Anyone who has taught children knows you need more than information. The world’s most clear and accurate lecture means little to a room full of first graders. Their learning must be received and repeated interactively. It involves play and practice.
I recall one such learning game in Sunday school as a child. A passer-by hears nothing but the sound of hushed giggling as the secret—often a verse of Scripture—is passed from ear to ear. When it has whispered its way around the room, the final listener—almost always with an audible question mark at the end—repeats aloud what the message has become. And the giggling can no longer be hushed. Whether by expected error or by intentional intervention, the phrase has been altered, sometimes so far that it cannot be traced back its source. Everyone delights in sharing what it was when it came to them.
John’s gospel introduces us to a strange game of Trinitarian telephone:
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take that is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
Trinity Sunday follows immediately upon Pentecost. There is no Holy Spirit separate from the Trinity. Everything the Spirit is and does in our experience expresses the life of the Trinity. Which mysteriously means we learn from God himself—the Son and the Spirit—what it means to receive. We not only have the truth and love of God given to us, we have a model for how to receive and share.
What we receive is more than a divine scrap of insight. The Holy Spirit is not just sneaking information to us in way we can decipher. As Paul extrapolates in Romans 5, what we receive is peace, grace, hope, and love. It is God’s own self “poured into our hearts,” made real by the Holy Spirit. This is always what the Triune God is up to. "Throughout all time, humanity, having been moulded at the beginning by the hands of God, that is, of the Son and of the Spirit, is being made after the image and likeness of God” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V.28). Creation and salvation is the shared dynamism of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in which he is imprinting his image upon humanity, crafting a people capable of revealing eternity in time. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it in a sermon for Pentecost: “This is why the Trinity is such a central affirmation to sustain the Christian life. The Trinity is not metaphysical speculation about God’s nature in and of itself but rather is our affirmation that God has chosen to include us in his salvific work. Thus, the Spirit proceeds from the Father so that Jesus might continue to be present with us” (Hauerwas, Christian Existence Today, 52).
As Paul indicates, this telephone-truth about the Trinity is not an abstract doctrine but a concrete comfort and hope in the midst of suffering. It is the shape God’s life and work takes in us and around us. We have hope—not because “we know something you don’t know,” but because the Father has placed his hands on us and embraced us. God is with us. This is the story being whispered in our ear for us to play and practice, declaring it “not only with our lips but in our lives."