The Trinity: I just can’t help myself
Before I came to Australia, I had two terms in an English grammar school. The kind where some teachers still went around in academic dress. The kind where Religion was a subject on the same basis as Maths or English or Latin. Then I came to Australia and my education came to a…
I love this story which comes from that old-style kind of school environment. The day before the big exam, the religion teacher says to the student,
Teacher: Now you’re sure you’ve got the Catechism all buttoned up, Hopkinson?
Hopkinson: I’m still a bit hazy about the Trinity, sir.
Teacher: Three in one, one in three. Perfectly straightforward. And if you have any more doubts about that—talk to your maths teacher!
But the Trinity is not a mathematical puzzle. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a mathematical nonsense. The doctrine of the Trinity is this: it is the best language we have to name God as love.
The Trinity is a mystery. Some people don’t like that. They want an easy-to-understand God. Why should God be easy for us to comprehend? Why should the creature be able to understand the Creator?
Today’s psalm, Psalm 8, has the right approach:
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
When I look at your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars
that you have established;
what are human beings
that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
We are the creatures, not the Creator. The Trinity is a mystery. But in theological terms, a mystery is not something that’s impossible to understand. No, a mystery is something that the more we understand, the more we realise there is left to understand.
But there is a feeling among a number of believers that the Trinity is a nuisance, something that we could get along better without. Some of the believers who think this way are theologians of the Church. However, in my opinion they are not our best theologians.
I was once a member of a dialogue group between the Uniting Church and the Jewish Board of Deputies, a group that folded some years ago. We Uniting Church members were sitting around talking about the way the life of the group was going. One said he’d like to talk more about God but the doctrine of the Trinity got in the way. And he didn’t believe in the Trinity anyway. One by one, the heads nodded in agreement. I was astounded. In the end, I was the only one at that table who believed in the Trinity. And I made myself less than popular by reminding them that we had no authority to represent our own theological ideas; we were there as representatives of the the Faith of the Church. And that included faith in God the Holy Trinity.
Why bother with the Trinity? Why not have one simple God like Judaism and Islam? We could team him with a wonderfully inspired man named Jesus of Nazareth, and a force that is exerted upon us called the Holy Spirit. Why not?
Why say that we have one God in three Persons or three Relationships we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit? For my part, I’ll borrow the great Reformer Martin Luther’s words: Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
Or, if you prefer, I believe in the Trinity because I just can’t help myself. I just can’t help myself.
You know, the believers of the early Church couldn’t help themselves either. They found that when they spoke of God, they couldn’t help but talk about Jesus and the Holy Spirit at the same time. Somehow, Jesus the Son of God and the Spirit of God were intimately related to God.
Listen to what Paul says in Romans 8:
you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
‘The Spirit of God dwells in you.’ So the Spirit is alive, and lives in us. The Spirit can’t be a kind of cosmic energy.
But ‘the Spirit of God’ is also ‘the Spirit of Christ’. Paul doesn’t seem to care about the slippery way he substitutes ‘Christ’ for ‘God’. Perhaps he could do no other. Maybe Paul couldn’t help himself either.
And did you notice the first few words of our reading from Romans today?
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…
‘Our Lord Jesus Christ…’ Later in Romans, in 10.13, Paul says,
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
So what? Well, these words come from the prophet Joel (2.32). Paul is quoting the Old Testament here; but when Joel said ‘Lord’, he meant ‘God’. When Paul says ‘Lord’, he is sometimes referring to the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Paul can’t help himself! God is Lord; Jesus is Lord. In the New Testament, Jesus is intimately related to God. This is where and how the doctrine of the Trinity started.
And this triune God intends for us to share the life of the Trinity. Last week, we spoke about being daughters and sons of God. Adopted daughters and sons. And, as last week’s reading from Romans says,
the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
God the Father makes us his sons and daughters with Jesus the Son, and the Spirit shows us that this is so.
Can you see it? Being a child of God means being called to share the life of God. It means knowing that we are loved now and for ever by God. And it means that our identity as a beloved child of God gives us hope and life and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Sharing in the life of God is living as a child of God. There’s nothing to prove, nothing to achieve. We can’t make ourselves children of God, just as we can’t make ourselves children of our earthly parents. We just are God’s children.
I said that the Trinity is a mystery. Actually, every human being is a mystery. You are a mystery. I am a mystery. (My wife is a mystery!) But we are mysteries because the more we get to know one another, the more we realise there is to know. Will I ever fully know any of you even in eternity? Perhaps we’ll always remain a mystery to one another. Perhaps I’ll just grow and grow and grow in my knowledge of you, and you in your knowledge of me.
People often say that our Christian faith is all about relationships. Well they’re right, and the Trinity shows us why. When I was young, I thought being a Christian was having the right opinions about theology and politics, winning arguments and being the person with the answers. Then I learned that not all my answers were right. Some were dead wrong. And I learned that when I was wrong, God still owned me as a beloved son. Believe me, that was a revelation.
I found that being a Christian is about having ‘right relationships’ with the people in my life. Relationships characterised by ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’. You may recognise those as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22-23.
Guess what? I often suck big time at being in right relationships. I still sometimes try harder to be right than to be in right relationships. But right relationships are my goal now as a Christian. I’m nowhere near that goal; as the subtitle of my blog says, it’s two steps forward and one back. And sometimes, one step forward and two back. But God our Father is loving me through all that. So I just can’t help myself. I believe in God the Holy Trinity.
A monk was once asked what the monastic life is all about. He said, ‘I take a step and I fall down. I get up again. I take a step and I fall down. I get up again. I take a step and I fall down. I get up again.’ That’s what I try to do. I think that’s what the Christian life is about.
How can the Trinity show us that our Christian faith is all about relationships? Let me introduce you to this ikon of the Trinity, the greatest one there is, which has been before you. It was painted by a Russian monk called Andrei Rublev around 1410.
An ikon isn’t an object of worship. It’s not an idol. An ikon is a window into another world, a heavenly world if you like. What can we see in this heavenly world?
Briefly, we can see this:
The three ‘Persons’ of the Trinity are sitting around a table. A Communion Table. They are all equal; it’s not easy to tell one from the other. The figure on the left is the Father, the middle one the Son, the one on the right is the Holy Spirit. They are living in absolute love one for another. Remember we said that the Trinity is the best language we have to name God as love?
We could talk for hours about this, but just for today: look at the Table. A table has four sides. There are three Persons or Relationships in the Trinity. There’s one side free. Question: who is the fourth side for?
Answer: It’s for you. It’s for me. It’s for us. This ikon is our invitation to share the life of God around the table as God’s daughter, as God’s son. It’s our invitation not because we are good, but because God is good.
It’s our invitation to live in relationships characterised by love. It’s our invitation to look within ourselves and see the image of God along with the shame of failure, the falling down and the getting up time after time. So accept this invitation of sheer grace: Come home to God the Holy Trinity. Take your place at the Table as a child of God.