The Holy Trinity window in St Thomas’ Church
Many people find Christian belief in God as the Holy Trinity a bit confusing, to say the least! After all, how can Father, Son and Holy Spirit be three persons yet one God? Do we really worship only one God, or three gods?
People have tried all kinds of images to help us to make sense of this – the shamrock, with three leaves that are really one leaf, or ice, water and steam are some that I’ve seen. I’ve even tried to illustrate this deepest mystery of the nature of God with three juggling balls, but that’s a bit hard to explain in print…
We might be tempted to file ‘Holy Trinity’ as a bit too hard, and forget all about it. Perhaps that’s why the church gives us a reminder each year, on Trinity Sunday, which falls on 16 June this year. It’s always the Sunday after Pentecost, because that’s when (starting with Advent) we’ve followed the story of the key events of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection; then we’ve remembered the sending of the Holy Spirit Having covered all that, we step back to look at God as he has made himself known – Three in One and One in Three.
Not in the Bible (at least in so many words)
It’s true to say that our full understanding of the Trinity isn’t spelled out in the Bible (like many other key bits of our belief!) but it’s the best way the church has found to bring together what we see there about God as the early church came to know him. The apostles believed from the beginning that God the Father is the only God. As they made sense of Jesus, they realised that he was also God. He wasn’t the Father (after all, he prayed to the Father while on earth!) but he was clearly one with the Father – so we know him as God the Son. Then, at Pentecost, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and realised that God was now living in them as Jesus had promised – God the Holy Spirit.
They were determined not to confuse these three, as they’re all quite distinct in many ways. But they also knew that they were all the same God – and they knew that there’s only one God!
God is bigger than our ideas of God
By this point, most of us realise the first important lesson of belief in the Trinity – God is bigger than our ideas and our understanding! If ever you think that you’ve understood everything there is to know about God, then you can be sure that you’ve hardly begun to understand him.
We do our best – and the doctrine of the Trinity is the best we’ve been able to do at putting God into words and ideas. But we must always remember that our ideas and words don’t define God – he is beyond our definitions, and we understand him fully only in worship and love, not in theory. Or in doctrines.
Perhaps along the way we can learn a useful humility about how fully we think we understand other things too – and a willingness to realise that other people’s perspective on life might help us to see more clearly!
God is love
‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16) – and seeing that love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit reminds us that this is real, actual love, not some abstract idea. Love is at the very heart of God. And God was never lonely – he didn’t create us for the sake of company, but because his love overflowed and found an outlet in creating the universe to love!
One of the most famous icons, by Andrei Rublev, shows the three angels who visited Abraham, but as representatives of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; as they gaze at one another, we’re invited to see and wonder at their love.
God draws us into himself
Sticking with the icon, we’re meant to notice that there’s space at the table for us to pull up a chair. In fact one theory is that there was originally a small mirror stuck on there! God the Holy Trinity isn’t distant from us. He invites us into his life and love. We know and worship the Father, majestic and ever beyond us, through the Son who reaches out to us in Jesus and gives us a way back to the Father. And we can do that only because the Holy Spirit lives within us to lift us into the life and presence of God.
So belief in the Trinity isn’t something we can ignore because it’s difficult. It’s at the heart of being truly Christian and being fully human.
If you can get to church on 16 June, I’ll try and explain all this a bit more!
Rev’d Nick Watson
Originally published in the St Thomas’ Church Magazine, June-July 2019