Thursday, June 03, 2021

The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Most Holy Trinity. My podcasts are available wherever you listen to your podcasts. Search on your podcast app for: Ross Royden.

The Most Holy Trinity

Reading: John 3:1-18

Something you hear said regularly, both in and out of church, is that ‘all religions are basically the same’. Sometimes this is expressed as ‘all religions worship the same god’. The thought behind these statements is that, fundamentally, the world’s major religions all believe and teach similar things.

What it is that all the world’s religions are believed to teach is essentially that we should be nice to one another. For those not a member of any one religion, for example, this is often given as an excuse for not going to church, or for not belonging to any particular religion. In our own age, ‘thou shalt be nice’ has acquired something like the status of the eleventh commandment, and we don't need a religion to tell us that we should be nice to one another. What is more, religions themselves haven't always been that good in being nice either to each other or to people in general.

For those in the church, this perception of sameness, provides a reason why we should engage in interfaith dialogue and even for different religions to worship together. We teach similar things, so why not work together? We believe in the same God, so why worship separately? Haven’t other religions got something to teach me about god?

The obvious question then is, ‘Why, if all religions are the same, do we have so many different versions of them?’ The reality is, of course, that all religions are not the same, and we don't worship the same God. This is something that becomes very clear the moment you start to examine what it is the various religions actually believe and teach. The question then becomes, ‘Why do so many people think they are the same and believe that essentially all religions are worshipping the same god?’

Again, for some, it is that they just want a to reason to dismiss religion altogether, and this is as convenient a reason as any other. Lumping them all together makes it easier to reject them all in one go. For others, though, seeing religions as having so much in common comes out of a genuine desire to cooperate with sincere people of other faiths for the good of all.

Whatever the motivation, however, the only way people can think like this and make these sort of statements is because they are making the assumption that religion is all about us and how we live our lives. We are under the impression that religion ultimately is about our happiness, our welfare, and, especially, our behaviour.

Speaking for my own faith, I can't blame people thinking like this because this is the impression clergy such as myself often give. As clergy, we find ourselves cast in the role of ‘religious sales people’, so when we are talking about religion, we naturally focus on the benefits and advantages in the hope of convincing people to join us. These benefits and advantages frequently sound no different from one religion to another. So it is hardly surprising when people think that we are all the same.

The faith founded by Jesus of Nazareth, however, isn't in the first place all about me; it's all about God. And the God that Jesus revealed and reveals is not at all like other gods. Now, again, you can forgive people’s confusion. The church often portrays Jesus as a prophet, a teacher of morality, or even a life coach. Our focus when we speak of Jesus is primarily on his ethical teaching and what he said about how we should behave towards one another. And, clearly, Jesus did have something to say about this.

Frankly, though, what Jesus actually teaches about moral behaviour is not especially that original. Much of Jesus’ ethical teaching, as he would be the first to admit, itself comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. If we just limited ourselves to what Jesus teaches about how we treat one another, we might indeed be justified in coming to the conclusion that all religions are the same.

It is not, however, his ethical teaching that makes Jesus unique and different to every other prophet and teacher before and after him. It is who Jesus is that makes Jesus unique, and it is because of who he is that makes the God his followers worship also unique.

For the followers of Jesus, his significance doesn’t lie in the originality of what he teaches about how we should behave towards each other or even about how we should behave towards God. Jesus’ significance lies in the fact that we, his followers, believe that he reveals God and that he reveals God in his own person. As St John, who wrote our Gospel reading for this week, puts it at the beginning of his Gospel, Jesus is the Word who, before the beginning of all things, was both with God and was God. Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, was the Word made flesh who lived among us (John 1:14).

All of which brings us to this week. This week, we are celebrating the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, or Trinity Sunday as it is commonly known. The Church’s year has many festivals. We are all familiar with the major festivals such as Christmas and Easter. Only last week, we celebrated Pentecost. These major festivals generally celebrate an event: Christmas, Jesus’ birth; Easter, his resurrection. The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity is unusual amongst the major festivals in that it celebrates, not something God has done, but who he is. And not simply one aspect of his being, but who he is in his being. As the Church came to express it: God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one God in three persons and three persons in one God.

This is known as the doctrine of the Trinity. Now as soon as the word ‘doctrine’ is used, most people just switch off. It is a ‘trigger word’, warning that what is being described is something theoretical and of little practical relevance; something detached from reality and the lives we lead in the world.

It is, however, anything but.

Science has its own equivalent to doctrine. It has, for example, theories, which seek, albeit imperfectly, to describe the reality of the physical world we live in. Understanding the world through the theories of science enables humankind to invent and do things in the world that would otherwise not be possible. You can only listen to me on the radio or online because the theories of science enable us to understand sound, electricity, radio waves, and how we can transmit data digitally.

So, too, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity enables us to understand something of the reality and character of God. But even when doctrine is looked at like this, we remain unmoved. While we may not understand the various scientific theories that life in the age we live in depends on, we can, nevertheless, see their benefit and application practically. We can, for example, use a computer perfectly competently without having the slightest idea of how it works. We can see the benefit of scientific theories and ideas, but ideas about God? What practical use or benefit are they?

We can only think like this because we have such a limited view of reality and of God. God to many, if not most, people is something or someone remote and separate from their lives. Questions about him may be interesting, but we see them as ultimately of little relevance to our daily lives.

The Bible, however, describes God as the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Rather than God being separate to our existence, our existence depends on him. Everything, every particle and every atom in the physical world that science seeks to understand and describe, exists only and solely because God brought the world into existence and continues to sustain its existence. That means that you and I, quite literally, can’t exist without him. As you are listening to me, God is keeping you alive.

But there is more to God’s involvement and our existence in the world than this. Because we are created in God’s image, there is another dimension to our existence as well as the physical dimension that science attempts to describe. We all sense that this is so. Instinctively, we cannot believe that this world is all there is. ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24), Jesus taught, and, created in God’s image, the truth is that we too are spiritual beings as much as we may try to deny or suppress it.

This is why, for example, so many people cannot believe, when a loved one has died, that they have ceased to exist. It is why so many, even when they are not particularly religious, still hope for a life beyond this world after they no longer physically exist in it.

Seeing this world as created and kept in being by God and seeing ourselves as spiritual beings made in his image makes the need to understand something about God even more important than the theories that we formulate to understand the world he created.

But there is an even more pressing reason for why we should want to know who God is. Most people are not atheists in the sense that they feel certain there is no God. They may live their lives without reference to God, but they don’t feel confident enough to rule out his existence altogether. Instead, they take a terrible risk. They assume that if there is a God and an existence after death, then God will automatically welcome them into it. It doesn’t occur to us today, in the way it once did, that God may not be so welcoming after all. Religious people often express their spiritual optimism by saying that we will all go to heaven when we die.

This, however, is not what Jesus taught. It might be what we think he should have taught, and it is even, sadly, what many Christians think he taught, but he didn’t. And if you don’t believe me just read the Gospels. Jesus did teach about what would happen when we die. He did teach about eternal life and how we could obtain it, but at no point did he suggest that it is ours as a right. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Eternal life in the teaching of Jesus is not just about everlasting life, that is, life that goes on forever after we die. It is that, but it is more than that. Eternal life is about a quality of life that we can experience now, and which will continue after our death in the world to come.

So, what is it and how do we obtain it? Here we return to the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity. In our Gospel reading this week, St John writes:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

Believing in Jesus, as we have been seeing in the Gospel readings for the past few weeks, is not the same as believing about Jesus. Believing in Jesus certainly involves believing he is who he says he is and believing that in him we see God himself. It is, however, also believing that through him we can come to know God for ourself, and then trusting ourselves to him. Jesus said:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

God is the Father of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is one with the Father. This means, as he himself said, that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:8).

But how are we to come to know God for ourselves? Nicodemus asked Jesus a similar question, again in our Gospel reading for this week. Jesus answered by telling Nicodemus that he must be born again from above by the Spirit. Believing in Jesus is about a life-changing and life-transforming experience; an experience so radical that it can only be described as a new birth. And this new birth is brought about by the Spirit of God.

It turns out that the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity is not so theoretical after all. Believing in Jesus is about entering a relationship with God, which, if it is real, is itself trinitarian. It is about knowing the Father through the Son by the Spirit. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity describes who God is and it is also describes the experience of those who trust in him.

No, the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity is not theoretical and irrelevant; it is rather a matter of life and death: yours and mine.


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