Archive for June, 2017

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

The tradition in the church on Trinity Sunday is for preachers and ministers to open the dictionary
Look for words beginning with tri – tripod, tricycle, trifle and so on
And use those words as analogies to suggest what the Trinity is like

A tripod has three feet but it’s just one tripod
A tricycle has three wheels but it’s just one tricycle
A trifle has three layers but it’s just one pudding
You see what depths of analysis are involved here

Those sermons always end with a confession of failure – because the Trinity is like nothing else
The Trinity is literally incomprehensible in human understanding
Our minds cannot comprehend the Trinity – they cannot take it in
It is indescribable in human words
So to teach the gospel of the trinitarian God is a unique challenge

Yet the gospel of Matthew is quite clear, this is exactly what Jesus told us to do:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28.19)
We cannot baptise anyone into that three-fold name unless and until we have taught new believers about the three-fold God

It has been pointed out that the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible
But then again, neither does the word Bible

Trinity Sunday follows our commemoration of the coming of the Spirit the previous Sunday
This is appropriate, because it is the doctrine of the Spirit that makes necessary the doctrine of the Trinity

Jesus does not give us a clear exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity
We have to realise, Jesus did not invent the doctrine of the Trinity – the Church did
The Church invented the doctrine of the Trinity, to explain things Jesus said, and connect his words with things we find in the Hebrew Bible

We need the doctrine of the Trinity, first and foremost, because Jesus claims to be divine
Only, of course, he does not say so in as many words
Because saying so directly would have got him killed on the spot, before he had done all he was commanded to do
But he says more than enough to awaken the suspicions of his enemies and spark accusations

The title Jesus prefers to use for himself, especially in Mark’s gospel but also in Matthew, is Son of Man – a phrase which could mean anything, or nothing
It could mean simply, human being

But as faithful believers we know what he means, because the phrase is an echo of those verses from Daniel (Dan 7.13-14) we heard this morning:
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
[lit. son of man]
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him. Daniel 7.13

Long before his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus tells his followers in this coded way that he is the Messiah
The one born in human flesh, destined to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven, judging the nations

Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man – but at this point he does so in the third person
He makes many claims about the status and powers of the Son of Man
But no one can accuse him unequivocally of saying these things about himself:
The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2.10)
The Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath (Mark 2.28)
You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with clouds of heaven (Mark 14.62)

Nonetheless, it is a fundamental article of faith that Jesus is God, as much as the Father is
Does that mean that since the coming of Christ there have been two Gods? Of course not
Jesus says, The Father and I are one (John 10.30)

Jesus is not a new creation – Jesus was not created at all. God by definition is uncreated
Nor is he a human being adopted by God the Father to be his Son
Jesus has been there since the beginning, since before the beginning – just as the Father has
What is new, is the revelation of God the Son to the world, through the incarnation

The coming of the Spirit adds a new problem to a problem that was already there
The original problem was, reconciling the doctrine of God – that there is only one God – with the doctrine of Christ
The new problem, assuming we think we have solved the first problem, is reconciling the the doctrines of God and Christ with the doctrine of the Spirit

These two problems are really the same problem
The sending of the Spirit is the sequel to the sending of the Son
The Spirit is sent by the Father at the request of the Son, to be his continuing presence with his followers on earth

The solution is the idea that there is only one God – but more than one person
The people of Israel knew God simply as God, though they used different names and titles to identify and describe him
Until Pentecost, the followers of Jesus know God in two persons – the Father and the Son
But from the time the Spirit is given, followers of Jesus have to accept and believe that our God is one God in three persons, three persons in one God

Do we solve the problem, by adding the concept of divine persons to our understanding of God?
We immediately have to admit that persons in this context means something different to the meaning of the same word in human contexts
If there are three human persons sitting on a sofa, they are three separate human beings
But in the three divine persons we see in the Trinity, there is only one divine being

The unity of God is something we easily lose sight of is our personal relationship with God
Just because we have three persons, we do not have three gods we can choose between
It is contrary to the nature of our belief to ‘prefer’ the Son to the Father

We do not have a God who changes identity
We do not have a God who creates new personalities for himself when he needs them
We do not have a God whose persons take it in turn to be in charge
All of these are heresies, false beliefs the church has rejected at some point

That in some ways is the problem
The church has arrived at truth by rejecting error

That has two dangers:
It makes theology look like a negative exercise – it seems to be an activity based on avoiding error yourself, while trying to prove other people wrong
It makes theology look like a boring, pointless exercise – theologians seem to spend their time arguing with each other about things which seem trifling and remote from ordinary people’s faith

How does the doctrine of the Trinity become relevant to us?
I do not believe Jesus necessarily told his disciples to baptise in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, using these precise words
Does this mean the text has been falsified or meddled with?
No, because the gospels are not history – the gospels are teaching materials
As John says in his gospel, These [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20.31)

I believe these words found their way into Scripture because they have been important to Christians since the earliest days of the church
As a formula used in baptism, to make clear the nature of the God in whose name we are baptised

The words which are given to Jesus in this scene (Mat 28.16-20) are given to make clear the mission of the apostles, which became the mission of the church
To baptise believers into faith in the God of Israel and the God of the gospels
The God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinitarian God

That is the point where the theology of the Trinity becomes personal to us
Baptism is a public confession of faith, and faith is the key to understanding
These things are to be received in faith – they can only be understood through faith

We may offer our prayers in the name of Jesus
We may focus on the actions of Jesus in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
But in baptism, we make clear that it is God in all his fullness into whom we are baptised

How can we teach other people about the Trinity?
Probably not by talking about tripods and trifles

Better, probably, to teach the doctrine of the Trinity by talking about the work of the three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
How these three divine persons have been revealed in the story of God’s people
Above all, how we relate to God through those three persons

We often say the words of the grace together
What do those words mean to us?
When and where in our lives have we experienced the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit?
What stories can we tell of how those things became real to us?

The doctrine of the three persons is fundamental to our personal experience of God
God in three persons – persons who have revealed themselves and one another to us, in their love for one another and for us, revealed in Scripture and in our own experience

11 June 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

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