Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 15 June 2015: Year A, Trinity Sunday
God of many names!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
There’s a joke about a man who was once asked what he had wanted to be when he grew up, who answered, ‘When I was growing up, I wanted to be an orphan’! Fortunately, for most of us and for most of the time, our parents provided security and love as we grew up. And so, on this Father’s Day, as on Mother’s Day, children say ‘thanks’ to their parents; and parents ponder what their children have meant to them. Family relationships are often deep and enduring. But they all have their ups and downs. Some are frankly disastrous, which is why not everyone feels they can celebrate Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day. For we humans are not perfect. Our relationships are not perfect. Not all children are perfect, and not all parents are perfect.
Today, we hear Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew describe God as ‘Father’. He speaks of a Father who looks after us- if he looks after even the birds and the flowers, why should we worry about anything? A bit further on in this collection of sayings, Matthew tells us that Jesus asked his audience, ‘Would any of you who are fathers give your son a stone when he asks for bread? Or would you give him a snake when he asks for a fish? As bad as you are, you know how to give good things to your children. How much more, then, will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’
Jesus is using an old preacher’s technique here, teaching us about God with an example from our own human experience: We all know that even not very good human fathers will usually be good to their children. Well, says Jesus, imagine God as the best, most perfect father imaginable. Then you begin to understand what God is like.
We should take the Bible seriously, but not too literally. It is not that God is our Father- a male human- but that God is like a Father. Now, you may have a skewed idea about fathers. If your father beat you up, or if he was more often absent than there for you- well, your heavenly Father is not like that. Your Father in heaven has all the qualities of the best possible father. If your earthly father gave you good things when you were growing up, your heavenly Father is even more generous to you.
My own father actually built the house we lived in for most of my childhood. So I’m probably quite comfortable with the idea of a father also being a creator. It’s this aspect of God which the first reading brings us face to face with today. The creation stories of Genesis are also to be take seriously- very, very seriously. The foundation stone of what I believe about God is contained in the very first verse of Genesis: ‘In the beginning… God created the universe’. Just as my earthly father built the house I grew up in, so I believe my heavenly Father built this planet and the universe and all that we need for life. And not only did God create it all, but God- through his Spirit- keeps it all growing and flourishing and developing.
So I take Genesis seriously, but not literally. I don’t think the universe was created by in six days, but I do firmly believe that it was the God whom Jesus says we can call ‘Father’ who created the universe. In whom else should I put my confidence? And this perfect Father, creator of the universe, is still yet at work, still creating, still bringing new life, new hope, new ideas into the world. Once again, I find that Genesis sums it up- ‘In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water’. The old Hebrew poet asks us to imagine the unimaginable- the time before time, before anything existed. The Hebrews were not great sailors, and so the poet imagines a primeval chaos, in which there is nothing solid created yet, only a raging ocean. But even over the chaos, the Spirit of God hovers, light is created, soon land will come from the water, and sun and the moon, animals and plants and even human beings- order from the chaos. God’s Spirit is God at work in the world, creating, sustaining all that is, all life, all of us, everything around us.
‘Look at the birds: they do not plant seeds, gather a harvest and put it in barns; yet your Father in heaven takes care of them! Aren’t you worth much more than birds?’ asks Jesus. Of course we are. And we are cared for by the creator of heaven and earth, who looks after us like a perfect Father. ‘Father’ is just about the only name or title which Jesus uses for God. He even teaches his disciples to pray with the words, ‘Our Father’.
It’s lovely that Jesus spoke about God in such human terms. Perhaps because he did use the word ‘Father’ so often in his teaching, it’s not surprising that the church came to see him as the Son of God. But, again, there is limit to the analogy. When we speak of God as Father and Jesus as his Son, we have to understand that this is using our human experience to understand something we can’t really comprehend. The God of Israel is not like the old Greek or Roman gods, whom the legends said actually had sons. Instead, our use of the word ‘son’ implies a special, very close relationship- the relation that Jesus had to God. We can hardly understand just how close that relationship was. But we do know that that was what made Jesus special. He spoke of ‘going about my Father’s work’, almost as, perhaps, a prince might represent his father the king at some event or other, acting on his behalf.
A difficulty with some of this language is that the imagery of father and son suggests, of course, maleness. For the Bible comes to us from a male-dominated culture. We’ve got used to calling God ‘Father’, and often use ‘he’ or ‘him’ as pronouns to refer to God. When artists depict God- as in Michelangelo’s famous picture of God creating Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel- God is often pictured as a man (usually an old man). But all this can be misleading. We have to remind ourselves that gender is really not the important thing here- in fact, it can be misleading. God is sexless- neither male nor female. If we call God ‘Father’, that doesn’t mean that God is man. Nor is it an excuse for sexism of any kind.
The next hymn we are going to sing is called ‘God of many names’. It’s a reminder to us that in the Bible, there are many names, titles, images for God. On this Trinity Sunday, for example, we especially think of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But as with all religious language, these terms are analogies. We can only push them too far.
And so the hymn speaks of ‘Strong mother God’, which might seem a bit of a surprise. But it isn’t heresy. It’s simply accepting that there are many names we can use of the God of the Bible, none of which can ever quite capture the full majesty and wonder of God. The truth is that God’s is so close to us, that God loves us so much, that God is like the best parent ever.
Not only did the Church understand Jesus as the special Son of God- St Paul took the idea of a family, and spoke of those who had come to know God through Christ as being ‘son and daughters of God’. We are brothers and sisters, relating to God through Jesus, as God’s Spirit moves us. Listen to this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, as he really stretches these family metaphors:
Those who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s children. For the Spirit that God has given you does not make you slaves and cause you to be afraid; instead, the Spirit makes you God’s children, and by the Spirit’s power we cry out to God, “Father! my Father!” God’s Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God’s children. Since we are his children, we will possess the blessings he keeps for his people, and we will also possess with Christ what God has kept for him; for if we share Christ’s suffering, we will also share his glory.
On this Trinity Sunday, we are not trying to get round a maths puzzle, attempting to make three out of one or one out of three. Rather, the Trinity is an idea which developed out of the prayer and worship of the Church. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Christ commands his disciples, ‘Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’. These words- which we still adhere to when we baptise- speak of the reality of what it means to be a Christian. We worship our creator God, through his Son (and our brother) Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Believers in other faiths will have other names for God. But we Christians know God as Father, Son and Spirit- words which sum up the reality of God as Christians have come to know God. They are not perfect words, and they are not the only words. But they are words which speak of love, family, and relationships, summing up our experience of God.
Ascription of Praise
Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and shall be forever, Amen.
BCO 1994, p586
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo