Trinity • 11 Jun 2017

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Rev. Chris Udy

Today is the only Sunday
in the Church’s year
when our worship is focussed
on something you won’t find in the Bible.
Today is Trinity Sunday -
but no matter where you look
you won’t find the word “Trinity” in Scripture,
because ‘Trinity’ as a word to describe God
was first used more than a century after
the last books of the Bible were written.
It was coined by a lay preacher named Tertullian,
around the year 210 AD,
at a time when the Church was just beginning
to try and put technical, philosophical words
to our narrative experience of God.

The creation stories we read today
had been told and re-told by Abraham’s family
for about 2000 years
before Paul and the Apostles heard them -
more than two millennia of faith
in a relationship that slowly grew
in depth and understanding.
Abraham became God’s friend
as far back in time before Jesus
as we are after -
and in that 2000 years
Abraham’s family learned many things about God
that Abraham didn’t know.
The story of the Exodus
says Moses delivered God’s Law to Israel
about 500 years later;
King David wrote his songs 500 years after that,
around 1000 years before Jesus was born;
prophets like Elijah and Hosea and Isaiah
declared the Word of the Lord
for the next 500 years …
but God’s people always had trouble listening,
and despite warnings by Jeremiah and Ezekiel
they spent about 60 years
in exile in Babylon (597-538BCE).
Malachi was the last prophet of our Old Testament
and he was writing about 450 years before Jesus -
at a time when the Persians ruled Israel;
when Alexander was about to conquer his world
and when the Romans were still living
in a muddy Italian town,
just beginning to dream about power.

Over all that time
the people of God grew deeper
in their understanding of God’s nature
and God’s purpose.
Where other nations and other peoples
had truckloads of Gods,
Israel was reminded again and again
as Jesus himself said (Mk 12:29-30)
‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God,
the Lord is one;
and you shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind,
and with all your strength.’
There is one God - and only one God,
and that understanding was fundamental
to the faith and worship of God’s people.
So when Jesus started forgiving sins -
something only God can do -
and when the disciples of Jesus began to suggest
that Jesus was - first - the Son of God,
and then - as John’s gospel says -
the ‘Word of God’, and ‘one with God’
and ‘God the only Son’ -
it’s not surprising that a lot of faithful Hebrews
thought something strange was happening.
The disciples of Jesus
were speaking from their experience;
they said -
this man loved us as God loves us -
he spoke to us with God’s authority,
and he did things that only God can do …
everything about our experience tells us
that Jesus is also God.

And then, to thoroughly confuse
and complicate the matter
the disciples also said
they’d had another experience of God
in the work of the Holy Spirit -
at Pentecost,
in other moments of power and grace,
and through an inner voice
of conscience and guidance
that they said had been promised by Jesus -
and not just a message or a vision either -
this was a personal presence,
the Counsellor, the Advocate,
the Spirit of truth.

So by the time
the New Testament documents were complete -
about 95AD -
the early Church was teaching
that God had been revealed to God’s people
as God the creator -
the Father, the Law-giver, the Holy One of Israel;
and as God the Son -
Jesus, the Saviour, the child of Mary and Joseph;
and as God the Holy Spirit -
the Advocate, the Comforter,
God who speaks to our hearts.
They were even –
as we heard from Matthew’s Gospel today
baptising in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit -
but none of the writers of the New Testament
made any attempt to put them all together,
or to answer the question
of how one God
could somehow and suddenly become three.
But for the next 200 years
that question became the burning issue for the Church -
and Tertullian was the first -
100 years after the New Testament was written -
to talk about God as ‘Trinity’.
And that was just the beginning
of an argument that burned and flared
into excommunications and even murderous violence
until it was apparently resolved
in two Councils of the Church -
first at Nicaea in 325,
and then in Constantinople in 381.
They worked it out by writing creeds -
statements and summaries of faith
like the Nicene Creed, which we sometimes use
when we celebrate Holy Communion -
and if you think the creeds we use
can get a little technical and dry,
let me give you a taste
of another one -
written by Saint Athanasius
for the Council of Nicaea,
and still printed in every copy
of the Anglican prayer book:

“Whoever wants to be saved,
should above all cling to the Christian faith,
whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable
will doubtless perish eternally.

Now this is the Christian faith:
that we worship One God in Trinity
and Trinity in Unity,
neither confusing the Persons
nor dividing the Divine Being.
For the Father is one Person,
the Son is another,
and the Holy Spirit is still another.
But the Godhead of the Father,
of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is one,
equal in glory, coeternal in majesty. …”

And that’s how it continues for pages more.
And just to make the point
as forcefully as possible,
the Creed of Athanasius finishes by saying ...

“This is the Christian faith.
One cannot be saved
without believing this firmly and faithfully.”

So I hope we’re all on board and on fire
with all of that.

What you might notice though,
is that nowhere in that creed,
nor in any other statement of faith
that’s been accepted and adopted by the Church
do we find an explanation
how it is
that God is both one and three.
The experience and affirmation of Christian faith
is that God is unity in trinity -
but no-one has ever worked out the mechanics.
All kinds of images and metaphors were tried,
like water being rain, a river and the sea,
like a woman being a daughter, a wife, and a mother,
like a relationship being a lover, the beloved, and love -
but in one way or another
all the images and metaphors failed,
and the teachers of the Church
were left with the conclusion
that the Christian faith has a mystery at its heart,
and that God is unlike anything else
we can know or understand.

Ben Myers, who teaches Theology
at the United Theological College
recently spent a couple of weeks writing tweets
about avoiding Trinitarian heresy.

He began his Twitter stream by saying:
“#1. Start by abolishing Trinity Sunday,
that fateful day on which preachers think
they have to explain the Trinity
#2. Teach children to make the sign of the cross
when they say the words "Father, Son and Holy Spirit"
#3. When someone offers to tell you
the practical implications of the doctrine,
just smile and move along.
#4. Have you come up with
a really helpful analogy of the trinity?
Well done! Now please don't tell anyone about it, ever.
#5. The doctrine is not a mystery.
It is simple & precise.
The reality it points to is the mystery”
And on he goes – for 61 tweets more!

There’s a beautiful story
told about St. Augustine,
who was one of our greatest teachers,
and wrote some of the most profound and beautiful
explorations of our faith.
Augustine was born in the year 354 -
just after the Council of Nicaea -
at the time when the Church
was struggling to find words to speak about God.
The story goes that he’d been spent a morning
wrestling in frustration with words and ideas,
but was getting nowhere,
so he went for a walk on the beach.
He saw a little boy
who had dug out a hole in the sand with a seashell
and was running backwards and forwards
between his hole and to the ocean,
filling up the shell,
and rushing back to pour it
into the hole he had made.
"What are you doing, my little man," Augustine asked.
"I'm trying to put the ocean into my hole,"
the little boy replied -
and peace came to Augustine's soul, he says,
as he realized this was exactly
what he had been trying to do -
to fit God into his mind -
and it would never happen.

At the heart of our faith there’s a mystery -
an experience we can’t explain,
of a God who is beyond us, beside us and within us,
who’s been around forever,
and will always be the same,
but who also seems to grow and change -
because we do.
The God that Abraham befriended
is the same as the God Augustine came to love
but Augustine’s understanding of God
had grown enormously,
and over the 1600 years since then
the way we see the world,
and the way we see God in it
has continued to grow and change.
We no longer pray to or think about God
in Hebrew or Greek or Latin,
and even the meaning
of the words we read in Scripture
has changed in the thousands of years
since they were written.
Trinity was a new word,
and a new idea
that was helpful to God’s people
as we grew in our friendship with God,
but ultimately it does no more to explain
the mystery at the heart of our faith
than your name can explain you -
and as we grow,
and as the universe we live in expands,
God’s people will need to find new words
and new ways to explain and to worship God.
The God that Pope Francis worships
and the God that Donald Trump says he prays to
is one and the same -
but their experience of God
is obviously very different -
and the tragedy for Christian faith - or any faith -
would be to insist
that only one experience of God is valid
or only one name for God is allowed -
and return to those terrible centuries
of excommunication and inquisition.

Trinity Sunday reminds us
that God can’t be trapped in a hole like that,
and that God has already chosen
to be known in different ways
at different times and by different people -
so if we really want to grow
in friendship and knowledge with God,
we need to live in community -
as God does -
and welcome and respect the richness
of our experience and insight. Amen.