16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Today is Trinity Sunday and I would like to start with a question. What is it about the subject of the Trinity that makes any practical difference to the lives of our Christian community?
When lay people hear serious theologians discussing the Trinity with its long history of disputes, esoteric vocabulary, and at worst, its apparent disconnect with the everyday world, perhaps we should have some sympathy for those who prefer to leave the theologians to their discussion, perhaps choosing instead a walk in the park or even a snooze in front of the tele.
While some theologians might have nothing better to do than reflect on the assertion that the three persons of the Trinity are consubstantial, or to spend time wondering why it took something like 300 years before the disputes about the emerging idea of the Trinity began to settle at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, when we remember that Augustine made at least twenty separate attempts to make the idea plain we might be tempted to ask why it was worth it.
At the same time, for those of us anxious to make sense of a sometimes dimly understood faith, and sometimes confusing world, the Trinity opens us to some new ways of thinking.
The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit is an idea familiar enough to most denominations of the Christian Church. We might for example encounter Jesus in today’s lesson commanding his disciples to baptise in the name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit or Paul writing in the second letter to the Corinthians where he offers the benediction:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor 11:13). Yet notice even here it doesn’t say three in one – or that even more apparently curious notion that somehow God the Father is somehow one with God in Jesus and one with the Holy Spirit.
You may already be aware that the word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible but it is fair to say that some of the concepts and ideas on which it is based are at least being partially shaped, particularly in the writing of Matthew and Paul and by the time the early Church got around to its formulation a good number of the early Christians found it expressing what they wanted to say.
Before claiming certainty about the Trinity we also need to be honest and admit that even at the Council of Nicaea where the Emperor Constantine had directed that Christians should stop arguing amongst themselves about how to talk about Jesus and come out with a common statement of position, not only were a number present unable to accept the suggested formula of the Trinity, but even some of those who accepted the subsequent wording of the Nicene Creed were far from agreed as to exactly what it should all mean.
We should also note that some parts of the Church today steadfastly refuse to entertain the thought that Jesus and God are somehow equivalent and at the same time despite that disagreement appear to be comfortable accepting Jesus’ teaching and the essence of his ethics in terms of the rest of their understanding.
Before we rush to insist that groups like the Unitarians have it all wrong, some humility is called for.
Almost every time God is encountered in the Bible (He?) is presented with an air of mystery leaving far more unknown than known. Even today, modern Physicists who admit frankly they understand little of the workings of creation, would almost certainly caution anyone from making definitive statements about the nature of creation let alone any form of creator behind the process. All we can know is that the Universe is now known to be infinitely bigger and more complex than anyone might have been able to begin to guess at the time of the compilation of the Bible.
Saying the God of creation is God the Father may be reflecting one of Jesus’ several metaphors for God but the confusion deepens when we insist The Father is somehow another form of the Son. Nevertheless, as the theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, the Trinity emerged because the early Christians were trying to explain that they experienced God in three different ways, ie God in a threefold way.
In Elizabeth Johnson’s words:“They still believed in one God, but they experienced this one God in at least three particular ways: beyond them, with them, and within them”. The Father part was the notion that not only was there mystery in creation, they felt that there were glimpses of a caring force which they and their religious leaders likened to and personified as a loving parent.
However, even if this force felt caring, it was also acknowledged as beyond them, in other words as being utterly transcendent, beyond comprehension and strictly beyond description.
When they talked of Jesus being the Son of God they were trying to say Jesus had grounded this notion in his own person and they felt that his being with them (demonstrating what we might these days call “his empathy”) gave a human dimension to the mysterious God which they wanted to call the Father. Once Jesus had left the scene, his followers had a strong sensation that somehow he was still with them – and was now in effect within. This they felt was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
The essence of what became the Trinity was then: beyond them, beside them and within them.
As a more modern generation we might argue we are now in a position to question aspects of the early Church view. Each part of the metaphor description of the Trinity is potentially moderated by knowledge gained elsewhere. Creation not only unfolds as our telescopes push back the frontiers into the depths of space, or look down though our electron scanning microscopes, but every aspect of this changing creation, great and small, is gradually unfolding year by year.
The biggest change for the Trinity is that this knowledge overwhelms our Father image with an impression of something much more unified and far less restricted to the human concerns of a single species on a relatively tiny speck floating in an unimaginably vast expanding universe populated by Galaxies of innumerable changing stars, planets and what is more, a Universe now suspected to be only one of many universes.
God the Son similarly changes as more facts come to light. It is not so much that Jesus himself must be radically different to his portrayal in the Gospels, but since we now know far more about other religious settings and far more about the history of his time than was revealed in the New Testament writing, we have to be more cautious about what we claim to know with certainty.
A key question here is to ask how much of his reported wisdom is applicable today for our changed circumstances – and how much relevance we can expect Him to have for those born into vastly different cultures and religions. If we can’t find an expression of the Trinity beyond the walls of the Church, or a way of showing Jesus matters in the community and world, we would be admitting the Trinity is a total irrelevance.
And lastly we need to acknowledge that those mysterious feelings we have about a guiding Spirit are a little harder to interpret when we now know that many of our feelings are partially shaped by the biochemistry of the brain. To take one small example, many behaviours that in Jesus day were classified as sins, are now known to be influenced by neurotransmitters in the brain, by heredity and by environment.
Please notice that the sense of mystery and transcendence if anything is increased by modern knowledge, and it still makes perfect sense to remind ourselves that “God” is still beyond us. If we know that we ourselves find it hard to grasp what we are trying to describe as creation, we should be reluctant to pretend that we know enough to dismiss others’ attempts to put it into words. We should also check out our own religious language to make sure we are not dumbing down our image of this God of transcendence until “He” becomes what the poet William Blake once called a “Nobodaddy” as a sort of a ventriloquist dummy, somewhere “up there”in the ether, fabricated by our imaginations for the express purpose of doing what we ask for our exclusive satisfaction.
When it comes to the metaphor of God the Son highlighting the importance Jesus for us, beside us, remembering him in particular as the wisdom teacher for the practical everyday situations, we can’t have it both ways. If the flesh and blood Jesus was prepared to reinterpret the law for situations of need in front of him, we cannot pretend that this same Jesus would have us stay unable to face the unfolding situations and issues in front of us because we are frozen in our religious past.
Nor are we entitled to ignore those who have chosen different faiths, particularly if one important enough to us to be described as part of the Trinity dealt with those of different faiths as neighbours to be loved. I stress it is not just a matter of announcing to others that Jesus is the Son of God as part of the Trinity, it is more a matter of showing by our actions that this same Jesus is still beside us because we are attempting to follow the essence of his wisdom and reinterpret it for our generation.
In the last analysis, it is when we stop reading and cast within for the Spirit leading us on, that our faith might start to be transformed from something to be talked about to something that lives. Yes, new knowledge will continue to bring new insights and the last word is far from being spoken. After all the notion of the Trinity continued to change long after the writers of the New Testament had struggled to express what they felt, simply because the situation facing the early Christians continued to change. Those changes are now accelerating. As life brings new challenges we will need to continue to adjust our thinking and no doubt the most meaningful creeds are still to be written.
Maybe the biggest adjustment in the time to come is when we realize that our most urgent challenge is not to shape the right faith formula, Trinity or otherwise, but rather to seek the formula that will shape us, particularly in a way that we might be freed to offer something for our present and future world.