Occasionally trying to sort out the meaning of words and ideas somehow misses the point. Let me give you an example. Like a number of you in this room I am a grandparent. The dictionary tells me that your grandparent means whoever is a parent of your father or mother. Clear enough? Well in my experience the dictionary misses the important meaning. When my two year old grandchild Bianca comes to visit and holds up her arms to be picked up, then brushes our golden retriever with my toothbrush, eats the dog-food and tips her cup of water into the dog’s bowl before she drinks it, I know I have a grandchild. When she picks up a book then climbs onto Shirley’s knee to be read to, Shirley is reminded that she has a real grandchild. The dictionary doesn’t quite tell us what being a grandparent means.
This coming Sunday is called Trinity Sunday so I would like to start with a question. What is it about the subject of the Trinity that might make any practical difference to our real relationships or to the lives any of us here in this present worship space?
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 game of cards or even a snooze in front of the Tele.
Some theologians might have nothing better to do than reflect on the astonishing assertion that the three persons of the Trinity are consubstantial – I hope you all know what that means because I can’t be certain that I do. Or perhaps for a good part of this last week you have been 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 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381. Did you know Augustine made at least twenty separate attempts to make the idea plain and are you surprised that some are tempted to ask why it was worth it?
However if you turn it around for those of us anxious to make sense of a sometimes dimly understood faith, and it meaning in sometimes confusing world,surely it all depends on whether or not the Trinity opens us to some new ways of thinking and encourages us to consider whether or not the idea opens us to new relationships.
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.
The small scale tribal God who could be carried on their travels in a box became progressively more inadequate as the Israelites started to think about the wonders of creation. And let’s face it, this is an idea that is still developing. Should we be surprised? 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.
Nevertheless by reminding ourselves of the metaphor that God is in creation, we might thereby be reminded we have a responsibility to think what we are doing to this creation. In the world media this last week there have been photos of huge piles of plastic being washed up on Pacific beaches. If we honestly believe that we are entrusted with the care of God’s creation here on earth, surely this affects our attitudes to waste plastic. If we care about pollution and fossil fuel burning doesn’t that also mean we should care about what our politicians do when they set up laws for this nation and support them when they want to sign up to climate control agreements.
But our developing ideas about religion also remind us, 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.
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 just when we think we know where it is going, 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 well be 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?
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. If being a grandparent is only discovered in the reality of relationships, surely claiming to follow Jesus must also be lived in our relationships.
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. Remember 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 greatest challenge is not to shape the right faith formula, Trinity or otherwise, but rather to seek the Trinity inspired formula that will shape us particularly in a way that we might be freed to offer something for our present community and future world.