There’s a story about a science teacher who was trying to teach a group of fourth year boys. He stood at the front of the classroom explaining the subject when he noticed there was a boy at the back not paying attention. He stopped what he was saying and said to the boy, “what’s electricity?”
The boy realised he had been caught out. He looked around at the rest of the class, but no-one was going to give him an answer. “What’s electricity?”
What was he going to say?
He looked at the teacher and said, “Sir, I knew, but I’ve forgotten”.
The teacher looked at the rest of the class and said, “Do you hear that? The only person in the history of the whole world who ever knew what electricity was has forgotten”.
There will be a lot of clergy feeling like that boy today. It’s Trinity Sunday and they will stand up in the pulpit and will feel they have to explain God the Holy Trinity. Perhaps they will try to remember things they once learned in college, if they are like me they will have forgotten what little they did learn. Perhaps they will be motivated to take down from the shelves books they have not opened for years. Perhaps they will try to remember what the old professor said when he was trying to teach bored students Christian doctrine on a Friday afternoon. Perhaps they will feel like the boy in the story – they thought they knew the answer, but now they have forgotten.
Trying to understand God is not easy; trying to preach on Trinity Sunday is even harder.
Most days in the church year are about specific biblical events, about major points in the life of Jesus. Christmas is about his birth in Bethlehem. Epiphany recalls the visit of the wise men. Lent is a reminder of Jesus fasting forty days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. Good Friday marks the horrific crucifixion of Jesus. Easter Day celebrates the joyful resurrection of Jesus. Ascension Day reminds us of Jesus going back to heaven to reign at his Father’s side. Pentecost is the coming of the Holy Spirit to fill Christ’s people with the power of God. We can pick up our Bibles and we can read the Scriptural accounts of each of these events.
Today is different. Today is about God the Holy Trinity. Today is not about something you can point to, something you can put your finger on. Today is not about an event that can be described or a story that can be told. Today is about God, and God doesn’t fit in with the way people think, never has and never will.
Living in the 21st Century, we like to feel that we are in control of things. We have gone through the process of elections this weekend because we believe that it’s right that people determine the way the country is run. In almost every sphere of human activity there is a desire for democracy, for accountability, for transparency.
But God doesn’t fit into our democratic world view. He is not controlled by majority vote. He doesn’t do as we tell him, no matter how big our majority, God does not conform to any manifesto or programme.
God cannot be controlled, nor can God be simplified. We live at a time when dumbing down seems to be the universal trend. The television and ·the newspapers want to make everything simple when even readers of the tabloids know that there are many things in life that are not simple at all. When we read a story in a newspaper we know we are only getting part of the story. All of us have seen television reports where we have known that the reporter has been too lazy or too stupid to ask all the questions. This trend is so strong because people like black and white stories that are straightforward, the ‘old maxim ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ seems to ring very true.
Christians have problems with the media because God cannot be simplified. God is not simple – no matter how hard you try you cannot make God fit into the simple terms of a newspaper headline. All the words in the dictionary only start to explain God.
Trinity Sunday reminds us once a year that God is not like anything or God cannot be fitted into the mental capacities of the human brain. We can use all the terms from mathematics and geometry and science and philosophy; we can take all the ideas from art and from literature; we can take all of human knowledge and put it together and we would still not have God.
Saint Paul talks about us being like little children in 1 Corinthians 13. When we see God we put away all the childish things we think and believe now. Our vision of God now is but a poor reflection of the reality. When we come to church, when we try to understand the confusing things that all of us encounter from time to time, when we reach those moments in life when we ask what on earth this life is about, we are dealing with things we cannot cope with. It’s like trying to imagine the whole universe and then trying to think about what’s beyond it.
It is not in the spirit of our time to think about such things. We do not like what we cannot control. We do not wish to imagine things we cannot understand.
The Bible is a disturbing book for our times because it doesn’t allow any possibility that people can control this world. The writers of the Bible acknowledge God as God. They do not attempt to describe him, nowhere do they sit down and say, ‘God is this, this and this’. Instead we get just tiny glimpses.
Belief in God comes as a consequence of the facts of the experience of God in their lives. No-one can argue another person into belief. God cannot be crammed into human reason or argument. All we can do is to present what we know and allow people to decide for themselves.
The idea of God is not something which will fit into any explanation we can give. God is God, he is who he is, he cannot be controlled, he cannot be simplified.
This day, this Trinity Sunday, this day when we remember God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, prompts us at least once in a year to think about God as he is. Like the boy who thought he knew what electricity was, we will never have the answers in this world. But the God whom we now speak about in childish ways, we will one day see face to face.
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church at 9 am on Sunday, 7th June 2009