‘The Triune God: Rich in Relationships’ – A sermon by Jürgen Moltmann

When we hear the names, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, we sense that in the mystery of God there must be a wondrous community. It is the one name of God in which “the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” are so different that they are named successively, yet bound together with the conjunction “and.”

When we want to emphasize the oneness of the divine mystery we usually use the term “trinity;” when we want to emphasize their difference, we use “triunity.” Regardless of the terminology we use, we hold that God is no single Lord in Heaven who rules everything, as a temporal ruler would. Nor do we mean some sort of cold power of providence who determines all and cannot be affected by anything. Remember, the triune God is a social God, rich in internal and external relationships.

It is only from the perspective of the trinitarian God that we can claim that “God is Love,” because love is never alone. Instead, it brings together those who are separate while maintaining their distinct characters. From the perspective of the triune God, one can say, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “only a suffering God can help.” The God who is with us and for us in his suffering love can understand us and redeem us.

There are two classic Christian images of the Trinity which can prove useful both in sermons and in teaching. The first is the amazing icon done by Andrei Rublev in orthodox Moscow in the 15th century. The three divine persons are seated at a table. In the slight inclination of their heads toward each other and in the gestures of their hands, a deeper unity of the three is suggested. A chalice on the table symbolizes the sacrifice of the Son on Golgotha for the redemption of the world.

The painting originated in the story of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 1:18), who receive and richly entertain “three men” from whom they receive God’s promise of a son, in spite of Sarah’s (laughably) advanced age. A later interpretation claims that the three men were “angels,” while some claim Sarah and Abraham actually met the triune God. Rublev omitted Abraham and Sarah from the painting, leaving only the three “angels.” Thus in his rendition it is impossible to tell which is the Father, Son or Spirit. In this way, the painting expresses the ultimate unrepresentability of the triune God.

The other image of the Trinity is a “Gnadenstuhl” from the Latin Church of the Middle Ages. In it, God the Father, with an expression of deep sorrow on his face, holds the crossbar of the cross from which his dead son hangs. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends from the Father onto the Son. Where in many paintings of this sort the eucharistic chalice stands in the midpoint of the three persons, here the cross stands in the middle of the triune God. It is the breathtaking image of Easter Saturday, after Christ was killed, but before his resurrection for the redemption of the world by the life-giving Spirit. This image of the Trinity can thus rightly be called the “Pain of God” or the “Death of God.”

The death of Christ and the eucharistic representation of its salvific significance is in both pictures the heart of the triune God. I know of no Christian image of the Trinity in which the cross is missing. The redemptive cross of Christ is always deeply involved in the divine mystery, but turns it into a revealed mystery. The ancient theo-paschite formula rightly exclaims: “One of the Trinity has suffered.” I would like to add “where one suffers , the others suffer along.” The Son suffers death in our God-forsakenness, the Father suffers the death of his beloved Son and the Spirit binds the other two together through unspoken sighs. It is only by comprehending the depth of this chasm as the “pain of God” that we can fuIly understand the incommensurable joy of the Easter celebration of the victory of life and the beauty of the new creation of all things.

The history of Christ is thus a trinitarian history, otherwise one cannot call the gospel the “Gospel of the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The history of Jesus is first a Spirit-history. It is through his baptism by John in the Jordan that the experience of the Spirit of God upon him is revealed, and with it, the revelation of God: it was in the Spirit that he heard the voice “You are my beloved Son.” From that point on, he knew that he was the messianic child of God. In the Spirit it was possible for him to refer to God as “Abba, beloved Father.” It is thus in the Spirit that God and Jesus, the “Father” and “Son” are both bound together, yet also uniquely distinguished.

With this, the Spirit-history of Christ becomes the Christ-history of the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ comes out of the Spirit of the Father and just as Christ is sent from the Father, so too is his own spirit sent to his own people and to the whole world (John 20:21-22). This change of subject in the history of salvation is described in a trinitarian manner in the so-called “departure speeches” in John’s Gospel: Jesus must “go forth” (die) so that the Paraclete may come. The Paraclete comes because Jesus asks the Father to send the Paraclete in his name (John 14-16). Good Friday and Pentecost are two sides to salvation: the redemption of the world out of God-forsakenness, and the new creation of all things.

We enter into the trinitarian history of Christ through baptism. It is for this reason that the first confessions of faith are baptismal confessions. The life “in the Spirit” and in “discipleship” is the practice of faith in the triune God. In both faith and in life, everything depends on the God-sonship of Christ. Those who lose sight of this lose their ability to be children of God. Those who forget this lose their future in God, which Paul states is a “hereditary right” of the future world. It is sonship that binds together God and Jesus and provides the foundation for trinitarian faith. If this connection were broken, then Jesus is merely one more good person and God is merely the unfeeling Lord of Heaven. In the 19th century, this led to a “Jesus-humanism.” Today it leads to an “Islamization” of Christianity. It is only through the recognition of the triune God that Christian dialogue with Jews and Moslem’s becomes interesting and dialogue-worthy.

Even more important, however, is the recognition that if Jesus were not “God’s son,” if God were not “in him,” then his suffering would have no divine meaning for the redemption of the world. It would disappear into the endless history of the suffering of murdered people. But, if “one of the trinity suffers,” then healing can come to wounded humanity and hope can enter a dying world.

Jesus’ prayer, “In this you may all be one, as the Father is in me and I in him that you may be in us” (John 17:21) calls for the unity of the Church and for ecumenism. John describes the communion of Jesus with the “Father” not merely as “with each other, ” or “for each other,” but “in each other.” “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Therefore, “whoever sees me, sees the Father,” for “I and the Father are one” (John 14: 9-11, 10, 30). It is a unity based in mutual indwelling.

The trinitarian unity of the Son and the Father through the Spirit is a model for the relationships of men and women in the Spirit of Christ. The unity of the Church resides neither in the monarchy of God, nor in God as a supreme, divine essence, but in the trinitarian communion of God. However, this trinitarian community is so wide and so open that the Church and the whole world can “live” within it. The prayer of Jesus that “you may be one in us” is a prayer that is answered. Whether we know it or not we not only believe in the triune God, but also “live” in the triune God.

This reciprocal, sometimes called mystical, “living in God” also belongs to the trinitarian life: “those who live in love, live in God and God in them” (1 John 4:6). “We in God and God in us” is not meant merely as some sort of fleeting, mystical rapture, but is a daily relaxing quiet and intimate “living.” I find this picture of a mutual indwelling ever more beautiful and convincing. The triune God is a “habitable” God: he allows us to become one within him. If the world becomes “inhabitable” for God, then the restless God of history comes to his rest. The Church is an icon of the trinity. Its community of freedom and equality illuminates the image of the triune God. This is best expressed in the base communities in Latin America and in some Pentecostal communities, communities of social justice and personal freedom, modeled on the communities of the early church which lacked nothing because they held all in common.

Finally, we can move beyond the human community and into the creation-community. The Spirit of Life holds everything together in that it enables the various creatures to live with each other, for each other and in each other, created through divine love and destined for eternal joy.


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