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Are you clear which God are you talking about? The first Christians were!

May 26, 2013

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity    Sunday 26th May 2013

[You can also hear this homily at http://www.deaconphilip.podbean.com]

 

A well-known Catholic lay preacher[1] tells how, when he was picked up at the railway station where he was due to give one of his public talks, the parishioner giving him a lift cheerily asked him, “What are you going to talk about tonight?” Unfortunately, when he replied, “The Holy Trinity” her face dropped and she said, “Oh!…..” 

He later wrote that this is a common reaction by Catholics when the Holy Trinity is mentioned – something he thought a bit odd, given that these good people were presumably planning to spend the rest of eternity with The Trinity!

The problem is that if theology gets so complicated that it can only be talked about in universities and seminaries, those of us out in the big wide world might just think it’s all too difficult.[2]

Well, here’s a way of realising how fundamental is the Christian belief that God has revealed Himself as one God in three persons. The challenge for us, trapped in time and space, with limited brain power, is to fathom the mystery of one God in three persons. We know that these three persons exist, and are distinct – for example, at the baptism of Jesus, all three persons, God the Father, Jesus the Son and God the Holy Spirit were all present together at the same time. But I hope what I’m about to say will deepen your appreciation of the wonderful gifts we receive from God, both in our worship and in our daily lives. I hope what I say will ring a bell with you every time you hear the words ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, and make you ponder on their beauty.

Why did the first Christians start using the expression ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’? Remember, those first Christians came before the theological explanations given to us by great thinkers like Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner. But those first century Christians were inspired by the same Holy Spirit that has operated in the world ever since the first Pentecost Sunday.

So let’s imagine we’re back in those exciting years immediately after the Resurrection. The first Christians dearly wanted their fellow Jews to recognise the person Jesus Christ as their Lord, their God, because they had realised, through Faith, that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, was in fact God made man, God made visible to ordinary people. And through the person called Jesus people could be reconciled with God.

But these Christians first had to reassure potential converts that they had not abandoned the one and only true God, the God of Israel for the latest cult figure, yet another false pagan god. We need to remember that, like us, the first Christians were in a world where pagan worship, sorcerery, astrology, false messiahs, all sorts of crazy things abounded. The early Church needed a way of describing God that proved Jesus was one and the same as the God of Israel, the God who had shaped the key moments in the history of the people of Israel. And they used the traditional Jewish method, by giving God a name. Now you need to know that the Jews never have (and still do not) utter the name of God: it’s too Holy to say out loud. The term we use today is usually translated as ‘Lord’. And the name the Jews used for God was always explained and put into context, both to praise and respect God but also to make it absolutely clear that there is only one, true God. So we see in the Old Testament God described in terms such as “Our Lord, the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob” and “Our Lord who brought you out of Egypt”.

We’re used to this idea, because giving something its own name only works if you know for sure which person you are talking about. We do it all the time when we mention someone, and the other says to us, “I’m not sure who you mean”. For example, you might be talking about someone called we Susan.

“Susan? Which Susan do you mean?”

You know, the Susan who lives on the Stratford Road……

in the flats by the traffic lights….. er…..

her parents always sit at the front during mass……

she’s always happy…….

“Oh yes, I know that person. Susan.”

So when the first Christians were spreading the word, declaring something perhaps like “Our Lord saves us”, they might be asked by their listeners, very suspicious that the Christians had abandoned Israel’s true God, “What god are you talking about?”  The Christians would reply, “Our Lord is the true God, the Father who made heaven and earth. This would reassure the Jews that the Christians were continuing to worship the God of Abraham, of Jacob and Moses.

The next question might be, “So what’s the difference between my God and what Christians understand about God? The answer would be, “The Christian God, in whom we preach, in whom we trust is one God but has three distinct persons. Our God is the Father AND He is the Son, who died on the cross for our sakes, AND He is the Holy Spirit who inspires us, comforts us and guides us in our daily lives.

Then they could use all the evidence to persuade others that this Christian faith in God was indeed worshipping the same God of Abraham, but with far more revealed to humanity about who God really was and what God wanted of His people…..

They had the evidence of God in the Old Testament, through the stories of Israel’s history; this is what we Christians call our ‘salvation history’ – the astonishing events of God intervening in human history and their true significance only becoming clear when they were explained by the coming of Jesus Christ.

Christians then could talk about God as revealed in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. This was God who had come to earth – God Himself, revealed as a human being: the miraculous birth, the astonishing wisdom, the evidence of the healings, the miracles, the fulfillment  of so many of the Old Testament prophecies, the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah;

And then came the Holy Spirit, the third person of the one God – the person present within individual Christians through a new, supernatural baptism, the fruits of the Spirit seen in the remarkable events of new Church of Jesus Christ; and we see many of these examples described in the Acts of the Apostles.

So it came to be that early Christian preachers found it very effective to speak, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And this formula very soon made its way into the Church’s prayers and into their liturgies, words we still day to this day.

Two thousand years on, theologians have pondered on the mystery of our God that is called The Trinity, one God, three persons. And this is exactly as Jesus promised in today’s gospel when He says to us: “I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you now.”[3] Yes, indeed, they would. We are slow learners. But slowly, slowly, over the centuries, inspired by the Holy Spirit, individual Christian theologians, encouraged and overseen by the Holy Spirit through God’s Church, we have come to a better understanding of the mysteries of our faith and have closer to the complete truth.

For this we give thanks, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.


[1] Frank Sheed

[2] c.f. Thomas a Kempis, de imitatione Christi, I, 1-2; in De imitatione Christi Ubri quatuor, ed. T. Lupo (Vatican City: Libreria Uftrice Vaticana, 1982), 4.7-8.8.

[3] John 16:12-15

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