Trinity Sunday

A sermon preached by Clare Heard on Trinity Sunday

In thought for the day on Thursday from Bishop Graham James, he quoted a child who had mixed up his bible verses and said “Lying is an abomination unto the Lord and a very present help in trouble”.

Whilst lying may be an expedient way to get out of a tricky situation, it is never the right solution and ultimately damages the relationship involved. Indeed, the 10 commandments include one that tells us not to lie.

The Bishop went on to point to research that shows that a group of people together in discussion are far better at identifying lies than even the most trained individual. We are stronger as a collective group operating in discussion with one another.

James has been doing jury service these part two weeks, and the jury system seems to have recognised what this research has shown. And this all makes complete sense if we are created by a Trinitarian God.

Today is one of my favourite days in the Christian calendar because it is Trinity Sunday. When I was doing my studying to become a licensed lay minister, I think this was the doctrine I was most inspired by.

Whilst it appears a nonsense to those outside the church and a paradox to many within, I’m not sure how many of us often stop and think about the relevance it has for our faith and the way we live it out.

So what I would like to do today is to go back to basics. I’d like to think about who God is, in the light of this doctrine, and I hope that, if you don’t already, you will start to love and value it as something of ultimate significance and meaning for your life and faith – that’s my hope – it’s something of a tall order but I’m going to give it a go!

Priory notice – Abbot preached each Sunday except Trinity Sunday.....

The Trinity is a doctrine that developed over 300 years of reflection and prayer. As Christians looked at Scripture, at Jesus life and at the experience of the early church they realised that Father, Son and Spirit was the only possible description of the God they believed in – but it did take 300 years so we can’t imagine that we can get our heads around it in a 10 min sermon.

First doctrine, then why it matters......

Believing in a Trinitarian God holds on to the monotheistic faith of the Jewish people which says “The Lord your God is one”.

However, if we examine both Old and New Testaments we will find references to God’s word, breath, wisdom, spirit and Son. We have thus always believed in a God who has manifested himself and revealed himself in a number of ways.

The Trinity is a doctrine which says God is “Father, Son and Spirit” and yet God is one.

How can this be – 3 and 1? In the West, as I’ve said, this has always been considered a bit of a paradox. Various different analogies have been used to try and explain it – many of which may be helpful for children but often are very flawed (such as ice, water and steam – 3 forms of H2O but can’t be all 3 at the same time)

The Eastern Christian tradition has focused more on the actions of God in history to explain the Trinity. Each person has a slightly different part to play – the Father or Spirit could not have become incarnate – it is the Son who does this and becomes the saviour of the world and reveals God to us – self giving revelation.

The Father wills the world into creation (the Son and Spirit both do the will of the Father) – it is the Father who has the ‘ideas’, as it were – it is the Father who gives the Son and sends the Spirit.

The Spirit inspires and perfects – leads us and all creation towards God’s kingdom.

There are thus 3 identities within the Godhead but one divine action of creation, salvation and perfection.

We do need to be careful that we don’t fall back into modalism – this is not about roles, or modes, but about personhood – God is three persons, three identities, in one being.

The best analogy I’ve come across (from Jeremy Begbie) is that of a music chord........3 distinct notes, each different, and yet one harmonious sound. God is three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, but One God.

So why does this matter?

Believing in a Trinitarian God firstly allows us to legitimately say that God is love. Without the Trinity, God would need creation in order to be love (for love cannot exist in isolation) – but if we look at the Trinity we see 3 persons in loving relationship which neither absorb nor pull away from each other.

The relationship has been described as a dance in which each person has their own part and yet they dance in harmony as one – If you’ve ever seen really good dancing you’ll understand how this analogy works. So God is love within himself, not just in his actions towards us.

This understanding affirms both unity and diversity. God is 3 distinct identities – not trying to be the same or competing but affirming and appreciating each other in unified action.

Of course, if’s very hard to get the balance right. Historically, in the East, the church focussed on the three – leading to a lack of unity. Whilst in the West, society focussed on the one – leading to conformity. The typical church services for Eastern and Western churches illustrate this perfectly........[West doing everything together at the same time, east – different comings and goings, different things at different times]

So, in the West, the focus on the oneness of God led to conformity. People were expected to conform for the greater good – diversity was not valued and was seen as a threat. People felt like they were being absorbed into the greater picture and were losing themselves.

There was a strong reaction against this, particularly in the later part of the 20th century, leading to a culture of individualism. It is the individual and self who is important, rather than the wider community. Others can be seen as a threat to the “real me”. Individualism separates people from each other to try and preserve identity and ultimately leads to isolation.

The doctrine of the Trinity, in contrast, allows affirmation of diversity and unity to be held together. We can distinguish each other best through relationship, not separation. It is through loving relationship with others that we can best be affirmed and valued for who we are.

If we really believe in a Trinitarian God then we will cease to see differences of opinions, skin colour, upbringing and so on as a threat and will start to appreciate diversity. But at the same time, we will be holding on to the unity of God which calls us to love our neighbour and value them to live in harmony.

This understanding of God should affect everything – how we do church, how we do social care, how we do politics and so on.

It puts the primary value on relationships rather than power, self sufficiency, success or ability. It asks us to value people for who they are rather than what they can do – and also to value creation and the world around us. Most of us know, to some extent that this is true. Most people on their death beds are concerned about the people they love, not the work they haven’t managed to do – does anyone say as their last words – I should have spent more time in the office?

However, knowing this is true and really living it are quite different things.

How easy is it to love someone who has completely opposing ideas to yourself, to spend time with a disabled person, especially one who struggles to communicate in the usual ways, and build a relationship with them compared to a fit and well person – it can be hard. Yet most families with disabled members, as well as acknowledging the difficulties, will speak of the rewards and what those people bring and give.

Henri Nouwen – Catholic priest went to work at L’Arche community – when asked about how much he had to give up to do this (his study, teaching and so on), all he could focus on was what the residents had given him – these residents who could hardly talk, feed or dress themselves – but through the relationships he built with them he was rewarded and blessed in a way he could never have predicted.

Think how the world would change if people really valued each other, gave each other time and tried to understand those who were different from themselves.

Think how our politics might change if we put relationships before re-election and economic success. (e.g. disabled children schooling, care for the elderly). There are now think tanks that try and focus on what a society that values relationships would look like and then come up with strategies to how this could work economically (rather than starting with the economics and then trying to make the social structure work around it).

Obviously there are no easy answers but what belief in a Trinitarian God does is challenge our values and preconceptions. It does not allow us the simple choice of unity or diversity, love or justice, but asks us to hold them together.

So a Trinitarian God, requires us to emphasise the importance of creating and maintaining healthy and loving relationships with those around us.

We can say that God is love because he is the three persons in loving relationship – 3 identities, one substance. And this Trinitarian God loves us and wants us to join in and participate in this dance.

In the gospel reading today Jesus blows away what Nicodemus thinks he knows and instead makes the point that our knowledge of God comes from God alone. We need God’s Spirit to know God, we need Jesus for our salvation and we have him – because God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.

We are in Christ, adopted as children of God. As Paul points out– we are heirs with Christ and it is by the Spirit we understand this as the Spirit leads us into relationship with our heavenly Father.

Ultimately, I can talk about God and explain about doctrine but to know anything, really, you have to live in a relationship with it.  To know the Trinity, you have to relate, actively, to the Trinity.  It is not something just to think about.  It is revealed by being tasted.  It is a bit like friendship.

Even the smallest experience of God will help you to realise that this is about freedom. It’s about the freedom to be the person God made us to be and we do that through loving relationships with each other, with creation and with the Trinitarian God.

If we can experience this and catch something of the glory of God then I think we will all be impelled to say, with Isaiah, after his vision of God’s glory, “Here I am, send me”.