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THE MYSTERY THAT IS GOD 2 Cor 13:11-13; Matt 28:16-20

In March I was attending the diocesan clergy conference at Swanick, Derbyshire. We listened to a number of excellent speakers, amongst them Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. For me it was the theological equivalent of eating thick honey – profound, sweet and utterly delectable. At one point he referred to the thought of the French Christian thinker, Gabriel Marcel, who distinguishes between a problem and a mystery. “A problem is something I can stand outside and walk around. It’s something I can usually solve by technical skill. A broken window is a problem. I can solve it by fixing a new one. Often a problem can be solved using a technique developed by somebody else. But a mystery I can’t solve. A mystery I can’t stand outside. I have to enter it. A mystery is something I can’t just look at. It absorbs me into it. Someone else’s answer is unlikely to work for me. I have to discover my own.” I found that distinction so helpful. Although Sam Wells was applying it to the mystery of forgiveness, I think it can apply to any aspect of our Christian faith that may be a mystery. Such things as the incarnation, the resurrection or the ascension are mysteries in our faith. That doesn’t mean to say that they are unbelievable or that we dismiss them because they are difficult or impossible to believe. Rather, it is a sort of way in which we show our respect for God and for the way he has revealed himself to us. It is the same with the mystery of God’s nature, the mystery which we think of particularly today – that of the Holy Trinity.

What is God like?
We can be frightened or dismissive of Trinity Sunday – or at least preachers can be. But the Church in the wisdom of its tradition has decided to make us mindful of this aspect of our faith by setting aside one Sunday a year for us to concentrate on the subject. The CofE has reverted to calling all the Sundays following, Sundays after Trinity until we turn our attention in the late autumn to the season of Advent. I think this has the effect that at least once a year we are asked to examine what we think and believe about God. When we’re asked, as adults, how we think of God, an answer may not suggest itself to us all that readily. Looking up a quotations book compiled by Ned Sherrin, most of the entries are humorous or cynical. They’re still enjoyable, though!
For instance, when Noel Coward was asked by David Frost whether he believed in God his response was, “We’ve never been intimate.” In Catch 22 Joseph Heller wrote that the chaplain was having a crisis of faith. “The lifelong trust he had placed in the wisdom and justice of an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, humane, universal, anthropomorphic, English-speaking Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God…had begun to waver.” It does make you think, though. What do you believe God is like?

In the discipline which calls itself Practical Theology, a distinction is made between “espoused theology” and “operant theology”. By that is meant that what people say they believe is not always the same as what might be an underlying belief shown by their actions. That can be as true of organisations such as a Christian charity, as much as of individual Christians. Its official beliefs may not always be seen in the things its workers actually think and do! That sort of thing can also be reflected in another area of Christian life – spirituality. Spiritual directors sometimes explore with a person what their image of God might be. If there is honesty in the sharing, then sometimes the directee may begin to discover that they are controlled by an image of God that is “unofficial”. They might say they subscribe to all the traditional beliefs about God, as in the creeds, but actually, their behaviour or their really deep feelings may reveal that their image of God is different. Now that may be either a positive one or negative. They may think of God as a really good companion, sharing a walk or a quiet moment with them. Alternatively, they may admit that their really controlling image of God is negative – that’s he’s like a hard-to-please parent or a grouchy, temperamental boss. There is, in other words, a mismatch between what you think you ought to say you believe about God, and what you really believe about God as revealed by your feelings and actions that are driven by your actual beliefs – your “operant theology”.

For a few moments, though, it might be helpful to look at what the espoused theology of God is so far as the Church is concerned. The Bible does not say, in so many words, “God is a Holy Trinity”. In fact, the concept of a threesome-onesome God would not have been in the minds of those who wrote the books of the NT. That’s because the ideas that brought about the doctrine of the Trinity were used about 200 years after the NT. The ideas were drawn from Greek philosophy and made a distinction between nature and person. What something or someone was (substance or nature) was distinct from who someone was (person). Christian thinkers and teachers from late in the 2nd C after Jesus drew from what they felt the Bible said about the nature of God, and developed the doctrine of the Trinity. In the many places where the Bible talks about God and what he is and does, or the Gospels in their descriptions of Jesus, these teachers found the way of encapsulating it was in the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine believes that God is ultimately beyond total understanding, is ultimately mystery, but that does not mean to say we cannot use our intelligence to make some sort of sense of God. It might seem, taking the totality of what God has revealed of himself in Jewish and Christian tradition, that contradictory things present themselves to our minds. God seems to be one, and yet God seems to be more than one. How do we make sense of that? The first Christians to apply their intelligence to this conundrum using the ideas that they had to hand, concluded that there could only be one substance which is divinity – one reality which is God. But God also revealed himself to be active in three different guises, faces or persons. God as creator reveals himself as Father; God as saviour reveals himself as Son; God as present in and with us is Holy Spirit. Moreover, the unity that forms the Godhead is that of the Father and Son being bound to each other in and through the Holy Spirit. So we do not worship three gods, as Christians are sometimes accused of doing, but one. We are monotheists. But we make sense of the ways in which God has revealed himself to us which seem to be so distinct, that we accept the three-person-ness of that God who is only a single reality, one substance.

Now because God is mystery, not a problem to be solved, but mystery to be encountered we have different ways to approach him. With our intelligence we can try and understand ideas about God – ideas such as that of Holy Trinity. With our imagination we can find it helpful to use illustrations or pictures that make three-in-one existence possible such as the clover-leaf or light bicycle oil or the way a person can have more than one role. As a body of believers we have the traditions and stories of our faith, especially in the Scriptures, to give us examples of how God has related to his people down the centuries.

One of the most popular stories which is also an illustration is that of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity. That picturing-forth is based on the story of the three angels’ visit to Abraham and Sarah. If you like these are all active ways of encountering God – through our hands or the hands of others. So we may approach God in our heads and through our hands. But most importantly, we are also to approach God through our hearts. We do that when we enter into the mystery that is God. We contemplate God as best we can, we allow his holiness, awe and wonder to touch us and transform us. We allow God to be God and place ourselves in the right position of humility, love and service before him.

Jesus’ command and Paul’s prayer
How can we best achieve all of that? The Christian faith proclaims the message that we can best respond in and through Jesus Christ. When we look upon Christ, we see God-in-the-flesh. His life, mission, suffering and death all reflect the nature of God in a perfect way. So when Jesus sent his disciples to witness to him, they were to bring people into the community of followers through baptism. Even though Jesus may not have used the neat formula that Matthew puts into his mouth: “baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, the whole of the gospel implies that neat summing up. To respond to the holy mystery of God by admitting our imperfection is to accept the death of Jesus for us. By putting our trust in Christ, we approach God in humble faith. By resolving to lead better lives, we seek the enabling power of God’s Spirit. Hence our baptism in the name of the Trinity. Writing to his Christian friends in Corinth, St Paul’s earnest and prayerful desire for them could only be expressed in terms of who God was for him and who he could be for them. Jesus brings us the gift of grace. This grace demonstrates and makes real the love of God the Father. The Holy Spirit binds us all to God and each other in a wonderful communion or fellowship. In other words, we are all invited into the mystery of God, to be enriched, renewed and transformed in our encounter with God. The kind of God you really believe in will eventually come out in the kind of person you really are! That may be a scary thought, but it’s meant to keep bringing us back to want more and more of God and less and less of ourselves and the limitations we place on both ourselves and God!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith.