do not need a neighbor, a community, in order to be human.

The image of the trinitarian God gives us a different picture of the human person and human society. A human person is neither an individual existing for himself or herself, nor is he or she a person swallowed up in the collective. In the Godhead, three distinct persons exist in a relationship of love in community, communion and in communication. We are created to mirror this image of the Trinity in our lives, in our relationship with one another. It is to recognize that my humanity is caught up with others and inextricably bound to them.

Recently an Anglican priest in Oxford wrote:

What life have you, if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community. And no community not lived in the praise of God

The Triune God has made this possible for us in Jesus Christ. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believed in him should not perish but have eternal life.

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