What kind of heretics are we? I sometimes ponder this question when Trinity Sunday comes around. Like the early church theologian Basil the Great, I suspect that whenever we speak of God we are risking heresy. For though we can know aspects of the energies of God, none of us know God in God-self. This because the doctrine of God as Holy Trinity is a proclamation of what is vital in our shared Christian Faith. Yet it is also an invitation to humility in the face of God’s indescribable mystery. As human beings we can, and often should, speak of our experience of God. At our very best however, we are little more than small children dipping out toes into the astonishing ocean of God’s love. We see so little and what we do see is very partial. We must humble ourselves to know more of the fullness of God. Sadly Christians are not always so humble. We have thus often ended up fighting over the very thing – God – which can bring us together. Can we do better?...
Let me give some examples. Some religions and spiritualities stress what we call the God’s transcendence. God is seen as that power which is beyond us and so much greater than us: that which brings creation into being and sustains it. This is a strong feature of much Islamic religion for instance. It is also found in those Christian spiritualities which put great stress on order and the will of God: often talking about God, almost exclusively, in terms such as Almighty, King, Father, Lord and Power. In Anglicanism, this was a strong feature of the old Book of Common Prayer. Such an idea of God is just a selection though. It is partial, just a fraction of what God is.
Another approach is to focus on Jesus. Certainly a Christian Faith requires a relationship with Jesus Christ. This can be as a kind of superman-God, in the way many charismatic and Evangelical Christians talk about Jesus. Or, as many liberal Christians do, this can be by treating Jesus as a kind of perfect human example, going around doing good things. Again, there may be something in such ideas. It is partial though, just a fraction of what God really is.
A third approach to religion and spirituality is to stress what is called the immanence of God. We find this in some other charismatic Christians, and, notably, in what are called the New Age movements of our day. They tend mainly to speak of God as Spirit, seen in all things, not least ourselves. Once more, there is something in these ideas. Yet it is also partial, just a fraction of what God really is.
Can you see now why the early Church developed the idea of God as Holy Trinity? It was a brilliant way of bringing together all that is good in different experiences of God and of keeping open the indescribable mystery of God? For God in Holy Trinity is both transcendent and immanent. God is both focused in Jesus and yet not exhausted by our limited pictures of Jesus. God in Holy Trinity binds together all that is good in our different pictures and experiences of God, and God in Holy Trinity encourages us to look, learn and live more deeply in the mystery beyond, within, and inside them all. Never worry then if you don’t fully understand God as Holy Trinity. No one does, except perhaps in heaven. Yet everyone has a starting point into understanding. What matters is that we don’t become heretics: selecting and splitting off our own idea of God. What matters is that, together, in prayer and reflection, we learn to bring God together and live in God’s mystery.
What does this mean in practical terms? Well, let’s look at our Gospel this morning. It contains what is often called the Great Commission: the words: ‘go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’ Quite a challenge, eh? And it is one we should take seriously. It is part of our calling as people who affirm God as Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet it only makes sense in the context of the wholeness of God as Holy Trinity. Let me explain…
The Great Commission is very important. Indeed, as a Church we are slowly rediscovering the rightful importance of mission and evangelism. Yet, like certain ideas of God, it is just one part of the picture, and, if we don’t hold it together with other parts of the picture, we can end up in trouble. The leader of the Contemplative Fire group in Canada has put it very well recently (in the group’s latest monthly newsletter). As a Christian, I began, she writes, with the Great Commission. I, like many others, was taught to ‘go and make disciples’ as the heart of our Christian life. ‘It felt like a push, a force, even a shaping into a one-way-of-believing approach.’ ‘Then’, she says, I discovered… The Great Commandment.’ Do you remember? According to John’s Gospel, when Jesus, at the Last Supper, gave a last talk to his friends, he rolled all his life and teaching into one statement and called it a ‘new’ commandment. We are to love one others, Jesus said, as he has loved us. In other words, alongside the Great Commission we must put The Great Commandment. Otherwise we don’t just think like heretics, we also act like heretics. We split things off from one another and we don’t share the wholeness of God.
There is a third element which brings this together. The leader of Canada’s Contemplative Fire group calls it The Great Compassion. Do you remember? According to Matthew chapter 9, verse 36, Jesus had compassion on the people because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. The Great Compassion and the Great Commandment and the Great Commission belong together: just as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit belong together. For, as the Contemplative Fire leader rightly observes: ‘has not some of the criticism of Christianity come because some of us have sought to press or ‘make’ people followers of Jesus without knowing ourselves to be shaped by God’s love?... Have we sought to reproduce followers of Jesus in our own image, following our own cultural and theological preferences, rather than introducing them to The Great One, The Great Lover and allowing him to shape them? When I encounter God’s Love, it begins to soften my hard, aching heart. His compassion melts away the attitudes and actions that separate me from him and others…. (when) God in Christ starts to work on our hearts… then indeed we begin to be moved with compassion, with the ability to love the other as if they were truly ourselves.’
Isn’t that the truth? As a Christian community here in Toowoomba, we are continuing to explore what it means to follow Jesus today and to share our Faith with others. I invite you again into that prayerful process. As Christians however, first and foremost, we need to experience The Great Compassion in our lives in order to experience the transforming Love of God. Through this we are then equipped to live into The Great Commandment where our communities can speak of God’s presence to the world. For only by knowing and sharing in God’s Love can we begin to live The Great Commission for others. Perhaps we can even understand the Great Commandment as a particular gift of God the Father; the Great Compassion as the Gift of God the Son; and the Great Commission as the challenge and gift of God the Holy Spirit.
As we celebrate the Trinity today, let us therefore bring things together, seeking the whole picture and mystery of God. Let us open ourselves again to the Great Compassion of God. Let us seek to embody the Great Commandment among us. And, in the strength of both, let us go out to fulfill the Great Commission, in the name of Christ, Amen.