God the Trinity
C.S. Lewis tells the following story:
I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard- bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”
There are many people like this officer and, as Lewis goes on to say, we can certainly sympathise with them. They have probably had a very real experience of God, and when they turn from that experience to the Christian creeds and the Doctrine of the Trinity they are turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, when someone has taken a hike in the Rockies and then turns from that to a map of the Rockies, they are turning from something real to something less real. But there are two things to remember about this. Firstly, the map of the Rockies may only be a piece of coloured paper, but it has been constructed out of the experiences of hundreds and thousands of people who have experienced the real thing, and it shows how all those experiences fit together. Secondly, if you actually want to cross the Rockies, rather than just getting lost in them, the map will be very helpful!
Christian theology, and especially the Doctrine of the Trinity, is like that map. Yes, in a sense it is less real than our personal experiences of God, but we need to remember that it is a record of the experiences of millions of believers over the past several thousand years. If we want to know God for ourselves, we’d be wise to heed the experiences of these people. The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t cooked up by some academic theologians in Rome as a mischievous plot to give Christians headaches for the next two thousand years! Rather, it was an attempt to make sense of what the Scriptures say about God and how believers had been experiencing God from the time of Abraham right down to their own times. It’s an attempt to take seriously the message of the whole Bible. And so today I don’t have a specific biblical text to preach from; in a sense, today I’m trying to sum up what the whole Bible tells us about God.
Let’s start with the message of the Old Testament. Eighteen centuries before the birth of Jesus, God spoke to Abram and told him to leave his home and the gods of his ancestors and to travel to a new land where he was to learn to put his faith in God Almighty, the one true God. We have no idea how God spoke to Abram; perhaps it was a similar experience to the RAF officer in C.S. Lewis’ story. But we need to get through our heads what a revolutionary thing was happening in the experience of Abram and his descendants.
The nations around these early Hebrews worshipped many gods, and when we read the stories and legends about them today - whether they’re Canaanite, Greek, Roman, or any other - there are a couple of things which strike us. First of all, these gods are more like superheroes than gods. They sound like extra-powerful human beings. Secondly, they have all the weaknesses and failings of human beings. They get angry and fight each other; they desire human women and design ways to gratify their desires. These gods aren’t especially moral, and we can’t imagine any of them putting together anything remotely resembling the Ten Commandments. They are also unpredictable, and since you’re never quite sure how they’re going to feel in any given situation you have to be extremely careful to stay on the right side of them.
You could say that the whole Old Testament is a record of how the one True God, the Creator of heaven and earth, revealed himself to his people and tried to correct these false ideas that they had about him. They were starting out with the idea of there being many different gods, each of them with their own patch of land. So when they moved from Egypt to Canaan, they thought it would be wise to learn about the gods of Canaan so they could stay on the right side of them. It took centuries for them to get it through their heads that there was only one God, and that he was not just a part of creation, but the Creator of all of it. It also took them centuries to understand how vitally important it was to this one true God that they not just offer him expensive sacrifices and dazzling worship services, but actually obey his commandments and live a different kind of life. After all, the gods of the nations around them didn’t come with these demands about absolute justice and loving your neighbour as yourself and not going in to cult prostitutes and all that! It was hard for the Israelites to grasp the idea that their god - who was actually the one true God - was different – the word the Bible uses is holy - and he was calling them to be holy as well.
But eventually they did get it through their heads. By the time of Jesus they firmly believed there are not many gods, but only one God. He is not a part of creation, but is himself the Creator of everything. And the way to serve this One True God is to obey his commandments.
Now we move on to the Gospels. Keep in mind what we’ve just said about the Jewish people in the time of Jesus - they believed firmly in the idea of One True God, the maker of everything. In other words, the Jews were the last people on earth to expect that God - or a god - would actually walk around the earth in human form. To Greeks or Romans it wasn’t an unusual idea - they had lots of stories of their gods doing just that. But for Jews, the idea of one true invisible God was so strong that it was unthinkable that he could actually appear in human form. To them, this idea was blasphemy.
Enter Jesus of Nazareth. This Galilean rabbi begins his ministry and gathers a group of disciples around him, and these disciples gradually begin to notice two things about their Master. The first is his simple goodness – his personal holiness and his love for people. When the sick come to him, he heals them. He reaches out to people on the margins of the society of his day and draws them in. He teaches the truth about God in such a memorable way that two thousand years later we still see his teaching as the highest revelation of what God is like. And he not only teaches the truth; he practices it as well. So he doesn’t just tell his disciples to love their enemies; when he is arrested and crucified, he himself loves his enemies and prays for those who are busy killing him.
But on the other hand there were so many disturbing things about Jesus. Like the time when people brought a sick man to him and he said to the man “Your sins are forgiven”. Who did he think he was, forgiving the man’s sins as if he was God? Only God can forgive sins, and the way it worked was for people to go to the Temple and offer him an animal sacrifice. Now here was Jesus, acting as if the Temple was unnecessary; all you had to do was believe in him - a mere human being - and your sins would be forgiven. But it got even more confusing. He said things like “I and the Father are one”, and “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”, and “No one can come to the Father except through me”.
It’s not that Jesus ever actually got up and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am God!” What he did was to walk around casually acting and speaking in ways that the people of his time considered to be only appropriate for God. Not surprisingly, some people got offended. Even his family thought he was out of his mind.
But the thing that really forced his followers to take him seriously was the Resurrection. To the writers of the New Testament, the Resurrection was a vindication of all that Jesus had said and done. It was God’s endorsement of his ministry, God’s acceptance of his sacrifice on the Cross, God’s victory over the power of evil, God’s declaration that Jesus was indeed his Son and that we’d better listen. And before too long followers of Jesus were following the example of their Master and talking about him in ways that the Old Testament uses to talk about God alone. Paul, for instance, about thirty years after the death of Jesus, says “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend...and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil.2:10-11). But in the Old Testament the name ‘Lord’ is applied only to God, and in Isaiah 45:23 God says ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’.
So this is where we stand at the end of the Gospels. We have a group of Hebrew Christians who believed everything that the Jews believed about God - that there is only one God, that he is invisible and not an idol, that he is the Creator of everything and that he wants people to obey his commandments. And yet at the same time, what they had experienced in Jesus left them convinced that through him they had met God in a unique way. And they had to find some way of thinking and speaking about Jesus that made sense of that experience.
Now we turn to the rest of the New Testament - the Acts of the Apostles and their letters. Jesus had ascended into heaven and they no longer saw him, and of course God the Creator had always been high and lifted up beyond human imagination. Nevertheless, in these books we don’t get the sense that God or Jesus are far away. Rather, the early Christians continue to experience them as a living reality.
How is this continuing experience of God to be explained? The writers of the New Testament link it to a promise that Jesus made to them. He had told them that he was going to send them another helper just like him, who would be with them forever. “You already know him”, Jesus said, “because he is with you already, but the new thing is that he will be in you”. And before he ascended into heaven he told them to wait in Jerusalem to be filled with the Holy Spirit, who would continue to connect them with him and would give them the strength to do the things he had told them to do.
This living experience of the Holy Spirit shines through the pages of Acts and of the letters of the apostles. To the early Christians it is an astonishing thing: God is in heaven, and Jesus has returned to heaven to be with the Father, and yet God is also living in their hearts and in their little Christian communities! And they had to find a way of thinking and speaking about God that made sense of what they were experiencing.
So the early Christians experienced God as their Creator and lawgiver, they experienced God in Jesus, and now they were continuing to experience God’s presence in their hearts through the Holy Spirit. And so even though the word ‘Trinity’ doesn’t appear in the Bible, we very quickly begin to see hints of it. Jesus himself brackets the three together when he tells his followers to baptize people “...in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), and Paul also links them in the famous words at the end of 2 Corinthians: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you’ (13:13).
St. Augustine once said, ‘If you think you understand it, it isn’t God!’ So let’s not be surprised that God is above our understanding! Pinning down exactly what we mean by the Trinity is really tricky. There are two extremes that we know are wrong. One extreme is worshipping three gods - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No, they aren’t three, because God is One. And yet even when we say ‘God is one’ we know there’s more to it than that, so that extreme is wrong as well. After all, we say ‘God is love’ - not just ‘God loves’ but ‘God is love’. But if God is simply one, how can he be love? You can’t have love without relationship!
And I want to end this morning by talking about relationship. The Trinity is not just an amazing idea for us to try to understand - it’s a way of experiencing God. Even when we pray we are experiencing God in this way. We are praying to God, and yet we also know that most of what we know about God we learned from Jesus, and that Jesus is with us in the room, standing beside us and helping us. And we also know that the Holy Spirit is living in us and giving us the words to pray. So even the simple act of prayer is an experience of the Trinity. So is obedience: we try to do the will of God, which Jesus has revealed to us, with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
We started out with the illustration of a map of the Rocky Mountains. I want to close with another map story. When I was in the Arctic I discovered that the older Inuit in the community used maps quite differently from the way I use them. I use a map when I’m planning a trip, to find out how to get to the place I want to reach. The older Inuit used the map after the trip, to show other people where they’d been! Well, as I try to understand God right now I’m using the map - the doctrine of the Trinity - in my way, trying to plan the trip. But as I get to know God better and better, the day will come when I’m able to use the map as those older Inuit do, to describe to people what I’ve experienced. ‘Now’, says Paul, ‘we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). That’s the kind of experience of God I want!