7 June 1998
St Stephen's Lewisham
Proverbs 8:22-31 Romans 5: 1-5 John 6: 12-15
Trinity Sunday 1998
Jews and Muslims (and Jehovah's Witnesses for that matter) all believe, like we do, in the one God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
Of course it makes an enormous difference to our relationship with people of these other faiths to hold this belief in common with them. For us to be able to say with them "I believe in God", rather than to say in our hearts like the Foolish Person "There is no God", or like the majority of our fellow-citizens in Lewisham who say in their hearts "I don't really care whether there is a God or not", must bring us as close to our Jewish and Mohammedan friends as it distances us from the greater part of our contemporaries.
But that closeness which such a belief brings doesn't take us the whole way. For whilst Jews and Muslims believe that God is simply and solely One Person, always has been and always will be, we Christians believe that this selfsame God in whom we all alike believe has revealed himself to us as being Three Persons (not One), yet still within the single Godhead.
Now at first sight the Jewish/Mohammedan belief looks much the simpler of the two. But we must remember that simplicity is by itself no guarantee that anything is true. It may, for instance be simpler to believe, as people did for many centuries, that the earth is a flat plain. The reality as we know is that it is spherical, as people came eventually to discover: and that's a good deal more difficult to explain to people than a Flat Earth is, as anyone will discover who has tried to enable children to understand why Australians don't find themselves living in an upside-down world.
So the simple answer is not always a correct answer; and when you look a little more closely at the Jewish/Mohammedan idea of God you can begin to see the flaws in it. For instance, if God has existed on his own for all time, how can he be said to love anything or anyone before there was anyone or anything to love? In which case, Creation begins to look very much like something that God did "in order to give himself something to love"; but that implies that there was some need on God's part -- a need which the Creation was designed to satisfy. But immediately you begin talking in terms of God having needs you turn him into something less than the all-sovereign, all-sufficient being that we, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Witnesses alike, know him to be.
Contrast this with the opening words of St John's Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God... all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
Now if, as St John states, there has existed from all time at least two persons in the Godhead, then that goes a long way towards resolving the problem inherent in Judaism and Islam. Christians believe, of course, that in fact the Godhead consists of three Persons, Father Son and Holy Spirit, but of that we shall be thinking more in a moment. The very existence of God the Son, eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds, is enough for the time being to get us off the hook of the Solitary, pre-existent God who was on his own till the creation provided him with something to love.
Now look at those words from the first reading:
From everlasting I was firmly set.
From the beginning before the earth came into being...
When he laid the foundations of the earth
I was by his side, a master craftsman.
Delighting him day by day
Ever at play in his presence
At play everywhere in the world
Delighting to be with the sons of men.
What sort of picture does this poetry conjure up?
To my mind it suggests that the writer pictures God as being like a great Architect or Engineer who has embarked upon the most important project of his career. In this case the Architect, the "he" in the passage, who laid the foundations of the earth is God the Father and the "I", who was by his side, is God the Son, and the whole passage is describing in picture-language the process of creation out of nothing.
Now, please remember that because we are talking about God in picture-language, and that because such language can only be, at best, a very rough approximation to the reality it is trying to portray, especially when that reality is God himself "incomprehensible and dwelling in unapproachable light" as the Bible says. But if we don't use picture-language of some sort in our minds when thinking about God, however inadequate that picture-language may be, we shall end up by thinking about nothing at all, which is far less helpful than even the most inaccurate picture.
Well then, the Book of Proverbs suggests that we think of this Great Architect as having allowed his young Son to help him in the work of creation. We may think of the Son doing jobs like holding the other end of the tape-measure, handing Father up the hammer as he stands on the step-ladder and nails yet another star or constellation in its place, maybe perhaps even being allowed to turn on the tap which fills some great ocean or lake with its water.
When he laid the foundation of the earth I was by his side, a master craftsman, delighting him day by day, ever at play in his presence in the world.
Can't you imagine what it must have been like to have been present on that day "when all the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy"?
Then came the Greatest Day of all in creation, the Sixth Day as the Bible calls it, when the Great Designer of the universe did something quite different. Having first created everything else in its own image, he chose to create Man in his own (that is, God's) image. He "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" and, unlike the rest of creation, he gave him a will of his own, so that he could learn to love and obey God, not out of necessity like the rest of creation, as a stone, for example has to obey the Law of Gravity and fall to the ground, but obey him voluntarily, of his own free will.
Well, we all know what happened then, don't we? Man sinned, choosing to follow his own will rather than God's, dragging down with him a great deal of creation in the process of falling from grace. Instead of loving God he began to hate or ignore him and started loving himself instead; so far from searching for God he tried to hide from him.
Now let us try to continue the story in the same key, so to say, as the book of Proverbs.
We can imagine that things went from bad to worse on the earth until, in the fullness of time, God called his Son from playing hide-and-seek with the angels amongst the planets of the solar system and said to him: "My Son, you can see for yourself the mess that the world is in. and yet I love the world that I have made. There's only one way left of getting it back to the state of perfection from which it has fallen, and that is for you to become a Man yourself, and by your suffering and death make it possible for the world to be reconciled to me and men to be reconciled with each other. My Son, will you do this for me?"
To which we can imagine the Son replying "Of course, Father I will: for my will is always to do your will, so here I come to do your will O God".
"Very well, my Son", says the Father to him "I have prepared a body for you in the womb of the Virgin Mary"
The rest of the story you know as well as I do. It involved the co-operation of human beings, like the Virgin Mary and the Apostles. It involved the Incarnation, that is to say in some sense it necessitated God the Son "coming down to earth from heaven". It involved, St John tells us, "coming to his own and his own people not receiving him".
And last but not least it involved you and me and all those people who did receive him to whom "he gave the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name" who have "been born again of water and the Spirit"
Which now brings us to the Third Person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father through the Son, whom no man has seen or can see, but who is eternally at work in and out of the world influencing the creation at every moment in every part.
How, then, are we to picture the Holy Spirit? Well a moment or two back I used the word "influence" with reference to him, and that word can give us a clue as to how we should think about him.
For influence means literally to "flow into" something or someone. As the Bible tells us in the Book of Wisdom "The Spirit of God fills the whole world and that which contains all things has knowledge of the Voice of God"
In this matter you and I are lucky to be living in the 20th century when even the simplest person knows that we are being subjected to invisible forces every minute of our lives. Light waves, sound waves, wireless waves, magnetic waves, infra-red and ultra-violet waves are constantly hitting our bodies and in some cases penetrating them without our being in the least bit aware of them. We don't need to understand them to know that they are there, for we can see their results; indeed if ever light- or sound-waves stopped being there we should find ourselves effectively blind or deaf as a result.
So it is too with the Person of the Holy Trinity whom we call the Holy Spirit. Jesus compared him to the wind because that was about the only picture that a first-century Jew like Nicodemus (a highly-educated person at that) could understand. Of course we too can use Bible pictures of the Spirit like wind and fire just as profitably today, though it's my view that our vastly increased understanding of natural science should add considerably to the number of pictures available to us.
There, then, are just some ways in which we can thing of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: all involved, each in his own different way, in the work of creation, redemption and sanctification.
But please remember that these are only pictures; not the real thing.
Do you remember that story of that vision which St Augustine had as he walked along the seashore in North Africa having just completed his great theological work called De Trinitate -- On The Trinity?
He was feeling quite pleased with himself for having completed the job. Then he saw a little boy with a scallop shell going to and fro to the water's edge, filling his shell with water and solemnly pouring it into a hole which he had dug in the sand nearby.
"What are you doing?, Augustine asked the boy.
"I'm emptying the entire ocean into this hole", the little boy replied.
"But you can't possibly do that!" protested Augustine. "Your hole's much too small to contain the whole ocean".
"In the same way your mind's much too small to understand the mystery of the Eternal Trinity" replied the boy -- and promptly he vanished out of sight.
"So I came to realise", said Augustine to his friends as he told them later on that day about his experience, "that I had been talking to an angel"
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