Well Avery’s mother knew this question would come one day, but admittedly she was caught off guard when her eight year old son approached her in the kitchen and said, “Mom, where did I come from?” After several false starts she stumbled and stuttered out a vague explanation, but it was clear that Avery looked very puzzled. So she tried again, pointing out the differences between men and women, sprinkling in terms like ‘embryo,’ ‘fertilization,’ and ‘gestation,’ which only made things worse. Finally, and thankfully, he interrupted her and said. “No mom! My friend Caleb says he’s come from Cleveland.” “Where do I come from?”
Now this was an innocent misunderstanding. Clearly, something was lost in translation. We’ll come back to this shortly.
Well, this is Trinity Sunday, the day the church has set aside to reflect on one of the more opaque doctrines of Christian faith. Since it’s certainly not something we hear in our culture—at least since Don McLean sang about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost catching the last train for the coast—it is good for us to set aside a day to reflect on Trinity, as challenging as this might be.
Without a doubt, one could argue that one of the worst ways to address the Trinity is by listening to theologians talk about. For the last 800 years, for instance, theologians have helped clarify the essence of the Trinity into five notions, four relations, three persons, two processions, and one nature. These five notions are—because I’m sure you’re dying to know—innascibility, paternity, filiation, common spiration, and procession. If you go online you can find diagrams that describe these aspects (and more) with no less than twelve arrows—some unidirectional, some bidirectional—between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Little wonder that seminary students will say five notions, four relations, three persons, two processions, one nature, and zero sense. Moreover, if anyone were ever to explain the Trinity, it would be no less difficult so say why it matters.
Isn’t this just one more reason for why we don’t need doctrine? It’s hardly a compelling term. If there were a lexicon of exciting words, “doctrine” would be up there with like “Tupperware” or the “beige.” Historically however, doctrines have mattered a great deal. They nearly always developed in the context of heated disputes over the interpretation of Scripture, where the losers were often excommunicated or killed, or both. Ultimately, doctrine determined whether people could continue to worship together, including the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, we confess the doctrine of Trinity every week in the Nicene Creed.
The development of Trinity actually grew out of questions concerning who Jesus Christ is, as to whether Christ was divine, or human, or both. Once the church recognized that Christ was divine, God in the flesh, the “oneness” of God required a different meaning than the monotheistic interpretation of the Old Testament. The church eventually came to confess that while there is only one God, this God nevertheless consists of three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—sharing the same “substance” or “stuff.”
The Nicene Creed (ca. 381) not only speaks to this reality, but the particular language employed came from several disputes over various texts of scripture, and who had the better interpretation. When Jesus Christ is described as “begotten of his Father before all worlds,” (or, “eternally begotten of the father”) “eternally begotten of the Father,”and as “begotten, not made,” this language reflects an explicit rejection of Christ as a created being.
We could easily spend the next hour unpacking the language of the creed by looking at the disputes that produced it. I know. I can sense your disappointment. As exciting as that would be, I’ve got 8:30 to wrap this up. The church would also come to confess that the Holy Spirit is divine, the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who, with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified. If the Spirit weren’t divine, such worship would be idolatry.
John 16:12-15 (NRSV)
Our text in John’s Gospel highlights the activity of the Holy Spirit. In this extended discourse which stretches over several chapters, Jesus has foretold of his own betrayal, predicted Peter’s denial, and announced his imminent departure. On top of all that, he tells the disciples that they will be hated, and should expect to suffer in his absence. But on four separate occasions Jesus has also mentioned that he will be sending the Counselor, the Holy Spirit (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).
In verse 12 Jesus says he has more to say, but recognizes that they just can’t bear it at the present moment. We have no idea what Jesus was going to say, but he stops, and changes course. Might it be on account of their sorrow? Possibly. When one is still reeling from the initial shock of a troubling medical diagnosis, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, absorbing more information would prove extremely difficult. It could also however, have been on account of their spiritual immaturity. Either way, Jesus’ timing—and the Spirit’s timing—is perfectly attuned to their weaknesses and limitations.
So Jesus breaks off from these warnings of the future and returns once again to the Holy Spirit, pausing to elaborate on what he only mentioned in passing before. There are at least two major activities of the Spirit that we can discern here. The Spirit guides and the Spirit glorifies.
The Spirit Guides
In verse 13 Jesus tells the deflated disciples that when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide them into all the truth. Note that the word “guide” evokes the image of a pathway, one that they’re already walking. This may point back to Jesus’ earlier declaration in chapter 14, where he declared that he is “the Way.” (v. 6). The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, will keep them on the right path, the path that leads to truth. Such guidance has nothing at all to do with privileged information regarding the choice of one’s vocation or mate, or which numbers to choose for the lottery.
But Jesus also points out that the Spirit does not guide by speaking on his own behalf, but speaks only what he hears. We’re not told whether the Spirit hears the Father or the Son, but this is likely not important. This expression bespeaks a harmony among the divine persons. Because the Spirit is in intimate communion with the Father and the Son, and because the Father, Son, and Spirit share the same substance or “stuff” or being, there is no miscommunication; nothing ever gets lost nothing lost in translation, so to speak.
It is worth noting here that we find the personal pronoun “he” to describe the Spirit as a person, and not an abstract force. Now while the Spirit is not male, the use of a personal pronoun in verse 13 is all the more interesting because grammatically—bear with me—grammatically the word for Spirit is neither masculine nor feminine, but neuter. To be grammatically correct, we would expect to find the word “it” instead of “he.” Something like “When the Spirit comes, it will guide you into all truth.”
But that simply will not do. John is anxious to underscore that the Spirit is a person. In fact a more literal rendering would read something like this, “But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” The personal pronoun is mentioned twice. But enough with the grammar.
The Spirit Glorifies
If the Spirit guides, the Spirit also glorifies. Jesus says of the Spirit, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The Spirit shines a light on Christ in conveying the message from Christ. This is probably the best way to interpret Jesus’ statement that the Spirit “will declare to you the things to come” in verse 14. That is, it is likely that the Spirit would reveal a deeper understanding of Christ, one that could give an account of his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. We might say the Spirit’s word here is Christocentric. Then Jesus then closes the loop in verse 15, if you will, by pointing out that all that the Father has belongs also to him. The Spirit takes what Christ gives, and Christ has all that the Father has.
The Spirit Ensures that Nothing Is Lost in Translation
Which brings us back to the story of Avery and his mother. I’d like to offer a few reflections on the work of the Holy Spirit as the One who does not speak on his own, but “speaks whatever he hears.” Because God is Triune, it cannot be any other way. Unlike Avery and his mother, there’s no possibility of mistranslation or misunderstanding between Christ—who has everything the Father has—and the Holy Spirit.
To acknowledge even the possibility of mistranslation is to move from the Trinity to tri-theism, or three separate gods who can do what they please, and may not always get on well with each other. Greek mythology has plenty of stories depicting epic battles among the gods. Chronos against Uranos. Zeus against Chronos. But there is no disorder in the Trinity. When the Spirit is sent, Christ and the Father are there. There is nothing lost in translation.
Imagine the discouragement of the disciples, knowing that Jesus is leaving them, being told by Jesus that the Holy Spirit “will probably show you the way.” Imagine Jesus saying that he hopes the Holy Spirit will follow what he says, staying in line with his message, or even warning the disciples that from now on they’re going to have to “watch their backs” because the Spirit’s known say one thing but do another.
Those messages are more akin to our patterns of communication. We know that transitions rarely go smoothly. We know full well how quickly things can degenerate when there is turnover at work or in the church, when the new program director says that she’s enthusiastic about fulfilling the predecessor’s vision, which inevitably entails extra hours to learn new procedures for the same amount of pay. We’re left wondering whether the new director really gets the vision, or whether something has been lost in translation.
We live a world where we often talk past one another, whether it’s innocent or malicious, whether through misunderstanding, or through sophisticated innuendos, equivocation, deceptive words, or outright lies. We are quite adept at forms of speech that intentionally malign and wound others. How easy it is for us to wreck relationships and kill community with our words. Indeed, our “speaking whatever we hear” often takes the form of gossip. We also know the pain of being misunderstood and the sorrow of broken fellowship. The root cause of most divorce is a failure to communicate—to speak truthfully, to listen and be heard.
And yet, we are created in the image of the Triune God, the God who is a social reality, an eternal, uninterrupted fellowship of love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, where nothing is ever lost in translation. Being made in God’s image means, fundamentally, that we are made for fellowship with God and one another. We may not all be sociable, but we are social beings. One of the deepest longing of our souls is to be heard and understood.
But being created in God’s image also means that we have the responsibility to speak truthfully to others, to speak, through the Holy Spirit, words that shine a light on Christ, whether we’re talking about him or not. If the Spirit repeats the words of Jesus, then perhaps we should ask the Spirit to bring to mind those who may be in need of words of reconciliation.
• Is there someone who has suffered on account of your words?
• Have your words been heavy—not due to their profundity but because of their judgment?
• Have we wounded those who love us because we, unlike Jesus, decided to go ahead and release words that another was unable to bear?
• Have we refrained from speaking words of life to another, preferring silence and misunderstanding to the possibility of embarrassment?
You might be thinking, well that’s an impossibly high standard—and you’d be right. On our own, the demand would indeed be unbearable. But this same Spirit of whom Jesus speaks, the Spirit who perfectly reflects Christ and God, has been given to us too.
I teach Christian ethics for a living, and I don’t know if Augustine’s statement in his Confessions (X.29) can be improved upon when he said “Give what you command, and command what you will.” As it turns out, Romans 5:5 was one of Augustine’s favourite verses. When Christians were discouraged, he would point to hope, and its foundation: “and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
There is of course a place where there is no miscommunication—not because of our ability to grasp the truth, but on account of the nature of the Giver. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that our shortcomings, our sin, and even our inability to fully believe is not a hindrance to the gifts we receive here. Where, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies the bread and wine, we feed on Christ. May God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit grant us the power to speak words of grace and reconciliation to one another, words in a world that—whether it knows it or not—hungers for God.