This, in sermon form, is an attempt to catch some insight into the Christian doctrine of 'the Trinity.'
Of Shamrocks and Things
John 14:1- 14
“Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go & prepare a place for you, I will come back & take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father & that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father & the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing & they will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, & I will do it.
We have begun the new year together and, God helping us, we are trying to walk in the light – in the light that God gives us, the just enough light that shines upon our pathway. Think of St Patrick’s well, Tubberpatrick, a mile from Killaveney; or . . . Jacob’s Well in Samaria.
We have looked at the life of Jacob, how it is that we might more fully know that God is in this place, whether we know it or not – and all of our moments, in every pathway and circumstance of our lives. And, we want to pay attention more to the alphabet letters in the soup of our lives – all the letters that comprise the words, phrases and sentences in the events of our life by which God reveals himself to us, speaks to us, loves us – and tells us He cares. We are thinking, in these weeks, about the God who cares; about God who has a mission, a God who is with us and who leads us on in the journey of life, in our individual stories and in our story together as the Church - the community of love.
Will you meditate with me the meaning (by the well, if you will) and consider the implications of who God is – and how He reveals Himself to us, this God who is Three Persons: Blessed Trinity. We are asking: 'Who is this one who journeys with us?' What can we say; what can we know? Sitting, pondering before the ancient well (with its quiet, gurgling water . . .), I want us to attempt to do something it quite impossible to do, fully: and that is to enter a little further in to the mystery of who this God, He who has created us, is present to us and who attends our way, the One of Whom we sing: - God in three persons, Blessed Trinity. How can we even begin to fathom a God Who exists as a unity, but also – as the Scripture teaches - in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
I want to zero in on Jesus’ interaction with Philip, one of his twelve disciples. The setting is the Upper Room on the night Jesus was betrayed. Jesus is teaching his disciples about the future place to which we are all journeying.
There is a place after we die that God is preparing for each of us, in the many rooms and realities - the spheres and dimensions, of God's creation. (this is often used as a funeral text); but also 2. The journey in which we now find ourselve, having come home to God through Christ, reconciled through His death for us, a reality we can experience in this life, before we die. Jesus is the way to that future place of preparation, and Jesus is also the way right now to God: the truth about Him that we need and the life abundant we can receive, in knowing Him.
We pause by the well to ponder and to drink - from it and to drink it in: both this future hope and this very real present possibility. We want to be moving toward God, deeper into God the Father, through God the Son, by the help of the Holy Spirit. And Philip is groping around the edges. Thirsty, he wants more. He's not content only to know about the way to Heaven, the way to a preferred future; he also wants to know the God himself to whom we journey, the One whom Jesus said: ‘call him ‘Father.’ Philip: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. If you have seen Me – says Jesus - you have seen the Father. If this isn't a distinct claim to Deity, I don't know what is!
GOD EXISTS AS A UNITY – BUT ALSO IN THREE PERSONS
The Father is God; the Son is God; the Spirit is God. The three Persons of the Trinity have one operation, and when one Person is mentioned, the other two are included by implication. To speak of the Spirit is to imply the existence of the Father from whom He proceeds, and of the Son whose Spirit He is. Where the Father is, there is the Son; where the Son is, there is the Holy Ghost. The grace, love, and fellowship of the Three are one and the same. Though the Persons are three, the Divine Name is One. So said St. Ambrose in the 4th Century
THE DIFFICULTY OF KNOWING GOD
1. We can only talk of God and understand God in terms of metaphor. All that God is is quite beyond our comprehension. We can have glimpses, rumours of glory, glimpses of God, but mostly we cannot see clearly but only as through an ancient mirror or glass darkly.
2. God is a Mystery; God is mysterious. And so (for that matter) is the universe and each one of us, even your own good self.
3. In a real sense we cannot even think about God, with our minds; we cannot 'know' in the head sense, in the a classical Greek, logical, Western-Enlightenment way - not in the scientific-critical proces in which we have been trained. For us to think about God is in some way to put Himself under our scrutiny, which is of course impossible. Richard Rohr tells us: "You cannot "think" God. God is never an object of consciousness like any other thing, person, or event that you "know." God is always and forever the subject, the doer, the initiator, the ‘Prevenient Grace.’” We can only respond to God for he is always the initiator. We only second the motion if and as we resonate with what God is doing.
4. We know more after than before or during encounters with the Holy. Last week we noted how Jacob initially missed the fact that God was present: "in this place - and I didn’t know it." In the same way, when Jesus the Son the Emmaus Road walks the road with two disciples, they do not know Him. And then too, we think of the Holy Spirit who blows like the wind, as Jesus reminded Nicodemus: 'You can’t see it; but you can see, know and feel its effects.'
5. In fact, we have to be untrained to know God very well. The Bible implies that we have to be still to know God. We have to come into what the mystics call – ‘a Cloud of Unknowing.’ Knowing in the Bible is more like sexual intimacy: the root word for ‘worship’ is: “I come before you to kiss.’ And, you can’t analyze the kiss when you’re kissing.
UNDERSTANDING AND EXPRESSING ‘THE TRINITY’
So what can we understand of the Trinity, the Three-in-One? How are we to understand this sacred dance of mutuality and agreement - of loving purpose and loving fellowship in the Godhead ? How can we fathom the differences, the different ways each Person of the Trinity ministers? How best to say it and how to perceive and receive such ministry?
St. Patrick used a shamrock (so it's said) to help the ancient Celts understand something of the mystery of the Trinity, showing that a single plant with its three leaves is a kind of analogy to the one Triune God with three separate and distinct Persons.
HERE ARE SOME OTHER ATTEMPTS TO EXPLAIN THE MYSTERY
We are trinitarian. Each of us is a whole, individual, unique, distinct from all others and yet also we are ourselves a trinity. We have these three parts to us too, but we are one person. But God is three Persons! "The image of the Trinity was made in humankind," wrote St. Augustine, "that in this way humans should be the image of the one true God." Each of us has hidden ideas, thoughts and plans. Our mind is only revealed when we express them: in a word, painting, thought, architect’s building, or the like. Our thoughts have to be 'fleshed out' - made concrete.
Each of us is a mystery to others (at first). "I totally understand you," said no dating or married person ever, about the one they love. We all have hidden plans, thoughts, ideas. Like God the Father, we are mysterious and unknown until we choose to reveal ourselves. When our thoughts, hidden feelings and intents become flesh, become concrete, well that is like Jesus, who is the Revelation of God, the One who reveals the hidden (Father) to the world. Jesus is the Word of God and the Spirit is the Wind of God by which the Word is spoke, and by which the Word becomes flesh.
When the hidden – the mystery becomes obvious, because it is fleshed out, made concrete, revealed through art or music or word - again, that is like Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, who reveals God most fully to the world. What is God like?- look at Jesus. (And of course: What are we to be like? – Look at Jesus.)
The part of us that is like the Spirit in us is our own inner spirit, but also the breath that conveys our speech, the energy and power produced in and by our cells, our blood and muscles; that which enables us to do what our mind plans. So then, it’s ‘put out there’ to be apprehended, to be seen by others.
We are Triune - especially when we are being creative. We understand God best (and perhaps ourselves best, too), Dorothy Sayers suggests, by thinking of God as a Creator. God's image reflects from us most clearly in our own creative actions. (Sayers wrote most of the great Guiness ads, and many short stories and a mystery series who's hero was Lord Peter Wimsey. She also wrote a book on the Trinity called, “The Mind of the Maker.”)
Here's Sayer's basic argument: Every writer ponders what she want to say. Then the time comes to begin writing and for that she must choose 'a Medium of Expression.' For instance, John Milton expressed theology in an epic poem whereas John Wesley wrote sermons and Samuel his brother wrote hymns. Sayers says that the act of creation does not end till another person receives the message. The 'trinity of creation' finds fulfillment only at the instant when as you read the sentence or hear the words spoken. "When the mind of the maker has been made manifest in a work, a way of communication is established between other minds and his." Thus, "one discovers something about the mind of the author."
All great discoveries have first existed in a creator’s mind. This is true of Edison and the light-bulb, of the Wright brothers who first flew a plane in their mind's-eye, years before it actually flew at Kitty Hawk. It’s true of Alexander Graham Bell who talked into a telephone before ever he talked into a telephone, true of Einstein as he thought out the equation: E=MC squared, as it was true before Nobel actually created dynamite. Within each of us is a whole world of wisdom, love, hope, creativity - ‘of things not yet seen’ and perhaps as yet, no evidence to show it. Within you and I there is a hidden mass of creativity and all the potential of our own Big Bang - of what we could yet make.
Again, what is true of the writer is true also of artists, musicians and architects - of all workers of creative imagination in whatever form. Every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly. I'm starting an electric train layout (but I won't bore you here with the details). Soon, others too will be able to see what was and is only partially formed, not yet fully expressed, from my own mind.
Every time I think I’m close to understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, I find that my thinking and my conclusions are somewhat off, perhaps even quite wrong. We need to be humble and modest as we seek mto study, interprete and understand, eager to perceive and reluctant to share glib, easy assessments. Scripture - I believe is inspired, but not necessarily our interpretations and applications. Humility, please. I may be saying it wrong, spouting heresy really, in light of of biblical teaching and the historic, orthodox, from-the-start understanding(s) of the Christian Church.
Sometimes, in trying to find out something of the doctrine of the Trinity there is more written about what the Trinity is not. There is the 'heresy' which is called Modalism. The Church has been challenged by this in past days and as well, today. 'Modalism' is the idea that God is One (and that's true), albeit a Person (only One Person) Who reveals God's Self in three ways or 'modes.' So, there is the God of the Old Testament - the Father, and then after a while in the New Testament God comes, revealing God's Self as the Son; but then the Son goes away (as He taught his disciples in the upper room that he must do), so that God might be revealed in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
But the early church Christians opposed this thinking and was at pains to understand and convey the biblical teaching that God is three distinct Persons, not one Person in three forms. Jesus was not praying to himself when He arose early and went to a quiet place to pray. He was praying to Another – another Person, although together They are one God.
A way of understanding modalism is to compare the Trinity to water. Water exists as a solid, liquid and a vapour. This is not really accurate, biblically. Again, it is ‘modalism.' - it is saying that God is like water, existing in three different modes, whereas the Bible and the historic Church teaches that God exists as three separate, distinct Persons - yet One God.
I have often taught in my preaching that the secret to Jesus life on earth is that it was “utterly derived." I got the idea from Dr. Maurice Boyd. The three Persons are equal in essence but Jesus the Son was subordinate to the Father in His earthly ministry. While here, He did nothing 'of Himself.' In the Gospels, Jesus says, "The works you see are not my works alone; I am doing the works of the one who sent me." And again – "The words I speak are not my own, but the words of the one who sent me." And, in Gethsemane Garden Jesus prays in agony ofsweat and tears until he prays through to the place of saying – "Nevertheless, not My will but Yours be done." -- “Not my works, not my words, not my will." And yet . . .
The 'Three' of the Divine Trinity are eternally distinct yet never separate. In every gracious act of God in Scripture, in every step of Christ’s human experience and work, the entire Trinity is involved. And that is also true as God works in us today.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?
Throughout Scripture – in both the Old and New Testament, comes the teaching: There is no God but one. For example, in Isaiah 45:5, “I am Jehovah, and there is no one else; Besides Me there is no God.” Yet also throughout the Bible, this unique, singular God also attests to God's plurality. God says in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” Isaiah 6:8 testifies also to the same plurality, in the question of the Divine Counsel: “Whom shall We send? Who will go for Us?”
Our Lord prayed In the Upper Room . . . “that they all may be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that You have sent Me” (John 17:21). And, there is a clear word in Matthew 28:19 where the Lord tells his apostles to disciple and baptize the nations “into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” St. Paul also sums up the doctrine in his Benediction: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
Said Karl Barth: "Trinity is the Christian name for God."
We are caught up and bound in the bundle of life, as created beings (in the Image of the Creator). And God wants to fix and redeem, restore and draw us back – and up into the sacred fellowship of the Godhead, that once humankind had and for which we still, at heart, have longing.
We need balance in our understanding and Emphasis of this doctrine. The Protestant Church can be unbalanced in its emphasis (each denomination with its own.) We need to - and we can - learn from other denominations (yes, from Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters too.) Some may stress one Person of the Godhead more, when all three are needed for right thinking and living.
Emphasizing God the Father. Those who do are concerned about justice and mercy. They fight for equality (gender, women’s rights, the poor and marginalized, and so on). They are more (than some) into social concerns, creation stewardship and ecological accountability. They may comprise the older, establishment, ‘mainline’ churches. Rightly, they are trying to love and serve God - 'to love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with God.' All Christians, churches and denominations should include these emphases.
Emphasizing The Son. Those who do so are concerned about teaching the Cross of Christ, the finished work of Jesus and its wondrous effects. And that's good. They want to get people 'saved' and ‘discipled’ (which sometimes can be truncated into meaning only an emphasis on evangelism (getting new, baby Christians and sometimes not much more in terms of care for this world). Perhaps this could be said of some ‘Bible Churches.’ Bible knowledge is indeed key and knowing Jesus personally is vital, as is sharing our faith, and leading others to know Him. But there's more.
Emphasizing the Spirit. There are those who embrace the the inner ‘experience’ and outer evidences of knowing God, and the Presence of God, as shown by the Spirit's fruit and gifts. Emotions and feelings play a large part - and we need that too.
We ought to prayerfully seek the application of the ministry of the One God in the unique role and application of the triune God’s plans and purposes, through the ministry of each Person of the Godhead, as we may see it in Scripture, in history and in our daily lives. Each Person of the Godhead exists, coheres and resonates together - for the purpose of One is the purpose of each Other. There is complete unity and harmony in the Godhead. We can see each Person working on behalf of the Church (cf Ephesians 1.) When we pray to one or the other or the other, we are praying to all. We worship the Father, and pray to the Father; we worship Jesus and pray to Him; and we worship the Spirit, and pray or sing to the Spirit: Spirit of God descend upon my heart; move it from earth, through all its pulses move.
Richard Rohr says that some sweet nuns taught him the doctrine of the Trinity and then said, ‘Don’t think about it.’
All we want really is to pause on our Journey and take a drink by a well. And it is good, I think, to quietly and humbly contemplate the Mystery and to be present before the Presence: of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
John Donne prayed - Batter my heart, three-personed God; except you enthrall me, never shall I be free!”