Saturday, 30 May 2015

Trinity: Experience is everything.

Just one reading to introduce this:

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.' Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Ah the joys of Trinity Sunday. We say that we believe in one God who is three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet for many western Christians we are really only paying the belief lip service. I've become quite fond of a saying that my doctrine lecturer, Jeremy Begbie, made when trying to describe the Trinity. He explained that in western thought, 'God is one, but unfortunately three.'  And that more or less describes where most of us are at. So I might as well say, 'Today I am going to explain the Trinity, and tomorrow I shall nail some jelly to the ceiling.' Nevertheless this is a vital part of Christian belief, so I am going to try and do this justice for us, but maybe explanation shouldn't be the whole story. What I mean by that is that anything that I write is going to fall short of the truth. Jesus makes that quite clear when he speaks to Nicodemus who represents us with our human questions. He speaks for the Jewish leaders at this point, and many times when Jesus says 'you' in this passage we should understand that the word he uses is plural, so Jesus' answer is to all his earthly questioners.

So we learn that the leaders have recognised very early on that there is something about Jesus that indicates he is from God. This is a part of the story that John, the Gospel writer, tells right from his opening words, 'In the beginning was the Word.' Jesus doesn't deny this, but adds into the mix his own comment about the Spirit of God that blows where it wills.  Jesus then tells Nicodemus quite blatantly that he is not going to understand this because he is trying to think rationally as a teacher, but what he needs to do is experience the reality by being born from above, by being born a second time.  This, then, is the rider that I'm going to put on this: all Christian doctrine is an attempt to explain or describe what we have experienced in a logical way, but what Jesus seems to say is that we should not be overly concerned with understanding because this is a spiritual thing which we will struggle to understand in earthly terms because we have no frame of reference. 

 Instead we have to experience the reality of Father, Son and Spirit.

That is, therefore, my main priority, to encourage us to engage with the Trinity rather than trying to understand it first. We're only human and so there will be a limit on what we can understand. Having said that, there is still merit in having some understanding in order to avoid what we believe are some of the pitfalls of getting it wrong, so it's worth spending a moment on why we believe in the Trinity and what we do actually believe.

So first of all, where does the belief in the Trinity come from? It may come as a shock to hear that the word 'Trinity' does not come from the Bible. On the very rare occasions where the phrase 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' does occur, it is usually thought of as a later addition and not something present in the original text as written by the author.

How, then, did we get to it? Basically it all comes down to combining experience with revelation. The first Christians were all Jewish and Judaism, by the first century, had become a monotheistic religion believing that there is only one God. So all early Christians held this belief. It comes from something called the Shema, a Jewish saying from Deuteronomy 6:4 which says:
'Hear, O Israel, YHWH is your God, YHWH is one.'
As an aside, the word used for 'one' is the Hebrew word echad. Almost everywhere in the Old Testament that word literally and numerically means 'one'. But there are some interesting places where it means something that is one yet also more than one. The one most often quoted is from Genesis 2:24:
'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one (echad) flesh.'
I mention this not because the Shema is hiding a doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It isn't. But it is interesting that the concept of oneness can have a mystical nature to it in the same way that a married couple know they are connected in a way that they can't really describe.

Anyway, going back to the first Christians, their belief was that there is one God. Yet their experience of that one God, as described in both our Gospel and New Testament readings, meant that the description didn't go far enough. Over the course of more than three hundred years, debates echoed loudly across Christianity as theologians wrestled with with the belief in one indivisible God, whilst noting the experiences and references to Christ as being divine, especially as found in the John's Gospel, and the numerous references to the Holy Spirit of God.

A simple argument about the divinity of Jesus is this: We say that only God can forgive, yet we say that it is through Christ that we are forgiven. Therefore Christ must be divine otherwise he could not forgive. Of course it can be a lot more complex than that, but in a nutshell that is at the heart of many of our beliefs.

So the first Christians knew God was one, yet they experienced and, therefore, wrote about three different persons, and so from that combination emerged a belief in the Trinity which is essentially that there is only one God, but within that one God there are three separate persons who have revealed themselves as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

It's important that we don't think of them as three different modes of expression of God. Trinitarian belief is not that there is one God who sometimes expresses himself as the Father, sometimes as the Son and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. They are all separate and different persons, but nevertheless they are one God.  Think of it like this. The Father is God, but the Father is not the Son nor the Holy Spirit. The Son is God but is not the Father nor the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is God but is not the Son nor the Father. The Father is one person, the Son is another person and the Holy Spirit is the third person. Yet all are also one God.

How can we possibly understand that?  

As I said, Jesus made it quite clear that earthly logic is not going to help us understand spiritual things because rational descriptions fall short of the reality. That is not to say that spirituality should be full of impossible paradoxes, but we shouldn't worry too much if we can't fully describe something we're experiencing; that's par for the course. But in terms of how we can have three persons in one God, ask yourself the question, what is a person? I think that the answer is that a person is one who is conscious of themselves as being distinct from someone else. So the Father is distinct in who he is from the Spirit and the Son. However they are also all of one essence; they are all one God.

What does this tell us about God? 

 At its simplest level we know that God is a community based on love. Each person is equal to the other but out of choice they defer to the Father. When Jesus prayed that the church would be one as he and the Father were one, see John's Gospel, this is what he was inferring, that we would be a community based on love, united by the Spirit of God.  What this doesn't tell us about God, though, is that the Trinity is not a formula that explains the Godhead. It is merely the closest description that we can come up with in language to describe something that goes beyond what we can understand. Think of it along these lines. No matter how much a mother tries to explain it to me, I will never know what it is like to be pregnant.  But that doesn't stop me puzzling over the mystery of what it must be like to carry another human being within one's self, and being caught up in the marvel of it.

I think the same thing applies with the Trinity. It has withstood nigh on 1,700 years as an 'official' and defining belief of the church, but I cannot believe that it is a complete and total definition of how God is, purely because I don't think it's possible for humans to fully comprehend the nature of God like that, and that's something that Jesus made clear in his words to Nicodemus.  I don't think that it's necessary that we understand it. Rationalism has influenced our culture in ways that make us think everything can be, or should be, describable given enough research. But the doctrine of the Trinity is something that we celebrate as a mystery which can remind us of the incomprehensibility of God.

Nicodemus, the rational teacher, appears three times in John's Gospel. He becomes steadily more sympathetic to Jesus each time, and I would venture to suggest that this is not because he understands, but because he has seen the evidence of his eyes and has become willing to go beyond his need to understand.  So let me encourage us to do the same thing. The things of the Spirit transcend our rational understanding, and to not accept something unless we can understand it will be to limit what can be accomplished simply by engagement. Don't be put off by mystery, but instead celebrate it and engage with it.

The Father sent the Son, and the Father and the Son sent the Spirit. We need little more than to say, 'Come Holy Spirit'. The mysteries will take care of themselves, but the proof is in the changes that take place within us.

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