SJF • Trinity Sunday 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to Nicodemus, Are you a teacher of Israel yet you do not understand these things?+
Today is Trinity Sunday, our annual opportunity, on an almost-summer morning, to talk a bit about the nature of God — our Father and our Creator, but also Christ our Brother, and the Holy Spirit our advocate and guide. Today, in honor of the Trinity, I want to say three things about God, three things about the nature of God, about who God is, and what that means for us.
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The first thing I want to say is that God is One. This truth echoes forth from the first of the Ten Commandments, on through the most important Jewish prayer — the prayer that gives rise to all other prayer: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai ehad — Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is One Lord. And what was true for Israel is also true for us. Among the earliest errors to plague the church was the mistaken belief that the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, wasn’t the same God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. You will still sometimes hear people talk about “the angry judgmental God of the Old Testament” and the “loving God of the Gospel” as if there were two Gods. Well, I’m sorry, but we don’t believe in two Gods. We believe in One God — who is sometimes angry because we don’t do all that we should, but who is always loving because we are — even when we misbehave — his children, through the Holy Spirit.
Later, another misguided effort was made to parcel out history to the Trinity as if the Trinity were divided into three gods. A monk named Joachim of Fiore thought it made sense to give God the Father authority over the Old Testament times, Jesus the Son rulership for the few years he was on earth, and up until the time when things would be turned over to God the Holy Spirit in a new age of universal peace and love, which Joachim predicted would start about the year 1260. An interesting idea — but boy, was he ever wrong!
These errors, and others like them, forget that God is One at the same time that God is Trinity. The Trinity is not three Gods, but three Persons in One God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the same God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and the same God who fills the church in the Holy Spirit. God is One. That is the first thing to remember about God.
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Now, in case you haven’t noticed, we are doing theology! How about that! We are all theologians, quite consciously at least one day a year, when Trinity Sunday invites us to look for a moment at the nature of God. For that’s what theology is, looking at God not so much for what God does but as who God is.
Theology was long ago described as “faith seeking understanding.” Note the order. Theology isn’t about understanding seeking faith — if you try to understand God before you trust and believe in God you will never get there. We are too young to understand God, but if we love God and trust God, loving and trusting as only a young child can, our faith and love seeking to understand, God will then pour the Holy Spirit into our hearts. And God will do this not to give us all truth — nobody has the corner on the truth market — but to lead us into all truth, as a loving parent leads a child to learn. God graciously leads us into the beginnings of the glimmers of understanding. as our hearts and minds are turned towards God. Even though we cannot comprehend God, we can at least turn towards God and allow our hearts to be warmed by the glow of his love.
This is what Moses did when he turned aside to see why the burning bush was not consumed. He did not know beforehand that he was turning towards the Holy One of Israel. All he knew was that he saw something marvelous, and like a curious child, he wanted to know more about it. The bush burned, and yet it was not consumed.
And this burning yet unburnt bush provides me with the second thing I want to say about God: God touches his creation, and makes himself known to us through that creation, but God is infinitely more than the creation. God is not just the Creator of Everything that Is, but the Source of Everything that can Possibly Be. God utterly infuses and saturates the whole of creation, and yet God was God before creation began, and God will still be God after this creation ceases to be, and the new creation is begun.
The word for this marvelous quality of God is holiness. God is Holy: intimately connected to the universe, the source of its existence, and yet completely distinct from it. Perhaps it might help to think of how water permeates and fills a sponge, and yet is completely distinct from it. The water is still water, filling the sponge, saturating every pore — and without the water the sponge is just a hard, dry thing of no use to anyone!
So it is that God infuses the universe, filling it and making it useful and meaningful and fruitful. God is holy, deeply present while remaining completely distinct: the bush burns but is not consumed, and Moses, though called by God to approach, is warned to “come no closer” than is absolutely necessary.
God fills the universe and makes it work, but when at the end of time the universe is squeezed out like a used up sponge, God will still be God. God is Holy: that is the second truth about God to reflect on today.
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The third thing about God that our Scriptures teach us is that God, in addition to being One and being Holy, is also Loving. God loves us; indeed God loves us so much that he has given us his only Son, to the end that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. Saint Paul tells us that God’s own Spirit speaks in our hearts and calls out “Abba! Father.” The Spirit speaking in our hearts lets us know that we are children of a loving God, who is the source of our being.
The problem is we don’t always appreciate how much God loves us. So Jesus tells the old sage Nicodemus that the only way to know God’s love is to be reborn, to be born from above, not through the flesh, but through water and the Spirit, God’s own gift to us. God loves us, and has shown us how to love him back. But again, it is not about understanding God first, but about loving God first, about being reborn, being a new creation, about becoming once again a child who can wonder and love and trust.
Our own lives as children and later as adults show us that love comes before understanding. Most of us have gone through that human transition, from loving our parents when we were little, and then as we grew into our teen years and began to try to understand the world, finding it very hard sometimes to understand our parents! And then, as we and they grew older, as the turmoils of adolescence cooled down and we became adults ourselves, we became aware once more of the love that was there all along.
The great American humorist Mark Twain noted this phenomenon when he said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
That is part of what Jesus meant when he said that it is as a child that we come to God, that it is as one reborn that we come to know who it is that is the source of our life, that God is Love.
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Remember these three things our Scriptures teach us today: God is One, dwelling in light inaccessible from before time and forever. God is Holy, untouchable, beyond our reach, burning and yet not consuming, pervading but distinct from creation. And God is also Loving, generous, giving us a new birth through water and the spirit and making us children of God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. May we ever thus be blessed by the God who is One, Holy and Loving, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.+