Understanding the Trinity through the lens of friendship

Homily for Trinity Sunday (June 11)

Dr. Holly Ann Garnett

“…Brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you… May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” 2 Corinthians 13:11-14

Today, many Christians are celebrating Trinity Sunday. A day when senior pastors gleefully pawn off their preaching duties to the young-ins who then desperately try to come up with a way to explain the Trinity without committing a heresy. But rather than coming up with a new metaphor, I’m going to play it safe and I would simply like to suggest to a way to explore this seemingly unexplainable mystery of our faith. And that’s through the lens of friendship.

In fact, friendship is the reason I, a lay Catholic woman, am here today speaking to you! My name is Holly Ann Garnett, and until very recently I was a PhD student at McGill University.

A few years ago, I attended an event run by the McGill Office of Religious and Spiritual life that featured three Christian chaplains – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – sharing how their tradition observes Lent. And there I met a crazy protestant pastor and his red-headed sidekick. Our interaction was brief, and honestly I don’t recall much about it, except that I received two food-related invitations:

  • The protestant pastor had a candy bowl somewhere on campus
  • There was a free ecumenical dinner in a couple of weeks

I took them up on both. Because free food.

And the food wasn’t bad, but the company was better. I met Christians from a variety of denominations, coming together over our shared love of free Church food, until slowly something strange happened… we all became friends….

  • And as our friendship across many denominational lines grew, sure, we debated the finer details of transubstantiation and the liturgical calendar – but more often we would visit each other’s Church services to worship our God together.
  • And we would discuss the role of the Church in promoting social justice, and what issues that included and didn’t include– but we spent considerably more time making and distributing sandwiches to our neighbours living on the streets.
  • And we argued about who exactly could become a priest and what that meant– but really more time was spent (sometimes at absurd hours of the night) talking about our hopes and dreams and how we desired to serve the Lord with our unique gifts and talent.

In short, we became friends, and the questions of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and who was “right” didn’t matter quite so much as the question of “how can we build the Kingdom of God together”? And together we lived out Paul’s command in today’s epistle to “live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”

In my day job, as a political scientist, we have a name for this – it’s called the contact hypothesis. Groups or individuals that would never in our wildest imaginations be able to get along don’t suddenly understand each other by having debates or arguing the finer details of their points of view, but instead grow to understand each other through contact, through friendship, through working together on common goals, by realising that the other has dreams and hopes and fears and faith just like you do.

So I wonder, then, if other questions of faith that seem unintelligible can be tackled through a similar means – say, for example, the mystery of our one God in three persons….

Here at the Cathedral there is a beautiful picture of the Trinity that forms the door of the Cathedral’s tabernacle, a replica of Rublev’s famous icon. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are sitting together at a table, enjoying a meal (as friends do).

In a meditation on the icon, theologian Henri Nouwen explains it like this: “As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table.”

In other words, the Trinity is a friendship, but not just between the three persons of God, but also a friendship that we are invited into. Just as the first reading explains, “God created humankind in his image,” we were created with the same capacity for deep understanding and union and friendship with others, just like the three persons of God. The Gospel of John further tell us that this capacity for deep friendship is not excluded to human relationships, but extends to friendship with God Himself! God “no longer calls us servants, but friends”

So, practically, then, what might that mean – to grow in friendship with the Trinity? I suspect four things might start to happen, four things that happen when a friendship develops…

First – We learn from each other. While our friends usually have something in common with us, we often find they have unique talents or skills that we don’t have. Everyone needs a friend who is good at fixing computers, or who can teach you a new crafting skill. In the same way, God desires to share with us His wisdom, that goes beyond human skills (though I’m pretty sure there have been ample Christians who have prayed over a broken computer), to intimate knowledge of where we fit in this crazy, amazing, scary but wonderful world. The verse from John I mentioned earlier, goes on to say: “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” God desires to teach us – but that requires that we grow in friendship, in trust, in knowledge, so that His knowledge can be passed to us.

We may also find when we become friends with someone that we also slowly begin to want the same things that they do. When you spend enough time with other people, you discover common goals to work towards – even if that goal is something like finding all available sources of free food on campus. Pope Emeritus Benedict describes it this way: “Friendship is not just about knowing someone, it is above all a communion of the will. It means that my will grows into ever greater conformity with God’s will. For his will is not something external and foreign to me, something to which I more or less willingly submit or else refuse to submit. No, in friendship, my will grows together with his will, and his will becomes mine: this is how I become truly myself” In other words, as our friendship with God grows, our desires become entangled in His, so much so that we begin to truly seek for ‘thy kingdom’ to ‘come.’

And when we grow in friendship, we may even begin to act like our friends. We all know that the more you spend time with someone, the more you will begin to pick up their habits and sayings. But with deep friendships, sometimes we may adopt the qualities we most admire in our friends. The friends I have met through ecumenical partnerships have made me more accepting of people from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, simply by their examples of inclusivity and understanding. So how much more can friendship with God can spur us to act more like Him?! And thankfully we have a book full of examples of how His son Jesus Christ, incarnate just like us, acted here on the same messy, ambiguous, complicated earth that we live in today.

And ultimately, when we become friends with another person, we understand them better, even if we formerly were puzzled by their choices and actions. Through friendship, I understand, maybe just a little bit more, the traditions and history and circumstances that mean that Jesus’ Church is not fully united. And my response to this division is no longer, well they just ought to become more like me, but instead: How can we learn together? How can we share together? How can we grow more in union with God together? And this glimpse of understanding is a small sliver of understanding God’s love of his Church, and his love for all His people, whether Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Greek, Slave or Free (to borrow a phrase from Galatians).

In sum, God desires us: to learn from him, to desire His Will, to act like Him, and ultimately to catch a glimpse of perfect understanding, all fruits of developing a deep friendship with Him.

So rather than spending time coming up with a new analogy to explain the mystery of the trinity, I propose we enter into this friendship with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

But the big question, then, is how do we do this?

Here is where I might expound the necessity of a robust prayer life, or reading the Gospels, or encountering the Holy Spirit in workshop. And those are all excellent things. I’m 100% in favour of them! But if you are a busy lay person like me, they might not easily fit into your life, at least not at first. So I’d like to suggest three simple ways of developing your friendship with the Trinity.

God the Father is often understood as Creator. So get to know him by getting to know his handiwork! Let’s consider this question: What do you see around you that is beautiful or awe-inspiring? Well thank God the Creator for making that! Get into the habit of noticing what is around you and being thankful for it! I know friends who find gratitude journaling really helping for this, but if writing’s not your style, how about taking a picture of one interesting thing you see every day, or taking a minute at the end of the day to find something in your day that you are grateful for. I suggest we get to know God the Creator through His creation! And by seeing what He has made, we may see more of what He desires for the world, and the great beauty and value of what He saw to be “good.”

God the Son, is unique in that He was incarnate. Just like us. Flesh and bones. So go do something with your flesh and bones! Find a small way to Jesus to someone else. Open a door, send your grandma a letter (she’ll appreciate it), send a cute baby hippo video to a friend who needs a smile. Seriously! Jesus spent a good amount of time simply being with people, finding ways to alleviate their suffering, and listen to their needs. So how can you be Jesus to others? OK – now go do it! Get to know Jesus by doing what he has been known to do! And slowly you will find yourself acting like He does!

And finally, God the Holy Spirit. This person of the Trinity is given a number of titles – counsellor, interceder, breath of life, helper. So, consider: where could you use a bit of extra help? Well there’s a person of the Trinity waiting to help you with that! Invite the Holy Spirit to be part of this challenge. Perhaps consider taking a minute in the morning every day to welcome the Holy Spirit to be part of your day, invite Him to help you before you even know what troubles you may encounter. And slowly begin to know the Holy Spirit by allowing Him into your life as your helper! Allow Him to guide you in understanding the world around you and your place within it!

And as our friendship with God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, grows, the Trinity will become less unfathomable, less unintelligible, perhaps even less of a mystery. Maybe not because we understand it fully, but perhaps because the question changes:

  • We seek less to find the perfect analogy, and instead are in awe of how strange and wonderful it is that God is Creator AND incarnated redeemer AND our eternal helper.
  • And we see God the Father less a deity that exists in a Church, but as the author of all the beauty and wonder and intricacy of this world that he shares with us.
  • And we view God the Son less as a character in the Bible, and more as one who lives and walks with us as we confront the challenges of living on this earth.
  • And we see God the Holy Spirit not as a wind off somewhere in the clouds, but instead a helper in the challenges of our daily life.
  • And ultimately, we may come to desire less to ‘figure out the Trinity,’ than to make God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – our very best friend.

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