Let’s try for a moment to think ourselves into John’s account of the Last Supper. We’ve heard quite a lot of it over the past few Sundays, although by no means all of it. The twelve are gathered with Jesus in an upper room, we might assume a relatively small room for the number of people it contained. There is an intimacy about the scene. There are moments when little conversations bubble up amongst individuals seated next to each other, as tends to happen at dinner parties and family occasions. There are some mysterious goings on involving Judas Iscariot.
But primarily the attention of the disciples is focussed on one man: Jesus. Not because He is dominating or attention seeking. There is simply something about Him which commands their attention, a charisma, a magnetism, a beauty even.
He speaks with them in an intimate way, but what He is trying to explain is unclear to them. He speaks in a way that is both fragmentary and repetitive, almost as if He is struggling to make His point, as if He is struggling to find words that will be comprehensible to His disciples to explain what He means, as if human language itself is straining to express the deep things of God.
He seems to be speaking of a departure, that He will be leaving them, that He will not see them. There is a tension, perhaps even a hint of something like fear.
And yet He speaks not only of His departure, but of many other things, things they cannot understand. He speaks of His relationship with the Father, of His relationship with the disciples, of the intimacy of these relationships. And He speaks of what He calls the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter, who will guide them into all Truth.
He says to them, in chapter fifteen, “I call you friends”. And one of the characteristics of friendship is, amongst other things, the sharing of secrets. And sometimes, between very close friends, we might struggle to find the words to express the deep thing we need to share, and yet the friend seems to understand anyway. Sometimes reading John’s account of the Last Supper, it feels to me as if Jesus is aiming for that sort of conversation, but that the disciples just haven’t quite got there, that they haven’t quite been able to make the leap necessary to grasp His meaning.
And maybe we never quite have. Jesus is disclosing the secret things of God, He is disclosing things about the nature of the Divine Existence which have not been disclosed before, except in the most fleeting and opaque glimpses. Such things can only be approached in humility, such things can only be approached in reverence for the ultimate mysterious otherness of God. God is not another thing in a universe of many things. God is something above and beyond all things, and yet also in all things.
I suppose we never have and never will exhaust the riches of Jesus’ teaching at the Last Supper in John’s gospel. But I think that it is fair to say that the disciples did eventually make some progress in understanding what Jesus was trying to say to them, and that the Church in each generation has found new and rich ways of understanding His words. It took more than three hundred years for the Church to arrive at a mature doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and even after two thousand years, no-one thinks that the last word in Trinitarian theology has been said.
I say every year, because I believe that it is true, I say every year that the Trinity doesn’t make a lot of sense if we try to understand it as a mathematical problem. The various analogies that people try to draw from nature – eggs, clover leaves, the one about water and kettles or something – none of them really work. But if we try to think of it in terms of love, in terms of relationship, then I think we can at least begin to get somewhere.
There are certain sorts of human relationships in which it is possible to discern a profound unity. It can happen when we fall in love. Sometimes it happens in marriage. Sometimes we see it between siblings, or between good friends. It happens when two people become so close that the place where one ends and the other begins seems in some strange way to break down when it’s almost impossible to name the one without naming the other. There is a unity, there is a oneness, and yet there are also still two distinct individuals. It is precisely the fact of the twoness that makes the oneness interesting and beautiful, and even possible.
Of course in human relationships this unity in diversity can only go so far. Often it goes wrong. Sometimes it degenerates into a relationship of one dominant and one passive partner. Sometimes it is spoilt by a betrayal, or just by those little frictions and tensions that inevitably come along from time to time in even the closest connections. But I still think it is this, rather than an egg or a clover leaf or a kettle, that gives us the best glimpse of the Trinity.
Where our relationships are imperfect, the relationship that is the Holy Trinity is perfect. The best human relationship might achieve for a time a sort of partial unity, a closeness so profound that our thoughts seem to run together, that we can finish one another’s sentences, that the distinction between one and another seems somehow obscured, although there are clearly two different people nonetheless. If that can, at times, and in partial ways, be true in human relationships, what of the Divine relationship?