If you’d asked one of the learned philosophers of the first century how one could know God, you would have been likely to get a response that told you how hard it was even to glimpse God, and even if you did, putting it into words was next to impossible. For the few that got that far, such knowledge came through the lifting of the mind away from the world of the senses, to the pure realm of divinity.
In such an environment, Christianity seemed a debased religion. Rather than raising their minds up to heaven to seek God there, Christians claimed that God had come down to earth to seek us here. Rather than seeking the rarefied atmosphere of the pure intellect, Christians insisted that divinity itself had taken on flesh and blood, and they worshipped a criminal executed by the state on a rubbish tip. This is not how the ancient philosophers understood God. In fact, the first reference to Christianity from a non-Christian source, Governor Pliny writing to the emperor, describes it as “a depraved foreign cult carried to extravagant lengths”.
Nor was it how the Jews understood God. Here, God is known through his covenant: through the giving of the Law and the people’s keeping of it (see my recent post on God’s Faithfulness). When God reveals himself to his people it is as one God. Each day Jews recite the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…’ it begins. And that formed part of the daily prayer of the first Christians, too, for the God worshipped by Christians is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the God whose name is ‘I AM’.
But for Christians, this God is also the God and Father of Jesus Christ. When St Thomas uttered those words from the Shema, ‘my Lord and my God’, it was in response to seeing Jesus, crucified and now risen – the same Jesus who had been charged with blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God. For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus demanded a new way of talking about God. The doctrine of the Trinity came to be expounded as the early Church meditated on the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit who gave them life.
And what those theologians of the early Church discovered was not that God had changed, or that they were worshipping a new God, but that their understanding of him and relationship with him had changed. As they read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, they found not that God had been one and was now three, but that God is eternally Trinity. They read Genesis, and saw in the account of creation the Father speaking all things into being through his Word, as the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep. In the Wisdom tradition, part of which we heard in the Eucharist this morning, they found language to talk about the pre-existent Word or Wisdom of God:
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight.
Here, and in many passages like it, the early Christians found a language to talk about relationship within the Godhead: a relationship that had always existed, perfectly within itself, but that in the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh, was manifested to us.
So to talk of God at Trinity was a way of making sense of what the early Christians believed about Jesus: that in him, we see God made visible. This gave the early Church a new way of talking about God. But it wasn’t just talk. Through the gift of the Spirit, the early Christians came to understand that the same Spirit that was at work in Christ also seemed to be at work in them, enabling the disciples to forgive sins, to know Christ’s presence in the breaking of bread and the prayers, and to minister healing. They found, through the gift of the Spirit, that they were able to share in God’s life and work.
And this happened for them, and happens for us, first, through worship. We begin and end each Eucharist in the name of the Trinity. We pray to the Father in the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ. In baptism, through the power of the Spirit we are made sharers in Christ’s death and resurrection, and brought into new relationship with the Father. When we celebrate the Eucharist, it is through the work of the Spirit that Christ’s self-offering to the Father is made present and real to us now. Our worship and prayer is always Trinitarian, drawing us into that perfect relationship of love that exists between Father, Son and Spirit.
And that relationship exists perfectly within the Godhead. God as Trinity has no need of anything external to the relationship of love between Father, Son and Spirit. And yet such is the generosity of that love that God chooses to share it with us. And as he draws us into that relationship through the death and resurrection of Christ and the work of the Spirit, so he makes us fellow-workers with him in bringing others into that love.
As we’re drawn into the love of God, we are transformed by it, because we become more like the one we worship. And so we begin to look on the world and each other more as God looks on us: with a love that desires that the whole created order be drawn into the fullness of life for which it is made. And so the Spirit who draws us into the love of God also sends us out to share that love with others.
And again, it’s to Jesus that we look to see what this love looks like in action. And this is where any notions that love is sentimental get squashed. In Jesus, we see love mixing with those who’ve always been told they’re unlovable. We see it giving new starts to those who’ve made a mess of their lives, who find themselves cut off from family or society or God. We see it open in compassion to the suffering of the sick; filled with righteous anger at injustice and hypocrisy; steadfast in the face of betrayal and denial; willing, finally, to die for the sake of those who are loved.
This is what God’s love looks like, revealed in the person of Jesus, and extended through the action of the Spirit that it may be made real and visible in the world through the life of the Church. This is what mission is: not haranguing people to believe the right things, but participating in God’s work of widening that divine circle of love to include everyone and everything.
This is the heart of the Christian faith: the way the Church answers the question about how we know God. We know him not primarily through the effort of our intellect or will, nor yet primarily through his revelation in a book or set of laws. We know him through love. It is the perfect love of the Holy Trinity that communicates itself to us in the persons of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit that we might be drawn into that perfect love, united to it for ever.
And it is this love that calls forth an answering love in us, and that makes us sharers in the divine life of the Trinity – to whom be glory and praise, now and for ever.
“The Blessed Trinity is the mystery of mysteries, before which even the seraphim veil their countenances singing with astonished wonder their thrice-repeated ‘Holy.’”
– Fr. Matthias Joseph Scheeben