Knowing God - Psalm 19
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Over the next few weeks we are together going to be looking at what it means when Christians speak of God as a Trinity and to think through some of the many wonderful implications which flow from this unique belief. So let me begin by reading to you two statements, and I want you to think about which one you tend to agree with and why.
Here is the first: it comes from Thomas Jefferson who was the third President of the United States: ‘When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic’ that three are one, and one are three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the very simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he taught, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples.’ Do you see what he is saying? Christianity is really quite simple and God is simple too. God loves us and Jesus taught us to love each other as well. It was only later that the Church came along and complicated matters with such absurd ideas of there being one God who is at the same time three- the maths just doesn’t add up! Let’s get back to basics.
The second quote comes from the former Principle of Moore Theological College Sydney, and the founder of George Whitefield College in South Africa, D.B.Knox: ‘The doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of the Christian religion. Unless this doctrine is held firmly and truly, it is not possible to be a Christian. For the Christian is one who acknowledges Jesus as Lord, yet adheres to the religion of the Bible which emphasises so strongly that there is only one God.’ Do you see what he is saying? Quite simply- no Trinity- no Christianity. That is why Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Quakers are not Christian because although they claim to believe in God, they deny that Jesus is God and that the Holy Spirit is also God. So as I am sure you can appreciate that an awful lot is at stake with this belief.
Now it may well be that deep down you do have some sympathy with Thomas Jefferson- you like to keep things simple. But why should we? Think for a moment about yourself as a human being. Let me tell you that you are very complicated indeed. I don’t just mean physically complicated, though you are that, but just -complicated. We tend to think of ourselves as body, mind and spirit- but why? And how do these different aspects of our being fit together? It isn’t easy to work out how. You can’t see your mind or spirit like you can see your body, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Neither is the mind just part of the body- another way of talking about your brain- minds conceive and imagine, not brains, persons decide to go to the shop, not brains-they are different but related. And we also view ourselves as spiritual beings- and so we have a sense of right and wrong, a deep rooted awareness of there being a God to whom we are accountable, that in some sense we do go beyond the grave and so we say we have a ‘spirit’. One being- Melvin Tinker, and yet mysteriously put together as body, mind and spirit- not Melvin Tinker the Body, Melvin Tinker, the Mind and Melvin Tinker the Spirit- 3 Melvin Tinkers. But one Melvin and yet-well, yet what? That is how things seem to be and it is mysterious and rather complicated. Now do you therefore imagine that God is going to be any less complex than we are? If we could fully understand God, like Jefferson thought we could, then God would be no bigger than our thoughts about him and so he wouldn’t be God.
When I studied theology at Oxford one of my tutors was a Jesuit priest at a place called Campion Hall. As I climbed the stairway leading to his room each Wednesday afternoon, I used to pass a very large painting of a man and a small boy on the beach by the sea. It portrayed a story which went like this. Once the great theologian of the 4th century, Bishop Augustine of Hippo, was doing some work on the Trinity. As he walked along the beach one day, he came across a small boy pouring sea water into a hole in the ground. Augustine watched for some time and then asked: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Why’ said the boy, ‘I am pouring the Mediterranean sea into this hole.’ ‘Don’t be silly’ said Augustine, ‘You can’t fit the sea into that little hole. You are wasting your time.’ And the little boy retorted back, ‘Well, so are you, trying to write a book about God!’ Well even with that salutary lesson, that as mere humans we can never get God completely taped any more than a little boy can get the whole Mediterranean Sea into a hole, doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile attempting some understanding of God- after all, I guess the little boy did manage to get some of the Mediterranean into his hole! We might at least expect to know something of God if not everything about him. But since God is God there is no way we can do this simply left by ourselves- he has to take the initiative and make himself known to us. Just as if you want to know something about me, my likes and dislikes, my hopes and fears, you are dependent upon me telling you, it is even more so the case when it comes to the great God of the universe. So let us begin by asking two questions: where did this belief in the Trinity come from and what does it actually mean?
First of all, let me say that the idea of the Trinity was not thought up by a Church committee. Sure, there were some very thoughtful people who over the early first centuries of the Church worked long and hard at trying to put this belief into ideas and words we could in some measure get our heads around. But the belief is actually derived from the Bible itself. The word ‘Trinity’ isn’t found there, but the raw material from which comes the belief that there is One God who is known as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit certainly is. No early Christian would ever have dreamt of making this up for reasons we shall see in a moment- so something must have compelled the early Christians into believing what is otherwise bad maths.
Well, that something was the Bible. You know a scientist can come up with all sorts of theories, but it is only those theories which do justice to the facts that win out. And sometimes two apparently contradictory ideas have to be held together in tension, for they alone explain the facts. Let me give you an example. In physics, evidence was presented that light travelled as waves. Also equally compelling evidence showed light travelling as little packets. Waves or packets? We ask: which is it? To which the answer has been given- both. Both pictures are needed to explain the same facts and you have to accept this apparent contradiction.
So when you take a careful look at the Bible you discover some pretty amazing things about the real God which may stretch our minds, but which seem to make sense of what God has revealed about himself and people’s experience of him. Certain facts are given about God which the doctrine of the Trinity helps to explain.
Both the Old and New Testament are unanimous in their declaration that there is only one God, not many gods as the pagans believed. One of the earliest Jewish creeds is found in the Book of Deuteronomy 6:4- ‘Here O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ Not two or three or 26- but one. And yet the word used for ‘one’ (echad cf Yachid-the singularity of the One) allowed for some sort of complexity or plurality within that oneness. The same word is used of husband and wife becoming ‘one’ flesh in Genesis 2:24 through the act of sexual intercourse, or the gathering of the tribes of Israel together as ‘one’ man in Judges 20:1. So I guess you could then translate the creed here as ‘Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is oneness.’
Likewise the New Testament emphasises that there is only one God. Let me give you just one of what could be many examples- 1 Corinthians 8:4. Here Paul is attacking idolatry and the belief that behind the idols are lots of different gods. He says, ‘We know that an idol is nothing at all in there world and that there is no God but one.’ He is simply echoing there Deuteronomy 6. So there is one God and only one.
Now the interesting thing is this. These first Christians, most of whom were born Jews and raised with their mother’s milk with the unshakable belief that God is one, soon began, without any hint of embarrassment or feeling under any compulsion to explain why, to worship Jesus as God and the Holy Spirit as God. One of the earliest titles the Christians used of Jesus was ‘Lord’. Well, there was only one Lord in the Old Testament- God, Yahweh- and yet this is a title happily transferred to Jesus without feeling that anyone has engaged in blasphemy or idolatry. So in a very early Christian hymn which we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians we find Paul writing this: ‘, God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ This is a modification of a verse found in the Old Testament in Is 45:21-23- ‘There is salvation to be found in no one else, everyone must turn to the Lord (Yahweh) and be saved.’ But now Jesus is Lord and saves.
Similarly the Holy Spirit is referred to as Lord, and so God- 2 Corinthians 3: 17: ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.’ Now this does not mean that with the early Christians’ recognition of Jesus as God and the Holy Spirit as God, there was a sudden addition to the number of gods. Rather that with the coming of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit, there was a revelation of previously unknown fullness and depth in the being of God.
And there are passages which bring them all together- emphasising that there is one God and yet he exists in, if you like, a family- like relationship within himself. The most obvious one occurs right at the end of Matthew’s Gospel as the disciples get their marching orders from Jesus. He says that followers are to be made from all nations- every kind of people’s group, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ and that wording is very precise. He does say in the names of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ That would be three gods. Neither does he say, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ ’ that would give us only one God appearing in three different guises- sometimes he is the Son, sometimes the Father and sometimes the Spirit. No, there is the name- emphasising that there is only one God, and yet this is the God who is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, so maintaining the distinctiveness. They share the one name- the ‘godness’ if you like, and yet remain three persons, their unity and distinctiveness are kept- that is what the Trinity is.
Here are some diagrams to try and help us see what we are not saying as well as what we are saying. Three crowns would be three gods relating to the world separately. Or three crowns but God appearing with a different face relating to the world, sometimes as Son and sometimes as Spirit. It is more like this: one crown- there is only One God who made the world and rules the world, and yet within that crown, there are three persons who from all eternity to all eternity have engaged in a relationship of self-giving love- the relationship is an intimate one, undivided in their purpose and work in the world, creating and redeeming. And within this oneness of being and purpose they carry out different roles- so the Father who made the world, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, sends his Son into the world to live the perfect human life and to die the death of sinners-John 3:16 ‘God (that is the Father) so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ And the Son willingly does this for he loves the Father and wants to bring glory to him and bring others to know him. And it is the Father and the Son who sends the Holy Spirit into the world to bring about new birth as the Gospel is proclaimed to people so enabling people to be convicted of their sin and receive faith and new hearts. And the Holy Spirit willing and eagerly does this, for he wants to bring glory to the Son. This is what Jesus said he will do with the apostles in John 16: 14. Speaking of the Spirit he says, ‘He (note the Spirit is a ‘he’ not an ‘it’) will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.’ And of course that teaching of Jesus was made know to the apostles and they wrote it down for us in the Bible. So what the apostles says is what the Holy Spirit says which is what Jesus says, and so what God says.
So the implication is obvious. If we want to know God, the real God, then it is to these pages alone that we are to turn. It is here that we encounter Jesus who is God. So close is the relationship with God the Father that Jesus says, ‘If you have seen me you have seen the Father.’ (John 14:90). Jesus and the Holy Spirit, if I may put it like this, make God accessible to us. God is Spirit and so invisible. He is holy and so is unapproachable. In Jesus we have the God who is man and so can be seen. Jesus dies to remove our sin from God’s sight and so we can come into his tender presence without fear of being burnt up in judgement. Prayer-talking to God becomes possible and a wonderful reality. Instead of God being a vague, shadowy figure-‘up there’ somewhere, he becomes to us Father, Abba, Daddy as his love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
This is all very practical too. It means that the Christian, the Muslim and the Hindu do not all worship ‘the same god’. The Muslim says God is a solitary figure- Allah. The Hindu that God is One- Brahma, but appears in many guises- as Vishnu or Kali. But the real God is the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ who comes into our lives by the Holy Spirit. And in personal experience this makes all the difference in the world. One person who found this for himself was someone who has spoken here at St John’s before, Vijay Menon. He was brought up in India as a practising Hindu. In coming to England he was to discover the falseness and emptiness of the religion of his youth and the reality of God in Christ. This is the way he puts it: ‘Jesus came into my life (by His Spirit); he touched every part of it; he turned it upside down. For 35 years I had tried to lead a good Hindu life- I did not smoke, I did not drink and I prayed to god every day. When I got up in the morning I would ask God to help me, before I fell asleep at night I would say a short prayer and in major decisions I always sought guidance. Yet I never knew him until Jesus found me. I had an excellent job in the City, a house in suburbia, wife, sons, enough money in the bank to meet my needs but, although I was not the worrying type, never enjoyed life until Jesus found me. Jesus said, ‘I have come that they may have life and that they might have it more abundantly.’ I have proved those words to be gloriously true.’ Could I stop and ask whether you have? Not do you know about God, but actually know God, personally- as the Father who made you and loves you. As the Son-Jesus- who came into the world to show you how life should be lived and died to enable you to live that life as God’s friend. As the Spirit, who does not draw attention to himself, but quietly and unobtrusively draws you to love Jesus and become more like him. It is wonderful being a Christian. It is glorious to begin to plumb the depths of the divine nature. It is a delight to belong to the church family made up of people who as they serve one another in love, begin to reflect more and more the life of the Trinity itself- a life pulsating with loving energy and self-sacrifice. And so we can say with conviction: We believe in One God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’
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