In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A small boy had just come back from Church, where he had received, I have no doubt, some fine teaching at Sunday School. He started quizzing his mother on where God was to be found: “Is he in heaven” “yes, of course he is” “is he around us on earth?” “yes, he is” “is he even there in the sugar bowl?” “Err.. yes, yes I suppose he is”. Quickly the lad grabs the sugar bowl and pops his hand on top: “Got him!”.
How much we would love to capture God, to make sense of him, to have something supremely tangible to hold onto. However, God is other; God is beyond our experience, and glimpsed only through God’s revelation. The Trinity is part of that revelation to us, part of our struggle to understand and comprehend the mystery that is God, whilst never being able to capture him. The Orthodox, like our friends in the parish of St. George, the South Indian Orthodox Community, would simply shrug their shoulders and admit that it is a mystery, a matter of God, and we should just accept it, but oh how much we would love to capture God in the sugar bowl.
The doctrine of the Trinity, simply stated: There is One God and this One God is three “persons,” Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity are equally God, “co-equal and co-eternal,” we say. One is not more divine than another. One is not subordinated to any other.
But we must recognise that God is not simply a category with three members: Father, Son and Holy Spirit are single substance. They have a single will, a single energy. There are not three Gods, but only one God, as Gregory of Nyssa so eloquently put it.
Each year we try to create ever more elaborate yet simple analogies to convey the truth of the trinity. St. Patrick and his three-leafed clover, the three-in-one oil and so on, the Mars Bar (chocolate, nougat and caramel and yet mysteriously still one chocolate). My work of genius (or pure silliness, you can take your pick) this year is… myself!
I realise that this is a dangerous precedent: to use myself as a model of the Trinity, but before you call the Bishop to tell him I’m having ideas slightly above my station, bear with me.
You see, to my lovely children, I am “Dad”, that benign individual whose sole purpose in life is to embarrass them and be an unending source of funding and bad advice.
To my lovely wife, Lou, I am “Husband” – the one who makes a mess in the house, leaves the kitchen cupboard doors open and the cold tap dripping.
To my lovely Parish, I am “Father Simon”, who represents… well, I’ll leave you to reflect upon what having me as your parish priest means to you, but I am sure that if you think about it for long enough, it won’t be that bad…
Three titles, three roles, three perspectives. And yet I am one person – the baptised Christian who is known and loved intimately by God as “Simon”. In the same way, the Trinity gives us different perspectives on the one true God, different roles, functions, perspectives of the one God, a God so immense and diverse that we as humans just have to break down into the three persons of the Trinity simply to try and get our heads around it.
There is an ancient tale, which features in a number of faiths of a large animal, an elephant or rhino approached by a group of blindfolded individuals…
…each of them had a genuine experience of the animal, but none of them had the full perspective. Similarly, we will never fully understand the whole rhino of God simply because we cannot ever have the full perspective on that which creates, redeems and sustains us.
But as we strive to find new and exciting ways to encapsulate the mystery of the trinity, and your parish priest gets increasingly desperate in their bitterness, The question remains for us today is: Do we still need the Trinity? Do we in our scientific and logical glory need the Trinity to comprehend he who is other. The word “Trinity,” of course, never appears in Scripture. All of that language comes from the 4th Century and the debates of the Councils of Nicea andConstantinople.
Nevertheless, I think that the doctrine of the Trinity is important for us to hold to and to promulgate. It has a mystery of great importance to reveal to us, something more than just the inner workings of the divinity.
First of all, the doctrine states that we believe in a personal God. You won’t find “personal God” in the Scriptures either, but that concept has emerged from the experience of believers over centuries. Yes, we do believe in a personal God, who encounters us at a personal level, for we believe in God in three persons. The word is carefully chosen. It means, above all, that God is conscious of us and loves us. And it means that we in return are able to love God, intensely and wholeheartedly. A Personal God does not mean a private God, in a divisive, protestant way, but one which calls each and everyone of us in a direct and personal way to a collective expression of faith and of Church.
Secondly, the doctrine of the Trinity affirms that God does not exist in isolation. God is a social God. Even prior to the creation, God existed in relationship: the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit one to another. Since we are created in God’s image, this means that we are created for relationship as well. We will become whole persons only in relationship to one another and to God.
Finally, we need to observe the traditional language about the Trinity (this is from the Athanasian Creed): The three persons are Co-equal and Co-eternal. They exist in communion, in a mutual sharing of life, a perichoresis or dance of life and love. The persons of the Trinity do not allow for inequality, or subordination, or domination, or hierarchy. Our Baptism into the Church in the name of the Trinity means that all of us, though irreducibly unique, exist together as equal partners in Christ in a relationship of mutual love.
So, do we still need the Trinity? Or is it just one of our attempts to capture God in our own sugar bowls, is it an attempt to bring God down to our level, or does it suggest a mystery beyond comprehension, but which has resonances with our human relations? Do we still need the Trinity? We might just as well ask: Do we still need mutuality? Do we still need to be in relationship? Do we still need a personal God? Do we still need love?