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Trinity Sunday

17 May 2024

26 May, Isaiah 6.1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17

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LEARNING Hebrew is tough: reading from right to left, words without vowels, peculiar verb systems. In Hebrew, “God” (elohim) is plural in form — the “-im” ending is like our English “-s” plural marker — but, despite this, it takes a singular verb. This is undeniably strange, but is it anything more than a linguistic quirk?

Commentators explain that the word elohim can have a singular meaning: “godhead”. True, but the regular use of the plural elohim with a singular verb in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is closely associated with the God of Israel, and (mostly) with strict monotheism. The abstract idea “godhead” does not always fit in such contexts. It can only be part of the answer.

English has a verbal equivalent to Hebrew’s plural for God: the “royal ‘we’” or (more formally) the “plural of majesty”. Some people refer to this plural/singular as the “plural of excellence” when applied to God/elohim.

Going by the biblical evidence, there is at least some evidence for a theological intersection between the sole, supreme Judaeo-Christian God on the one hand, and the concept of multiplicity within the godhead on the other. In Christianity, strict monotheism meets a challenge to reformulate itself — or at least to consider incorporating other forms of expression — to do fuller justice to the one true God.

Two months, or nine weeks, after Maundy Thursday, when the institution of the eucharist was commemorated, many Christians observe the feast of Corpus Christi. It is also called a day of “Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion” (in the Church of England), and the “Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ” (in the Roman Catholic Church). Liturgical timing ties it to the ending of the Easter season, on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

Like everything related to the meaning of the eucharist, Corpus Christi has become controversial: a ground of division among post-Reformation Churches in Europe. It is not usually celebrated in churches that have a “memorial meal” take on holy communion. Such churches offer no reverence to the stuff of holy communion: the outward and visible signs (bread and wine) of inward and invisible truths (the body and blood of Christ).

There is no indication at present, despite the efforts of the ecumenical movement, that a reconciliation among Christians with divided views is imminent. So, if we must endure, for now, a division centred on the Lord’s supper, can the timing of the feast point us towards future hope?

In one way, I think it can. God, in our Isaiah reading, is both plural and singular. He is both the “I” who will send someone and the “us” on whose behalf Isaiah will go. Paul writes in strict monotheistic terms, but he also describes both a Spirit of God, and Jesus the Christ. In Paul’s vision, the begotten Son stands (in one sense) on equal terms with the adopted children (us). While God is a Father, and Christ is a Son, with the Spirit bearing witness, all three are undoubtedly supernatural beings; all three are in some sense “divine”. There is unity and diversity in the one God, or godhead, elohim.

Trinitarian doctrine began to be worked out while the New Testament was still being written. Its earliest writings bear witness to these glimpses of multiplicity within the Godhead. The one who “dwells in unapproachable light”, “whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6.16), has somehow to fit together with Jesus in his active ministry, and with the passive “acts” of his suffering.

The Holy Spirit must be incorporated too, doing justice to the biblical witness that the phrase “spirit of/from God” can appear as anything from a force or power under God’s control to a unique Person, embodying God’s will; even God himself. The Spirit is the Advocate for the defence of humankind; the antagonist to Satan, who appears in scripture as the Adversary or Accuser. Christianity has taken the hard-but-honest option rather than alternatives such as absolute monotheism or hierarchy within the Trinity.

There must be room, on Trinity Sunday, to celebrate a sliver of diversity — leeway — in our understandings of God, and to be guided not only by the clarity of Matthew’s Jesus (“Whoever is not with me is against me”,12.40) but also by the generosity of Mark’s (“Whoever is not against us is for us”, 9.40).

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