Trinity Sunday – John 31-7
Morning Communion, Trinity, 31st May 2015
Who do you pray to? Do you pray to the Father, as Jesus did? Or do you pray directly to Jesus? Or sometimes one, sometimes the other? And do you pray to the Spirit? I suspect that, like me, you may not always be sure. Sometimes you know who you are praying to, sometimes it does not seem to matter. There is a bit of a tradition in the church that, because the Holy Spirit’s role is to glorify Jesus and the Father, not himself (from John 1613-14, among other places), you do not normally direct prayer to Him, but it is clearly not a strict rule. Does it matter who you pray too? After all, they are all God…
Well, that is the nub of the matter. They are all God. But making sense of that is another matter. Three in One. It is a bit like this diagram, where there is only one Dr. Who, but three people who are Dr. Who. But in this case the identity is sequential – who was, and is and is to come – which is not really like the Father, Son and Spirit at all.
Today is Trinity Sunday. This is the beginning of the rest of the year as far as liturgical time goes, up until Advent, with 24 Sundays in Trinity (though we now take up a few of them at the end with Creation Time has crept in recently). But on Trinity Sunday we think about the Trinity, which is not easy.
There is a rather more famous version of the previous triangle regarding the Trinity. This is exactly the same in form as the Dr. Who diagram, but means something rather different. The Spirit did not follow the Son, who did not follow the Father; they have all always been. This is what the church traditionally thinks about the Trinity. Incidentally, the diagrams I am using are from a wonderful book called Theologygrams, by Richard Wyld. Having presented them and discussed them a little, he concluded that there is “probably more to be said about the Trinity than can be fitted into a diagram.”
The Trinity is not explicit in the Bible, but is more a way that Christians came to understand the various saying and happenings in the Bible. Jesus did not give a definition of the Trinity, but the things he said lead you there.
Take for example, one of the earliest events in Jesus ministry, his baptism recorded in the earliest of the gospels: As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.” (Mark 110). Father, Son, and Spirit.
Jesus talked about his Father (as in the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 69-13). He also talks about the Father sending his only begotten Son into the world, a little further on from today’s New Testament reading (John 316). He claimed to be God (“before Abraham was, I AM”, John 858, “I and the Father are one”, John 1030). He frequently talks about the Holy Spirit, for example in today’s passage (John 35-8), and about asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit on believers (John 1415).
So the church came to understand that God was three persons in one. It was always very clear that there was not a hierarchy. One is not superior to the others, nor did one come before the others. The Trinity is, in particular, a high understanding of who Jesus is. The church has always maintained, strongly, that Jesus was both God and human. This diagram summarises various heresies. The church has had to counter teachings that try to detract from who it believed Jesus really was. He was not created by God, he was not separate from God, he was not God in disguise, he was not a man specially touched by God. We are in the white bit, the overlap of the circles. (I particularly like the Aslan bit.)
So far, so good, but how can one person be three people? It is an analogy for something we cannot really comprehend. It is like a person having different aspects, one person being a wife, a teacher, a friend, different to different people. It helps to explain different aspects of God. Mark Laynesmith has a YouTube video about the Trinity, in which he talks about the Father being the part of God which is mystery, beyond us, Christ being before us, what God is going here and now, and the Spirit being alongside us. But, like the Trinity triangle diagram, there is probably more that can be said than can fit into an analogy.
Having a science background and being interested in that sort of thing, excuse me a slight digression at this point. There are things in science, in the world and the universe, that we can understand and imagine. Classical mechanics, where object move around and have momentum, and are acted upon by forces; it does take a while to understand the principles behind it, but you can picture it. You can see why, when you throw a ball, it follows a parabolic path, and you can even modify that picture to say that it falls a bit short because of air resistance. And we can extend this to orbiting planets, and rotating galaxies. Our minds are geared up to model the physical world we see.
But quantum mechanics is something else. It is one of the most successful scientific theories ever, has led to a lot of the electronics and gadgets we have today, and has at its heart apparent contradictions that we cannot get our minds around. There is something called the two-slit experiment, where you fire a beam of electrons at two slits in a plate. If electrons were particles, the your detector plate would have two slightly scattered lines of points on it where the electrons have landed. If electrons were waves, the plate would have an interference pattern on it, like ocean waves going through two openings in a harbour wall. The waves diffract and spread out on the inside, and then at some places the peaks from the two propagating waves join together and make big peaks, and at other places the peaks and troughs meet and cancel each other out. You would get a pattern of peaks and troughs arriving at the quayside. What actually happens is that your detector recognises discrete particles hitting it, but in a pattern that looks like wave interference. Electrons appear way off from where they should be, but they still seem to be particles.
You can explain this with maths, predict what is going to happen with Schrödingers equation, but there really is no sensible way of imagining what is happening. This is the subatomic world behaving in ways that is unlike anything we can see with our eyes. It seems to be a contradiction in terms – something is both a wave and a particle at the same time – but it happens, and you can prove it repeatedly.
You can probably see where I am going with this. There are things in this world, even is something as unimaginative and rational as science, that we know exist but cannot imagine. How much more, then, should the creator of the universe be beyond our imagining. We cannot fully rationalise the theory of the Trinity, as we cannot fully rationalise the incarnation or the atonement, but that does not mean it is not true. Certainly it is an approximation, an analogy, but it can still be helpful.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, you must be born again, born of the Spirit. Let us allow this complex, loving God to speak to us through all his parts, the Father in his glory, as in the vision of Isaiah, Jesus showing us God as a man, and the Spirit within us to guide and change us. Amen.
Jeremy Thake St. John and St. Stephens.