The Trinity

One e-mail group that I belong to has been having a good deal of discussion lately about whether the Holy Spirit is God. This, of course. leads directly into the question of what we mean when we speak of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the “Holy Trinity”, “Three persons and one God.”

Seeing that we are now in that part of the Church Year which focuses either on the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), or the Trinity itself, it seems important to come to some conclusions on the subject, or else admit that a substantial portion of the church year is being wasted in idle talk.

Perhaps the first thing to remember is that the concepts of Holy Spirit and of the Trinity are not things that were thought up by theologians who had nothing better to do with their time. Rather, they reflect and seek to explain the actual experiences of members of the church.

The visible world needs an explanation for why it exists at all, let alone in the size, detail and complexity that scientists in so many different specialties observe. So we come up with the idea of a Creator. In the man Jesus, we see love, wisdom, forgiveness and spiritual power in a degree never experienced before in humankind, and we believe Him to be divine, and to express the nature of God in so far as human form can do so. In the Holy Spirit, we find those same qualities residing in and among the members of the church. We believe this power also to be divine.

Though many ideas and concepts were tried and discarded in trying to understand what the church had experienced, the explanation that emerged as most satisfactory and was adopted as orthodoxy, was that of three ‘persons’, but ‘one God’. (On this, see the “Creed of Saint Athanasius” in the Book of Common Prayer, page 695.)

That word ‘persons’ is really the key. Drama, and particularly meditation on the sometimes horrific history of their forefathers, was an integral part of the religious festivals of the ancient Greeks. In their theatre, though, the number of players was limited. A single player would play more than one part in the drama by speaking through different masks that he put in front of his face, each mask depicting a different character. The word ‘person’ described the mask through which the voice travelled, ‘per’ meaning ‘through’, and ‘sono’ having the same root as our word ‘sound’. A single actor would therefore speak in different characters, even though it was the same individual behind the various appearances.

So with the Trinity—one God revealing Himself to mankind in three different guises, or ‘persons’. Not three Gods, but one.

And behind these ‘persons’? Simply, as Moses was told by the voice in his encounter with the burning bush in the wilderness: ‘I am what I am.’

– Anglican Messenger, December 2000
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Seeing the Father in the Son

“If the trumpet sounds an uncertain sound, who will prepare themselves for battle?”

I once used this quotation from St. Paul to encourage my choir give a proper lead to the congregation. The verse came back to me at a recent Synod.

The discussion was on our recent ‘Decade of Evangelism’. On the African continent, it had been the signal for outstanding growth. In the Western nations, it had more or less gone nowhere.

In our Western churches, people seem to have doubts as to what the Gospel is, and why we should need it. Perhaps in other countries, where paganism and its effects are more obvious, the need and value is more obvious also.

The Gospel, above everything else, is ‘Good News’. And the ‘Good News’ we are talking about is the story of the birth, ministry, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the ‘Gospels’ according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit as recorded in the book of Acts. That good news has shown us what a perfect life is like.

The Gospel story tells us what Jesus was like—compassionate, loving, humble, wise, forgiving, but also a man of prayer and of power, in close contact with, and obedient to God the Father, able to heal teach and lead, and willing, through his poverty and his sufferings, to make others rich.

“These things are written”, says St. John, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

Often enough, our thinking makes us make a difference between Jesus and the Father—the idea, for instance, that Jesus is a sacrificial lamb placating the wrath of an angry Father. Yet ‘Son’ means a belief that Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed, and has a common nature with the God who created the heavens and the earth and is present in this world through the Holy Spirit. “He who has seen me, has seen the Father.”

So if we believe Jesus to be the Son of God, it means that we now know also what God, the Creator of the universe, is really like. God is not a powerless ‘blind watchmaker’ who set the universe up in the beginning and has done nothing ever since. He is not the sadistic ‘president of the immortals’ of Thomas Hardy’s novel. He is not the angry looser of thunderbolts, like the Jupiter or Zeus of ancient mythology. He is not contained in man-made idols, as the Babylonians believed, even if those idols take the form of sex, power, money or attention, idols worshipped by many today. He does not encourage people to blow themselves up along with innocent civilians for the promise of paradise, or take revenge on those who do them harm. He is ever patient, ever willing to forgive those who turn to him, ever seeking the lost. Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” God the Father ‘emptied himself’ also, making a universe in which others had free will to disobey him, sacrificing his obedient Son in order to bring them back from their disobedience.

The meaning of it all? I love a verse in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “That through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be shown to the principalities and powers in heavenly places.” This humble and despised church, to which we are called to belong, by following the way of Christ, is called to be the instrument to prove to the spiritual world that this way of love, forgiveness, suffering and humility, is in the end victorious over all other powers in the universe.

Do we want God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven? I think we’d prefer this to the murders, warfare, persecutions and other disasters that fill our newspapers day by day. It is when we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and follow his way of life, and pass this idea on to others, that we are doing our job as a church.

– Anglican Messenger, 2005*

Shouting at God

The last chapters of the Book of Genesis tell the story of Joseph.

Joseph was that self-important young man who so annoyed his brothers with tales of his future importance, that they sold him into slavery in Egypt and pretended to his father that he had been killed by wild animals. In Egypt, by another mischance, he was imprisoned for years on a false accusation of sexual assault.

Freed when a former fellow prisoner recalled his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph became Pharaoh’s right hand man—in the end being used to save his family from perishing in the famine that prevailed in the Middle East at that time.

At the end of it all, Joseph explains to his brothers “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life… It was not you who sent me here, but God.”

All of us have some degree of disappointment in our lives. For some of us, the trauma of our disasters leaves us with mental breakdowns, loss of faith, or, less seriously, a ‘chip on our shoulder’ that makes our lives a continual burden, both to ourselves and those who have to live with us.

Others, though, like Joseph, take all that happens to them as the act, not of other people, but of a God who is ever rolling out his great plan for the Universe—a symphony that is going to have its discords and its passages in minor keys, before coming to a triumphant and harmonious climax.

For these others, the Book of Psalms is an endless resource (and by this, I mean the full book with all its angry outbursts, as in the Bible or the Book of Alternative Services, not the pruned version of the 1962 Book of Common Prayer). In addition to praise and thanksgiving, those who receive everything at God’s hand have the right also to question God, to complain, to plead, to feel angry, disappointed, depressed, oppressed or betrayed, as the Psalmist shows so clearly throughout the many different moods of his text.

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”; “Rouse thyself, why sleepest thou, O God?”; “Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck”; “When wilt thou comfort me?” and so on. Yet these outpourings of emotion almost always work themselves through, ending in a state of trust, that the God who has saved Israel in the past, will yet come through and save the believer in the future. Our anxieties, our sufferings and our anger turn in the end to acceptance and praise.

Christians believe in a God who has His own mind and His own way of doing things—a personal God, a God who can be argued with, challenged, criticized, pleaded with, questioned and sometimes persuaded. We are not dealing with an impersonal system, a kind of slot machine that delivers us the right product if only we insert the right coins and push the right buttons, as some theologies would suggest. We are dealing with a God whom we trust will come through in the end, as part of a plan that involves a process for our lives much greater than just securing our comfort.

When we learn to receive both the good and bad things of life at God’s hand, it is surprising how often we find that what at one time seemed to be a disaster, from another has become for us an enormous source of direction and growth.

For which may we be truly thankful. Joseph has shown us the way.

– Anglican Messenger, June 2002

What Sort of God?

“Our Father” – that is the picture we have been taught about God.

It’s an image that makes us think of support and protection. And where is all of that, when someone we love has been done away with?

It’s worth meditating, though, on how ‘father’ actually appears to us as we go through the process of growing up.

When we are very young, parents are our universal providers, who can do no wrong. In the earliest days of our spiritual lives, we look at God like that—and get mad just as two year olds do, when Father says ‘No’ to what we ask for.

As we grow up into childhood, Father becomes the one who teaches us the difference between right and wrong, the way we ought to live. He becomes the Lawgiver and Enforcer. That, too, is a way in which many people see God. In such a case, we expect that, if we keep the rules, we will get the rewards. Only ‘bad people’ who break the rules should get into trouble. There’s a lot of that thinking in the Old Testament.

As we pass from childhood into adolescence, our attitudes change. We challenge what we have been taught, to experiment with life for ourselves. We may try smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, or crime, to experiment with the ‘highs’ that these give us. It’s a dangerous period of life. ‘Father’, with all his cautions and restrictions, seems utterly out of touch with the fast paced world we want to live in. And at that time, often enough he looks more like a policeman—someone we don’t want to see when we’re sailing too close to the wind, but yet whom we welcome to bail us out when we’re in really deep trouble. There’s a lot of that attitude to God in the immature, materialistic world we live in, often in people old enough to know a great deal better.

But there is a fourth state—the stage of adulthood and parenthood. That is when we have to take on the responsibility of being a parent to others—to provide for them, teach and discipline them, help them with their sometimes dangerous steps towards independence, and ultimately, let loose the apron strings and allow them to live their lives in the way they choose.

When disaster strikes us, our views of God as Provider, Lawgiver or Policeman are all going to disappoint us. God has failed to Provide. His laws have been broken and innocent people have suffered unjustly. A load of guilt may have landed on us, because we (or our friends) think that God the Policeman would not be so hard on us if we hadn’t been doing something wrong.

Our own tragedy will be unresolved until we go one step further—to find God as the suffering Father.

Several times in my career, I have had a strange sight in my law office. Shamefaced Father comes in with his teenaged child in trouble with the law—shoplifting, perhaps, or drunken driving—and asking me to do what I can, at his expense, to fix things. Father has done no wrong, but the child is in trouble, and out of a sense of love and responsibility, father is doing his part to bear the shame and pay the cost of his child’s errors.

I doubt if many parents at that stage think of themselves as reflecting the nature of the Divine, but that is indeed what is going on.

There are a number of places in the Old Testament where this concept of God as Benefactor, Lawgiver or Policeman is challenged—most notably in the book of Job and the later chapters of Isaiah. But it is in the New Testament teachings of Jesus that the idea of the suffering Father is developed to the full. Jesus portrays a God who “sends his rain on the just and the unjust” and is “kind to the unthankful and the evil”. We have pictures of rich men who are robbed by unfaithful stewards and yet forgive them; of employers who pay the same wage to those who deserve it and those who do not; of a son who comes home after wasting half the family fortune, and is received by his father with celebration and joy.

It is in this last story that we see the other side of the coin. A God of infinite love, who is equally kind to saints and criminals alike, inspires jealousy among all those who think that God owes them something extra because they have kept His laws. The elder brother was not happy with his sibling’s return, and all the joy it caused. He is the prototype of all those ‘religious’ types who insist that their particular formula, and not God’s loving nature, is their key to entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet “there is more joy in the Kingdom of Heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety nine just persons who need no repentance.” “My ways are not your ways,” says the Lord!

In my own case, there was one occasion where I was shocked to the core of my being, at finding within myself a depth of hatred for a God who gave no respect at all to all the good things that I and my daughter Catherine had done in his name over the years, and who granted absolution to this criminal who had taken her life. I would have nailed Jesus to the cross once again, if it had not been done already.

Like Job, it seems so unfair, first to lose a child, then to be forced to acknowledge that God is entitled to do what He wills, and to confess that, though He may love us, He owes us nothing, no matter what happens to us or those we love.

Strangely enough, though, that is what infinite love is like—and it can be our privilege, being people who have suffered a very severe loss, to understand what ‘following Jesus’ really means—and costs—and how close to His own wounded body our own sufferings can bring us.

– Victims of Homicide Newsletter, Date Unknown

The Meaning of the Cross

A prayer of St. Francis:

“Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

“In dying, we are born to eternal life.” Today, Good Friday, gives us a chance to meditate on the meaning of the Cross—the central mystery of the whole Christian faith.

It is so easy, in our modern, scientific world, to avoid the whole idea of meaning. We can say that the likely date of the Crucifixion was April 7th, 30 AD. Pontius Pilate would have likely referred to it as six days before the Nones of April, in the year 792 from the founding of the city of Rome. The Jews would have marked it as the thirteenth day of the first month, the day before the feast of the Passover. On that day a rabble rousing religious teacher was put to a painful and shameful death, to prevent a riot against the power of Rome, and to satisfy the jealousies, or the fears, of the religious authorities of his time. But that is a bit like taking the works of Shakespeare, and describing them as a book, so many inches long, wide and deep, weighing so much, with so many thousands of the letter ‘e’, and proportionately less of other letters. We have much information, and we have been told nothing.

To find meaning, we have to travel to another world—a world that science cannot measure and so often forgets—a world of qualities rather than quantities. It is there that we can find meaning. And because that meaning belongs to a world beyond quantities such as time and space, it means that the Cross is not simply an unpleasant event of long, long ago, but a constant force that is as significant now as at any time in the history of the Universe.

St. Paul, talking of Jesus Christ, tells how “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich.” If there is one constant in the character of Jesus that we can see through all his life, this surely is it.

“He came down to Earth from Heaven
Who is God and Lord of all;
And His shelter was a stable
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.”

Whether it is in his birth, his healing miracles, his teachings, or now in his death on the Cross, we see the same Jesus—‘man for others’—ever giving of himself, that others may have life more abundantly. There is no end to the reflections that we can have over the meaning of this life, and this death, but I would like to use this background to think of seven aspects of the Cross that we can think on and perhaps take away with ourselves today, to understand the meaning of it all.

First – Obedience. Christ, “though he was a son, yet learned he obedience from what he suffered.” As he said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I constrained until it was accomplished.” There were ways in which Jesus could have avoided the Cross. We know that the Thursday night, he thought of calling legions of angels to his aid, or encouraging his disciples to take swords and fight. In the end, though, after hours spent wrestling in prayer, Jesus’s mind was composed to accept the horrible fate that lay ahead of him. “How else might the Scriptures be fulfilled?” It was his decision to walk on through this ‘Dark night of the Soul’ in blind obedience to what he knew was the will of the Father, knowing well the suffering, shame and humiliation that would be his. It is a lesson to ourselves that it is not what feels good, but what in reality is good, that is the path that we follow if we are to be true followers of Christ.

Secondly – Victory. It is hard to think of anything that looks less of a site of triumph than the hill of Calvary—yet that is what the Church claims to be the case, so much so that ever since that day the Cross, a symbol of shameful death, has become the proud symbol of the Christian church. The victory was firstly that of Jesus himself over the temptations of the easy path—something he had faced in the desert at the outset of his ministry. The temptation of wealth and comfort. The temptation to prestige by becoming a religious idol. The temptation to use the powers of this world to become the controller of this world. All these he had rejected at the very outset of his ministry. This conquest of the world’s temptations within himself was the preliminary to ‘making a public example’ of this world’s powers—the money that lured Judas, the political power that Pilate wanted to protect, the religious authority that the High Priest made use of to sacrifice one innocent person, “rather than that the whole nation should perish.” The sum total of the achievements of the powers of this world had been the slaughter of an innocent man under the pretext of profit, religious orthodoxy, and democracy. These idols cannot demand our respect any further. The Cross has shown up their emptiness.

Thirdly – Sacrifice. Christ calls himself “The good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep”—yet Christ is also portrayed as the “Lamb of God”. Shepherd and sheep share the same fate—each lays down his life for the other. Should the shepherd not lay down his life for the sheep, the wolves will devour the flock. Should the sheep not lay down their lives for the shepherd, the shepherd would starve. Each gains his life from the sacrifice of the other. It is through the death of each that the whole process of life is enabled to continue. The paradox is, that if we cling beyond measure to our lives, we in fact embrace death!

The night before his death, Jesus compared himself to a grain of wheat, being thrown into the ground so that in due course it would bear “much fruit”. In the same way, he made bread and wine—wheat that had been harvested, milled and baked: grapes that had been plucked, crushed, fermented and made into wine—the symbols of his own body, sacrificed for the good of mankind, a sacrament that we receive daily in our eating and drinking, and most specifically in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Perhaps, as we look out on the world God has made, we assume too easily that ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ represents a ‘dog eat dog’ world, where all are reluctant to become food for others. Yet the Psalmist gives a picture of valleys full of corn laughing and singing, ready to be reaped in the harvest through which the mature grain can fulfill its destiny of providing sustenance for the human race, and seed for the coming year. Is it not possible that all nature willingly fits into its place in the ‘food chain’, and only mankind resists the way of nature by trying to avoid the inevitable path of sacrifice, that Jesus was willing to embrace?

Fourthly – Reconciliation. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all, and by his stripes, we are healed.” “God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself.” God’s love has proved stronger than the hatred of man. “God commendeth his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The Old Testament story tells how Joseph was set upon and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Later, he has become ruler of Egypt, and his brothers have come to him needing food. Joseph’s message about their behaviour is “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” God, who gave free will to mankind, has covered with his own love and suffering the damage that man has done by the abuse of that free will. The Cross brings to sinful mankind the lesson of man’s forgiveness through the love of Christ.

Fifthly – Repentance. How easy it is for all of us to go through life, without any idea of how much damage we have done to others by the way we have lived our lives. Seeing the damage caused to an innocent person, as we do when we see Jesus on the Cross, can be the key for us to realize the enormity of our misdeeds. So the penitent thief recognizes that he deserves his punishment. Judas confesses that he has betrayed innocent blood. The soldier at the foot of the cross acknowledges that Jesus was a righteous man. The suffering of the good brings us to recognize and confess the sin that has lain behind it. Both good and evil are shown in their true colours when contrasted with each other. Good shows up evil. Evil shows up good.

Sixthly – Redemption. “In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” In Jesus’s day, slaves who had earned sufficient money could redeem themselves—buy their freedom from their masters. We, however, do not and cannot buy ourselves out from under the debt we owe our Creator for the evil we have done. That debt has already been satisfied by the sacrifice of Christ. The price of our freedom has been paid.

Seventhly, and finally – Promise. Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him, endured the Cross”. Jesus is already looking beyond this Good Friday. “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you may be also.” To the penitent thief he says: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Perhaps at this time we do not know exactly what form the happy ending will take—but we know in our hearts that the Cross is not an end, but a beginning.

But before I end, there is one more character to be introduced on this Good Friday stage who is often forgotten. I refer to God the Father. It is easy enough to have a picture from the Old Testament of God as an ‘Angry old man up in the sky’—forgetting that Jesus has said “I and the Father are one”, and “He that has seen me, has seen the Father.” How right it is for our consecration prayer in the Eucharist to begin by saying “Blessing and glory and thanksgiving be unto thee, almighty Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only son, Jesus Christ … to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption.” Now we can realize that the same journey from riches to poverty that others might become rich, characteristic of Jesus’s life, is a reflection of the self-giving of the Father in our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. ‘Going to the Father’, in the spiritual universe I have mentioned, is not physical travel, but rather becoming utterly the same in nature as the Father, as we might tune in on a radio station, to be on the same frequency—hence, too, Jesus’s remark that “I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

The Cross, then, that spells hope for us, spells also challenge. It reveals Jesus Christ truly as the Son of God, sharing God’s nature, and in doing so, reveals God the Father himself as our most generous friend. It shows us Obedience bringing Victory: Sacrifice being the key to Repentance and Redemption, and Reconciliation bringing us the Promise of Paradise to come. To quote the Communion service again, it challenges us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice” to God. For the Cross shows us that it is indeed in dying that we are born into eternal life, and it is through the Cross of Christ that we are ourselves enabled to come to the Father.

– Text of a sermon delivered in April 1996