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Trinity -- mystery and reality

[See also A practical understanding of the Trinity and Holy Wisdom in Community ]

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. -- 2 Corinthians 13:13

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, -- Matthew 28:19

Today we celebrate the Holy Trinity. It is more important to celebrate than to understand. There is mystery as well as reality in our belief in the Trinity just as there is in our celebration of the Lord's Supper, in which we acknowledge God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. It is necessarily so. There are limits to what we can know in this life; yet we can in some small measure begin to appreciate in all its mystery and wonder the reality that is God. We are always limited by the powers of human perception in our encounters with the ineffable mystery of God. Love, adoration, praise, wonder and devotion flow from us in worship that is more than words can express. We try to express and to experience some of it in music as well as words, in actions and symbols, inner thoughts of prayer and the outward drama of the Eucharist, knowing that God while closer than breathing is far above all that we can grasp or imagine.

I believe in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We will say the Nicene Creed together shortly, affirming the faith of the church in the traditional symbol which speaks of belief in God the Father, creator of all that is, belief in God the Son, the historic person Jesus who is one in being with the Father, and belief in God the Holy Spirit, who comes to us from the Father and is known to us in the life of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. There is deep mystery in the knowledge of one God in three persons. In our traditional worship, we affirm and celebrate both the mystery and the reality of that unity in the three persons of the Godhead.

It is easy enough to understand that people can learn of God in different ways. We can know God through the wonders of creation, in the person and work of Jesus Christ and through our personal encounter with the Spirit of God as one spirit meeting with another. Knowing God in these different ways is part of our understanding of God as the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; or known in a limited way as Creator, Redeemer and Counsellor, but it is not as simple as that: the Bible speaks for example of God the Creator as Redeemer also, and the both the Word which as made flesh and the Spirit were present at the Creator and share in bringing into being all that is known as creation, while Christ who promised to ask the Father to send us the Spirit as Counsellor also promised himself to be with us to the end of time. You cannot simply say Creator, Redeemer and Counsellor in the place of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our belief in the Trinity is more than a record of our experience that we know God in different ways. It also points to a reality in which we believe: that God is wholly one and yet there is a community of persons within the completely unified reality of God. What in human terms we recognize separately as personality and community are both to be found in God as one. And what is more, the relationships, and the history of the interactions, between the persons of the Trinity are critically important to us, because they include us and bring us into the communion that is at the heart of all that is, to know the communion of our being with being itself that will be realised at the end when all is complete.

God the Father, Creator

Many different peoples in all sorts of different cultures, living very different lives, and having a variety of religious beliefs and practices know something of God in the wonders of creation. Even when they do not talk of God as a person, they have some appreciation of a creative power behind the beauty and wonder of what they see. They know God the Creator through his works, and they have a sense of awe in regard to him. As we were reminded recently, in reading from Acts, when Paul went to Athens, where they worshipped many gods, he was able to direct their thoughts to "the unknown god" by speaking of a creator:

That kind of knowledge is available to all human beings even if they have not been taught about his special revelation of himself in the history of the people of Israel and the person of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote to the Romans:

Some sense of God the Creator is almost universal. Some people, even in our society with its Christian heritage, might speak more easily of Mother Nature and think of her as a creator giving birth, and it is true that there are masculine and feminine attributes of the Creator whom we have traditionally called God the Father. Some people pray to God as Mother or as both Mother and Father, but gender is not the point. Sex is part of creation not the Creator; and it is important to distinguish between the Creator and creation.

God is present in creation but is separate from it. In these days of unbelief and do-it-yourself religion it is common for people to make a kind of false religion out of reverence for natural things. If you do not see beyond the image to the reality from which it came such religious attitudes to natural things make a kind of idolatry in which the image alone is worshipped. It is sad that even in secular schools now children are often encouraged in that kind of idolatry with all the current concern for the environment which might otherwise be good. It just goes to show how deep the hunger for God is. If people close their eyes to him they will often transfer the devotion that naturally belongs to him to the things that he has made. We do not worship nature, whether it be thought of as Father or Mother, but we worship God who exists apart from what he/she has made.

God the Son, Jesus Christ

What distinguishes Christians from all others who believe in God as Creator is our belief that Jesus, a man who lived in Galilee in the time of the Roman Empire, was not only a particular historical person, but God himself. We say he is our Lord and Saviour. The earliest Christian confession of faith was Jesus is Lord

When they called him Lord they used the same title, Lord, as they used when they addressed God. Thomas, when challenged, put aside his doubts and confessed his belief calling Jesus both Lord and God:

We read for Ascension at the end of Luke's gospel how the disciples worshipped him as he parted from them:

They could only do that, worship the risen Lord Jesus as they worshipped God, if they believed that he was truly God. It was foreshadowed at the beginning when the angel quoted the old prophecy to Joseph,

In contrast to Matthew and Luke, with their stories of the birth of Jesus, John began his gospel in more abstract terms, telling of the Word that was made flesh, he introduced Jesus as a person who had existed before in the presence of God, and was even God himself:

This was the Word that was made flesh in the person of the historic Jesus of Nazareth. This belief in Jesus, the Son, being with God at the beginning and returning to him after his earthly work was completed is was part of the belief in his divinity from the beginning. As we read recently, he is seen there in the vision of Stephen the first martyr:

Paul, like John (chapter 6 as well as 1) thought also Jesus as raised up, not only form the dead but on high, ascended to be with God and in highest heaven.

The belief that Jesus was the Son of God, who shared the character for God and existed before with him, was part of the earliest Christian songs. They praised Jesus Christ

You can see how the Apostles and Nicene Creeds later developed from this kind of worship with confession of belief linking the historical facts with the Lord of heaven and earth:

So we begin to see something of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. It is not only that we know God in different ways, such as in creation and in the life of Jesus, but these persons interact with each other. As we have noted already, the Son shared in the acts of creation:

Or as Paul put it, before John wrote that in the prologue to his gospel:

And later, after the resurrection and ascension, Jesus is the one who pleads our cause with God the Father in his presence:

Jesus is more than just another way of knowing God. He is an agent through whom things were done. Through him, our Lord and Saviour, our relationship with God is changed.

God the Holy Spirit

We see the relationships between the persons of the Trinity more clearly when we take into account the work of the Holy Spirit. The faith that enables people to say that Jesus is Lord, and thus to see his relationship to God the Creator, is the work of the Spirit:

It was the Spirit that enabled Stephen to have his vision of Christ with God.

It was through the work of the Spirit that the Son became human, Emmanuel, God with us:

Even at the very beginning, the Spirit is found in the image of the wind blowing over the chaos at the creation:

So the Spirit and the Son, the Word that was made flesh, were both involved in creation. At some points the work of the Spirit of God and the work of Christ are the same for the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of God. That is probably why later in the tradition of the Nicene Creed the phrase, which we in the Uniting Church have now dropped in agreement with Eastern Orthodox Christians, where it says and the Son, was added to the Creed many centuries ago although it was not part of the original. (I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [to which was added later and the Son]). The Spirit and the Son are both involved in our redemption. We are put into a right relationship with God by the redeeming work of Christ and the Spirit which speaks to our spirits:

So we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, following Christ's command; and we are able to bless each other with the Trinitarian blessing of grace, love and communion (or sharing or fellowship) in the life of God, and it is a blessing we are now to receive in way that Jesus provided in the power of the Spirit:

So we celebrate the mystery and the reality. Glory be to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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