Posted By stu On Thursday, 26 May 2016
Sunday, 22 May 2016
This morning I want to spend a few moments reflecting on Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday is a difficult day for preachers, who often feel they have to try to explain it. It’s sometimes an even more difficult day for congregations, who have to listen to preachers trying to explain the Trinity. Today is no exception. Sorry. I find that the Trinity is a doctrine that constantly needs explaining before it can be illuminating. It’s a doctrine that makes no sense and has been wrestled with for centuries. It’s a loose and flimsy doctrine as it’s not explicit in the Bible at all. Compare it with the doctrine of God is Creator and you kinda see what I mean. The doctrine of the Trinity though is embedded in our Christian tradition and expression. Look at this on the front of our building. It finds its most common expression in blessings, hymns and benedictions. Paul uses the expression in his writings when he signs off his letters. It forms part of the symbol of crossing oneself in the historic church. We have plenty of art around that reflects it, most famously Rublev’s ikon — we have a facsimile of it in our chapel. It’s the doctrine that says that God is three persons of the same or similar substance. God is one, but there are the three. Well, let me show you what I mean as explained by Nuns on the run. It’s an aspect of Christianity that is really easy to be cynical about, not just because it’s a paradox, but because it’s a speculative paradox. It’s a bit of a “what if it works this way” question, and provides an answer if we ignore fundamentals about unity and uniqueness. We end up with a troubling quandary where each of the persons of the Trinity are unique, but also exactly the same God. And frankly, as in the clip, I don’t agree that because it’s ridiculous it comes down to belief and faith. I simply don’t agree that belief and religion require a suspension of reason in order to be valid. However, as I’m someone who appreciates questions, I look at the doctrine of the Trinity with a fairly laissez faire attitude. It’s not something I feel any urge or need to sink time into on its own. And I’m very wary of some of the scholarly literature that promotes theology based on what takes place within the microcosm of the Trinity and then uses that to promote an understanding of how we are to be in community. But that’s probably just the way I think about things. At any rate the doctrine of the Trinity was an attempt to bring some kind of sense to the problem where the bible’s narrative shows three clearly recognisable and distinct periods of divine activity and presence in and through creation. It all stems from the Abrahamic religion’s insistence that there is only one God. Many of us will recall that at the beginning of the Law that Moses dispenses to the new nation of Israel is the declaration “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” This of course was in stark contrast to the surrounding religions that had pantheons galore to make sense of the cosmos. So for the first century Jews who met at Pentecost, who had borne witness to the historical action of God in First Testament, borne witness to the living, risen and ascended Christ, and were now bearing witness to the post-Pentecost presence of the Holy Spirit, they were stuck with a bit of a problem. How could all three be the one God? Fortunately there was a heck of a lot going on in the early days so they didn’t need to get too bothered about it. Which is why we don’t have much development of the doctrine in the Bible. But it all came to a head about 60 years after the 2nd Testament had been written, when this early bishop Marcion came along he brought some interesting views. He figured that actually they were two gods at work, where the Yahweh in the First Testament was an angry and wrathful deity and incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Christ Father was the true God. There’s a kind of yin and yan dynamic. An interesting aspect of Marcion’s thought was that both emanated from what he called the Stranger God, or Alien God—which are actually just cool ways of describing the God who is beyond what we had ever known and still lies beyond the veil. This was the God that Paul talked about on Mars hill later in Acts and which is why Marcion could see as Paul said Jesus as this God revealed. There are two things at the heart of the Doctrine of the Trinity—and I think Marcion was right in at least this one part, that God will always lie beyond our knowledge and comprehension. We only know what we know of God because of what Christ has revealed. Yeek. Bringing this down to ground. What could all this mean for me? For me, Trinity Sunday is not so much about the doctrine of the Trinity per se, rather it is an important reminder of God’s godness and what, if anything, that might mean to us. It’s a reminder that the first principle of all (theology) thinking about God is that God is fundamentally unknowable. Start there. Any language we use to describe God is idolatrous as any adjective that we use will never be enough. Even the word Holy is problematic as it is a human construct. If we dare to speak of God we need to be speaking from traditions of vast experience and humbly placing ourselves in a long line of inadequate submissions through history. This need not lead us into ignorance, it is merely the starting point and a pure point. It puts us in the right place in the epistemological order of the cosmos. In others words, we can only know what we can know and nothing more. Thomas Merton talks of it thus: Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of You and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine You, I am mistaken. If I understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy. Darkness is enough. Selah. As such, whatever we use to describe God is cosmically trivial, though — and here’s the cool part — the same words may make our souls soar! The second part of this today is a second principle of theology: God is Love. This is where we can let Marcion go. Marcion rejected all of the Bible except for the Gospel of Luke and 10 of the letters of Paul. As such, he misses out on any writings by John, and most specifically and importantly 1 John 4:8 that explicitly says that God is Love. Everything hangs on this. Everything. It’s the most private insight we have into the God’s nature. It’s the most adequate understanding of God that we can have as it’s the most identifiably good thing we understand from life. To live well is to love well right? Take the words from John and apply them as a filter over all of the narrative of Scripture and we start to see more continuity — at least in narrative flow than if we read the stories without it. It doesn’t solve everything in scripture, not by a long shot! but there’s still more sense I think in using the filter than not. In fact I would go so far as to say that our ability to love is that image of God in us. That the entire narrative of the Bible is a story of how we can reclaim the capacity to love as Christ loves us. How this connects to the Trinity is that now we can see the three divine actions and presences as working together to the same end. The God we see in the 1st Testament if confined just to narrative portions is mean and capricious. But roughly two thirds of the 1st Testament is God speaking to the people of Israel with loving intent and desire for reconciliation. Christ of course points to God’s love, not just his kindness, but also in his sacrifice, humility, miracles and priestliness. All that we know of Jesus is enveloped in Love and his story for redemption shows how close to God’s character is the desire for us to love well. And finally when the Holy Spirit comes we are now being gifted the power to love well on behalf of God as God’s people. We use scripture, tradition, reason and experience to work out how to love well and I challenge anyone to say that they need more than the Bible to cut to the heart of the question “what does it mean to love?” Now we are getting somewhere. So a wee break with these guys to recap: Richard Bauckham suggests the following framework for talking of God as Trinity: how could we tell the story otherwise? His development of the doctrine comes from the fundamental that “God is Love”. That the progression of the bible begins and ends with this reality and everywhere in between the alpha and the omega, God’s love is the focus. Jesus said that everything that the Jews thought about God and God’s law was summed up as Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength—love your neighbour as yourself. Love God, Love People Love self. I resist the idea that’s a bit fashionable at the moment where the Trinity can be a description of God’s love. It strikes me as a bit much to describe the interaction in the God-head as perfect community and therefore perfect love. I object to this on the simple basis that if perfect Love is defined within a system that is unrecognisable to us, then we cannot possibly hope to identify with it. So rather than jump in and try to explore it too much, I think it’s bit like a black hole, incredibly fascinating, but if I get too close, I won’t see clearer as it will just swallow me up. And to that end, it is my hope that if we allow the ridiculousness of the model to just sit at a distance, it will speak more profoundly to us all, and we might be able to appreciate our capacity to Love just a little bit more.