THE THREEFOLD EXPERIENCE OF GOD
Trinity Sunday Year A. Ex. 34:4b-6, 8-9; 2 Cor.13:11-13;
AIM: To explain the doctrine of the Trinity in terms intelligible to the hearers and fruitful for their lives.
Can we describe God? Down through the ages preachers have asked this question; and never more than on this Trinity Sunday, when we preachers have the task of explaining what it means to say that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
A story beloved of preachers tells of how the great fifth-century North African bishop
Augustine strolled along the shore of the Mediterranean
wondering how to explain the Trinity. As he did so, he saw a little girl going
back and forth into the sea, filling a small bucket with water which she poured
into a hole she had dug in the sand. “What are you doing, dear?” Augustine
asked. “I’m trying to empty the sea into this hole,” the child replied. “How do
you think that with your little bucket you can possibly empty this immense
ocean into this tiny hole?” Augustine countered. To which the girl replied:
“And how do you, with your small head, think you can comprehend the immensity
of God?” No sooner had the girl spoken these words than she disappeared.
The story contains an important truth. God is a mystery: not in the sense that we can understand nothing about God; but that what we can understand is always less than what we cannot understand. Pope Benedict, who has a special love for
, put that little girl’s shell into his coat
of arms as a reminder of the mystery with which God is surrounded. One thing we
can understand, however, is how
people have experienced God. St.
Our first reading shows us Moses experiencing God in a cloud — a symbol of mystery, for in a cloud we cannot see clearly. The same divine cloud appears at Jesus’ Transfiguration, when his clothes and face shine with heavenly light. A cloud enveloped Jesus at his Ascension. At the Transfiguration Peter, James, and
experience fear, and bow down in worship. Moses does the same in our first
reading. The witnesses to Jesus’ Ascension also bowed down in worship. This is
the first way people experience God in the Bible: as the utterly Other, whose
presence inspires awe and compels worship.
At the very moment, however, in which Moses was worshiping the true God atop
his people below were bowing down in worship to a golden calf: a deity of their
own devising, who made no demands upon them; who symbolized a superhuman
virility and power which, the people vainly imagined, they could harness to
their own ends. That is idolatry — for the Bible one of the worst sins there
is. We become guilty of idolatry whenever we suppose that prayer and other
religious practices give us access to some supernatural power which we can turn
on or off like the light switch; which we can use to get whatever we want. God
always hears and answers prayer. But he does so in sovereign freedom: not at
the time, or in the way that we want — or think we can dictate. God is never at
our disposal. We are at his disposal.
God’s appearance to Moses at the very moment when Moses’ people were committing the ultimate sin of idolatry shows that God is not only mysterious and fearful. He is also tender and compassionate. He is a God of love. This is how Jesus experienced God. Our gospel reading reflects this experience: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life.”
Jesus devoted the whole of his earthly life to helping people experience God’s love. He demonstrated this love through deeds of compassion. He illustrated God’s love through stories, his parables, which are still told and pondered twenty centuries later. And on
Calvary he gave us the supreme example of love.
Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, his friends came to realize that he had not left them. He was still with them, though the manner of his presence was different. They recalled that Jesus had foretold this:
“I will not leave you orphans. I will come back to you” (Jn. 14:18).
“I will ask the Father and he will give you another to be your Advocate, who will be with you forever — the Spirit of truth” (Jn. 14:15).
“I shall see you again; then your hearts will rejoice with a joy no one can take from you” (Jn. 16:22). This joy at Jesus’ continuing presence is the third way people experience God.
Pondering these three ways in which people experienced God, the Church developed the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The God who is one is also three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the description, in formal religious language, of how we experience God. He is the utterly Other, who inspires awe and worship. But he is also a God of love, a love so amazing, so divine, so undeserved by sinners like ourselves that he kindles within us an answering love: love for God, love for our fellow humans. And whenever we experience God in either of these ways — as the almighty creator and Father of the universe whose presence inspires awe, or in his Son Jesus in whom we see unconditional love in human form — we are experiencing God in and through the power of his Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God at work in our world, and in our hearts and minds, here and now. The Spirit is God’s love: the love exchanged between Father and Son, the love poured into our hearts — not just to give us a warm feeling inside, but to share with others.
Our second reading, finally, speaks about this sharing: “Encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.”