The doctrine of the Holy Trinity has always been a headache for those of us who are logical. Of course there is room for logic in our faith, but when we’re talking about the Creator of time and space, we need to be thinking bigger than logic allows us to. If God is somehow Holy Trinity- Three in One and One in Three- then that sheds a lot of light on the idea that God is LOVE. Love is most meaningful (perhaps only meaningful?) when it has subjects and objects: the Source of all being, the Eternal Word and the Holy Spirit are giving and receiving love before there is a universe or anything else at all. Which means that the ultimate fact about existence is a relationship. You can split an atom or a molecule, but you can’t split the love of the Mother and Father of us all and the Son and the Holy Spirit. There is nothing so basic, so ultimate, as love. This is the Deepest Magic there is! God IS, and so LOVE IS.
I’d like to think about how this infinite, uncreated Love is revealed to us finite, created beings. Humans first perceived God as POWER. When we think power- this week in particular- we think of queens and parliaments and politicians, or of finance gurus and FIFA presidents. All of which shadows our idea of power. But God is first revealed and experienced in creation, as powerful Creator and ultimate good. Good, but not tame! God is so powerful that God creates just by speaking. Which in the Jewish mind draws a firm divide between Creator and creation- there is something ‘other’ and quite frightening about God. This is what ‘holiness’ means: God is transcendent, set apart- holy.
And so there are all sorts of terrifying encounters with God:
- Jacob has a dream with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. He wakes up and says ‘how dreadful, or how awesome, is this place, surely this is the house of God’
- Moses takes off his shoes on the ‘holy ground’ at the burning bush
- The people of Israel experience God in flames, at Mount Sinai and in Solomon’s temple
- The high priest was only allowed into God’s presence (the temple’s ‘holy of holies’) on one day each year, after all sorts of Atonement ritual
- Ezekiel found himself in God’s presence, in an encounter way beyond logic or description
- Isaiah had a strong sense of God’s sheer grandeur: Who has held the mountains in the palm of a hand? Who has measured the oceans in a bucket?! ‘Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens,’ says YHWH the Holy One. ‘Who created all of these? ‘I call forth each of the starry host by my great power…’
God is awesome and powerful and holy, and the whole Jewish concept of holiness was- and is- about trying to be holy as God is holy. That shapes lifestyles, diet, friends, enemies, dress code, spending and trading habits etc etc- all of life revolves around the call to be set apart, to be holy- as God is holy.
So there’s a constant refrain through the Hebrew Scriptures- ‘Praise the Lord YHWH in the splendour of holiness! All the earth tremble before your God.’ And tremble Isaiah did when he was called by God…
Have you ever been in love with someone?! Can you remember the moment that you realised they love you back?? There’s something exhilarating in that moment, but also something deeply scary in that moment. WHOAH! She knows who I am?! Where is this going to lead?? I’m out of my depth here, I can’t control this- eek! That’s what’s going on with Isaiah, as he stands in the presence of this powerful and holy Love. Like Isaiah, we are noticed and loved and called by this Love that is powerful and frightening but deeply good. So like Isaiah, let’s lift our voices to worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness…
Be still, for the power of the Lord is moving in this place! God is love, and that love is revealed in power. But power is not the full revelation of God. One of the most inspiring verses in all the Bible, is Isaiah 57:15 ‘Thus says the exalted and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are crushed and lowly in spirit…’’
This comes literally true in Jesus, as God the Creator enters into creation, to show that TRUE love is a balance of power and vulnerability. God is born a fragile little baby, born into poverty and driven out of home as a refugee. God doesn’t stay in high heaven; God shares the pain of those who are crushed and lowly in spirit.
CS Lewis once wrote that to love at all properly, you need to be vulnerable- otherwise your heart will end up rock hard and ice cold. Joan Chittister agrees, and writes about the ‘gift’ of vulnerability: ‘Under all the pomp and steel, despite all the money and guns, beyond all the status and roles, the world, we all know down deep, is a very vulnerable place. Nothing stands completely safe from the exigencies of living, the dailiness of survival, the fragility of life even at its most benign. Whatever our securities, the sense of nakedness, of alert, of potential danger never leaves us. We are vulnerable from all sides, in and out, up and down, past, present, and future. We fear vulnerability. It takes a great deal of living to discover that, actually, vulnerability comes to us more as friend than as enemy. Vulnerability may be the greatest strength we have. Vulnerability bonds us to one another, and makes us a community in league with life. Because we need one another, we live looking for good in others, without which we ourselves cannot survive, will not grow, cannot become what we ourselves have the potential to be. Vulnerability is the gift given to us to enable us to embed ourselves in the universe.’
God the Creator becomes vulnerable and so becomes embedded within humanity and within creation. In Jesus, love finds its truest expression: vulnerability and power meet and kiss, so this human being can do things that only the Creator God does- accepts worship, forgives sins, gives the law on his own authority, commands the elements. And then he dies in utter vulnerability, betrayed and abandoned and shamed, and so is exalted to the very throne of God! (Philippians 2:5-11)
As people saw all this happening in Jesus, they started realising that ‘God’ must be more complicated than they had realised. Maybe not just one, but two.
But then Jesus’ followers discovered that God is more complicated and mysterious yet. At Pentecost they experienced God’s love and presence in a new way, filling them, thrilling them, and re-inspiring them. That’s part of what Nicodemus can’t get his head around in this morning’s gospel reading…
The followers of Jesus experienced this Holy Spirit of God- the wind or breath of God, which blows where it will and can’t be tamed or controlled. And so they started realising that maybe God isn’t just one, isn’t just two, but must somehow be three! God the Holy Trinity.
In the beginning was Love. In the beginning Love created the heavens and the earth. Before there was anything else, Love was, Love is, and Love always will be. We are called, like Isaiah and like Nicodemus, to stand in the presence of true Love, to be terrified by it, to be awed and mystified and inspired by it, to grow into it, and then to go and share it.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not logical, but it’s very good news for our world where so many of us rush around after power, and so so many get crushed in the wake. God calls us to be both set apart and holy as God is holy, and also to live with the crushed and lowly in spirit- to bring the two together, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit which blows wherever it pleases in Love.