God’s Not Fluffy – June 12
A sermon based on: John 16:12-15
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 12, 2022*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Today is Trinity Sunday. I try and explain the Trinity each year. In the odd way that my mind works the Trinity used to remind me of Fluffy the three-headed dog obstacle that Harry Potter and his friends have to overcome in The Sorcerer’s Stone. When I first started wrestling with the Trinity I found it to be a three-headed obstacle, because it seemed a necessary belief and I could not understand it. My goal today is to prove God’s not Fluffy– that the idea of a Trinitarian God need not be a three headed obstacle we cannot warp our head around.
I know I am not alone in grappling with the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Ghost making up one God-head can seem an impossible image. It was a concept I couldn’t subscribe to for the longest time. While I still don’t consider it a necessary doctrine to believe in, my conceptual struggles ended when I learned that the original idea of the Trinity is NOT set out in the Bible. It began as a model for explaining how Christians believe in one God. Opponents of Christianity argued Christians were not monotheists since they believed in the Father and the Son, seemingly two gods. I have heard this multiple gods argument in my lifetime, it even came up in our Talking About God class last week.
To be fair the names we give to God can sound like we worship more than one God. Which is why in the late second century Tertullian tried to explain the Oneness of God using three of the aspects of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The notion had been around, but he set it out in detail. Tertullian called them personas, we call them persons in English, which unfortunately misses a part of the second century Latin meaning Tertullian was illustrating. Back in the day Personas was a term for characters that actors portrayed by wearing masks on stage. An actor could be experienced in different ways depending on the nature of the role, what his mask–persona– was. Think of it like the make-up someone like Dustin Hoffman might wear in different movies. For Little Big Man he appeared with old age make-up. For Hook he had a menacing fop pirate make-up thing going. In Tootsie he wore make-up for the persona of a man pretending to be the persona of a woman. One guy, Dustin Hoffman, in three very different roles. He’s always Dustin Hoffman, he was just experienced very differently as an old man, a pirate and a woman. Perceiving a being in three roles is basically the gist of Tertullian’s model to show we experience One God in different named roles. Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In our church, except in Baptisms, we tend to refer to these roles in the gender-neutral terms, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.
The Bible may not use the term “Trinity” but it does mention these roles. And while Christians experience God performing those three roles in the Bible and in their lives, that does not make God different actors, it makes God one actor, in three roles. In this way we can hear how the Trinity is not like Fluffy the three-headed dog. Rather God’s like a person with three roles. In other words, we experience God as a multifaceted being in different ways. God, of course, does not “act” in the sense of pretending to be a character in a theatrical play or movie, rather we experience God acting as God in creation.
In that sense the three personas of God are more like how we experience other humans over the course of a lifetime. We have different roles in life. We can even simultaneously be experienced in multiple roles. In the same room we can be someone’s child, someone’s parent, and someone’s spouse. God is also experienced in different roles in the life of creation. God creates, so the Spirit can be felt in all things. God relates, so through Christ we can know God. God contemplates so that the Creator knows in an instant how to remember and respond to all that is. In truth God is mostly incomprehensible to us. What God knows and considers and IS, is beyond us. But it helps us to understand our experiences of God if we can imagine God in terms we can put our heads around. The Trinity was a tool designed to try and do this.
We tend to make God in our image, even more so than God has made us in God’s image, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We can explain God being like us in some respects, at least metaphorically. Most people are experienced by others as someone in the background moving or occupying space. Our physical self is experienced distantly. But we can also be encountered by others close up in long- or short-term relationships where we engage on some personal level. Then there’s a part of us that shares thoughts with others, but most of our thoughts are not shared, they stay in our heads and we do things mostly only perceived by ourselves. We could sum all this up by saying in creation we can be experienced through physical, relational and mental presence; three very different, yet inter-related experiences of our beings on earth.
For example, most people in the world who experience me only just see or hear my physical being as I pass by them on a walk or driving down the road. A few are lucky and get to encounter me in a relationship of some sort. Maybe I buy a pair of shoes from one, maybe I meet another at church. Still another I encounter much more closely like my beloved spouse and children. But even those who have long term relationships with me never get to fully know me, because while many thoughts are stated in our relationships with others all of our thoughts are not revealed, most of them stay in our heads inaccessible to others.
Like the model I just used to explain me as physical, relational and mental experiences in creation, we can understand the Trinity model as categories of how God is experienced. A model that can help us better comprehend God. And if the Trinity model does work for you that is okay. It may be heretical to some in the church, but neither Jesus nor the Bible mention the model or the doctrine it evolved into. The model of the Trinity does not matter in scripture or in the Jesus following. Understanding that we are called to love God in creation, in ourselves and in others is what matters. The Trinity was just created as a way to help understand experiences of God.
There are a number of ways to consider Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit images – over the years I’ve mentioned a few. Today let’s take the triad model of the physical, relational and mental aspects I just used to describe parts of me and apply those categories to God. Everyone experiences God in the physical world, whether they acknowledge it or not. Our senses take in a persona of God all day. Warm. Cold. Sun. Clouds. Rain. Trees. Flowers. Bees. Mountains. Lakes. Gardens. Birds. Animals. Storms. Rainbows. Heartbeats. Breaths. As far as you can see there is God. God’s spirit is incarnate in all that is. The Bible often describes that Spirit as wind-like, blowing about and through all of creation. We can call this experience of God the Holy Spirit; it’s God acting incarnate in the world. As Psalm 19 in our invocation puts it “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims [God’s] his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” The Spirit can be understood as naming that part of God we encounter in day-to-day creation where we live and move and have our being.
As a religious people we have found that we can have a personal relationship with God. As Christians we understand that we can relate to God through Christ. Christ is the name we give to how we acquire and maintain those relational experiences. We pray through Christ. We commune through Christ. We find that Christ, the part of God within humanity, helps us to not just see God or be moved by God as the Holy Spirit, but to also intentionally interact with God. Christ is the name we give to the means by which we relate to God in a personal way. For some it’s just once in a while, a more casual relationship. But we can also choose to have a deep relationship with God through Christ and it is very different than just seeing God out in creation. It’s transformative.
By letting God into our lives – through Christ– a dynamic relationship ensues. This includes, of course, relating to Christ in others, a good example of this is in Matthew 25 where helping those less fortunate is a relational encounter with Christ. We meet God in the least amongst us by relating to Christ in them. So, we can see the Spirit of God in creation, and Christ within relating to God. But the God in creation and to whom we relate through Christ is more than creation and more than the relating we experience.
God is also dynamic in other respects. We cannot even fathom all that God might think about or how God is love or how God responds and knows and pulls the universe toward creation and love and justice and shalom. The book of Job indicates God’s doings in the universe and our experience of them are on so many levels a great mystery. After questioning God’s decision and hearing from God how great and miraculous and incomprehensible God’s actions are, Job’s response includes this remarkable sentence “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” God’s mind, what we might call in human terms, mental faculties, are far beyond what we can comprehend. Paul put it like this is 1 Corinthians “ now we see in a mirror dimly . . .now [we] know only in part . . .” (1 Cor 13: 9, 12).
In our lives, as omnipresent and powerful as God is we only experience a very small part of God. Some of it as Spirit. Some of it as Christ. A little bit more as Creator. But there is much about God we do not know– kinda like the part of each other’s minds we can never know only trillions and trillions of times more expansive. There is a mind of God, we experience only a little of it, but we are aware of its existence. Given the great mystery that God truly is, and the dim mirror by which we see God’s image, it is no wonder that the Trinity model is hard for some of us to comprehend. God is hard to comprehend at any level.
The Trinity can be helpful. It’s a way to help us better understand our experiences God, even while knowing that ultimately God cannot be understood except (as Paul put it) only in part . . . and dimly. The good news is that a part of what we can understand is that God’s Spirit blows through all of creation, that through Christ we can relate to all of God even though there is much of the Creator that we cannot know. And in the end no matter how much we understand or don’t understand, God in all roles loves us steadfastly and forever! And I say hallelujah and AMEN to that!
* based in part on a sermon I first wrote in 2010
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