If we are religious and live in a pluralist society, at least one question we have to answer is this: Do we all worship the same god? Of course, if God had created a simpler world with less complexity in the ways people think and experience reality, if God had not placed us within the movement of time—not only unfolding seasons of our own lives but successive cultures and changing language—there would be many more simple answers to all sorts of questions. But God has created this world and we have struggled for countless centuries to hear God speak and to see God at work and to express something of what we have found.
There is only one God, the one true and living God. If anyone stands in awe, thanksgiving, intercession, repentance, when any response is made to the mystery that is at the heart and source of things: there is only one God. And so we turn in the same direction, no matter what point of the compass we face. There is a reality that our words seek to reflect and there is a movement that begins outside our self when we pray, and so we all worship the same God because it is God moving within us who gives us the mind and the words and the desire to pray.
Prayer does not begin in us. It begins in the God who awakens in us a longing, a delight, a wonder that turns beyond ourselves and our world. We all worship the same God because there is only the one God. Any human who seeks or strives towards God is moved by God. We don’t hear it often enough, but the prologue to John’s Gospel tells us that “the light which enlightens all people was coming into the world” and Augustine included the entire human family when he said, “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” There is one reality towards which all our words point and one God who gives us mind and words and calls us out in awe, fear, love, and delight to worship.
And yet we will speak of that God in different ways and we will have encountered God in different circumstances. Language is different from one culture and from one time to another. The movement of God is not instantaneous, even in the sweep of the biblical story. The apostles knew more than the prophet’s had seen and the patriarchs did not see what the generation that came out of Egypt saw. The earliest Christians continued in the Temple and were rooted in the faith of their birth, and yet Paul argued for a place that Gentiles could occupy within the Church. Jesus knows that there is only so much the disciples can hear, and so he leaves the moment open and teaches them to expect that as he is and carries the Father’s Word, so the Holy Spirit will continually lead disciples into Truth; a threefold movement, from God’s eternity a single movement, in our experience the work of a lifetime and of many generations.
We all worship the same God, but we grow in our lives from childish to mature, in the movements of fear to hope and joy to sorrow and back, and in each movement we know and we reach for something particular. And in every age there is a way of knowing God that is both continuity yet new. We worship the same God, but we know that mystery in our own time and in each passing moment and changing situation of our own life we can know it more fully.
This Sunday, like the Creeds that we say daily in the office and weekly in the Eucharist, gives shape and definition to the experience that we have had of God, recognizing that at whatever point we stand and in every age of the Church’s history, there has been an encounter with God that can only adequately be described if a great deal is taken into account. And here, the creeds say, is what Christians have to take into account.
Paul, centuries before the Church clarified and shaped an understanding of the Trinity, draws out the work that God accomplishes. Christ, who in himself reconciles heaven and earth and then reconciles each one of us, and the Spirit are at work within us so that hope for nothing less than God’s own glory sustains, strengthens, and enlivens us. The Trinity is not only how we speak the truth about God but it is our experience. Through Christ we are brought into a new relationship with the Source of all and the Spirit works in us drawing us closer to God and to the people around us.
The mystery of God lies in the reality beyond our knowing, but it is found in the way our lives are drawn into that mystery. When we speak of God the holy and undivided Trinity, we are simply acknowledging the fullness of our experience of God, who is both more than our minds can contain yet known in the face of Jesus, and who is both the power to know and the desire to know.
This day’s collect speaks of us being given grace to acknowledge what we experience and to worship the God we encounter. We don’t celebrate a puzzle or an equation today; we give thanks for the Church’s witness to the fullness of God’s being and to the grace that gives peace in Christ and hope for this life and for more. We worship a God who exists in the eternal joy of knowing and being known, of mutual love. God was never an isolated thing, always this abounding life that is Love, and now that God has spoken to us, dwelt among us and carried our burdens, and forever more that God engages our hearts and minds and fires our imagination, working in us more than we can imagine.
So do we all worship the same God? Maybe the question to ask myself is, do I always worship this God? Sometimes I will hold a much smaller bit of the truth in mind and let my own false designs become all I know of God, or I let too much ill-formed or untested theology cloud my mind, or I just do not pay attention to the movement of God within that leads me to Jesus and reconciles me to the Father. Forgetting the truth, I will cringe before a god who is an ugly projection of my fear or I will imagine a god who shares my angers or resentments or who blesses my greed. And if my relationship with god is not so markedly demonic, it can be just as destructive if it is simply a wary or cautious avoidance. Without thinking, I can fall into a relationship with God that is not unlike the relationship of a teenager with his parent’s friends: you don’t want to annoy them, but you don’t think much about them either. Sometimes, that’s about how we acknowledge and worship. Nod, say something polite and keep moving. I can worship such small gods and I can create such very ugly idols.
The God we acknowledge and worship is transcendent and beyond the reach of words or images, and the God we worship is ready to hear and soothe the sorrows and fears that choke our breath. The God we worship is holy and righteous and will not look on cruelty or wickedness, and yet rejoices when the worst of us makes the first step towards holiness. The God we acknowledge and worship inhabits eternity holding in love the entire story from before the big bang until the whole creation is made new. And yet this God hears a child’s prayers as an ordinary day ends.
So do we all worship the same God? It’s probably not fair to the real convictions and insights (and it might miss the truths that can be contained in different approaches to God) to say we all worship the same God if that is simply an way to avoid thinking seriously about what I believe, to avoid listening to what the Church has taught and to ignore what my neighbors and strangers might say about God. There are somethings that I can believe about God that are flat wrong and there are things someone can believe about God that are dangerous. There is no virtue in not paying attention or not thinking clearly. There is a virtue in listening and treating with respect different conceptions about God and, since there is only one true and living God, there is no reason to assume that the “light that enlightens all” sheds no light in other places at other times. And if we ask why the Christian gospel isn’t heard and received, we might need to ask what sort of Christian witness the Church has given. If others don’t believe what we say, it might be because they have watched how we live.
Within a world full of many conceptions of God and across the endless centuries, this is what we believe and this is the God we worship. We stand within this relationship–through Christ, in the Spirit, reconciled to the Father–we live and pray, we acknowledge and worship the mystery of the Trinity. There is only the one God, and as we acknowledge with gratitude what we have seen of God in Christ and the work that the Spirit does within our lives, we live in hope for the day when all questions are answered, when faith is resolved in sight, and when what we can forget or confuse is obvious: God’s eternal love that overflows into creation and that brings creation and each of us to glory.
Preached by Father David Cobb
Trinity Sunday, 22 May 2016
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia