The Trinity is always a hard subject to preach about and think about, but one that’s at the heart of our faith! So, it’s something that we need to spend time thinking about and letting shape us. This is a sermon that I preached on the Trinity a month or so ago.
Two books that really helped with the sermon were the chapter on the Trinity in Roger Olson’s excellent introduction to Christian doctrine The mosaic of Christian belief and the book Worshipping the Trinity by Robin Parry.
Trinity; Reading: John 20:24-31
We’re looking at the Trinity at the moment. But, the problem is when we start talking about the Trinity is that we might start thinking about this bit from Alice Through the Looking glass:
`I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.
`Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. `Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’
Alice laughed. `There’s not use trying,’ she said: `one can’t believe impossible things.’
`I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’
Is the Trinity one of those impossible things that the Queen would believe? Do we just need to take a deep breath, shut our eyes and try a bit harder? I hope that it’s not too much of a shock to you that I think the answer to that one is ‘no’! But, it might be that you’re not really that fussed either. You might not really understand it, and it’s something that gets mentioned every so often, but it doesn’t really make much difference to you either. So, is the Trinity a bit like a trip to the dentists? It’s something that you need to do every so often, but you’d prefer to spend as little time there as possible and not really think about it when you’re not.
But, it’s one of the real distinctives of the Christian faith. It’s at the heart of our understanding of who Jesus is, of who we are, of what God has done and is doing. It’s not an optional extra, it’s not a mark of distinction for the super-spiritual. It’s at the heart of our faith, and at the heart of our worship.
One of the, probably many, strange things about the Church of England is that it doesn’t have a detailed statement of faith, a detailed list of stuff that we expect people to believe that is distinctive from other Christians. Instead, we have our worship. Our worship is meant to be an expression of what we believe, and a way of shaping what we believe. And actually, that’s pretty much the same as the first Christians. They didn’t have a detailed list of things to sign up to, but their beliefs, their theology was shaped by their worship.
That’s one of the reasons that our worship is so important. Our worship shapes our belief, helps us express our beliefs and challenges us. That’s why it’s important the we have the different elements within it: the confession, a reading from the Bible, a talk, prayers including the Lord’s prayer and an opportunity to affirm our faith, to state what we believe, and to remind us what believe. That might be a song, it might be one of the statements from the Bible, it might be a more modern affirmation of faith. Or it might be one of the two great historic creeds that are at the heart of what we believe. Or it might be one of the two great creeds that were agreed by Christians in the first few centuries and have shaped what Christians believe ever since. One of these is the creed that we’ll be saying later on, called the Nicene Creed.
But, all this flows out of the events that we heard in our reading. It’s a reading that we’re probably fairly familiar with. But, I think we’re familiar with it for the wrong reasons. I think that our understanding of this reading is Thomas doubts until he meets Jesus, gets told off a bit by Jesus, who then tells us there we’re blessed because even though we don’t see, we believe. The really important bit, the bit that we often skip over is what Thomas actually says. Thomas says something really radical. Something that is either a really significant heresy, or is profoundly, challengingly true. Thomas says to Jesus “My Lord and my God”!
This was someone who was a devout Jew, who would have said as part of his daily prayers: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. The Lord our God is one. There is no other. There is only one true God. Those were also the words that Jesus himself used when he was ask to sum up the commandments. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The Lord is one. There’s only one God, there isn’t room for any other.
And yet, and yet, Thomas says to Jesus “My Lord and my God”. And Jesus doesn’t correct him. Jesus doesn’t tell him that he’s got it wrong, again. Jesus doesn’t give Thomas a better way of thinking about things. Instead Jesus says “Because you have seen me you have believed”. Believed what? We tend to hear that as ‘you have believed that I’m really risen’. But, what Thomas has just believed is that Jesus is God. Because he’s realised that Jesus is really risen. But, he’s gone beyond that. He’s started to work out what that means. And what that means is that Jesus is Lord and God. And by believing he may have life in his name, as we heard at the end of the reading.
And in other places in the Gospels we hear that people worshipped Jesus. Despite the warnings in Exodus and elsewhere ‘do not worship another god’. Don’t worship anything or anyone else. Just worship the one true God. Except that in their worship they’re now worshipping God our Father in heaven and the risen Lord Jesus who is God. And it won’t be too long until they’re worshipping God the Holy Spirit as well. That’s next week.
So, before Christians had any sort of detailed creed they were worshipping Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They were calling them God, living and believing as if they were God. And their theology hadn’t really caught up with their worship, with what they were already doing in worship. And of course this led to a certain amount of arguing, and to some early critics of Christianity to point and laugh as they thought that Christians couldn’t even work out how many gods they believed in. Until a priest got a bit fed up with this and started to argue that Jesus wasn’t actually god. There was 60 years of argument, which almost makes the 20 years it took us to sort out women bishops look quick! But after 60 years of arguing about whether and how Jesus was God the answer was the Nicene Creed, the creed that we’re going to say later on. Which is why we say at some length:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
The God we worship is three persons and one being. God is one being and three distinct persons within the Godhead. And, yes, that’s difficult to explain and tricky to get our heads around. But, then trying explaining how a radio works to a 4 year-old. That’s tricky too. We’re surrounded by stuff that most of us barely understand how it works.
But, we know it’s important and we know, by and large, how to use the things that we’re surrounded by. And, in worship, we know that we can and should worship Jesus, who is God, but not all of God. “I and the Father are one” says Jesus. God is one perfectly unified being made up of three inseparable and wholly equal persons.
And that’s one of the reasons that the belief in the Trinity is so important. Because it tells us that God sent himself, in the person of his Son, to be with us. God fully took on human nature, whilst also remaining fully and truly God. And in so doing opened up the way for us to come to God. We see in Jesus the love and call that God has for us. We see in Jesus the power and mercy of God. We see that by believing we may have life in his name, in the name of Jesus.
How we worship and what we believe are important because they shape how we live. Most of us will never need to pass a theology exam, but that doesn’t mean that we should get away with not trying to understand the Trinity at whatever level is appropriate for us. Thomas probably wouldn’t have been able to write down clearly what he understood when he said to the risen Jesus “My Lord and my God”, but he knew that it was important, he’d grasped a new and important truth. Why is it important? Because what we believe shapes what we do, shapes how we act, shapes our priorities, shapes our worship.
It’s the understanding of the Trinity that enables Paul to say “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We are all one in Christ Jesus. Which is why it was right that, finally, finally, women will be bishops, able to exercise their God-given gifts as part of their gift to the community of the church, to the part of the body of Christ that is the Church of England. That’s also why we should and do mourn with the Christians of Mosul, persecuted for their faith, in fear of their lives. Because they too are part of us, part of our community, united by the triune God.
Jesus also prays “for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” One of the problems of describing God the Trinity as one being and three persons is that we have a very limited concept of what it means to be a person. We tend to think of a person as an individual as distinct from other individuals. But we are all embedded with a community, we are all part of society, we are all affected and affect other people. The persons of the Trinity take this to a whole other level, but remind us of the importance of us as separate persons also being together part of the body of Christ.
The Christian understanding of the Trinity tells us that relationship is an essential part of what it is to be God. And, as we are made in the image of God, then it also tells us that relationships are an essential part of what it is to be human. We are part of the body of Christ. We are in Christ. Many, yet one. And if our relationships are such an essential part of being human then what do they look like? They look like relationships of equality and interdependence. As Paul wrote “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’” Our relationships are meant to reflect something of the relationships that we see in the Trinity. And of course we need God the Holy Spirit to help us do anything like that.
We are part of a community. We are called to be part of a community. Not to think the same, or to do the same, not to be uniform, but to be united. United as part of the community of God, as the community, the body of Jesus here in Hartshorne. United by our common belief, through which we have life in Jesus’ name. United, not a belief in another impossible thing, but united by our desire, like Thomas, to worship Christ and say “My Lord and my God”. Amen.