If you were asked to draw a picture of God, what would it look like? How do you imagine God when you pray or think about the eternal and the divine? This week’s pew sheet bulletin has an image on the back depicting God as three: an old man and a young man (both with beards), and a dove. Images of God and religious figures have been controversial over recent years with the cartoonists in Holland and France and their satirical depictions which were seen by many Muslims as being an attack on their faith. Islam doesn’t as such ban images of Muhammad, but there is a prohibition against idolatry, and that is shared with all the Abrahamic faiths, Christianity included. The reason for this is quite simple. God is bigger than any image we can create and the act of creating one can limit how we see God. There is also the danger that we worship the image and forget what it is supposed to point to: the sign replaces the destination. For us there is no ban on images and statues as such, and there is a distinction between works of art and idols, but there is always a danger that the boundary can be crossed.
If one of the objections to creating idols is that we box God in and limit what by definition is beyond our imagination, then we also need to be careful with the words we use. These can be equally problematic. Words are spoken symbols we use to convey thoughts, understandings and meaning. They are shaped by our culture, by the things we think it is important to say and communicate, by all the experiences that have shaped how we understand the world. In the mix of this is how we perceive revelation, God making known the deepest self of the divine. Because we feel we can relate to this, we want to use personal language, but that immediately gets us into deep water. As soon as we plump for ‘he’ we have ruled out half of the population and that is before we get into the complexities of what gender is really like from the inside. So today, Trinity Sunday, the day we celebrate our doctrine of God, comes with this enormous health warning. It is a definition based on how we have perceived revelation and that is limited, at best as through a glass dimly, as St Paul put it in his great hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13). Rather than serving to box God in, it would be better to see the Trinity as a door way through which we can glimpse the eternal, indeed come to know the eternal.
The word ‘revelation’ is itself a slippery word. It has to be tested over time and in our experience, alongside all the other things that we know, so that we can check that what we think we have received stacks up. That is how we check out that revelation has its origin in truth rather than fantasy – over time, in our experience, standing it alongside the other things we know.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not the easiest one to explain. It sounds like we have put God under the microscope and been able to quantify and label all of the constituent parts. It would be a profound heresy to assume that we were able to do that. To claim to have God sown up is a form of arrogance that should leave us breathless for its audacity. So what we have in the Trinity is three ways that religious experience has come to know God tested over time and standing it alongside the other things we know. For this the shorthand labels of Father, Son and Holy Spirit apply. Behind these is everything that we proclaim and understand. So this will be a very quick summary.
‘Father’ stands for the ultimate source of everything. The one who stands behind the created matter; who is the origin and goal for everything that there is. I’ve already hinted that calling this ‘Father’ has its problems, through its gender limiting associations. But of course the idea of God being Father brings a relationship of parent to child, and that can be problematic for many too. There is a sense that through this person or persons we can trace our ancestry, our origin. In the case of God as Father, it is the source of everything. Another way of describing this is to see it as the God who is distant, beyond, other and who holds the ground of our being. It also brings a special intimacy, a love that brings into being and guides through this love.
Before our brains explode at all of this, there is a fundamental principle in the Christian faith. We can only know anything about God because God choses to make himself known. God in creating with a purpose is present and among us. We can reach out to God because the creating love makes itself known. We see this supremely in the person of Jesus Christ. Again another confusing term comes to us, namely describing him as God’s son. It sounds like someone who is other than God, created by God and distinct from God. But being part of the Trinity means he is not distinct and other, rather he reveals to us something unique about the character of God. We see in Jesus everything we need to know about God. We are still working out exactly what we have seen in him, not least his radical message of transformational love, calling us to follow him in service, love, sacrificial living, prayer and forgiveness. At different times of history some aspects of this seem to be more prominent than at others. Supremely he reveals to us the purpose of God in his death and resurrection. There the power and victory of God, the confidence we can have in God is revealed beyond measure. When we are wondering the profound philosophy, the mystery of the universe, we are given a person to relate to, to follow and be inspired by. We are not people of a book; we are people of the person of Jesus Christ.
Inspiration comes in another form too. Last week we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. God’s presence continues to pour out and that dynamic energy moves to make things happen. It moves us, it moves the world, it brings surprises. Fresh vision is brought to enable us to adapt and change, to grow and be fruitful. Life is organic and fluid; it is not static. That is why we have birth and death. If it was static we would not need birth, growth and would experience no change. We would have no need for the Holy Spirit.
So while we can’t draw a picture of God, we can note how we experience God in terms of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are shorthand for everything we think and know. And they are distinctively Christian. Not all religions are saying the same thing. We may feel that there is much we can learn from those of other traditions, but for us this statement about who God is and how we have seen God is foundational for us. The terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit open up to us the mystery of God, always beyond what we can comprehend, so never to be boxed in, but still making enough visible to us so that we can be inspired to live as Jesus taught us, guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.
from you we derive our being,
through you we are brought into your loving embrace,
and in you we are inspired to live;
now and always. Amen.
Sermon preached at All Saints' Church, Paston, Peterborough, Sunday 31st May 2015