Trinity: balancing wonky views of God

IMG_4907Today is Trinity Sunday. This is the day we think about our doctrine of God – that is the distinctly Christian way of talking about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It crops up everywhere because it is so fundamental. It is essentially relational because the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ come from the parent and child relationship, and ‘Spirit’ is a way of talking about the inner essence of someone, how we see that expressed and working out in life. So in Christianity when we talk about God we have ways of relating at the heart of our language. These can open up insights but they can also confuse and so it is important to keep a balance in them so that we don’t distort what is actually being said. This is not three distinct gods, but a way of talking about how we see one God; there is only one and can only be one. Three ways of relating which reveal to us everything we can know about what God is like. There may be more but we can’t know it.

So let us look at what each of these three terms is trying to express.

Religious thinking begins in that basic sense of awe and wonder. It is so basic that we see it reflected in children’s faces. We look at the world around us and into the night sky at the stars beyond and we are struck by the awesome wonder and magnitude of it all. We can feel so small but at the same time connected with the deepest mystery that is life itself, with the cosmos, which is truly amazing. We have a sense that there is purpose, there is a point, there is a source and a goal to our existence and everything that sustains our living. Life is not futile, but exists for a reason and that reason lies with what we call God.

The secular approach says that there is no purpose outside of the atoms and physics that we experience. Life is an accident of a cosmos that just is; everything is random and ultimately pointless. There are random elements, everything isn’t mapped out and unexplained things happen. Why planes crash, there are debilitating diseases and even the existence of death itself, stretch the mind. These big questions challenge us, but for those with a religious outlook they don’t cancel the awe and wonder, the sense of purpose, that is foundational, on which all religious faith is built.

God who is beyond, who causes everything to be and is the ultimate goal of all existence, we refer to as ‘Father’. Some prefer to use the gender neutral ‘Creator’, but for all its male assumptiveness Father does carry a sense of relating that ‘creator’ doesn’t necessarily carry.

God is not just distant, but causes creation to be. God doesn’t remain the hidden architect, but makes himself known and the wisdom, the ability to create language and tell stories that grounds this mystery brings us to the next person of the Trinity. The gap that would otherwise exist between the ultimate and us creatures is bridged in the one who can bridge it, God who makes himself discoverable. We see this ultimately in the Christian faith in Jesus Christ. He shows us what God looks like in a life of self-giving love, wisdom and true holiness. The story of Jesus brings together all of the ways human beings have been able to codify religious experience and in his resurrection takes the life we are given and honours it in a way that goes beyond anything we could imagine. God comes near in Jesus Christ and in so doing draws our life into the divine. We call this ‘Son’.

There is a potential confusion here because ‘Son’ sounds like it is less than the first one, the offspring. But the term ‘Son’ carries many allusions from the Old Testament. It is a way of trying to convey that God who is distant also comes up close, removing any distance that talk of mystery implies. This language can confuse not least when talking about Jesus suffering and if we are not clear what we mean, it can sound like divine child abuse. It is saved from that because God is seen to be in Jesus and so the one who suffers is God himself and that changes it from a victim to self-giving love.

There seems to be a revival of talking about God in angry terms and someone full of wrath looking to punish someone so that he can feel better. It is bizarre, but it crops up a lot. As the artist Grayston Perry said the other day angry people tend to have an angry God. Well that is dealt a final blow in a proper understanding of Jesus in the Trinity. That anger is consumed by self-giving love. The cross is not God the Father being cruel to God the Son, but God giving himself in love and the victory that comes through the death of death which the resurrection brings. We are saved from error by getting our understanding of Trinity in balance. God is grounded in real life, real suffering and real hope.

Which brings us to the third person of this Three-in-One picture of God, the Trinity. God is not just distant and mysterious, or even just present and up close, there is a third dimension. This sees God at work within us and all creation. God breathes life and energy through the Holy Spirit. This stirs us, inspires us, shoves us if we need it, and calls us to live in ways that build and share in his creation. It brings life and energy, justice and the cry for liberation wherever there is oppression. The Holy Spirit is God’s essence at work in life.

Different church traditions have a tendency to over emphasise different persons of the Trinity and in so doing to lose the balance. Some can be too emotional and fired, without enough mystery and grounding. Too much grounding in the present can lose the mystery of the eternal, can be too focused on what can sound like an imaginary friend, too matey. Too much mystery can lack practical concern and challenge for living. All of it can be too remote and needs to have the Spirit to fire it up and give it bite.

The Christian faith has this three pronged picture of God, which we talk about as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God who is distant, God who is near and God who is within; three ways of seeing God relate to creation. When we talk about God Christians need to hold these three in balance. If we ever think the language being used to talk of God has got wonky, hold up the test of the Trinity and see if what is being said sounds in balance. But always remembering this is what we can see. By definition God is bigger than these metaphors and a truly humble faith will be open to that. The language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is shorthand for these ways of relating and participating in the God who gives us life and new life in Jesus Christ.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 22nd May 2016

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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