Three into One does go.
June 7, 2009
(Isaiah 6,1-8; John 3,1-17 )
In an edition of The Reader magazine a few years back there was a page of suggestions to help the unfortunate ones among us who have been assigned to preach today, Trinity Sunday, to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.
There were the usual suggestions that we’ve all used sometimes, especially when we have had a Family Service on Trinity Sunday: water, ice and steam, three different forms of the same substance H2O; one person who is known in different relationships ( father, son, brother ) or different roles (teacher, churchwarden, golf cub secretary). And others that I’ve not come across before: three parts of an egg – yolk, shell and white ( though that falls short because none of the three is in itself a complete egg, while each of the three persons of the Trinity is fully God ); or one that appeals to me: a blend of three different varieties which make up a particular tea ( though this was criticised on the basis that although each variety is completely ‘tea’, they each have different flavours and are thus essentially different from each other, whereas the three persons of the Trinity are not.)
Today I came across another suggestion in the Bishop of Huntingdon’s blog – a power cable which has three leads in it. I am afraid I am not a physicist, so I don’t know whether his explanation of the cable showing us we must be earthed in the love of God, come alive in Christ and complete the circuit with the Holy Spirit works or not!
Some people say that maybe it is better not to try to explain the Trinity in words, but to use pictures. So, some people find Andrei Rublev’s icon called ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’ a helpful representation of the Trinity – three figures seated around a cup – of wine or of blood? – heads and hands inclined to one another.
A more abstract representation is the Trinity shield – a triangle of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each joined to the word ‘God’ in the centre by the word ‘is’, and joined to each other by arcs of a circle on which are the words ‘is not’.
Another pictorial representation which people find helpful is a shamrock, and I have found that this ancient Celtic symbol speaks to me of a unity of three parts endlessly interacting.
But perhaps the real problem is that we are trying to explain God the Trinity, or to represent it, when what we really need to do is to experience it. As Paul explains in Romans, we are justified by faith – and that is not faith in a set of abstract propositions, but faith in the validity of our experience of God, made known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Belief in God as Trinity grew out of the experience of the first Christians. They were Jews and monotheists, who believed in one unseen God. Their God spoke to them through major figures in their past – prophets and kings. They saw God’s activity in nature and history, and believed him to be the god of both. They saw him, as our reading from Isaiah illustrates, as a mighty, otherworldly ruler. They used many names and titles to describe God’s being and activity – Yahweh, El, King, Lord, Shield, Shepherd, Ancient of Days. And they spoke of certain aspects of God almost as separate beings, but still wholly God; the Spirit, active in the creation of the world and in the inspiration of the prophets; and Wisdom, also at God’s side during the process of creation, and speaking directly to human beings on behalf of God.
Then the disciples encountered Jesus, and in him they came to believe that they were experiencing God incarnate in a human being – someone who reflected so closely the God of their history, their Law and their Wisdom, that they could only describe him as ‘Son of God’. And Jesus spoke of God as his Father. But these were not terms which spoke of physical parentage, but of spiritual.
After Jesus’ death, the disciples experienced a time when this feeling of being in the living presence of God was lost – but then it returned again with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again, the disciple’s experience was that the Spirit had the character of both the God of their history and their scriptures, and of Jesus.
When the first Christians came to speak and write about their experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they drew on the language used in their Scriptures about God. But they didn’t at first go into exact definitions of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Those sorts of definitions came later, when the Gospel was taken out into a different cultural world, that of Greek and Roman philosophy. In particular, they came as the experience of a direct encounter with the living Jesus retreated further into the past, and people began speaking of him in ways that did not ring true to the accounts of those who had that direct experience. The definitions came about in opposition to what was defined as heresy, and that affected the way the doctrines were expressed.
One of the essays that almost all people training for ministry have to write at some time in their training is entitled something like ‘Describe the steps in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity that led to the formulation of what we now know as the Nicene Creed’. That Creed was put together in its first form about the beginning of the 4th century AD for the Council of Nicaea and in its final form in the middle of the 5th century for the Council of Chalcedon.
So, our creeds, or definitions of faith, were drawn up four centuries after the experiences they were trying to define. What is more, they were drawn up in a very different cultural milieu from that in which the first disciples lived. Another complication, for us, is that they were drawn up in a different language from the one which Jesus and his disciples spoke, and from that which we speak. The technical terms in which the relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were defined – persons and substance – meant very different things to the ancient Greek theologians who drew up the Creeds from what they mean to us – and hence our problems with the doctrine of the Trinity which they defined.
Religious experience – the experience which the doctrine of the Trinity attempts to encapsulate – is akin to the experience of viewing art or listening to music or reading poetry. Sometimes, attempting to analyse the experience can help us to a deeper experience; but very often, the analysis simply destroys the experience all together. How many of us have been put off Shakespeare, or the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, or a splendid piece of opera or orchestral music by being force to pick it to pieces and define why it has the effect on us that it does have?
Should we then abandon the observation of Trinity Sunday all together. A good many preachers would answer yes!
But I think Trinity Sunday is a useful corrective to our all too human tendency to make our God too small. It reminds us that God has been made known to us through many forms of revelation, and yet is still beyond our understanding.
It reminds us that our faith is not just in the God of the Old Testament, nor in the incarnate Son, nor in the Holy Spirit, but in God revealed as all three. It reminds us that the persons of the Godhead are in relationship, and that a relationship is a living, growing, constantly changing thing. So we cannot limit our faith to belief in the God revealed through the Scriptures; nor to the God we experience in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; nor to a God who inspires us through the Spirit. A complete faith needs to encompass all three, and needs to be open to new experiences and interpretations of all three, while being faithful to the revelation of Scripture.
In our reading from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that entering the Kingdom of Heaven is likely to be a transforming experience, akin to being born a second time into a completely new life. Elsewhere in the Gospel he tells his disciples that his Spirit will be sent to guide us into new truth and to reveal things that could not be understood in previous ages. Trinity Sunday reminds us to remain open to those new truths and new experiences of God.
Trinity Sunday also has important things to say to us about how we live and work as God’s Church. Our Christian life should reflect the character of God. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that we cannot be Christians on our own. We can only truly reflect the character of God when we are in relationship with others – respecting their differences from us, but acknowledging their essential oneness with us, as we believe the persons of the godhead do. And that is something which both our world and our churches need to be reminded of, not just once a year but constantly.