May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Before we turn our attention to our bible readings today, perhaps we ought to address the matter of the elephant in the room – that is the Trinity. Today is Trinity Sunday when traditionally an attempt is made by the preacher to ‘explain’ exactly what the Trinity is. It falls to my lot this year, but I wondered if we could take a different approach and actually try not to explain it.
By that I don’t mean dismiss it altogether for it is something that exists; but set aside the usual illustrations that somehow always fall short of the mark. For example, the idea that the Trinity is like water, which can be in a liquid, gas or solid state, but it’s still the same water. The problem with this is that is denies the three distinct Persons of the Trinity by claiming that God is one Person who appears in different ‘modes’ at different times. However, the three are not co-existing; H2O can only ever be one form at a time whereas for instance at the baptism of Christ, the Father, Son and Spirit are all distinctly present and interacting and only one of them is in the actual water!
To theologists this aquatic depiction of the Trinity is akin to the heresy of Modalism.
Similarly, we can discard many of the alternatives; the egg, with its yolk, shell and albumen where each part of the egg make up only a portion of the whole – the yolk alone is not the fullness of the egg, whereas each part of the Trinity is fully divine. Or perhaps the Sun, with itself, its light and its heat – again we’re verging towards the heresy of Arianism to claim that, because whereas light and heat are simply creations of the sun, we can not claim that the Son or the Spirit are mere creations of the Father.
And before you dash out to pick a clover leaf, just let it be…
Trying to explain the Trinity is rather like the Hindu fable of six blind men encountering an elephant, which John Godfrey Saxe translated into his poem The Blind Man and the Elephant where each man is brought into the presence of an elephant but can only feel one part and thus describe it variously as a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan and a rope – you will have to guess which parts they were touching. His concluding verse, however, can remind us God is someone whom we have to encounter as a whole.
So, oft in theologic wars the disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant not one of them has seen!
And yet we have seen and still see the Triune God all around us. We encounter the three persons of God when we visit a nature reserve and see the marks of careful husbandry; we encounter the three persons of God when we watch the skills of a surgeon in a real-life documentary, we encounter the three persons of God when we listen to the joyful sound of children’s laughter
At the moment I am on tenterhooks awaiting the birth of my first grandson, who will definitely be born of the flesh, and yet his arrival will reveal, as all new-born babies reveal, the Trinitarian presence of God, in creation, in love and in Spirit.
But what of Nicodemus, a devout Jew, a teacher of the Law; his mind was trained to obey God and to keep to the Law, yet his encounters with Jesus had led him to see a glimpse of God in the man Jesus, something had moved him to seek out a closer relationship and understanding that he was of God. Even so, he was trying to apply human logic and reasoning to something that clearly was beyond that.
Nicodemus was told he had to look beyond the physical and instead allow the spiritual to guide him. ‘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’. And as St Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans, that instead of trying to elucidate God’s nature through the things that tie us to earthly conventions we must allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit as children of God.
Perhaps we would be better to be content to admit that we cannot fully understand the Trinitarian nature of God, but rather to simply and faithfully accept that God exists eternally as one divine nature, substance, or essence, comprising three co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Instead to accept the truth that despite living in a perfect Triune relationship, which is completely self-sufficient and with no deficiency, he still chose to create and eventually redeem us at great cost to himself.
If we bring to an end our attempts to cognitively master God and the fact that we cannot understand the full depth of the Trinity (and certainly not with any myriad of analogies from the limited realm of creation) it should bring us to the reality that we are finite creatures standing before a sovereign, transcendent divine mystery… or more appropriately, it should bring us to fall to our knees and humbly worship the One true God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.