Sunday 26 May 2024 ~ Rev Hugh Perry

Bill Wallace asks a very important question in the opening lines of the Hymn we have just sung.

What image shall I use

to give a face to God?

There are plenty of Christians who find very little relevance in the doctrine of the trinity and are quite happy to worship a divine mystery they refer to as God.

However, there are some significant differences in the god worshiped by those who see themselves as patriotic Christian Nationalists and those, like Robin Meyers[1], who believe that Christians should concentrate on following Jesus rather than worshiping Jesus.  

Furthermore, just as our religious tradition tells us that we are created in God’s image, humanity has both the capacity and inclination to return the compliment and create a god in our image.  A divinity with our own worldview, ambitions, prejudice. A deity that completely agrees with us and offers us no challenge whatsoever.

So, what image shall we use?

Interestingly the answer, which became a fundamental and defining doctrine of the Christian Faith, came from Christian Nationalism, or more precisely Christian Imperialism. 

The Roman world was a pagan world where generals, kings and emperors went to astrologers and fortune-tellers before a battle seeking guidance on the outcome of the battle.  It would of course be a foolish general that went into battle knowing they were going to lose so what they really wanted to know was which god they should sacrifice to before the battle to ensure victory.

Before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine no doubt inspired by some sage or fortune teller, had a vision which convinced him that if he put the Christian symbol on his soldiers’ shields, he would be victorious.  Through victory at that battle in 312CE Constantine was able to claim the emperorship.  By that time Christianity had become the most widely spread religion in Roman World so vision or no vision it made sense to declare that Christians were not to be persecuted and Christianity became one of the official religions of Rome. 

But Constantine was a cunning politician, so he remained a pagan and offered sacrifices to all the various gods to keep favour with their supporters.  He was finally baptized shortly before his death, and it was his successors who made Christianity the only official religion of Rome.

It appears to have been important to Constantine’s reforms, in the pagan world of multiple gods and hierarchy of gods, that Christianity was seen as the religion that worshiped the only one true God.

The trouble was that Christian language spoke of Father, Son and Spirit, which sounded very like three divinities. 

Therefore, it was easy to conclude that Christianity wasn’t any different to all the other beliefs.  Especially the Greco-Roman Religions where the top-level gods had affairs with humans resulting in lesser deities with specific portfolios for various virtues and evils along with the mechanics of the natural world.

So, Constantine gathered the leaders of the church together at the council at Nicaea and wouldn’t let them go home until they produced Christendom’s most important white paper, the short form loyalty oath, we call the Nicene Creed.[2] 

That gave the framework of Trinitarian Theology, but the debate continued because, once the bishops got home, they wrote minority reports and had press conferences.  But neither Constantine or the church fathers should get all the blame.  The early church leaders had been searching for a loyalty statement for some time.  The understanding of God in Christ and Christ as God along with the Spirit was a long debate that bothered Christians both before and after Nicaea.

Furthermore, it was not just a debate among the church leaders.  A quotation from Gregory of Nyssa illustrates just how important a Trinitarian understanding was to ordinary people of the time. 

If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophises about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply, that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask, “Is my bath ready?’ the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.’

Certainly, the Emperor had total authority but then as now, everyone had an opinion.

Gregory, along with his older brother Basil bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and their common friend Gregory of Nazianzuz, are known as the three ‘Cappadocian Fathers.  They are credited with putting the finishing touches to Trinitarian theology.  Basil and Gregory also had an older sister called Macrina who Basil refers to as the teacher.  We can therefore presume she also influenced the debate but in a male focused society, got none of the credit. 

As already mentioned, this framing of language that created an understanding that people could affirm in a creed was just the finishing touches in a long debate.  But like all theological understanding Trinitarian understanding needed to be grounded in biblical text.

Fortunately, although Trinitarian theology is not spelled out anywhere in the Bible, the seeds of it certainly are.  So, the church fathers and mothers trawled the Bible for proof texts to answer the perplexing question for the Greco-Roman mind. 

It is also a question for us as we wonder, as we should, ‘what image shall I use to give a face to God?’

‘If there is only one God how can Jesus also be God and how can God and Christ be experienced as Spirit?’  As the latest and most spiritual and theological Gospel John provides the most proof texts. Therefore, so it is extremely likely that Trinitarian theology was beginning to evolve by the time John’s gospel was written, probably in Ephesus.

Church History can explain why it was important to the church in the third century.   But why should such highly enlightened Christians of the third millennium, such as us, give a toss about the doctrine of the trinity? 

For example, Robin Myers, is quite scathing of doctrine as he argues for Christian’s to act upon what they believe about Jesus rather than define that belief as if it was a certainty. 

However, one of the great virtues of theologians is they don’t agree with each other.  So, although Meyers has some very important things to say he is as capable of any of us to miss the point from time to time. 

Commenting on today’s reading Bill Loader’s concluding sentences in his commentary are very helpful in unravelling the sermon to Nicodemus we read this morning.  It is also helpful in understanding why Trinitarian theology is relevant to us. 

John, therefore, sets us on the way towards the doctrine of the trinity by insisting on the fact that relating to the person of the Son is relating to the Father, without equating the two, and that living in that relationship is living by the Spirit. By earthing faith and spirituality in a relationship and a person, rather than in momentous events or experiences, in places here or hereafter, John invites us to develop a spirituality which sees God in all of life’.[3]

As a cooperative species humanity is drawn to relationships with other humans.  By imaging the divine mystery with what we can learn about a first century person we are able to form an imagined relationship.  But, with only an imagined relationship with Jesus we are still able to project our own prejudices and hopes into our vision of Jesus.  Fortunately, the Gospels challenge such projections with the sayings and stories of Jesus.

But we need to also acknowledge the other ways we image the divine because together they all contribute to protecting us from building a god in our own image.  As Christians we admit to worshiping Jesus as God, but we place conditions on that understanding by also admitting he was a fully human person.  Therefore, Jesus he grew and learned in relationship with other people and the other characteristics of God. 

Like Jesus, we too are inspired and informed by the Spirit. But our relationship with our image of Jesus mediates that inspiration and saves us from redefining what it is to be Christian in ways that give us power over others.  We are also gripped with awe and wonder at the vastness of creation, yet we are drawn back from fear of the creative power by recognising the parent sibling relationship between Creator and Christ.  A relationship that reminds us that we, and all humanity, are part of the divine family.  The creator image can be a fearful image of earthquake wind and fire.  But as loving parent of the infant Jesus and the suffering Christ, the merciless evolution of natural selection is held in tension with the image of loving relationship.

What is most significant, and most forgotten, is the truth that, the Trinitarian formula holds these three images of the divine in relationship.  Divine revelation does not come in a list of rules and God does not appoint some megalomaniac to rule on behalf of the divine mystery.

As Jesus stressed that relationship as he preached to Nicodemus; ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3:16)

Our relationship with the divine mystery is grounded in the image of the Jesus of the Gospels and inspired and interpreted, for each of us, by the Spirit. 

What Image shall we use, A triune image, that recognises our inadequacies and the failings of the human condition, yet still calls to all humanity,

‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’  (Isaiah 6:8) 

Inspired by creation, in relationship with Christ and guided by the Spirit we can be confident to respond.

Here am I; send me!

[1] Robin Meyers The Underground Church and Saving Jesus From The Church

[2] Robin Meyers The Underground Church: Reclaiming the subversive way of Jesus  (London: SPCK, 2012 ), p.64.