Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

Trinitarian Community

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We are living in treacherous and confusing times. In a recent book, I read the following: “the growth in Muslim populations across Europe since the mid-twentieth century runs parallel to secularization or, perhaps more aptly, de-Christianization. As Muslim populations grow and assert their religious identities in the public sphere, Christianity’s public role and influence fade. In other words, the increasing presence and vitality of Islam is accompanied by the decreasing influence and presence of traditional Christianity.” (Todd H. Green, The Fear of Islam: An introduction to Islamophobia in the West, Fortress Press, 2015, p. 157)

Please do not mistake the above quote; it’s not coming from a racist Islamophobe. The book is actually an attempt to understand and confront Islamophobia. But my purpose here is not to write about Islam, though the recent terror attacks in Paris have once again brought to the fore the worst forms of racist fear-mongering. No, what struck me in this quote is the term ‘de-Christianization’ that the author prefers to ‘secularization’.

It is all too easy to toss terms like ‘secular’ around whenever it suits us. It’s an easy way to complain about fake issues like the “war on Christmas”. There is no “war on Christmas”! Christmas was destroyed by Christians and our complete surrender to commercialism! Christians are the ones who have de-Christianized the European and North American societies in which we live. It is Christians, and not atheists, or secularists, or Jews or Muslims, who have trivialized Chistmas and have turned Christianity into a political slogan and a religious whitewash of ego.

Many Christians have forgotten the deep truths of our identiy and existence in the world. Christians have turned their God and their Lord into convenient labels that have no ontological depth. Quite simply, Christians have forgotten that we are meant to be trinitarian beings, living as reflections of our trinitarian God! And having lost our identity and the truth of our existence, we point fingers at others and we blame anyone other than ourselves for the fact that the ultimate truths of Christianity have been turned into mockery and cheap excuses for rampant commercialism. Go on complaining about a so-called “war on Christmas” if it makes it easy for you to ignore your responsibility for de-Christianization.

One of the first books of New Testament theology I bought (about 35 years ago) was by James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. It wasn’t required for a seminary course; its title simply caught my eye. The phrase “unity and diversity” perfectly summarizes my own way of looking at the New Testament. I see a message that unites all the various writings of the New Testament, and yet there is a diversity of how that central message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is communicated, explored, and applied by the various writers whose writings make up the New Testament.

When I look at the church community I see a similar dynamic – except that I prefer to call it “unity in diversity.” We come from so many different backgrounds; we have so many different viewpoints among us; we often experience God and worship in our own unique ways in addition to the ways of Orthodox faith and tradition. We are a diverse community, very much a reflection of the world around us.

But with all this diversity we share a unity. And I am happy to say that the more diverse we become the more united we seem to be. There is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6). We are united in the one faith that we call the Orthodox faith; we have one Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ. We share one baptism; and our church does not distinguish between baptism in the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, or most Protestant churches – we are all one with other Christians in our baptism! And finally, we have one God, whom we call Father, just as our Lord Jesus taught us to call our God.

Most people think of God as the supreme power, far remote from human experience. And so God is. But God the Father is not just the remote supreme being; our Father is “above all and through all and in all.” Our Father is indeed ‘above’ everything, but don’t miss the other two prepositions that Paul uses in this sentence: ‘through’ (δια) and ‘in’ (εν). God the Father is not only the supreme power in the universe, above everything; God the Father is also present in our lives and fills all things.

This should be the primary vision of our church community: to see God the Father in everything we are and everything we do. But God has chosen to be revealed not only as Father, but as Trinity. What a blessing that our church is the Church of the Holy Trinity. Let’s take the name of our church to heart and live the trinitarian life! The Father is the source of our unity. The Lord Jesus is our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), our great high priest (Hebrews 4:14), who brings us into the unity that is ours through faith and baptism. And the Holy Spirit is the celebration of our diversity!

At a time of growing suspicion and divisions in the world, as violence and hatred, often in the name of ‘god’, spread everywhere, the trinitarian vision of community life is the only answer, the only way that unity and diversity can be perfected as unity in diversity. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” This is spoken by the priest at the Liturgy immediately after the Creed. The Creed is the Symbol of Faith, Σύμβολον της Πίστεως; it is a concise summary, sometimes using technical language, of the central dogmas of the Christian faith. It is a Σύμβολον because it brings together our fundamental dogmas. But the priest’s words after the Creed relate the doctrines of the Trinity to us: the love of God the Father, the grace of God’s Son our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion (shared life) of the Holy Spirit.

The Father is the source, from whom everything flows and has its being. The Father is God in the purest definition. Worship in our Orthodox Church is primarily addressed to God the Father. It is to God the Father that we are accountable. The Father is the origin of life and the ultimate destination to whom we return. Our destiny is to be ‘one’ with the Father, just as Jesus was/is one with the Father: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,” Jesus prayed on the night of his arrest (John 17:21), “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26).

“God is love,” John wrote in his first letter, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:8 & 16). God is love, the purest and simplest name for God. But this is love in action: God’s love acts through the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Everything Jesus did and spoke was a revelation of God’s love. Even when Jesus passed judgment and condemned certain individuals and their actions, it was still out of love – love for those who were abused and misused, or ignored, by those being judged by Jesus. This revelation of God’s love in action is what we call ‘grace’ – hence the prayer in the Liturgy, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father…”

But it doesn’t end there. The Holy Spirit completes the trinitarian picture: “… and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Communion, κοινωνία, is the shared life that is the gift of the Holy Spirit – shared with each other and shared with God. The unity with God that Jesus promised in chapter 17 of John’s Gospel is made real by the Holy Spirit; But it’s a unity in diversity, because the Holy Spirit is the giver and distributer of gifts and talents and abilities. Saint Paul in his letters repeatedly pointed to the role of the Holy Spirit in building the church as the body of Christ – a body made up of many members, with each member contributing to the well being of the whole. And the way we each contribute to the well being of the whole is by using the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to each of us.

We are different, every one of us is unique and uniquely gifted. Even if two of us have the gift of singing, we are different in how we sing the same music; it’s called interpretation. If two of us have the gift of teaching, even if we teach the same subject matter, we teach it differently. This is the miracle of giftedness. No two musicians are alike; no two teachers are copies of each other; no two cooks will create the identical result from the same recipe. This is what makes us unique human beings; we put our own personal stamp on everything we do. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the wellbeing of the body of Christ. Note how the apostle Paul states this truth while placing it in trinitarian language: “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

Here in this extraordinary, brilliant passage we see the trinitarian community in all its pageantry. Note the three consecutive statements phrased the same way: “there are varieties of…, but the same…” But these are not just statements about the three ‘persons’ of the Holy Trinity – Spirit, Lord (Jesus, the Son), and God (the Father) – and you can’t help but notice the ascending order from Spirit to God the Father. They are not just statements about the Trinity, because Paul connects each ‘person’ of the Trinity to a distinct aspect of our lives: gifts (χάρισμα) are connected with the Spirit; service (διακονία) with the Lord Jesus; activities (ενέργημα) with God the Father! The life we live in a trinitarian community reflects the trinitarian life of God: Our activities are reflections of God’s loving energy that makes everything possible; our activities are works of service and grace, just as the Lord Jesus served the purposes of God the Father; and we do everything with the gifts that we receive when we are in communion with the Holy Spirit and with each other!

Diversity in unity; unity in diversity. 

The miracle of trinitarian life!

P.S. I used an expanded version of this in our church newsletter.

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