Text: John 16:12-15
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
According to those who study such things, there are well over five hundred parishes in the Church of England named after the Trinity, making it, along with St Mary and Saint John’s, one of the all-time favourite dedications for our parish communities.
We Anglicans seem to know instinctively the importance of the Trinity in defining our faith as Christians, and they are proud to bear its name. They proclaim the Trinity week after week in the Nicene Creed, and they often begin what they do and pray “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” After all, that is how they were baptized. Belief in the Trinity is the main thing that sets Christians apart from others – such as our Jewish and Muslim friends and neighbours – who also believe in one God.
The word “Trinity” does not appear in Scripture, although it can be inferred in many passages, such as in today’s readings, which speak respectively of creation, grace, and Spirit. Down through the ages, the Trinity has often been the source of confusion and dissension. Its actual formulation as a distinct belief came only with time as heresies were suppressed and eminent scholars wrestled with its significance.
The Creed of Saint Athanasius – describes in fine theological detail and precision (and a lot of complex repetitious words, if I am to be honest) the authoritative meaning of the Trinity for all time, although few Christians today would turn to its words for insight or spiritual solace.
But it does tell us, among other things, that it is the Trinity that defines our common, or universal, faith. “The Catholic faith is this,” the Athanasian Creed begins, “that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.”
We might well ask: What is it about the Trinity that puts it at the very centre of our Christian faith but yet remains so elusive to our everyday understanding? Does the Trinity have any spiritual meaning for us today?
We live in a world in which scholars and scientists question the very existence of God, much less the Trinity. Noted zoologist and professional aetheist Richard Dawkins, for example, writes of a “God delusion,” in his recent book of the same name, calling the God of the Bible, “a petty, unjust … capriciously malevolent bully” who should have no place in the contemporary consciousness. Journalist Sam Harris, citing terrorist acts committed in the name of God, argues that the time has come for “the end of faith.” And decades ago, Time magazine created a sensation with its provocative headline question, “Is God dead?”
What is a believer to make of this? Is it finally time to write God’s obituary and mourn his passing? Or are reports of God’s demise, like those of humorist Mark Twain over a century ago, “greatly exaggerated”? Perhaps critics of contemporary religious practice and belief have a point. God is too often blamed for what his followers say about him and do in his name. Perhaps what must die are false notions of who and what God is. As Anglican bishop and scholar J. B. Phillips wrote way back in 1952, “Your God Is Too Small!”
Our notions of God are always too small, almost by definition. But that does not mean that God is dead. In fact, he is not even sick.
Of course, just referring to God as “he” and “him” in itself reflects one of the cultural limitations and prejudices that unavoidably make our God too small. There is always the temptation among believers to keep God under lock and key or on a shelf where we can keep an eye on him. But God – the real God – will have none of it. What some, like Dawkins, might see as God’s capriciousness is simply his unwillingness to stick to the script we have written for him. You cannot put God under the scientist’s microscope any more than you can grow a Shakespeare drama in a petrie dish.
Medieval scholars, influenced by late classical philosophy, explain the Trinity in terms of an emanation – a kind of loving radiance that leads God as creator and Father to the divine Other, the “only begotten Son” of the Creeds. And from this relationship comes the order of nature that is sanctified and returned to the Father in the Spirit, completing the great cycle of creation, redemption, and renewal.
Some might again object to the male imagery of such ancient formularies. But nearly all believers can agree that God is not only alive and well but busily at work in our world and our lives today. As scripture tells it, “God is love.” That is the essence of the Trinity.
God creates being where there is none and at once transcends it. In breathing life into this world and redeeming it, God gives us a glimpse into divine life itself and into the meaning of our own lives. Because God loves us, we exist. Yet for all his care and intimacy with the world and humankind, God is never consumed or overwhelmed by the many loose ends of our untidy existence. God simply loves: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a fact of life. More than that, it is the fact of life. As paradoxical as it may seem, God is both unchanging and eternal and at the same time ever-changing and deeply involved in time and history. God can have it both ways because God is God.
Dame Julian of Norwich, a saint and a mystic of uncommon depth and insight, never approached the demonstration of God’s existence or the meaning of the Trinity in structured argument like the great theologians of her age. Yet in her visions and writings she came as close as anyone to understanding the God of love – the God of the Trinity.
Toward the end of her life, she penned this short but profound exchange: “Would you know your Lord’s meaning?” she asks. “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love.”
It all comes back down to love.
So who is God today? And is there a place for the Trinity in our world? Dame Julian, in her day, found God in love, pure and simple. For all the complexity of our modern-day life, that is still where God – creator, redeemer, sanctifier – is to be found. God is as God loves. As Paul tells us in our second reading today, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”
In God’s eternal love, our own frail nature is finally and inextricably bound up in the very life of God, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.”