Saturday, May 30, 2015

Holy Trinity - the Faces of God

Sundays after Pentecost - Trinity Sunday

It is good to welcome here today the friends and family of little Eve Paterson.  You have come to church on an especially good day – for two very significant reasons. 

Firstly, its Eve’s Baptismal Day which is a bit like another birthday for her – more presents, especially from the God Parents (I’m not sure if I wrote that in the fine print for you).

Secondly, it’s the Sunday in the year on which the Church celebrates something it thinks is very important – the Trinity.  Has anyone got any idea what we mean when we use that word?

One God – Three Persons

This idea really tests our brain, doesn’t it?  How can the three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – each of whom we say is divine – constitute One God, as we affirm so often in church?

At the heart of this conundrum that has troubled Christians for all of the 2000 years the church has been around is how was this man, Jesus of Nazareth, also the divine Son of God.

The first big attempt the church took to sort this out was the formulation of the Apostles’ Creed and shortly after the Nicene Creed in the 4th Century.  Both of these are set out in three parts:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty …
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son …
I believe in the Holy Spirit.

The words about Jesus are the most numerous, and I am not sure about you, but I find myself really struggling with what they mean.  When we say in the creed that Jesus is:

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 (or substance) with the Father

What do those things mean to us today?  In fact why are they so meaningless to us?

Well, the answer is simple enough really.  The creeds were written 1600 years ago and in many ways they were examples of Christians using the metaphysical language of their day to try and make sense of a conundrum.  This means they used words in ways that we are not familiar with.  Jesus was said to be of one BEING or substance with the Father – meaning he was exactly the same as God (yet he was human).  And when they went on to speak of the TRINITY they spoke of ONE GOD in THREE PERSONS.  This is an important idea because so many things we do in Church is in the name of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – most notably today, we will baptise Eve in those three names.

How do we make sense of all that today?  Let me offer a few clues – they might help, they probably won’t resolve all your questions.

Firstly, this idea of the Trinity affirms what Christian experience and devotion knows: that the Jesus we know after Easter – the risen living Christ as we would call him – is a divine reality.  Knowing this is not demonstrable or provable, but Christians still “know” it.

Secondly, this idea of the Trinity resolves that conundrum I mentioned before – of Christianity being monotheistic yet proclaiming Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three persons of that Godhead.  But to help you understand that we need to set aside some unhelpful language.  The Latin and Greek words behind the English rendition of “Persons” in the creeds does not mean what you and I mean when we talk about a person.  For us “persons” are separate individuals – even identical triplets are three different persons.

To understand the meaning you have to think about how ancient Greek and Roman plays were very often conducted – and much later on Shakespeare as well.  Invariably there were fewer actors in the troupe than there were roles in the play, so when an actor wanted to change roles he would simply put on a different mask.  One actor might have three masks for each of the roles he played.  Those masks represented a persona – but there was one actor behind each.  We use similar language in modern psychology, too, about people putting on a persona or wearing masks to hide their true identity.

This creates a helpful way for us as modern people to give meaning to that old concept.  To speak of God and three persons is to say that God is known to us wearing three different “masks” – or in three different roles.  Thus in our experience, God is one and known to us in thee ways – as Source and Creator of all things; as Jesus of Nazareth, the man of God who showed us the face of God; and as Spirit, the here and now experience of God that people will tell you about in different ways.
Finally, I want to draw your attention to something that the Creed does really well for us in regard to Jesus.  While it seems like it is very much focussed on staking the claim that Jesus was Divine, it claims very firmly that Jesus was also human – in fact fully human.  

The easiest way for our modern minds to resolve this is to refer to the one as the pre-Easter Jesus, and the other the post-Easter Jesus.  Before Easter Jesus was fully human – like you and me – yet he understood some amazing things about God and the way we should live.  One of the Christmas stories gives Jesus a name – Emanuel, meaning God with us, and the church has come to understand this to mean this man was the embodiment of the Divine Spirit – God.  After Easter, the Disciples and Christians ever since experience him as divine. 

I hope you find that helpful.  Essentially, the Christian life is something we experience, but some things we have to talk through so that we can make sense of it in a kind of rational way – and I think this idea of the Trinity is one of them.

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