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A practical understanding of the Trinity

Talk of the Holy Trinity is often dismissed, even by Christian believers, as a lot of theory, as if it were of interest only to theologians and of no practical significance in the lives of ordinary people; but I believe it is of enormous practical importance. It makes a difference whether a person says, for example, "I believe in God or something of the sort; there must be something like that, so I suppose I believe in God", or whether one says, "Yes, I believe in God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Counsellor; that is, I believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit." It makes a difference whether you believe in God as an elemental spirit or you believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What we believe about God makes a difference to the way we live. If you think of God as a very remote, a high and holy being, far removed from our world, who takes no personal interest in us, you will not expect to have an ongoing relationship with God. If you believe that, you might be inclined to think that you have to work out everything for yourself, and you might think that you can do as you please because God is too far away to care what you do, yet at the same time you might harbour some strange fear that in the end God will catch up with you. If God is far away, you may think that nothing you could do would make any difference, for such a god would be immovable and unchangeable, and sharing your concerns in prayer would not make a lot a sense.

You might also think that the relationship of God to creation, if God is remote and does not take an ongoing interest in us, would be like the maker of a machine who built it, set it going and then left it alone. If we think along those lines we might prefer to talk of the laws of nature, which are unchanging, and end up having no need to talk of God at all. That is what happened two to three hundred years ago, especially in Britain when modern scientific attitudes were developing, when many people had what is called a deistic understanding. They were the people who discovered the law of gravity, built the observatory at Greenwich and described mathematically how the earth and the planets revolve around the sun. They tried to make the most accurate clocks, they had a clockwork view of the universe. Believing only in a remote an impersonal God, they tended to deny the divinity of Jesus and the personality of the Holy Spirit, and not to know or to believe in the possibility of knowing the living presence of God in their lives. It should not be surprising then if they developed strongly mechanistic and materialistic beliefs about the world. That is part of our cultural heritage; and we see some of the consequences of that kind of belief in the dominant economic and political values of our society today?

One of the silliest pieces of journalism I have read for a while was the piece in The Sunday Age last Sunday (18 May 1997) about the world chess champion being beaten by a computer. The claim was made that people could not believe in God now that machines were so powerful and clever. The logic of the claim escapes me, as Ken Thompson said when we were discussing it last Sunday afternoon, you might as well say, "The wheel has been invented, there is no God!" -- as if being able to move things about more easily made God unnecessary or unbelievable. And I suppose, if you have a very limited mechanistic view of the nature of God, the more wonderful human machines are the less you think you need such a God. But such attitudes are not really about the capacity of machines, but about human powers. It was not the machine that beat the world chess champion, but the group of people who built the computer, and programmed it to win, who really had the power to beat the champion. Why God should have been thought to have a stake in whichever human side won the contest is a peculiar question. People are all the time setting up "straw men" and calling them "God", only to dispose of a "god" that no true believers ever believed in to begin with. It does, however, illustrate three things:

The idea that people, with their machines and their organising ability, can stand in the place of God, or at least that they need not feel in any way accountable to a higher power, has the most profound implications, for example, in the way we are governed, in our attitude to the environment, and in the way treat each other in families and personal relationships. These are consequences of belief in a remote and uncaring God, if indeed any belief in God remains at all. It does matter for the way we live what you believe about God: that is, whether he is remote, or whether he cares or whether he acts in our world, does make a difference.

Take the example of rulers. If those who govern others believe that their authority is not only from God, but from a God who cares what they do with it, a God who loves the people they govern, and in One to whom they will have to give an account, then they will know that their sovereignty is limited, that they have no right to wield power, let alone absolute power, in their own interest.

It might be worth noting that the King of England who lost his head because they said he believed in the "divine right of kings" did not in fact believe that he could act without accountability. There is a prayer by King Charles I in our Uniting in Worship: Peoples Book: "Lord let your glory be my end, your word my rule, and then your will be done".

He might not have lived up to it, of course, just as we all fail in one way or another to fully live out what we believe, but the consequences of such failures are small compared with the holocaust or gulag catastrophes of the modern era when belief in the state or the revolution or the party or the fuhrer has replaced belief in God as one who care.

A similar displacement of God, putting other things in the place of a God who seems too distant to have an interest in his own creation, has occurred in what is commonly called attitudes to the environment. I would prefer to say "attitudes to creation", but that implies belief in a Creator so it is not commonly spoken of in popular discussion even when the majority believe in some sort of God. Again it matters what kind of God you believe in, or to put it in a better way, it matters to the environment or creation what you believe about God. If God is far away and does not care, if the world around is just an impersonal piece of clockwork, and we are not accountable to its Creator who cares for it and maintains a continuing interest in it, then we might think we can do with it as we please.

It is surprising to me as a believer in God as one who cares and who still rules the world he has made, to hear Christian belief so often misrepresented by 'environmentalists' who say that the Biblical view of humankind is of 'man' as the exploiter of the environment, as if God had told him he could rule over it in the place of God himself, and do as he wished with it. So man is imagined to be sovereign, they say, and "man-over-nature" is seen as the great destroyer, who should rather be in co-operation with nature. But that is a great lie.

In the Biblical understanding, God never gave man any such authority; rather man and woman were made responsible as stewards of what God had given them. They remained accountable to God for how they used what he gave them, and it was not all for their benefit. Though humanity is represented in the Bible as having dominion over the earth and as crowned with glory and honour, that does not mean we can act irresponsibly; rather the Bible constantly reports on people being called to account for how they use whatever power they have. As for dominion, it is simply a fact; humankind does have power over the earth and all things in it, to the point of having the power to destroy it, but that does not mean that it is right to use the power in that way. If, on the other hand, you believe that you are a steward acting on God's behalf, and that you will have to answer to God what you do with all that you have power to influence, your attitude to creation will be different, and very different from what it will be if you think God is not interested or he is so removed that you can do as you please. So, again, what you believe about God makes a difference to how you behave.

It is the same with human relationships. If you regard others as objects, mere instruments of your will, you will treat people differently from what you should if you recognize them as children of God, your brothers and sisters who may call their Creator "Father". When God is remote and does not care, or is a mere impersonal force in a material universe, there is a greater danger of people being treated as objects. This happens, for example in personal exploitation as in sexual abuse, and it happens in economic exploitation when the impersonal forces of the market are given divine status. That is why I don't like the term "labor market", when co-operative relationships between people are made impersonal, and it almost appears that people can be bought and sold like cattle or computers. It makes a difference to human relationships what you believe about God.

I have spoken today of only one kind of distortion. The one that comes from seeing God as too remote and impersonal. There are other distortions of what we know about God that can be equally or more destructive. A common one today to deny the holiness or the otherness of God, seeing God only as a spirit within our experience. That can lead to similar to exploitation of people and the creation because when the rule of God who is separate from us, as well as being with us, is denied, we are again more likely to imagine we are little gods, or to see society or the environment or some other idol as God. I do not have time to say more on this today, but perhaps you will see the point from what I have said about the bad effects of believing in only a remote and impersonal supreme being.

Does this have anything to do with the doctrine of the Trinity, with our belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? If we look to the gospel for today, we see part of the answer in what Luther called "the gospel in miniature", John 3:16, which every Christian know by heart and teach their children:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

So we believe that God cares about the world and we believe God did something very special because he cared: he sent his Son to us to form a new and everlasting relationship with us. Here is no remote uncaring God! It really makes a difference whether you believe this about God: that he is not a clockwork god but one who loved the world so much that he reached out to it, and to us, through his Son. He has an interest that is costly, even sacrificial, that not only continues, but lasts for ever.

And what about the other word to Nicodemus about the Spirit:

[John 3:3: re born from above or born again see word note. John Marsh commentary: `The adverb is deliberately ambiguous and the course of the conversation depends upon the ambiguity' (p.175). Nicodemus takes it the mean `a second time'; Jesus meant `from above', that is of the Spirit.]

[1 "BORN": GENNETHE from verb to procreate: beget, bear, give birth. G1080 gennao]

[2"ABOVE": FROM ABOVE [NRSV] [`again' REB & NIV] 509. anothen, an'-o-then; from G507; from above; by anal. from the first; by impl. anew:--from above, again, from the beginning (very first), the top. 507. ano, an'-o; adv. from G473; upward or on the top:--above, brim, high, up. 473. anti, an-tee'; a prim. particle; opposite, i.e. instead or because of (rarely in addition to):--for, in the room of. Often used in composition to denote contrast, requital, substitution, correspondence, etc. 508. anogeon, an-ogue'-eh-on; from G507 and G1093; above the ground, i.e. (prop.) the second floor of a building; used for a dome or a balcony on the upper story:--upper room. [Mark 14:15 = Luke 22:12; cf Acts 1:13 huperoon anebeson]

Here is what John the Baptist was talking about in the gospel according to John the evangelist, when he said of Jesus,

Or according to Mark, John said:

As Jesus said himself to the disciples,

Or as Paul wrote to the Romans in what we read today:

So we believe in God who is very personal, relating to us as a spirit with our spirit, in a relationship in which we can respond to our Creator as a child to a parent. This is what Jesus came to make possible. If we believe this about God, then God is certainly not remote and uncaring. If it is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom we believe, God is not displaced by idols of human power and influence or by ourselves, but remains always our loving and caring parent whom we can call "Father" in a personal way whatever the inadequacies of earthly fathers we know. We can do this because we have recognised God in the Son and in the Spirit. It makes a difference to believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to believe in the holy Trinity. All praise to him.

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