Trinity Sunday 2019
Proverbs 8.1-4; Psalm 8; Romans 5.1-5; John 16.12-15
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preaching about the Trinity is difficult. I could have followed the Catholic priest who stood up to preach on Trinity Sunday and announced: ‘One God: three persons. More than two, less than four,’ and then sat down. But I think we are wrong to think of the Trinity as a kind of theological algebra for the advanced.
We are never going to get it, or understand it. We never quite grasp why it matters. There are all kinds of explanations available of course, involving clover leaves and shamrocks. Some suggest that we can boil it down to thinking of God acting towards us in three different ways. First through the Father who made us; then through the Son who saved us, and then through the Spirit who makes us holy. And this can help up to a point, but I don’t think this is really what the Trinity is all about.
When we attempt to explain the Trinity it is as though we imagine we are looking at God through a telescope or a microscope. As though God were an object at the end of our gaze. We imagine God the Father in front of us, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit – though the Spirit is less easy to imagine. But I am over here, God is over there. I can scrutinise this God, explore his credentials, decide whether he really exists or whether he is a figment of my imagination. And we may think, what’s wrong with that? After all there is no obvious Biblical narrative in which the Holy Trinity appears and explains itself. Nor does Jesus ever sit down with his disciples and teach them exactly what it is like to be one in being with the Father, or that the Holy Spirit is to be worshipped and glorified. Yet every week we stand and declare our faith in one God, the Father, the Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. This is the faith of the Church.
So how are we to come closer to what we profess to believe? There’s a phrase I like which comes from the rabbis of Judaism, that religious dogma is to be understood as ‘a fence around a mystery’. The mystery of God can never be explained or exhausted, but the fence guards the approach and indicates where we may fruitfully explore. The point is that we ever quite see God head on. The God we can choose whether to believe in or not is not the God of the scriptures.
So I come back to scripture. In our reading from Romans we are not told to think of God as the object of our prayers, but to think of ourselves as inside something which is already going on in God. ‘We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’.
We stand in the grace of God and the Spirit is poured into our hearts, and we have peace with God. We are already immersed in Christ and the Spirit is being poured into us. I think what Paul is trying to show us that we are inside a relationship of divine love which is already going on. There is no outside from where we can observe God with detachment, no place of scrutiny. We are embraced in the being of God. Yet we are not absorbed into God. There is no smothering or silencing of who we are. We matter. As today’s Psalm says, ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him? The Son of Man that thou dost remember him? Thou hast made him little lower than the angels, full of glory and honour’.
A similar theme is taken up in the Gospel. Jesus says to his disciples that he still has many things to say to them, but he does not say them. It is as though they have to reposition themselves in relation to Jesus. They are not to be like students in front of a teacher, appraising him and being appraised. They are not servants in front of their master, waiting to be told what to do. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel Jesus has said to them that he no longer calls them servants, but ‘friends’ (John 15.15). They are already inside the relationship between Jesus and the Father, Jesus and the Spirit and the Father. ‘All that the Father has is mine. The Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you. The Spirit will not speak on his own, but he will speak whatever he hears’.
So once again, scripture witnesses that we are already inside the relationship that Jesus has with the Father. In our Old Testament reading there is yet another hint of this. Wisdom appears as the agent of creation, a master-worker at God’s side as the universe comes into being. I was there! Wisdom says, I saw it, it is wonderful, and you human beings are part of it. Here are the seeds of the idea that God is not an object out there, but one whose very being is made up of a loving conversation. Creation arises from and rests inside an infinite wave of God’s love, all the time given and reciprocated. The things that compose this universe from atoms and molecules, to gravity, to the embrace of lovers and the cry of a child, all depend for their existence on what three words signify: ‘God is love’.
So what I want to suggest this morning is that the Trinity is not a bit of esoteric dogma, to weird and complicated for ordinary Christians to understand. It is who we are. It is why we are baptised into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is why the Creed is gift to Christians, the charter of our freedom and our hope.
Six hundred years ago the anchorite Julian of Norwich wrote: ‘I saw the Blessed Trinity working. I saw that there is fatherhood, Motherhood and Lordship, all in one God’. The sudden change in gender jolts us into recognising that the persons of the Trinity are more distinct and more united than we might have imagined. The fundamental point is that I am, you are, we are; because God is how God is. It took the early Christians several centuries to find words that would provide an adequate fence around the mystery of the Trinity, but all the time before this they had been praying and worshipping inside that mystery. An early Christian monk wrote of ‘the mind’s long journey to the Trinity’. The Trinity is mind-blowing. But it is also our homeland, our destination. Our reverence for the three persons gives us a new respect for the mystery of human personhood. We are not defined by our private choices, we don’t have to construct an acceptable identity, or believe in the person we try to make others believe in. We are most of all ourselves when we are least defended; when we become transparent to God, portals to the mystery of the one in three. The Trinity is our homeland and our mission order, to go and live the life in which we live, to share the grace in which we stand.
The Hospitality of Abraham, by Andrei Rublev, 14th century
The making of this icon was the subject of an epic black and white film by the Soviet film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky which was released in 1969 and told the story of Rublev’s life against the background of terrible war, famine and social disruption. At the very end of the film before the credits there was a long held shot of the icon in black and white which finally dissolved into colour, revealing the extraordinary brilliance of the blue undergarment of the left hand figure, who is normally taken to reveal God the Father.
Angela Tilby 17th June 2019