7 June 2009
10.30 Woodchurch Holy Communion
New Testament Romans 8:12-17
May I speak in the Name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today is Trinity Sunday, which is a principal feast in the Church’s calendar – in fact today is so significant that the next 20 weeks, are all named after today – next week is called the first week after Trinity and so on until the end of October, when we start the count down to Advent. So nearly five months of the church’s year is counted from today.
So what is so important about Trinity Sunday? In the prayer that I just said, and which I pray before every sermon, I prayed that I would speak in the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God, but three persons – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. These are words that sometimes trip off our tongues too easily in church but they lay at the heart of our faith and the concept of the trinity – the tri-unity – the three in one is what makes Christianity so distinctive from the other faiths which trace their roots back to the Old Testament, Judaism and Islam.
Many non-Christians take the view that worshipping God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit means that Christianity is not a monotheistic religion at all (i.e. worshipping one God) but is actually a tri-theistic religion worshipping three Gods. And in some ways it would have been intellectually easier for us if the early Church had said either that only God the Father is truly God and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are less than divine or had they said that all three are fully God and, therefore, that we have three Gods and that is the Christian way. Both of those were the easy options. But the early Church did not take either of those easy options – they took the view on the basis of scripture but primarily on the basis of their experience of being with Jesus and their experience of the reality of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and afterwards that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are separate persons each with full divinity and yet, and here is the really challenging part, that they are so intimately related, so intertwined with each other, so much of the same Godly substance, that they are also one God. One God in three persons, each of whom is fully God.
Now this is not easy for us to understand – how can something really be three and one at the same time? That is not something we encounter in our everyday lives and so we struggle to find metaphors to try and convey the meaning of this mysterious way of being: I’m sure you have heard them all – an egg is comprised of a shell, a white and a yoke yet it remains one egg, a clover leaf has three leaves and yet it is still one clover leaf, water can be ice, liquid or steam yet it is still water.
These metaphors or images may be useful on one level but they should also be treated with caution because they do not, because they cannot, tell us the whole story – the shell, the white and the yoke may be the constituent parts of an egg but none of them, on their own is fully an egg – a shell without the white and the yoke is merely a shell, an egg white on its own is not fully an egg and neither is a yoke. Similarly with the three-leafed clover – none of the leaves on their own constitutes a three leafed clover – yet God the Father is fully God, God the Son is fully God and God the Holy Spirit is fully God on their own and in relation with each other. The water metaphor ultimately does not work firstly because it treats God as one being operating in three different modes, and for those who are interested in such things modalism was actually condemned as a heresy, but it also ignores the fact that water never exists as ice, liquid and steam at the same time, and of course we believe that Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist together at the same time, from the beginning of time and even outside time.
But the human brain, by its very nature, likes to try and understand things and we search constantly for the perfect way to try and convey the way that the Trinity operates. We hope that if only we came across the perfect metaphor that everything would slot into place and we would grasp the interior life of God. Many artists and writers have taken part in this pilgrimage of understanding and one of the world’s greatest artistic representations of the Trinity is Rublev’s icon, a copy of which Vivienne gave me last year and which you may recognise as being on the back of my ember card.
I know you can’t all see it very well but you are more than welcome to look at it closely after the service – here we have three figures who are undoubtedly separate from one another as they are seated around the table. But when you look closely you will notice two things – the first is that their faces are all identical – they could be identical triplets who certainly all share the same substance, and the second thing is that they are each indicating towards the other, either with the way their hands are pointing or the way in which they are inclining their heads or both – Father in the middle inclines his head towards the Son and points towards Holy Spirit who inclines his head towards the Son who in turn inclines his head to the Father while pointing at the Holy Spirt and around and around the eye is taken from one figure to the next.
A more modern and more wordy picture of the trinity is to be found in this novel: The Shack by William Paul Young. This book has become a bit of a publishing sensation in the Christian world and I know that many of you have read it. Now of course this is only a novel and should not be treated as any more than that, and I have to say that some of the writing in the early chapters is a bit excruciating, but it does contain some very beautiful images of the Trinity – of the undoubted distinctiveness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit but also of the way in which they are intimately related and interact with one another. I shall say no more but I would certainly recommend it.
But even artistic endeavours such as these are, ultimately, only metaphors and to what extent do they really help us to understand how God works. I said a moment ago that the human brain always seeks understanding but maybe, just maybe, there comes a point when we accept that, in relation to some things, understanding will only ever take us so far and, beyond that, we just have to accept and experience things with our hearts rather than our minds, or perhaps with our minds in our hearts.
We are told in scripture that God is Love and, in today’s reading from John chapter 3, that it was God’s love for the world and his desire to redeem the world that lie behind the incarnation of Christ in Jesus. God is love and both created us and saved us out of love and for the sake of love. And we you start dealing in the language of love it quickly becomes clear how limited is the language of understanding. I have been married to Vivienne for nearly 15 years and love her deeply but do I fully understand her? I love my children more than my own life but is that love based on my understanding of them?
The Trinity is a relationship of love and God the Trinity’s relationship to the world and to each and every one of us without exception or qualification is a relationship of love. If we can’t fully understand love on a human level then how can we hope to understand and dissect the relationships of love that exist both within the trinity and for us?
And so on this Trinity Sunday I am not going to ask that you understand the concept of the Trinity but I am going to do something much more personal and, I hope, meaningful – I am going to ask you to let yourself know that you are deeply known, deeply forgiven and most of all deeply loved by God: the God that we know as Father Son and Holy Spirit.
Allow yourself to be loved by the Holy Trinity and allow yourself to love in return – to love God and all his other children.
Let us close in prayer:
God the Father, God beyond us, we adore you.
You are the depth of all that is.
You are the ground of our being.
We can never grasp you, yet you grasp us;
the universe speaks of you to us, and your love comes to us through Jesus.
God the Son, God beside us, we adore you.
You are the perfection of humanity.
You have shown us what human life should be like.
In you we see divine love and human greatness combined.
God the Spirit, God around us, we adore you.
You draw us to Jesus and the Father.
You are power within us.
You give us abundant life and can make us the men and women we are meant to be.
Father, Son and Spirit;
God beyond, beside and around us;
We adore you.