Trinity Sunday - God in relationship

A sermon preached by Fr James Heard in the United Benefice on 15 June 2014

One of the great spiritual classics of our day is by a comedian called Revd Gerald Ambulance, entitled My Ministry Manual. In it he tells us ‘the twelve most popular questions I’ve come across in pastoral ministry, and the right answers’:

Problem 1: I’m feeling depressed
Answer: Nonsense! How can a Christian be depressed when God has filled the world with lovely things like redemption and theology and little baby birds? You must be totally ungrateful and a very bad Christian. Try counting your blessings. When I need cheering up, I just count other people’s blessings, but then I’m probably rather more spiritual than you. Anyway, it will all be all right when you are dead.

Problem 2: I have a really big problem, but it’s just too embarrassing for me to say what it is.
Answer: Come now, there is no need to feel burdened. All Christians have problems, however saved they are. Even I am sometimes tempted to be more humble than I ought. Remember, a problem shared is a new sermon illustration.

Problem 3: I’m confused about the Trinity. How can God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit all be God, if there’s only one God?
Answer: Look at it like this: once upon a time there were three little bunnies called Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. One day a nasty man caught them and put them in a rabbit pie. They were still three rabbits, but only one pie. (Although the pie got cut up into lots of pieces, admittedly.) To put it in plain language that even a complete dur-brain could understand, the three persons of the triune Godhead are one in substance, but in three hypostases. If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to ask someone else.

Many people have got themselves into an intellectual knot trying to make sense of the Trinity, attempting to provide an ‘answer’, as though the Trinity is a problem to be solved.
All of our services here have a Trinitarian shape. We began today’s service with the words: ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ The Trinity is explored in the Creed, we shall shortly baptise Otilie with the words from Mathew’s Gospel, and we shall end our service with the name of the Triune God. The liturgy maintains this particular shape because we are here to worship a Trinitarian God.

Understanding God as Trinity has caused huge confusion. Yet as the early church grappled with the nature of God they became convinced that the world was created by the triune God. A God that is relational in essence and in that essence the three persons commune with one another.

Perhaps part of the difficulty has been in the use of spatial metaphors. For example, the idea of ice, water and steam have been used to ‘explain’ the trinity. This is problematic because each substance can only be one thing at any one time – H02 is either ice or water or steam – whereas the Trinity has been understand as being three persons all at the same time. So rather than spatial metaphors, one Cambridge theologian has suggested a musical one. One harmonious chord is made up of three notes. Each note is separate and distinct (C is not E or G), but they work and cohere together in producing one chord. In this there is difference and yet unity.

What could be more apt than to speak of the Trinity as a three-note-resonance of life, mutually indwelling, without mutual exclusion and yet without merger, each occupying the same ‘space,’ yet recognizably and irreducibly distinct, mutually enhancing and establishing each other?

Others have described God the Trinity using the metaphor of dance. The early church fathers used the word ‘perichoresis’ to describe the interrelatedness of the Trinity: it means the inter-animation or co-indwelling of the persons of the Trinity. The ‘choresis’ of perichoresis, comes from a similar root to choreography - the mapping of dances.

The dynamic of the Christian God is the loving dance of eternity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit caught up in the powerful, yet wordless communication which we mimic in all our human dances.
In this dance, each partner cannot be confused with the others. They do not sort of merge into each other and loose their distinctiveness. Nor is one partner of greater worth than another. Instead, each partner plays a specific role, and the three of them move in rhythm, showing the utmost courtesy and affection and grace.

This is how a local resident of Campden Hill Square put it - Evelyn Underhill – writing in the middle of the First World War in Theophanies:
Heaven’s not a place…
No! ’tis a dance
Where love perpetual,
Maketh advance
Loved one to lover.

Yet this Trinitarian dance doesn’t remain closed. The circle breaks open. The Son and Spirit, while continuing to hold hands with the Father, extend their other hands to us, inviting us in to join the dance. So that we too become their partners and participate in the divine life. And as we are drawn into the sacred choreography, so we take on the characteristics of the other dancers in the Trinity. The fruit of the Spirit produces the traits of the Father and the Son: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

So far, this perhaps sounds rather abstract. And it is in someway. Trying to understand the nature of God is essentially impossibile, but this doesn’t stop theologians trying.

Nevertheless, reflecting upon God as Trinity, through music and dance, leads us to profound insights in ways of being human, of living in community and of how we are to be and do church.

Understanding God as Trinity means that there is no need to fear absorption and a loss of our own identity. With a Trinitarian understanding of God, we retain our distinctiveness, each person of the trinity has their own particular characteristics. And similarly, we don’t sort of dissolve into God and lose our identity. There is the possibility of unity, of intimacy and harmony and synchronicity, but also of differentiation and distinctness.

Having such an understanding will enable us to live as a church which can display that diversity and oneness. A united church yet with an enriching diversity. A church filled with carpenters, bankers, homemakers, actors, secretaries, lawyers, artists, plumbers, every one valued, and with no one viewed or treated as intrinsically better than anyone else.

God as trinity leads us to a way of being in community that challenges the evolutionary instinct that tells us that I can only survive at the expense of others. That idea sets up a way of living in ‘community’ that is essentially competitive, one where you’re always trying to get the upper hand. In contrast, a Trinitarian view is one of a generous self-giving love, of relationships that are affirming and where people delight when the others blossom and flower as people. This is our prayer for Ottilie – that she will know the love and care of a generous God who will love her for what she is and not despite what she is. She will walk with a God who affirms her humanity as something which is celebrated and not perpetually in need of correction.

The eternal dance of God the trinity has broken open. And the Son and Spirit extend their hands to Ottilie… and to us, inviting us in to join the dance so that we too become their partners and participate in the divine life. And what really matters is not how well we dance, thankfully.

What matters is that we get up, that we take a risk and try the first step. And before long we will be moving to the music and to the rhythm of the trinity and that joyful loving play will overflow to others.

Reference: Jeremy Begbie (ed.), Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts, (Baker, 2000)
Holland Park Benefice