Sermon given by Rev. Gamble on Trinity Sunday, 31st May 2015
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is often presented in a manner which is academic and confusing, and expressed in terms which we find remote and effectively alien to us. Surely, we ask, can’t we let God just be God? Why do Christians have to struggle with all this stuff about the Holy Trinity: true God of true God, etc.?
There is a reason, a very good one. It is important that we know the sort of God we worship, for if we worship the wrong concept of God, we are in fact worshipping a false God. The object of our affections and our thoughts must be the God revealed to us in the life and teaching of Jesus, and in our personal experience of his being.
The Jews thought that they had God described in very simple and easy to understand terms. God was God: he created the world and had a plan for it, and that plan was man’s obedience to his will. God dwelt in the heavens, and was far too good and remote for humans to find and define him. But this concept did not, in fact, hold water. The prophets, writing from their own emotional experiences, declared God’s love and his wish to interact with people. Men like Isaiah, Hosea and Micah saw a God who bubbled over with personality, love and compassion. God in the heavens, who spoke to men from the clouds of Sinai, was far more intimately interlinked with this world than their fathers had imagined.
In Jesus’s time the Pharisees clung to the idea of a remote God who wanted our obedience, the Sadducees to the idea of a God who wished to be propitiated by the laid down sacrifices of his obedient people. But Jesus declared that God was not to be worshipped in fear but in a love which returned his love for his children. He was Abba, Father, the Aramaic word used by a child speaking to his Father.
It is hard for us to understand today just how radical the Lord’s Prayer was when Jesus taught it. Jesus’ death was an expression of divine love, not just for the pious Jew, but for all who were struggling towards understanding this God whose nature was ‘agape’, sacrificial love.
And as the baby Church was struggling with its experiences of Jesus’ death resurrection and ascension, his followers experienced a great spiritual empowerment which we celebrated last week at Pentecost. This too they recognised as an experience of God at work, and their minds went back to the creation story of Genesis when the spirit of God moved on the face of the water and created the world. This Spirit they had now experienced was the same spirit some of them had witnessed coming upon Jesus at the Jordan.
The following centuries were spent upon a quest for a definition of God’s nature. Some of what emerged may seem to us ponderous, the heavy going of moving through the bed of a muddy river, seemingly stopping us from relating to the world we live in and moving forward to be relevant in contemporary society. God has placed us here but has he put us here to read big books about a God who remains for many of us undefined and undefinable? But we must remember that we are drawn to something we cannot comprehend fully and by definition never will, that thing, that being, we call God.
Is the Nicene Creed really essential to our salvation? Strangely enough the answer is ‘yes’. See it not as something to be learnt off by heart (I have not altogether fond memories of RE classes in High School doing just that). Brain learnt it off to be written down in the Synod examination of those far off days, but heart and mind were not in step!
So what is this Creed and why does it play such an important central role in the Eucharist? Firstly, it defines not just the teaching, but also the experience of our forefathers as to what God was like. That journey was on a stormy sea, many sailors tried to jump ship along the way and find easy answers to the problem who is God: but the lifebelt of those easy answers proved insufficiently buoyant.
The underlying understanding of God was as a creator, but from the start the infant Church knew that the traditional remoteness of God in Jewish teaching was utterly inadequate: indeed it had even been contradicted by the teaching of the great prophets such as Isaiah, Hosea and Micah when they spoke in emotional terms of the relationship between God and his people whom he loved.
They also found themselves challenged by the traditional oneness of God while never doubting the uniqueness of God. When they met Jesus they felt they had met someone who was filled with the divine. They searched the scriptures and found that his teaching and deeds fulfilled the promise of its pages, and in their experience of his resurrection and ascension, the conclusions towards which they had been moving were verified. He was indeed ‘God of God, light of light, true God from true God’, a phrase added to make the point that there is only one God despite the rich variety of our experiences of him at work.
Jesus was not a human being made especially holy but an expression of the creator God’s love for his people, begotten not created. Yet God has entered into the fullness of humanity, been made man, suffered physically under Pontius Pilate, truly died and rose again to open for us a way to God we could not achieve ourselves.
And now Jesus, ascended, has gone back to the Father. Was it all a wonderful but passing meeting with the divine which has now faded away like the experience of Transfiguration on the mountain top. God is in his heaven and all’s well with the world. Where now was God? The answer is that he is with us, underlying all we think and say and do, the wisdom and power of God unleashed in our world collectively and individually. It is through God’s spirit that we are called to join in the kingdom of love that Jesus ascended to, and on our journey though life we are given the divine gift of love to empower it. We meet that spirit in prayer, we meet that spirit in the visible form of the Church Catholic which is a fellowship transcending this world and the place we inhabit. God’s spirit underpins every life. It enters our lives at our baptism, guides us to our death and into the life that leads beyond, and through faith lights the way not just for our individual lives, but for the people of God.
The Nicene Creed evolved through many crises, it was the experience of spiritual dead ends galore. There were the people who denied the reality of the cross on the grounds that a God would not let himself suffer. There were the people who wanted to rid the scriptures of all that challenged their views, one such 3rd century group led by a man named Marcion managed to discard everything save the Gospel of Luke and a few Pauline letters. There were those who denied Jesus’s divinity, seeing him as a good man adopted by God. Others who denied his humanity as inappropriate for God. The list goes on and on, but all these heresies, a word we do not like to use today, were just that, for heresy simply means ‘wrong-thinking’. They were people whose ideas of God would led them away from God and not towards him, away from heaven and to that other place it is not fashionable to mention.
The Nicene Creed helps us to define the God whom we seek as Christians. It provides a fence to restrain us from those ideas that tempt us away from God and it reveals to us, not a dull, dead, God entrapped by the dead language of Greek philosophy, but a living one, a God who creates, a God who reconciles us to him by his personal love, who in Christ lifts us up to the safety of his kingdom where we cannot come by our own resources, a God who does not leave us alone in a hostile world but is with us here this morning and everywhere and at all times, a God who is not just confined to holy places but to all the world. This God is our hope, and not just our hope, but the hope for all his children irrespective of their race, language, sexuality, gender, intelligence, potential.
That is what Trinity is about, that is why it is so important. It is the product of hard experience encapsulated in the Nicene Creed and we must admit that those who painfully collated it did so in terms that do not always trip daintily to our minds. For those at the great councils, the Creed was worth exile, sometimes even death. The great 4th century Patriarch of Alexandria, Athanasius, was for many years a minority voice at the great councils in favour of orthodoxy. The phrase was used of him, Athanasius contra mundi’, or Athanasius against the whole world. He was exiled many times for his vies but he refused to change his mind. Finally, his views were accepted.
His story should remind us of something we must never forget: there is only one God, who is the object of our worship. All other Gods are false gods just as much as the idols of the Canaanites and we must have not just a vision of God to pursue in life, but a true vision of God which will lead us to know him as creator, saviour, friend.