The Mystery of the Trinity
Mention Advent, Christmas or Easter to most Christians and they will light up – these are well known Festivals – mention Trinity Sunday however and most will glaze over and in many churches today it will pass unnoticed.
When it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity we are out of our depth and struggling with concepts that are beyond us – for how can it make sense to talk about three persons who are wholly distinct yet wholly one. It is incomprehensible. How can 1+1+1=1?
I could give you some examples to try to illustrate Trinity – there is water than can be steam when boiled, ice when frozen and liquid at room temperature ~ but all water.
Or St Patrick’s illustration of the Shamrock with its three distinct leaves, yet all on one stem and in fact one leaf.
Or my favourite the Jaffa Cake, chocolate, orange and sponge, three very distinct things yet one cake - but if we are honest it doesn’t help does it. It is still a mystery – still incomprehensible.
Yet that is the point – the very reason why Trinity Sunday is so important. For our amazing Almighty God is beyond our human intellect – defying expression, greater than we can begin to conceive.
We encounter God as loving Father and Mother as protector and guide. We encounter God as a human being in Jesus living and dying among us – who rose from the dead and is exalted at the Father’s right hand – and we encounter God as Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts by faith, filling us with love, joy peace, hope and power as we heard at Pentecost.
We cannot explain how this all fits together but we know that it does, and if we could unravel the mystery then we would lose God altogether.
In our gospel reading Jesus said to his disciples “ I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now”.
I suspect that you would not appreciate a sermon that began like this: there are things that are essential to our faith, but I can’t speak about them because you would not be able to understand. They are far too complicated and way over your head.”
Of course, the reality is that there are many dimensions of our life in God that we don’t understand and we may not understand until we are in heaven. I have a long list of questions that I want answered. I suspect many of you have a list as well.
It is reassuring to know that we stand in a long line of people who have asked questions. Moses certainly wanted to know, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘the God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” Who is this God who has called us? So much seems unanswered.
I am sure the disciples were not impressed by being told that Jesus had things to say but didn’t. OK Jesus - What are they? Tell us. Don’t leave us hanging. We want to know. We can take it. We heard about so many things from you. You told us that we are to be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. You explained that we should not worry. You reminded us that we are to love God and love our neighbour. And you told us that things would not always be easy or go smoothly for us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The call to take up our cross is definitely a hard saying. What else could you have possibly told us? What did we miss?
In this brief portion from Jesus’ farewell sermon we are not told what those many things are, only that Jesus will not tell us. But, we are told that, in the future; in the unfolding of time, we will be told them. And we are told how we will hear of them. It is the Spirit of truth who will guide us, speak to us, and declare all to us all that we need to know. We are given a portrait of the three persons of the Trinity. Jesus speaks of himself, of the Spirit’s activities, and of the Father.
The Holy Trinity is definitely one of those difficult, challenging, thought-provoking doctrines of our faith. Understanding the Trinity is not an IQ test to identify the superior intellects and weed out those who are not worthy.
As I am sure you are aware the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible and was only introduced as doctrine around 400 AD. It has divided religious groups down through the centuries and is unique to the Christian tradition. We find the three in one God throughout the Bible if we look – in Genesis we have a creator God and the Holy Spirit brooding over the water.
In Isaiah we have glimpses of the Suffering Servant and of course the New Testament is full of references to Father God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
How are we to understand this three in one God?
We know what God is like because we have the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as our guide. God sent us his son to show us what he is like. We have no visual picture of God only the majesty and beauty of creation, we have no visual picture of Jesus. He was certainly not fair haired with blue eyes swanning about in a Persil white robe, as He is so often depicted. I am reminded of the little boy drawing a picture. When asked who it was replied ‘God’. His mother said, but nobody knows what God looks like. ‘Well they will when I have finished,' replied the boy. And we cannot begin to know what the Holy Spirit might look like but we recognize his presence in the love, joy, peace, gentleness, meekness and self-control we find in each other.
The Holy Trinity is, ~ and this side of glory, ~ will remain a mystery. But what is wrong with mystery? Each of us, at our baptism, became part of the mystery, and we partake of that mystery in our Holy Communion; the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in bread and wine – a mystery.
We are not meant to understand, but to have a simple acceptance of mystery: it is what faith is all about.