Does the Trinity add up?
A sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity by Nathan Nettleton, 11 June 1995
The transcendent God is seen to be close and personally involved with us. This is taught in the doctrine of the Trinity.
Trinity Sunday is the day I am most often tempted to think up a good excuse for ignoring the suggested themes and readings and doing something else, and that's probably an indication that I shouldn't. One of the main reasons I follow the lectionary and church calender is that it stops me from ignoring difficult topics and just preaching my hobby horses. I'm not the only one that cringes at this one. The English preacher, Colin Morris, said that any preacher with any sense calls in sick on Trinity Sunday.
The main problem with the Trinity Sunday is of course that it asks me to preach about the doctrine of the trinity. This is the teaching that God is three, traditionally expressed as Father, Son and Spirit, but is still just one God. Now apart from the fact that it is very difficult to work the maths out, it is a difficult topic to preach about because the contours of the argument are extremely subtle. The greatest intellects in the world have had trouble with this one, so there is not much chance of me explaining it this morning.
I also cringe not just because its complicated, but also because it has been abused. The doctrine of the trinity has often been used to divide up the orthodox and the heretics, and people who have been unable to get their heads around it have been kicked out of the church.
I think it is an important teaching, but its importance is not in whether you believe it or not. Its importance is in what sort of God it is trying to describe. The issue that was at stake when the doctrine was nutted out was not the maths, it was an issue of how God relates to us, and that is important. So that's what we will seek to pursue this morning.
The doctrine of the trinity is not taught in the Bible. There are things in the Bible that suggest that perhaps God might be understood as a trinity, but there is nothing that attempts to explain it or that says it matters whether you or anybody else believes it. But I said earlier, there was an important reason why the idea was developed and why it came to be seen as important. In essence what happened was that there were some people who we'll introduce shortly who were saying God is like this and you must view God like this, and there was another group of people saying Well yes, but God is also like this, and we mustn't lose that. And the first group were saying No, you can't have it both ways, our view is right and yours is wrong.
Now until I put some description into that little argument, it isn't going to mean much, so let's have a go. Let me illustrate it by quoting from some hymns, seeing most of us got a lot of our images of God from what we sing. Have a listen to these:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the ancient of days,
almighty victorious, thy great name we praise.
Crown him the Lord of heaven, enthroned in worlds above;
crown him the King to whom is given the wondrous name of Love:
A city stands on high, his glory it displays,
and there the nations Holy cry in joyful hymns of praise.
O worship the king, all glorious above;
and gratefully sing his power and his love;
our shield and defender, the ancient of days,
surrounded with splendour, exalted with praise.
For thou O Lord art high above all the earth
Thou art exalted above all gods.
I exalt thee, I exalt thee, I exalt thee Oh Lord!
Now lets' describe the God pictured in those hymns. What do you hear? Whod like to describe this God. ???????????
O.K. now lets try some alternative hymns. Have a listen to these ones.
Love divine, all loves excelling
joy of heaven to earth come down,
fix in us your humble dwelling,
all you faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, you are all compassion,
boundless love that makes us whole;
visit us with your salvation,
enter every trembling soul.
I, the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne my people's pain.
I have wept for love of them.
They turn away.
When God almighty came to earth
He took the pain of Jesus birth,
He took the flight of refugee,
And whispered, Humbly follow me.
From heaven to here and from here to heaven
is a distance less than tissue thin
and its trod by him who in the stranger's guise,
Is made known when he is welcomed in.
From heaven you came, helpless babe,
entered our world, your glory veiled;
not to be served but to serve,
and give your life that we might live.
Now lets' describe the God pictured in those hymns. What do you hear. Describe this God. ???????????
Now these two quite different images of God have different implications for us and for how we see ourselves, especially how we see ourselves in relation to God. If you hold one of them to the exclusion of the other it dictates much of your view of what it means to be human.Let's identify the differences. What would it imply about being human if you held one view of God on its own?????????????
OK, lets revisit the fourth century and check out the argument that led to the nailing down of the doctrine of the trinity. The principle characters were a couple of blokes called Athanasius and Arius. Now on the surface the debate was actually about whether or not Jesus was divine, that is whether or not Jesus was God, but as I have suggested the underlying question was what is God like. What was being held true in those times, and you will have heard me say this from time to time was that when we look at Jesus, we are looking at God. That Jesus is the complete self-revelation of the God of the universe. That Jesus is in fact God in human form. The old Nicene creed expressed it saying that Jesus was God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of one being with the Father.
Now Arius couldn't come at this. He rejected the idea that Jesus was God, and argued that Jesus should be understood as a exemplary human being. Now Arius had a point and a lot of what he argued about the humanity of Jesus was good theology and has been reclaimed by theologians since, but the problem with Arius was the one dimensional way in which he saw God.
For Arius God was so far above us humans that the idea of God taking on human expression was an outrage. God, by definition, said Arius, is self-contained, complete within himself, and not needing to communicate himself in any way. God is exalted, holy, pure, absolute, glorious, and for Arius the idea of such a God lowering himself to become personally involved with his creatures was demeaning and blasphemous. He reckoned it was a pagan vulgarization of God, it made God like one of the gods of the Greek pantheon, a sort of superhero who ate and drank and fought and occasionally dropped in to bonk a human being.
Humanness and divinity are too far removed from one another for a connection, said Arius. God is the great God on high, wholly other, untouched by our petty concerns. What use would there be in a God who needed us in any way. And in all the history of the church there has probably never been a more exalted glorious image of God than that portrayed by Arius.
But enter the team for the defence, championed by Athanasius. Athanasius took issue with Arius' position at its central point. Being self-contained, superior and distant is not the essential feature of divinity he said. We humans, perhaps even more now than ever before tend to worship independence before we'll worship God, and we easily imagine that God relates to the world the same way we relate to the world. We consider it the worst fate in the world to be relegated to dependency on someone else.
As teenagers we couldn't wait to be old enough to no longer be dependent on the oldies. As oldies we save for our retirement so we won't have to be dependent on our kids. People are often afraid of marriage because they fear having someone really need them, someone who can't keep their distance, but I even worse is the fear that I might come to depend on them. Distance is so comfortable.
People who work in human services talk a lot about professional distance. Don't get too close to your clients or you'll lose you objectivity. If you start caring to much your judgment will be affected. That's all very well, but Athanasius argued that we make a serious mistake if we impute the same style to God.
Athanasius argued that the essential defining feature of God was not utter independence, but self-giving, love that gives and gives and gives. And he argued that this self-giving occurs even within the Godhead - that between the Father and the Son and the Spirit there is total mutual self-giving. And then this self-giving looks outwards and expresses itself in a totally unprofessional nearness to others, including us.
God gets totally involved with us, loving, cherishing, nurturing, longing, craving our response and our giving in return. God is the Spirit who moves through us with every breath, who whispers into our ear, who prompts us and cajoles us towards god likeness, expressed in self-giving and love.
Athanasius accused Arius of having a sterile God who doesn't generate, doesn't shine, doesn't communicate, doesn't reveal. A God who sits in isolated splendour, useless and irrelevant and passionless. The God made known in Jesus is dynamic, involved, always busy relating, cherishing, shining, revealing, expressing, giving. A God who can know joy and pain, a God who longs for us to return the love we are shown, a God who hurts when we fail to respond and who grieves when we damage ourselves in the process.
Needless to say, Athanasius won the debate and the doctrine of the trinity was spelled out, and to use d the language of the moment, codified. But it is amazing how many Arians you still meet. There are no shortage of church people around who would espouse the trinity as a doctrine but teach an Arian image of God, high exalted, distant, uninvolved.
That's why I reckoned it was worth tackling the trinity question, as much as it makes me cringe. Arian images of God make me cringe even more. God is a passionate Spirit. God has created us in order that we and God might relate to one another. God needs you and will be unfulfilled until you respond to God's love and begin to give in return as passionately as God gives to you.
That's why church is so important. We need to recognize our inter-dependence. If God was utterly self-contained and professionally distant, then we could respond in an uninvolved and individual manner. But the God who is characterized by love and self-giving needs us to learn to love and give and be in community with one another. It is in community that we can discover God in the passions and conflicts and joys and giving of community life. That's why I advocate that the core groups in this church should not just be groups that take on a task together, but groups that share and care and support one another and develop some mutual inter-dependence.
Sunday morning church is a bit to easy to be professionally distant about. We can cloth it in niceness and feelings of warmth and togetherness, but it doesn't allow much depth to develop. It is in our core groups that we develop the level of involvement and mutual commitment that comes from sharing and working and praying together with a regular few, and that ultimately reflects the self-giving loving involvement of our triune God.