What’s the Trinity?
Romans 5: 1 – 6, 8: 12 – 17; John 16: 12 – 15
I had a chuckle to myself when commencing sermon preparation this week. It is what I read that made me smile. You see, I find certain Sunday themes rather onerous. They are onerous in two ways. Firstly there are those themes that are just heavy work. Secondly, there are themes that are regularly repeated and I wonder if the congregation will be bored hearing them repeated. Well, Trinity Sunday is a bit like that. In the first place it is very hard to explain and secondly it is repeated in the same format each year. So, I turned to the Internet and I found the following comments that made me smile. Preachers said things like this. ‘Trinity Sunday is my least favourite Sunday in the Year.’ ‘My people would just roll their eyes and tune out if I preached on the triune God.’ ‘I’ll just go with the Peace and Justice theme and ignore Trinity.’ Another protested: ‘How can you not preach on the Trinity? It is the essence of our Christian lives.’ It is also noted that ministers will get a guest preacher in on this Sunday or run with some other diversionary tactic. Well I’m going to run with the Trinity theme. I have had time to read some rich and meaningful stuff on the Holy Spirit and Trinity, so let’s have a go.
The first point I want to make is this. The Trinity has been difficult to understand because of our need to explain things and wrap things up neatly. We sit uncomfortably with mystery. The Trinity is not easily ‘wrapped up’ nicely. Some of the unhelpful approaches have been to define the nature of God in a set of concepts. For example we have the three-‘omni’ words – omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent – which mean all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present. Then there are those other words we use some theologians prefer such as Immanence, Immutable, Impassible and Impeccable. Such words don’t tell us much except that God is aloof and remote. In contrast our experience is that God is personable and approachable.
So how shall we approach this concept of the Triune God? I’m hoping to throw some light on the Trinity by looking at how we know one another. Getting to know a person involves some very basic actions. When you get down to the basics of knowing a person something very simple yet profound has to happen. The other person must speak to us in a language we understand, using concepts we can grasp and shareing something of themselves with us. Of course, we need to do the same. To develop a relationship that is meaningful we must be prepared to reveal something of ourselves. This self-revelation takes time. Now there is another important ingredient to knowing another: their words must match their deeds. For us to get to know another there must be a level of congruence between what they say and what they do. Their doing becomes as important as their telling.
To put it simply we know more about the nature and character of God by what God does and how God relates to us than we do by reading a set of ‘big’ words. We must begin at the beginning. Way back in time, before the nation of Judaism was formed and before there were any holy scriptures were written, there was an understanding that there was one high god – the god of gods. The story of Abraham and Sarah tells us this. God spoke to them. God called them to move away from their home to a new place. That in itself is profound, because the common belief was that gods were specific to a location. This call to Abraham and Sarah meant they had to leave the old ways of worshipping many gods and worship the one God. This was radical thinking. Abraham and Sarah learnt to trust God and as they moved around they learned that God was always present and God that kept God’s promises. That is a revolution in thinking because it meant that God was more powerful than local gods.
So we start with this concept of One God. This we share with Judaism and also Islam. Now we know God must speak to us and also God’s words must be consistent with God’s actions.
God’s protective and rescuing presence becomes even more evident in the story of the Exodus. It was not long before those ancient people spoke of God’s Spirit being with them. That is a concept we share when we speak about the spirit of a person. We use the concept of spirit to speak of the non-physical part of a person, which often includes their true self. We use the word ‘spirit’ to describe the influence, character, mood, energy and meaning or intention of someone. So we find on the first page and in the second sentence of the Bible a reference to God’s Spirit actively involved in creation. We read; In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, … a wind/ the spirit (Hebrew word for wind means breath or spirit) from God swept over the face of the waters. [Gen 1: 1; Job 26:13] The Scriptures increasingly speak of God’s Spirit coming upon people empowering and guiding them. Here are some examples of God’s Spirit working with individuals:
So the LORD said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him. [Num 27:18]
The spirit of the LORD came upon him (Othniel), and he judged Israel. [Judges 3:10]
When they were going from there to Gibeah, a band of prophets met him (King Saul); and the spirit of God possessed him. [1 Sam 10:10]
And when he (God) spoke to me (Ezekiel), a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. [Eze 2:2]
We really don’t have any difficulty in talking about God and God’s Spirit and understanding that we are really talking about one God. We realise that to speak of God’s Spirit we are speaking about a mode or role of God’s being, such as a person being a parent. The difficulty for us is when we get to Jesus. Jesus is a human but he is uniquely different. Here lies the problem. How can we speak of God and Jesus in the same breath? How can God be Jesus and Jesus be God? It just doesn’t make sense? It didn’t make sense either to the disciples. They struggled with this. When the first followers of Jesus came to that earth shattering experience of the Resurrection they realised that Jesus was not just a great prophet, a great teacher or even a greater king than King David. They realised that Jesus revealed God as if he were God.
We may ask, ‘why Jesus’, in the first place? Well God’s self-revelation is not sufficient if it is always through a third party such as creation, a prophet, a written word or an experience. God needed to enter our humanity, but how? Well, the only way to enter our humanity is to become a human. That mystery is precisely what the first followers began to understand about Jesus. In Jesus God was uniquely present. So when we look at Jesus – what he said and did – we see the very being of God. The Crucifixion became the ultimate moment of God’s self-revelation followed by the Resurrection.
In summary we can say that we recognise that God is one, that God is known by God’s activity, that God must reveal God’s self, that God’s Spirit moves amongst us, and if we are to understand God fully, God must enter our humanity.
The importance of God coming to us in human form is that God does not overwhelm with his presence. Thus we are left free to respond in love. I’m reminded of that wonderful picture of God gently showing Moses as much as he could bear. Moses wanted God to show him God’s glory. God said that Moses could not look on his face and live. However God did something gracious and loving. God puts Moses in the cleft of a rock and covers Moses with ‘his’ hand and passes by. Moses only sees his back. [Ex 33:18ff] The truth is that while Jesus, through the Cross, reveals fully the heart and love of God, God’s glory is still partially hidden from our eyes. We still need faith to begin to recognise God’s glory present in the Cross of Jesus.
The cross above the Communion table will help us understand the concept of Trinity. The Cross tells us all about the work of God. The Cross represents the pinnacle of God’s communication. That is why when I pronounce the blessing at the end of the service I make the sign of the Cross, because the Cross is the work of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity tells us how God sets up a relationship with us. The Cross tells us that God comes to us as the Father who sends the Son, the Son destroys the power of evil with perfect love, and the Spirit helps us understand and empowers us. The Cross tells us that God works with us through these three-modes of being – or ways of being.
The Cross tells me that God has patiently and persistently searched us out. The Cross tells me that we are loved and that the triune God moves and shapes life.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 16/06/2019