I am not a maths person, per se. I am basically numerate: when I worked in the deli, I could make change without hesitation or error or the use of fancy modern electronics. But higher mathematics were not my area of academic pursuit. When I first heard about imaginary numbers, I found the idea quite poetic and magical. I was disappointed to be told that they really aren’t what I thought that they were. (If you’re a mathematician, I’m sure they’re still quite poetic and magical, but I was looking for the equation to describe a unicorn, or the Holy Trinity, and it just isn’t out there.)
So when it comes to the Holy Trinity, I am a whole lot less concerned with how this three-in-one, one-in-three thing might get worked out, or be expressed in a fixed formula, and more concerned with the questions of why, and what that tells us about God, and about ourselves, we creatures who live and move and have our being in such a mathematically complicated and illogical Godhead.
The readings for today try to tell us something about that relationship, but even they get tangled, trying to describe the ineffable. How do you map the variables of love, the additions and subtractions of injury and forgiveness, the multiplication of mercy, the sum of grace?
In the Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, groping in the dark towards the truth. Jesus tells him he needs to get born again, reborn into the new light that is dawning, slowly, upon him, the knowledge of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ; which Paul then describes as the Spirit of adoption.
When I was adopted, and when many of the people I know in Ohio were, we were issued new birth certificates. The originals stayed in some government vault somewhere, darkly-inked with the details of our original births: time, place, the people present, the names given.
Our new certificates, the ones which we present to the world via the Social Security offices and the passport applications, list new details: same time and place, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent and to present to the world the legal reality that these are this child’s parents; this their daughter or son, as if born to them. We have not only been adopted, according to this narrative: we have been born again.
That’s what Paul is talking about in his Spirit of adoption speech. He is not talking about the time in front of a judge who proclaims that this child now has the same rights of inheritance, the same claim to love as any natural-born offspring of the same parents. For Paul, this is a new birth certificate, which doesn’t undo the one darkly-inked and kept in a government vault: that is still true and valid and important, very important. But it restates the relationship. It re-presents to the world the reality that is: we are children of God. We have always been children of God. This is our natural state of relationship, and it can never be undone.
Fun fact: in England and Wales, baptism as a new birth can alter the legally recognized birth names of a child, adding or replacing them with their Christian names, acknowledging and certifying that this one has been born again, born anew, as a child of God, and amending the record to show that it was ever thus.
It may be, then, that the importance of the idea of God as Trinitarianis the knowledge that our God is someone who has always embodied relationship, the love and the give and take and the dance and the updating of identity and interaction that accompanies any relationship; a God who gets it because relationship is part of who God is in God’s very being, without division, without history, without the need for legal fictions or updated records or secret ink.
God is, and God always has been, the essence of internal integrity and of openness to the other.
Without getting all pop psychology, that may also be part of the lesson to us: to acknowledge all of the different histories and characters and expressions of self that we hold in each of us, to bring them into some sort of integrity, so that we have the confidence to meet the other without those complications that come from keeping the dark ink secret inside and creating fictions to disguise our wounded lives; because we each have wounded lives.
Some of us need some help integrating those identities, facing those histories down. Sometimes, seeking help for our woundedness has been worried about as a weakness, or even faulted as a lack of faith; but no. Not at all. If the doctrine of Trinity teaches us anything it is that God gets it, God understands what it is to have more than one narrative going on in one life; God has at least three.
When we can be honest with ourselves about who we are, the scars that we carry, the dark ink, and meet God and one another with honesty and open hearts, God knows, it will show.
If the doctrine of Trinity teaches us anything it is that we have a God who supports us in our weakness, like a parent cradling the neck of a newborn baby. We have a God who has suffered the outrageous mood swings of human life that encompasses ecstasy and agony, all in one body, all in one life. We have a God who breathes through the world around us, bringing it to life, bringing us to new birth, updating and refreshing our lives whenever we need it.
We have a God who knows how hard and hurtful and wonderful and complex and imaginative and life-giving relationships can be; who knows our deep need for relationship, because we were created, born out of a God whose essence dwells in eternal relationship within and beyond itself. Imaginary numbers have nothing on the intricacy and wonder of the nature of God! And it is that wonder in which we live and move and have our being, we who have been born, and adopted, and reborn, as children forever of the living and ever-loving God.
Thanks be to God.