Isaiah 40.12-17,27-31, Matthew 28:16-20
In the name of God, Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
Our prophetic first reading today, from Isaiah, took us to some of the majesty and difficulty of explaining who God is and what God can do. This was also something the early Christians had to grapple with at a significant event in our church history, which took place in the year 325. It was a gathering of anyone who was anyone in the early church, hosted by the Roman Emperor Constantine. At the council of Nicea a number of significant things were agreed in the Christian Faith – amongst them the basics of the Nicene Creed, which has been used ever since in worship and we will say it once again later this morning.
Anyway, this creed has enshrined our understanding of God as the Trinity. That is God in three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is a concept and doctrine that we celebrate and cherish today on Trinity Sunday. If you Just take a moment to take a cursory glance at the Nicene Creed on the next page in our service books,
that reveals the creed arranged in three sections in accordance with the Trinity.
One starting We believe in one God, the next We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ and the last one starting We believe in the Holy Spirit.
It is not easy to try and distil the Christian faith like this, and particularly not easy when people disagreed about how things worked as they were back in the 3rd century. Human nature hasn’t changed very much. As different people, just as they do now hold strongly differing views! Trying to find a compromise that everyone can agree on – remains very difficult, but we are stronger if we work together.
Back in the 3rd century, they were doing this in part to combat the heresies or mistaken beliefs of their day – There were quite a few of these around by this point, which mostly sound like nasty diseases – Arianism, Monarchism and Manicheanism to name but three! Amongst other things, the Council of Nicea also decided what books should be in and out of the Bible. There is also some doubt on the role of the Roman Emperor Constantine in all of these events (and whether his motivations were genuine or self-seeking). A question that has been troubling historians and theologians for many years and that’s a question I shan’t attempt to grapple with today.
What I want to say of the Council of Nicea (and this is probably not something to be proud of) is this – that I find it really consoling that the council of Nicea – the great and the good of the early church had great difficulty in coming to agree how to describe God as Trinity and the relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And in reality it was another 50 years before the Nicene creed reached the fullness of the version we use today. Trying to define God and describe the relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is really pretty beyond us. God is incomprehensible, far beyond our understanding and greater by far than our imagining. We struggle because we are trying to define something we have neither the language or perspective to manage very well really. Ever since Christians including you and me have been finding it difficult to put God the Trinity into words. This makes me feel so very much better about this sermon!! And others I have preached on Trinity Sunday over the years.
The problem the early Christians had and we still have today is a bit like this. Three blind men met an elephant and tried to explain to each other what it was like. The first blind man felt over the leg of the elephant, and said to the others, ‘It is like a strong tree.’ But the second, holding the trunk, explained, ‘It is like an ever changing vine.’ Still the third blind man ran his hands across the large body and head of the elephant, and exclaimed, ‘No it is endless like a wide mountain’. Each experienced a different part of the same thing. Yet without a full understanding of the whole picture and combining each of their perceptions, the blind men were not going to be able to get an accurate understanding of what an elephant was, because an elephant has all of the three things they found – The legs are like a strong tree, the trunk is like an ever changing vine and the main body and head like a wide mountain’.
We can see immediately that an elephant cannot be just the legs, or just the trunk or just the body and head. We can see immediately because we, of course, know what an elephant looks like!! If we apply this story to our understanding of the Trinity – we are in a sense all blind men and women feeling our way into understanding God as Trinity. We can recognize the three separate strands that make up God as Trinity.
- God The Father, maker of heaven and earth of all that is seen and unseen.
- Jesus Christ only son of God eternally begotten from the Father.
- The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
Yet to have a fuller understanding we need to bring these parts together and not deal with them in isolation, and that is probably where the trouble really starts! As we don’t and can’t understand the full picture that is God the Trinity. It’s like doing a jigsaw without the picture (and anyone who has tried that will know just how challenging it is).
We understood the story of the blind men because we know what an elephant is. We are in much more trouble with God as Trinity, feeling our way as we don’t understand and perhaps in this life we will never fully understand. We cannot define God, because any definition limits God to what our human minds can hold. There is always more to feel, to find out, to experience and to share of God. This mystery is all part of the package that is the Christian journey. As I said in this week’s newsletter, it is only in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that these 3 strands are drawn together with those familiar but pretty baffling words – 13The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
We say this phrase a lot as practicing Christians – but what do we mean by it. Grace, love and communion are all difficult to define, pin down and be exact about. It doesn’t make it any easier if we use the word fellowship instead of communion either! The challenge we have as Christians is to look for ways of expressing our understanding of God. So we can share our good news, without being tempted to think we can really define God, because our definitions will fall short and underestimate what God can do in our lives and the lives of those around us. We need to sit comfortably and easily with this mystery, which with our society’s desire to know how things work is quite challenging.
The most appropriate response to the wonder and mystery of God as Trinity that we can make this morning is to come close to God in worship in awe and wonder. Worship requires our hearts and minds to be open to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Worship brings us to a place where we know God is God, and where we can be continually surprised with fresh understanding. And in worship we can come to the place, with our arms open and our hearts on fire with God’s love – we come to the place that the disciples came to in our gospel reading. Where we can respond to God’s call to us – To go and make disciples of all nations as God is with us to the end of the age. This call doesn’t depend on what God is, our definitions and how well we understand God as Trinity. God’s call to us all is the same whether we understand everything in the Nicene Creed, are experts in the doctrine of the Trinity and can argue deep theology. God’s call to us is the same if we are still at the beginning of understanding where the Trinity is concerned. What matters is whether we respond to God’s call not how we understand it. For God says to us all: Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, For God is with us always, to the end of the age.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible – 1989 © 1995.