Saturday, June 02, 2012

Trinity Sunday

Welcome to Trinity Sunday – the one day in the Church year that is dedicated not to a person, or an event or a Bible reading but to a doctrine – also to Mabo Day, the day that celebrates the famous High Court win 20 years ago of common sense of the doctrine of terra nullius – the legal fiction that the land was empty before Europeans decided they wanted it.  Eddie Mabo was the visionary who insisted that his community who had lived on the island of Mer for thousands of years were more important than any legal fiction, and in a sense Mabo Day is the day in which we recognise the reality that it is only in community that we can understand who we are and where we belong.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not in the Bible – although there are some tantalising hints – some building blocks of thought about God from which the doctrine of the Trinity was built in the third and fourth centuries:  For example in the very first book of the Bible, in Genesis God refers to Godself as 'we' and the Hebrew name for God Elohim is grammatically plural – later in the literature of Proverbs and the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon Wisdom seen as God's companion in the act of creation, and the image of God that animates and inspires human life.

And this is where the theologians come in.  Because Trinity Sunday really focuses on a single question: what is God like? And how does this three-in-one image of God shed some light on the question – but maybe the doctrine of the Trinity also leads us to think a bit more about theologians - about people who think about God.  What sort of faith do we need or want?  What is the use of intellectual speculation about God?  Do we need to understand any more than that God who created us is a mystery, but that at the heart of the mystery is love?  A colleague remarked a couple of years ago that he was planning a very short sermon on Trinity Sunday – 'who here understands the idea of the Trinity?', he was planning to ask.  'Not me – let us pray'.

The story is told of St Augustine, St. Augustine, one of the most brilliant theologians in the history of the church, who was struggling to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.  As he took a walk on the beach he saw a little boy running down to the ocean with a seashell, filling it with water, rushing back and pouring it into a hole he had made in the sand. "What are you doing?" Augustine asked him. "Oh, I am trying to empty the ocean into this hole," the boy told him.  As Augustine continued his walk it suddenly came to him that this was exactly what he had been trying to do. Trying to fully understand God, even in a doctrine like the Trinity, is like trying to place the ocean in a hole in the sand. It can't be done. The Trinity is a tantalising metaphor about an impenetrable mystery. No matter how large the hole we build in the sand, no matter how grand the theory, it can never express everything that God is.

The way the doctrine was worked out in the fourth century certainly tells us as much about the politics of compromise as it does about God.  Just the names of the various factions is mind-numbing enough, particularly when you have to study it for an exam.  The end result, which we recite in the words of the Nicene Creed, was one of those committee statements that tries to say all of the things that everybody agreed on and stamp out all of the ideas that everybody eventually agreed were wrong.  It's almost impossible to say what it means without committing some sort of obscure heresy, but here goes:  God the Father is accompanied by God the Son from the very beginning.  The Son comes from the Father but is not part of creation – in fact the Son is indistinguishable from the Father in every way except that fact that the Father comes first.  And the Holy Spirit comes out of the relationship between the Father and the Son, in fact you could say the Spirit is the love that unites the Father and the Son.  The crux of it of course is who we think Jesus is.  Right from the start, Christians struggled to find ways of talking about Jesus that didn't veer off, on the one hand, into saying that Jesus was just a good man, that he taught about God and showed us how to love God but in the end is just one of us and so can't really do much for us; or one the other hand, into saying that Jesus is just God slumming it, so to speak, dressed up as a human being so as to get the point across to us – but when it comes down to it, so far above us in his divinity that he really doesn't go through what we go through in trying to be human.  So the doctrine of the Trinity tries to say what can be said about Jesus being both fully divine and fully human, and tries to explain also, how it is that we experience something of God's nature within our own lives.  We understand God as the one who creates us, as the ground of our being.  And we enter into relationship with God through Jesus who discloses to us what God's character is like; and we experience God as a spiritual reality in our everyday lives.  It's a useful image, but let's not get too hung up on drawing triangles and trying to get just the right form of words to explain it.

There's another approach that I think might be even more useful.  Two observations that this strange theory about God allows us to make, that I think are very useful.  The first observation we can make is this: that the God we worship is a self-emptying God – that God's nature is always to be in a relationship of self-giving love – we know this firstly from the relationship between the Father and the Son, that the Son receives the fullness of everything that the Father is, and the Holy Spirit which is the Son's gift of love back to the Father.  And this self-emptying love is also what we see in the act of creation, God's outpouring of God's Self in love for what God has created.  What this means is that God wants nothing more than for us to notice, for us to love God back a little bit. 

In the book, "The Colour Purple", by Alice Walker, we meet a footloose character named Shug, who has some strong theological opinions.  Shug explains how, in her way of thinking, what gets God most upset is when you walk pass a field blooming with the colour purple and fail to notice how beautiful it is.

 This is what she says:

"People think that pleasing God is all that God cares about.

But any fool in the world can see that God is always trying to please us back.

Making little surprises and springing them on us when we least expect.

God just wants to be loved."

If Mabo Day reminds us that we are not just individuals but that we live in community, the ménage a trois of the Trinity tells us that God is not self-sufficient either.  God needs us just as much as we need God.  And when we find ourselves in relationship with this Trinitarian God whose nature is to be other-orientated, we find that we are invited, not just into a one-on-one affair, but into a community.  God is not private, God is not a lonely, eccentric, rather batty old hermit, but a community of love.  When we are drawn into a relationship with this God, we, too, find we are enticed into community.  That in spite of ourselves, we are drawn to transcend our self-preoccupation – that, loving God, we find we are drawn deeper and deeper into loving others, that we fall more and more deeply in love with God's world.

The second observation that I think might be useful, is this:  that the image of God as a Trinity of Persons is not static, not stationary, but in motion.  St Bonaventure's way of understanding the Trinity was to draw on yet another mental picture which he called the Fountain Fullness – a bit like one of those stacks of champagne glasses you see at well-catered weddings, where the top glass runs over and fills the glasses on the next level down, then they overflow and so on.  The Father's self-emptying love flows into the Son and is returned to the Father through the Spirit, then the whole lot overflows into the act of creation, which like Shug's colour purple becomes an extravagant expression of God's own Self.  This is an altogether exuberant image of God – a God who just can't stand still, a God who creates and who loves just for the heck of it, a God who invites us to join in the cycle of creation by noticing the thrill of the Spirit that is within us and all around us.   And I think the Bible writers pick up on this when they use metaphors for the Spirit like fire and rushing wind.  God's Holy Spirit is not just the spirituality of the warm inner glow, not just the comforter but the One who inspires, the One who challenges and the One who disturbs.  Like the wind that ruffles the surface of a still pond, it is God's Holy Spirit who invigorates us and moves us.  When we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit we don't know the outcome.  We don't know which dormant places in our lives will be disturbed, where our life will open up into new challenges and new loves.  We take a risk, and we trust ourselves to the God who grows with us and in us.

When the Mabo decision was handed down, 20 years ago today, it wasn't clear where it would all end.  It was certainly the beginning of a new era not only in Australian law but in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.  There was uncertainty, even in some quarters fear of where it would take us.  The Spirit works like that, pushing us out of our comfort zones, unbalancing us and forcing us to move in new directions.  Thank God for that! Mabo was the beginning of something wonderful, opening us as Australians to a new basis for mutual relationship and respect.  It is a journey that has a long way to go, that in some ways is still only at its beginning, but a journey that is well worth celebrating.