Sermon given at Matins on Trinity Sunday 2011
19 June 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
As far as we know many of our earliest ancestors believed in many gods. Gods of trees, sun and moon, gods of war and fertility. It was a natural imaginative projection from their own experience of life. They experienced life as an immediate and astonishing variety of inexplicable forces and things: the beasts of the forest, the power of alien tribes, the growth of crops and flowers, the rays of a rising sun, the thunder and lightening of storms, and the moving pinpricks of light in the dark night skies - so many strange forces and things which shaped their lives - and so there was a natural instinct to think there were many and various gods in and behind them.
This changed. There were powerful intellectual, religious and social changes which converged to transform the many gods into One God: a single source of everything. There were the rational instincts of Greek philosophy: if God is something ultimate, there cannot be many ultimates, only one. For the nomadic peoples of the ancient Middle East, there was less a process of reasoning and more a dawning revelation. It was through the revelations of Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and through the political and human experiences of suffering, exile, and liberation, that the people of Israel became convinced that they were encountering only one God, and the gods of the surrounding tribes were not gods at all, just human creations. Our modern era has added its own reasons why the many gods have reduced to One. Science and travel have de-mystified the variety of life, and urban experienced has tamed it: it has obliterated the stars and drowned out the thunder and lightening; it’s driven out the wild animals and smothered the scent of flowers. Often it’s driven out all belief in God at all. But where belief God remains it is much more likely now to be in One God. Reason, revelation, urbanization, all combine to reinforce it. We now believe in One God - as we say firmly in our Creed.
Of course we do! It’s a distinguishing foundation of Judaeo-Christian faith, rooted in the Hebrew shema (Deut 6:4): ‘Hear O Israel the Lord our God is One’. And it is surely a huge advance. The chaotic plurality of gods were often warring, immoral, irrational forces, competing for attention. The One God is more believable, consistent, and worthy of complete allegiance. Islam too has this uncluttered oneness and allegiance at its heart. Rather like the much sought single mathematical theory of everything, this simplicity of belief in One God is compelling: it feels intuitively right.
So - why, for God’s sake, does christian faith nonetheless also clutter itself with the complication of the Trinity? Why insist on God also as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three ways of being one God? And this is not just three different roles for God, as you or I might have three different roles in life (as a parent, a sibling, a city worker, or whatever). No - these three ways of being God, as Father Son and Holy Spirit, are more fundamental than that. We are asked to imagine that God is almost like a relationship of three different selves within God’s being. Yet, still one in will and purpose, and even, somehow, one in being. Even as I try to describe this I stumble, of course. So I ask again: why insist on this complicating stumbling block of Trinity? - a stumbling block to unity with other great religions, and perhaps even sometimes a problem to ourselves, if we’re honest!
The straightforward answer is that we have no choice when truly encountering Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. For in Christ and His Spirit God did not stay simple. He did not stay simply One. God was experienced in Jesus. God was experienced as Jesus. Yet God was not just in Jesus, any more than God was ever just in a tree or tribe of star in the sky: in Jesus God remained also the God of the Universe to whom God in Jesus prayed, whom he loved and longed for. In short, in Jesus Christ God revealed Himself to be like a sort of conversation within Himself: not a conversation just between a good man and his god, but between God and God; a conversation within God; a deep relationship of love between the different selves of God. And as we heard hinted in the second reading, this was not just for the period of Jesus earthly life: it was true of God eternally, ‘before the world began’.
Furthermore, we too, here and now, also experience the Spirit as God – the power of God drawing us too into this conversation of love within God. Complex? Perhaps. But how much richer and more compelling an imagining of God this is - to see God as a relationship of selves within Himself: the diversity of this world not flattened by One God, but reflected and honoured within the life of the One God. We do believe in One God - but what a God!
This belief and experience of God is ethically compelling too, not just imaginatively. It makes a difference to how we should live. Our ancestors often warred because they thought their many little local gods were at war with each other. Equally, the sense of one single overriding source of power and authority (religious or rational) can also lead to strife: it has led to totalitarianism and oppression. Any unified system of thought which cannot abide diversity has an intrinsic tendency to violence. We have seen it in political systems. Sadly we have also seen in the intolerance and aggression of some forms religions which demand this sort of absolute allegiance to a singular source of authority. But: a true trinitarian faith does not permit this. How could we deny people’s diversity when diversity is right within God, when a conversation of deep love between different selves is the very being of God, and when we are invited into this conversation within God? What a God indeed!
This is no human construct, this strange but wonderful doctrine of Trinity. We could not have created this. We can only wonder and worship - and make it the great goal of our lives to be drawn into the experience of it: into this great love which is the very heart and origin of the Universe: God Himself.