Once upon a time, there was a God on every high hill, and under every green tree. People took their Gods with them when they travelled; in the story of Genesis 31 Rachel steals the household Gods of her father. Who knew which God was the greatest, or which one to trust?
There was a great cultural transformation between 900 and 300 years before the birth of Christ. It's called the Axial Age. Some historians believe that during the Axial Age we learned to tell the difference between the voices in our heads and the voice of God.
This time in Israel corresponds to a growing certainty that there is only one God. We can read the Hebrew Scriptures as a great struggle to hold on to this insight, and to learn to listen to the one true God. It was one of the cultural certainties of Israel: there was one God, and they were 'his' people.
So you can imagine the puzzlement of a good Rabbi a couple of hundred years after the death of Christ, as he talks with his Christian neighbour.
We have spent centuries trying to learn to listen to the One God. It has been a struggle of blood; so many lives have been lost to preserve this understanding.
Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one...
We have the Torah, the Books of the Law. We have the Prophets. We have the books of Wisdom. There is one God, one Law. We know who we are. We have the tools to discern the voice of God.
You say you are the people of God! But what is this Father Son and Spirit? You have taken us back to three Gods! How many more will we need to have? To whom will we listen? Soon every man will have his own God, and who will be able to contradict him? Who will know the truth?
You would have to think he has a point. The Lord's Army roams great tracts of Africa, kidnapping children, raping women, and destroying anything it pleases. Jim Jones takes his people off to their own private paradise, and 914 people die. A disaster happens; someone says it is God punishing us. Are they right? How do we know?
Each of the great religious traditions has discovered aspects of the reality of the One God which are life giving and life changing.
And each tradition codifies their discovery. They write it down and tell stories about it to preserve the life changing truth they have discovered, for the ones who come after them. And they write it down very carefully, with lots of 'ifs and buts' so that it's not forgotten.
This process is what we call doctrine. We do it not only to remember, but also to protect us from the crazies, and from the simply mistaken, who are listening not to God, but the voices of their own heads. We all do that sometimes!
Israel and Judaism discovered the Great Creator God who is One; the God who loves us; the God who breathed the breath of life into the dust of the ground, and made us alive. (Genesis 2:7) This is the God who constantly brings life and restores us from exile.
O Lord, our Lord
how majestic is your name in all the earth
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
4 what is humanity that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
5 You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honour.... (NIV alt)
And the people of Jesus' time said "Yes! This is true... the LORD is God, the LORD is one..."
Except that some of them met Jesus. And in this man they discovered a new understanding of their God; the God they had always known. It was like God's very own Son had come as an emissary; as an ambassador, to bring them a new taste of love from the same God.
You see, people were just like us. They knew that the LORD is God, and that the LORD is one, and yet they longed for more. God was still a mystery, and people, like us sometimes, felt terribly alone. So Phillip, who in the story of John 14, is beginning to realise Jesus might be leaving them, says "Well... 'Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.'"
And Jesus said, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. ... The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works." (John 14:8-10) And some people who had listened to Jesus gained a whole new perspective on the love of God. It was the same God; of course it was the same God, but they heard with fresh ears. Suddenly God was real to them in new ways!
But then the bottom fell out of their world. Jesus was killed. "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel," said the man on the road to Emmaus, "but he was handed over and crucified..."
We don't really know how what happened happened. We call it Resurrection. We begin to see letters from Paul. And Gospels, and other books, turn up talking about God giving the Spirit. One of those has an over the top ecstatic experience that happened to a group of Christians during the feast of Pentecost.
And our Rabbi friend says to his neighbour
You're crazy. As if the Spirit was not here all the time! Did not God breathe the Spirit into Adam at the beginning? Did not Ezekiel see the God breathe the Spirit breathe into valley of dry bones? Isn't the breath of God in us to the very day we die? What do you mean he gives it?"
"Yes, but it's more ... more conscious," says the Christian. "It's close; the spirit holds us, and leads us into new insights about God. The Spirit is here for everybody, not just a few Prophets. It's like it says in The Book of Joel
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And you know, the Rabbi might just say, "You're not talking about anything new. God touches me. I know God. It's the same God. Why do you need all this?"
And it is the same God, but we talk about God differently. We each hold our truth about the same God inside different stories. Stories which are dear to us, and which speak the truth of the same God to us through our memories. If we forget the stories of Jesus, then we will lose something of the richness and the healing power of what he did for us. God will be the same, but we won't!
And if we don't remember the stories of the Spirit, God won't go away. But we will we not be the same. It would be like brain surgery gone wrong on the church; part of us wouldn't be here; we wouldn't be the same church.
[And so in my family, where all us cousins are getting old, my cousin Robyn has Great Uncle Tom's Bible. It's precious. It reminds her of who she is, and where she comes from. She came from the same family as me; Great Uncle Tom lived and worked on the same farm with Great Grandpa Jonathon, and I've got Jonathon's farm journal; all his accounts; the things he did; when he made the long journeys down to the city. It reminds me of who I am, and where I come from. Same family, different book.]
Anyway our Christian friend goes back to his mates and says,
I've been talking to the Rabbi up the street. We've got to get it straight what we mean when we talk about Father, Son, and Spirit. I mean, he's got a point. Those weirdos over at Whoop Whoop think the Son is not quite God. And you know what Aloysius is like: he's always telling us dumb stuff he reckons is the Spirit talking when we know Jesus would never have said that!
And that's where the doctrine of the Trinity came from. It's implicit in the Bible. We can see in this week's reading in John that he is already striving to make sense of this new, mind blowing revelation, of who God is.
He's already said, "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God—" none of this being created stuff. And today he says
12 I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit will give us new insights. But the Spirit isn't making it up; the Spirit only speaks what he hears. He will point to Jesus by saying what Jesus said. And what Jesus said comes from the Father....
They argued for centuries. And if you like complicated... well... you can spend a lifetime studying the theology of the Trinity.
But what we are saying is: this is God. The is the God who loves; who gives; who comforts. The God who never leaves us alone.
God speaks with one voice. So
Hear O Israel, The Lord is God, the Lord is one.
Hear O Israel: Who ever has seen me has seen the Father
Hear O Israel: I will not leave you alone; the Spirit will guide you into all truth; the truth of the One God.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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