We sent the new boy over to the next camp to borrow a “bacon stretcher.” That was a typical “initiation” prank for our Boy Scout troop in my early teens. Happily, we had excellent adult leaders who prevented most of the mean-spirited hazing which passes for initiation in some scout troops, sports teams and various schools and colleges. There was a little embarrassment and kidding about being fooled by the trick, but then a new scout was quickly accepted as one of the bunch.
Initiations of various sorts appear to me to be an ancient and ubiquitous human practice. Later this month the Hispanic congregation that rents our building will hold a Quincienera party for a young woman turning 15, a coming-of-age/becoming-a-woman celebration somewhat akin to our Anglo traditional marking of 16th birthdays.
The Christian Church’s primary rite of initiation is of course baptism. As we observe Trinity Sunday this week, the Gospel text is the very familiar passage which ordains baptism as the way people enter the Christian fold, Matthew 28:16-20. It’s also a key text for Trinity Sunday because baptism is therein linked to the three persons of God, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
What I’d like us to notice this Sunday is that baptism is not only initiation into the Christian community, but in its very inception and command to be performed in the three-fold name of God it is also an initiation into the divine community, into the life of God’s own self.
I don’t know how much it will figure into Sunday’s sermon, but I’ve been reading about and becoming more and more convinced that what is now known as “social trinitarianism” is the correct view of the Trinity. This is the view often associated with the eastern wing of Christianity that the three persons of God are just that, three personal centers of will and intellect and emotion, interacting with each other in love within the one being of God. It is perhaps well represented by this famous icon which associates the Trinity with the three angelic visitors to Abraham.
The alternative is more familiar in the west, “Latin trinitarianism,” and is perhaps best represented by the second image I’m posting here, that God has a single will, intellect and emotional center which is eternally expressed in three forms. Augustine famously said that Father and Son love each other, while the Holy Spirit is the love which binds them together. Thus the Spirit especially is not exactly a “person” in its own right. I think that misses the personal activity of all three persons of God in Scripture.
Put simply, the east has emphasized the threeness of God, while the west has emphasized His oneness. The east does not affirm three gods, while the west does not deny that God is a trinity. So both perspectives are orthodox and true to passages like our Gospel reading from Matthew 28. It’s just that the eastern perspective helps us see how human community, especially the church, is modeled on and comes from the very real and eternal divine community of three distinct and different persons.
So baptism in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is an initiation into a community of persons at whose core is the eternal community of the divine persons. Understanding that puts to rest all notions of an individualized Christian experience, a “me and Jesus” attitude which imagines that Christian faith is all about my own salvation or a “personal” meaning “private” relationship with Jesus. No, baptism in its very performance in the name of the divine community brings us out of our own individual selves and into eternal relationship with each other and with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.