This week’s reflection draws on the lectionary Gospel for Trinity Sunday John 16.12-15, to reflect on what the Christian understanding of God as Trinity might mean for us today. It is written by Dr Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship and administrator of this blog.
In 2011 I moved to Geneva to work at the World Council of Churches. I quickly discovered that though Geneva is in many ways now a very secular city, the figure of John Calvin still looms large in the cultural landscape. There is even a brand of local beer named after him!
Over the years I have lived there I have come to appreciate Calvin’s work – especially in biblical exegesis. His description of the Book of Psalms as ‘an anatomy of all parts of the soul’ is unforgettable. However I have also become aware of what is perhaps the major blot on Calvin’s name – his support in 1553 of the execution by burning of Michael Servetus, primarily because Servetus did not hold to Orthodox trinitarian theology. Whether fairly or not Servetus has been considered the ‘father’ of unitarian forms of Christianity – and of free-thinking more widely. There is a statue of Servetus in Annemasse (a French town just across the border from Swiss Geneva). It had originally been intended to place it in Geneva (at the place of Servetus’ execution) but when it was sculpted in 1908 religious opposition in Geneva meant that it had to be located in nearby Annemasse.
Perhaps it may seem strange to begin a reflection for Trinity Sunday by referring to Servetus, such a notable anti-Trinitarian. Like a number of others, Servetus’ opposition was largely due to the fact that it is difficult (though not totally impossible) to draw a fully-fledged understanding of the classical understanding of the Trinity from the pages of the New Testament. There are of course threads that are there, such as Matthew 28.19-20, and the Farewell Discourses of the Gospel of John (chapters 13-17), which have appeared in our lectionary over the last few weeks, that can be drawn on – and were developed by the Christians of the 3rd and 4th centuries. And there are also those telling sentences which begin this week’s Gospel reading. ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth’ (John 16.12-15). These verses have been drawn on to validate the major developments in Christian theology and ethical practice which have taken place over the last 2000 years. It is partly due to them that, for example, Christians eventually campaigned for the end of slavery. And they also, I believe, can be used to legitimate the development of Christian understanding of God as Trinity – which is certainly a central thread of my own faith.
Why is that that the majority of Christians eventually came to feel that it was important to speak of God as Trinity? There are a wealth of answers that we could give to this question. I want to focus very briefly on three words. They are ‘mystery’, ‘diversity’ and ‘love’.
To name God as Trinity is to acknowledge the ‘mystery’ that is at the heart of Christian faith. There’s a wonderful modern hymn by the New Zealand Anglican hymnwriter Marnie Barrell which begins with the line, ‘Maker of mystery, dreamer of what will be’ If we could know, and understand, everything about God then God would be less than the gracious ‘I am who I am’ who begins the story of our salvation (Exodus 3.1-15). It is a vital reminder that we cannot tame God, or have a monopoly on him.
To name God as Trinity is to affirm the importance of diversity. We need to celebrate our differences rather than fear them. ‘Goodness, to be goodness, needs contrast and tension, not perfect uniformity.’(Richard Rohr). This can apply in the life of the church, in which increasingly it is realised that unity does not necessarily mean uniformity. It is also an important message to hold before our wider societies at the present time, certainly in many parts of Europe, with the steady growth of nationalistic movements in many countries.
To name God as Trinity is to express that the intrinsic nature of God is love. It is a reminder that Love is essentially relational. Love cannot exist in isolation. Although the word ‘love’ does not actually appear in the few verses of this week’s Gospel, it is repeated over and over again in the surrounding verses and chapters of the Gospel of John. The love that marks out the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is beautifully depicted in the icon of Andre Roublev, which links the divine community to the three angels who visited Abraham (Genesis 18.1-15) and which is often referred to as the Icon of the Trinity. The icon also makes clear that there is an empty seat at this divine table – to which, you, and you and I are being invited.
A number of years ago my husband Alan Amos wrote a short prayer/poem reflecting on this icon:
Three in one, in closest harmony
Circled by love, in tender symmetry
Offering up the Lamb who is to be
Life for the world.
Angels are they, yet hold in meaning more
Than angels visiting at Sarah’s door:
God’s life itself, ready for us to pour
Grace on this world.
Help us then this circle now to join,
Our lives in newborn harmony entwine
In action mirroring the life divine
Revealed in our world.
What took me to Geneva in 2011 was my work for and commitment to interreligious dialogue, a field in which I have been working professionally since 2000. A few years earlier, along with a group of Anglican friends and colleagues I had helped to write a report on an Anglican theology of interfaith relations: Generous Love: the Truth of the Gospel and the Call to Dialogue. This report took the Christian assertion of the trinitarian nature of God as a foundation for Anglican interreligious engagement. It was, I believe, an inspired starting point. This brief reflection began with a tale of religiously inspired violence – the brutal execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva over five centuries ago. We are all too aware of more recent examples of religiously inspired violence – by people of many different faiths and religions, which regrettably has at times included those who call themselves Christians. Yet if we take seriously the nature of God as Trinity, a God of mystery, of diversity and love, we cannot be combative in our attitudes and actions to those who are religiously ‘Other’. Our encounters must lead us deeper into the very heart of God and strengthen our resolve for inter faith engagement.
 More recently a copy of the Annemasse statue has been placed in Geneva at the place where Servetus was burned to death.
 Indeed the recently adopted diocesan Rule of Life states as its purpose, ‘To enable us to share in glorifying God the Holy Trinity.