Sunday, 31 May 2015

Trinity Sunday: Puzzles and mysteries

Isaiah 6.1-8, Ps 29, Rom 8.12-17, John 3.1-17

Most people love a puzzle. Some do Sudokus, some do crossword puzzles, some do jigsaws. We may not always be very good at them; we may sometimes struggle, but that moment when the last piece falls into place, the last square of the grid is filled in is profoundly satisfying. Last week I engaged in a different sort of puzzle, but one which is just as absorbing. Philip and I took a few days off and went down to the West Country to visit our parents, but while we were there I took the opportunity to do some chasing up of family history, which is basically a long line of dirt poor labourers and fishermen – no illustrious ancestors, but a great deal of personal interest.

So I dragged poor Philip around assorted tiny Devon villages in the back of beyond, and we traipsed around damp churchyards, despite knowing that most of my ancestors were too poor to have had headstones. But at the end I had managed to fit a few more bits of the family history puzzle together , and Philip still seems to be talking to me so there’s no harm done!

Just like those other puzzles it was good to be able to fill in some gaps, but unlike the Sudokus, crosswords and jigsaws, the answers I found, as ever with family history, simply threw up a new set of questions. And while I may be able to find some more births, deaths and marriages to add to the family tree, I know there are many things I will never find out. Some questions will always remain unanswerable. What were these people like? What did they dream about and hope for? If we had met, would we have liked each other? I’ll never know.

What’s all this got to do with Trinity Sunday? Well, the Trinity is a puzzle if ever I saw one. One God, three persons; you couldn’t make it up, and frankly you wouldn’t want to. It’s a puzzle that has occupied theologians for most of the Church’s history.  The word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible. It was coined by the Christian writer Tertullian around 200 years after the birth of Christ. But his contribution was just the latest in a debate about God which had been going on almost from the beginning of the Church.

Those who first followed Christ already knew of God as Father and Creator, but then in Jesus, they had felt as if they were meeting that God for themselves, God in the flesh, God incarnate. The Holy Spirit is mentioned often in the Old Testament, but on the Day of Pentecost they had their own very powerful encounter with the Spirit as well. They had met God in three forms; Father, Son and Spirit. But how did they fit together? Most of the first Christians were Jewish by birth. They’d grown up believing in one God, and it was a distinctive part of their faith, so how could Jesus be God too, especially as he had died on a cross? What happened to God when Jesus lay dead in the tomb? Was part of God dead? And what about that Holy Spirit? Was that the Spirit of the Father, or the Spirit of Jesus, or both, or neither? Their arguments about these issues rumbled on for centuries, and frankly they are often mind-numbingly boring, so I’ll spare you the detail. Suffice it to say that one question led to another, and every attempt at a solution created more problems in its wake.

Rather like my experiences with family history, the amount we know about God, or could ever know, is dwarfed by the questions that remain unanswered and unanswerable. Ultimately, both history and the divine are mysteries rather than puzzles – things that can be endlessly explored, but never wholly known. But in our tidy-minded human ways, we find it hard to live with that sort of  uncertainty. We want everything sorted out, preferably in a neat package which we can easily grasp and explain.

We aren’t alone in wanting to find answers to the questions that bug us. In our readings today, there are two people who are also puzzling over things that are beyond them.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, in the dark. That’s partly because he doesn’t want to be spotted. He is a Jewish leader, one of the members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, and a religious expert too. What will people think if they see him going to talk to this new young firebrand of a teacher? Nicodemus thought he knew what God was like, what it looked like to follow him, but something about Jesus has radically challenged him. God seems to be using Jesus and blessing his work, yet he doesn’t keep the religious rules Nicodemus has grown up with. How can that be? The darkness against which the story is set is as much inside Nicodemus as outside. 

And Jesus doesn’t make it any easier by his response to Nicodemus’ questions. If you are going to see what God is doing, how he is building his new kingdom here on earth what you need, says Jesus, is a whole new life.  You must be born from above, born again. That confuses Nicodemus even more. How can he go back into his mother’s womb? Jesus’ words seem ridiculous, and he is justified in thinking that. For him to start following Jesus would mean leaving behind everything that has given him security; his place in the establishment, the respect of his community. No wonder it feels impossible. It is very hard to change our lives and our minds as radically as Nicodemus would need to,so I can understand his reaction. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he slips away without taking it any further. But the questions don’t go away. Nicodemus pops up twice more in John’s Gospel – the only Gospel he appears in – and it looks as if this conversation has made a difference, even if it takes a long time for him to realise it. In Chapter 7 we find him arguing with the Sanhedrin, saying that they shouldn’t condemn Jesus without giving him an opportunity to defend himself.  But Jesus is crucified anyway, and it’s only after this that Nicodemus appears for the final time finally coming out of the shadows and committing himself, providing the spices and oils to anoint Jesus’ body at his burial. Finally, and apparently too late, the penny has dropped. Fortunately, the resurrection is just around the corner, and while we don’t  hear of Nicodemus again, from the fact that he is included in the Gospels we can assume he became a Christian and was known to the early Christian community.

In the Old Testament, the new start the prophet Isaiah needs comes much more quickly, but his puzzlement is just as deep at the outset. He has a vision of God. He wasn’t anticipating it and he doesn’t feel ready for it. He can’t understand how he is even surviving the experience. But unlike Nicodemus, his response to this terrifying sight is profound obedience and love. “Here am I; send me!” he cries out. He can’t stop himself. He doesn’t know what God is doing, wanting, thinking, asking, but he knows he wants to be part of it.

Neither of these readings is directly about the Trinity, because, as I’ve said, it’s not mentioned in the Bible at all, but in a way both of them express the most important truths at the centre of this mysterious doctrine. They underline what those who came up with the idea of the Trinity were trying to tell us by it, things they thought were vital for us to know, not to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, but because they make a real difference to the way we live.

Firstly the doctrine of the Trinity says that although we may get glimpses of God through Christ and through his Spirit, God is also always going to be mysterious to us, beyond our understanding. “God cannot be grasped by the mind,” said one ancient writer called Evagrius of Pontus, “if he could be grasped, he would not be God.”  The mystery which so confuses us is part of the message. If we think we’ve got God sorted out, as Nicodemus does at the outset, we usually go on to assume we know what he thinks. Then we start making rules to defend our view of him, rules that all too often exclude  and hurt others as well as ourselves. If we try to put God in a box of our own understanding, we are bound to find that the box is too small, because our minds will never be able to contain the infinite, and the result will be that the life and love are gradually squeezed out of our faith, and the box becomes a coffin.

Secondly, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that rather than being some rigid divine hierarchy, or worse still a lone figure on a distant cloud, at God’s heart there is a community of love. The early theologians described the relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit with the Greek word perichoresis, which means “dancing around each other” – we get choreography and chorus line from the same word. There’s a dance going on at the heart of God, says this doctrine, a dance of love which is seen in the trust Jesus has for his Father and his openness to the prompting of the Spirit.

And thirdly the doctrine says that this dynamic, active, dancing God wants us to be part of what he is doing. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” asks God in the Old Testament. And in the Gospels Jesus invites Nicodemus to be blown along by the Spirit, going where it leads, part of the new creation God is making.  Not only is there a dance going on in the heart of God, but it’s a dance we are all invited to.

Whatever the mysteries my family history might reveal or hide, the most important identity we can all find is the identity God gives us. As Paul puts it,  “We are children of God and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”  We are called to be part of the dance of God’s love, caught up in its glory and leading others to join it too. That’s not something we will ever understand, but it is a mystery and a joy we can never come to the end of, and if we have any sense, we would never want to.

For a good summary of the doctrine of the Trinity see:

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