BIBLE READINGS: Romans 5:1-5 John 16:12-15
A story has it that the fifth century Bishop Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time was thinking about the Trinity as he walked along the North African seashore. All this genius was getting for his efforts was a severe headache. Finally he thought he was coming close to figuring the Trinity out when suddenly at his feet was a young child. St Augustine asked him what he was doing. The youngster replied, "I am pouring the whole ocean into this small hole." Augustine said, "That's nonsense. No one can do that." The child replied, "Well, neither can you, Bishop Augustine, unravel the mystery of the Trinity." Then he disappeared. I think we all get the point. The Trinity will remain a mystery forever and then some.
Robert Fulghum said that: Arguing whether or not a God exists is like fleas arguing whether or not the dog exists. Arguing over the correct name of God is like fleas arguing over the name of the dog. And arguing over whose notion of God is correct is like fleas arguing over who owns the dog.
Today is Trinity Sunday - a Sunday during which the central focus is actually a doctrine, the doctrine of God the Holy Trinity. This is unusual – Christians don't worship a doctrine – we worship God. Christians try to understand who they worship with the doctrine of the Trinity.
I have spent many hours in discussion with Muslims about how they cannot understand what Christians mean by the Trinity. I don't think Muslims are alone in this – In fact many Christians (maybe every Christian) finds the doctrine of the Trinity a bit of a puzzle.
We can feel overwhelmed by the deep mystery of God the Holy Trinity; we can begin to feel too much like those fleas on the dog and, in all of their extreme smallness, believe they have precious little, or nothing to say about God the Holy Trinity. We mortals are mere specks of dust compared with the God who created such a huge universe. Who are we to say much about this God anyway?
If centuries of theologians had been unable to explain the Trinity, what hope do we have? I’m encouraged, though, by the knowledge that the Trinity was not a belief of the early church. It was a doctrine developed by later generations to explain the variety of human experiences of God – that the almighty heavenly Creator of the Old Testament was the same God present in human flesh as Jesus the Christ, and both were also the One God experienced as Holy Spirit by the early church. The Trinity was an experience before it was ever a doctrine!
A friend of mine, Chris Lockley, reflects on the Trinity this way – He says “My own particular Trinitarian heresy of choice is called modalism. I am me, an individual, Chris Lockley. However, I am experienced by different people in different ways. My wife experiences me as a husband, my children as a father, my grandson as “Pa” and my parents as a son. In those different relationships and ‘incarnations’ I am the same essential person, but reveal different parts of myself. My love for my wife is different to my love for my children and grandson, and the way I express it is different. They all experience my love, in different ways, even though I am the same person loving them.
I also reveal more of my intimate self in these relationships than I do in other relationships. Beyond these close relationships I am experienced and known as a minister, a friend, a consultant, a customer, a colleague, a neighbour, a citizen. It is the same “me” in all of those settings, but my expression of “me” is somewhat different in each. For one thing, I maintain appropriate relationship boundaries in each context, and different levels of intimacy and transparency.
So the guy who sells me petrol or the newspaper knows me in a different way to the friends I meet for coffee once a week, who miss out on the “me” that congregations experience when I am a consultant or educator with them. But in all of those relationships I am still “me”. People are both multifaceted and simple – a complexity and a unity.”
Maybe this is a way that people can experience and know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit without actually experiencing three gods. It is still the One God we experience in these three different ways.
The doctrine of the Trinity is more about God being One than it is about God being Three. It came about to explain the Oneness of God. If we can understand how we can be different for different people and express our selves in different ways depending on the context, perhaps we can also begin to understand God’s – and also appreciate the immensely diverse possibility of experience of God.
How different are the ways we have experienced God – and not just as three members of the Trinity. The Bible itself doesn’t limit itself in this way. There is a vast range of images and metaphors of God which are used to express human experience of spiritual reality.
Having a worship time that reflects on the doctrine of the Trinity puts God under the microscope. By highlighting a doctrine as a focus for worship and teaching we are in danger of acting as if we can treat God like a specimen on a glass slide – something we can examine under a microscope and come up with conclusive results.
It reminds me of the old story about the blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. They had all felt a different part of the elephant’s body – its tail, trunk of legs – so each described the animal differently, and only partially. Even combining all of their descriptions would not have completely described the elephant – in fact, their descriptions were contradictory! So it is, I think, with our attempts to explain and understand God. There is far much more than we can ever hope to understand, no matter how much we may try to analyse and examine God.
And aren’t we really fooling ourselves if we think we can put God under the microscope in the first place? After all, our experience of God is more about examining ourselves and our world, than it is about making final pronouncements about God.
Acknowledgements: Rev Wehrfritz-Hanson; Rev Lockley, Rev Gilhooley