s112g97 Somerton Park 25/5/97 Trinity Sunday
"Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"" John 3:10.
It has been my long impression that if everyone believes that sermons are boring, then the sermon for Trinity Sunday would win the vote as the most likely to be the most boring of all. How sad this is because one of the first times when what might most closely resemble our creed is spoken, in the household of Cornelius in Acts chapter 10, we find the "Holy Spirit fell on all who heard". This surprised, even shocked everyone, because the "Holy Spirit has been poured out on Gentiles" (verses 44,46). That we dutifully recite the Creed each service, in my long experience, without reaction, is evidence that we have failed to grasp the import of the words we say. The Nicene Creed which we say together at virtually every service of the Holy Communion, which forms the statement of our faith in the Holy Trinity, was fought "tooth and nail" for - people were prepared to die for it. We have indeed come so far, that we should consider it boring - the Sunday when we can least expect to be inspired.
I would be the first to say people should not be fighting over a form of words - I am reminded of Jesus own words in John 16: "an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God" (verse 2). It may well be that if the Devil has not found success in the elimination of its teaching by conflict, he / she may have more success through the notion that it's irrelevant.
There is a difficulty about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and that is because we think we have to understand it. We think that it's there to explain God - three yet somehow one. We are motivated by the idea that if we don't believe then God is going to get upset with us - that God only likes those who are sufficiently gullible and compliant enough to be his / her followers, and that all others are consigned elsewhere.
There are of course those denominations who advertise their opposition to this doctrine, saying that such explanations are not in the New Testament - that they are a later perversion contaminating the simple truths propounded by holy writ.
We need to go back to basics, not because the doctrine is wrong, but because our conception of what the doctrine is all about is wrong.
The consistent witness of the Old Testament is that God is one: "There is no other God besides me" proclaims God to Moses. Of course this is largely in reaction to the idols of the people with whom the Jewish people mixed. In the New Testament, Jesus makes statements like "I and the Father are one" which complicates the picture somewhat. Jesus, (it might well be said - sadly) made no attempt to explain what this meant. How helpful it would have been, especially had he used the concepts and terminology of Greek metaphysics.
Then, after Pentecost - the outpouring of the Holy Spirit - comes to be recognised as something of the nature of God as well. Again this realisation is not explained, it is simply experienced. St Paul links all three equally in that formula we know so well, that we finish every meeting by saying it together: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen." (2 Cor 13.14)
Similarly Jesus doesn't attempt to explain the Spirit to Nicodemus, he uses a word picture about the wind as an analogy.
But later on in the history of the Church, we find this or that person bobbing up in history wanting to explain the Holy Trinity. So a character called Arius wanted to teach that Jesus was not quite God ... almost, but not quite ... So began a whole series of people who wanted to explain God - three in one and one in three ... It became a sort of theological oneupmanship. Who was right and who was wrong. And people were killed and exiled and all sorts of things by others who thought they were "offering worship to God".
I am reminded of a dedication in a gift - the book of J. B. Phillips "New Testament Christianity" - which read: "To ... , with a wish, a hope and above all, a prayer that it may lead to an understanding of the third part of the Holy Trinity. from ..."
We have been imbued with the idea that we have to understand, and understanding, assent without reservation to a particular expression of understanding about God. How far removed is all this to Jesus travelling Palestine, accepting what people, one and all, offered him.
When you start to look at the response the Church had to these people who wanted to explain God, we find that in amongst all the metaphysical language, the Church has steadfastly refused to agree to anything which would explain God. God cannot be explained. If we understood God - then we are heretical - and wrong. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the Churches statement that God cannot ever be explained.
If I could explain God, God would cease to be God. More accurately the "god" I explain to myself and others is but a projection of myself - and about as useful. On this Trinity Sunday, if you were to ask me to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, I would cheerfully say: "No". I can't do that. If you want an explanation of God the Holy Trinity you will have to find another heretic for that. This particular heretic's skills are somewhat limited in that field. Heresy is in fact being able to explain God, to understand God.
The author of the Creed of St Athanasius comes close to expressing what I mean when he states: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible ... the Holy Ghost incomprehensible ... and yet there are not three incomprehensibles ... but one incomprehensible" APBA p836 If you can comprehend that, you are better than I!
Certainly God's creation provides us with useful analogies, which show us that such things are not unreasonable, but they can never serve as explanations.
Why then did people fight over such explanations? I suspect, perhaps people realised it or not, whether they were able to articulate it or not, it was something about God remaining God, a gracious and loving God, and not just projections of ourselves, that was at stake. Mind you, people will argue about just about anything ...
Theological speculation about the nature of God can delude us into thinking that God is simply an object one might study through a microscope or telescope. Science does well dissecting objects into their component parts (if they are living - killing them in the process) and categorising the bits. The only thing we will find if we try to kill and dissect God, is to find that God lets himself be killed, and we are left with the same loving kindness proclaimed in Old and New Testaments, over and over again.
We only delude ourselves thinking we have power over God. Thinking in this way we believe we are in charge of our own destiny - that we are in fact masters of our own universe. Despite all the wonderful things that science, medicine and politics have achieved, I personally have much more confidence knowing that God is at the helm.
I mean this in both a personal and a corporate sense. I have enough trouble in my own life - things happen quite beyond my control, things both good and less than good. The last thing I would want to suggest is that I am in control over my own life. I might piously say that I wouldn't want to be. Yet on occasions I recall that lovely passage in the psalms which comes to mind: "The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. (Ps 16:6) I couldn't have arranged this if I tried.
So the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not important because when we come to understand it and acknowledge it properly, God rewards us for our gullibility and compliance. No, it is vital because he has brought us salvation as a free gift, and we hide that fact from others when we pretend we understand God and have arranged our salvation ourselves.
Heresy, in the final analysis, is much less about the nature and status of God as it is about people trying to keep things to themselves rather than sharing them.
Salvation then is giving control over our lives to God. Damnation is condemning ourselves to succeeding over others using our own devises.
I made reference earlier to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the household of Cornelius in Acts chapter 10. Everyone was surprised that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles. It was a matter of common knowledge that God didn't have dealings with the unclean Gentiles. The book the Acts of the Apostles spends most of its time demonstrating that precisely the opposite is the case. God deals graciously with everyone - as Jesus himself said: the "Father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:45).
How often does the Church come across as similarly spending time delineating who is in and who is out? I suspect that many in our society believe that the Church spends most of its time making sure that those who don't have faith, those who don't have enough of the right faith, those who are not gullible or compliant enough, those who haven't repented, those whose marriages have failed, those who express themselves intimately with the wrong people, those who have unmentionable diseases, those who believe certain things about euthanasia - are excluded.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is our safeguard that this universe is in God's hands, and that God continues to cross all these boundaries, real or imaginary. When we and the world understand that God includes us and them on precisely equal terms, through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and that in fact there is no "us" and "them" at all, then we are getting close to what the Creed and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is about. We can expect the Holy Spirit to be poured out on all flesh; as indeed the prophet Joel long ago testified: "Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit." (Joel 2:28-29).
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