The infinite God and our finite minds
June 11, 2017 Dave Rogalsky
Scriptures: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20
It is difficult to wrap our minds around God as three in one. What do we gain from thinking about God as trinity?
Jews and others in the first centuries after Jesus wondered many things about Christian belief. Did they worship no gods – they had no images of any god in their places of worship? Did they worship three gods – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? Muslims today often wonder the same thing – are Christians true monotheists – worshippers of one God – or are they – we – polytheists – worshippers of many gods? And this whole thing about Jesus being both human, and divine?
It is verses like the one that closes our scripture reading that both show the sense that early Christians had about God being three-in-one, and which continue to bring Christians to such thoughts: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” But this isn’t the clearest example. Matthew 28:18-19 says:
18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 28:18-19 (NRSV)
Listen carefully, “Baptise them in the name.” Not names. There is one name and it encompasses “The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The early church believed that somehow God was three-in-one.
There are a variety of ways of thinking about this. Is God three-in-one in eternity? If we were transported to heaven would we meet God as the Father/Creator, the Son/Redeemer and the Holy Spirit/Sustainer? Or, is God one in heaven and we experience God as three here in time? This is the topic of many theology books. I have studied this backward and forward and have to conclude, I don’t have a final answer.
We do have hints that God is three-in-one in eternity. In the story of God creating humankind we hear God say:
26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 27 So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God created God them; male and female created God them. Genesis 1:26-27 (NRSV)
God said, “Let us.” Some would say this was a ‘royal we’ like the Queen saying “we are not amused.” Others say this is a hint of God being plural in eternity. The passage from Genesis we read last week about the tower of Babel also has God naming Godself “we.” (See Genesis 11:7). Interestingly, in the Genesis 1 passage the word for God is the plural form of the word El. The word Elohim literally means ‘gods.’ God, the God of the Jews, is often called ‘gods’ in the Hebrew Scriptures. So is the use of “us” and “we” an acknowledgement of God being plural, or is it simply a grammatical aligning of the plural word and pronouns? The other passage from Genesis 1 shows its later writing by naming God YHWH, the LORD so the grammatical argument doesn’t make sense and we are left with God, I am that I am, YHWH, being “us.”
Part of the reason we have these discussions and write many, many books, is that nowhere in the Bible does it simply say that God is three-in-one. Instead we have numerous passages from the time of the Exile to Babylon, around 500 BC, and later, which claim that God is One and is the only God. A prophet in the school of Isaiah wrote during the exile:
5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, 6 so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. Isaiah 45:5-6 (NRSV)
And of course Jesus’ death on the cross is a confusing and difficult passage when we think about God. As he died Jesus cried out "’Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” Luke 23:46 (NRSV.) So we have Jesus, God and human, giving up his spirit – the Holy Spirit? – to God the Father. Even if we say that God can do anything, this is confusing and difficult. But the main line of Christians have maintained that God is three-in-one through most of the past two thousand years. There have been groups who decided that God is only one, and there have been many individuals who did and do the same. I have run across numerous leaders who in private say that they do not believe in the Trinity and yet continue to worship God in the Christian Church.
Emanuel Swedenborg believed:
The Father is the transcendent, unknowable soul of God, of which we can have no direct knowledge or experience at all.
The Son is the human body or visible appearance of God—and, since the Incarnation, is the sole avenue by which the Father is known to human beings.
The Holy Spirit is the divine truth and power flowing out from God, and in effect is the manifestation of God to human beings.
Swedenborg calls this a Trinity of “essential components” of one God.1
Swedenborg did not believe that we experience God as Father, Son and Spirit with God being One in eternity. Instead he developed his own way of thinking about God who we know as Father, Son and Spirit.
In the end, I don’t know what to make of all of this. I believe that there is only one God. If God is three parts then somehow God isn’t one anymore. And yet God is Creator, Incarnated Saviour – Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I suspect that God is three-in-one, but that how God manages to do that is beyond my understanding.
That’s why I included the poem on the front cover of the bulletin by Simone Weil. She wrote:
A case of contradictories which are true.
God exists: God does not exist.
Where is the problem? I am quite sure
that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure
that my love is not illusory. I am quite sure
that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure
nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive
when I pronounce this word.
Of course, this leads to a few important questions - Does it matter? Do we derive any meaning out of God three-in-one?
I think it does matter, and that there are important meanings to derive.
I believe that God the eternal and Creator is pure and holy and beyond us. This is what Swedenborg means when he says transcendent. God is completely beyond us. I believe that God created the universe and all that is in it, including human beings. I believe that the way God did this is through evolution, but I believe God was involved and remains involved in the whole of the creation. This holy and pure God made us in God`s own image. God is able to be in relationship and chose to make us to be in relationship with God and each other. We are like God in this, even if we are still evolving from our animal past into the future which only God knows.
At the same time, God came among us in the flesh. This is what is meant by the incarnation – literally “in the flesh.” God, pure and holy and beyond us, came among us as one of us, was born in human flesh, lived, ate, drank, was friends, slept, suffered, died, and then was raised to life in a new human body. God did this because God, holy, pure and beyond us, was really serious about being in relationship with us. So serious that God became one of us because God wants to be in relationship and evolved us to be able to be in relationship with God and each other.
But God, in human form, like each of us, can only be in one place at one time. So God came among us as the Spirit to be with each of us all the time. God as Spirit is in relationship with all who choose to be in relationship with God, and desires to be in relationship with all human beings.
The “us” and God as gods in the Old Testament, and the “Father, Son and Spirit” in the New Testament, are representations of God in relationship, desiring relationship, and reaching out to us to be in relationship. To think of God in eternal, internal relationship, reaching out in creation to make beings that can be in relationship with God and each other, is mind-blowing for me. Especially when I consider that this creating, redeeming and sustaining God personally wants to be in relationship with me.
All the way through this I have used a mixture of the ways that God as three-in-one is named - Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer and Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But of course God can also be experienced as Mother, Sister and Sophia/Wisdom. God is willing to be addressed in ways that make us comfortable to be in relationship with God. This is God’s deepest desire. The New Testament names God as Love (See 1 John 4:8.) God wants to draw all human beings into relationship with God. God reached out to the Old Testament Jews, and through Jesus, and now through the Holy Spirit. The bottom line of this sermon is simply, God is love, wanting to be in love relationship, with each and every one of us, and each and every person on earth.
Empty your hands, close your eyes
Take five normal breaths
What is your most comfortable way of thinking about God?
Imagine God in that form coming and being with you.
Or if you have no comfortable image, sit quietly and wait for God to come.
Spend time just being with God, who loves you so much that God was willing to become one of us.
God whom we know in so many ways, you love us! This knowledge is too wonderful for us and we bow in worship of you, the One who has made all things, who is at work moving to some glorious goal, and who is with us each day. We worship you and desire to be in a love relationship with you. Draw near to us and may we know your presence in our lives. Amen.