Trinity Sunday 2016
10.00 Hadlow Holy Communion
May I speak in the Name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Some of you may have heard during the course of last week that there has been a report published suggesting that women who come to church regularly tend to live longer than those who don’t. When I started digging into this story in a little more detail it seems that there have been similar reports going back for years which seem to point in the same general direction for both men and women – that being part of a church community increases the length of your life.
Well, I don’t believe in making too many grand claims so I can’t promise that you will live longer if you come to St. Mary’s regularly, I can only promise that it will definitely feel like it.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the day on which we are particularly urged to remember and think about the three-fold nature of God. And, of course, the church year did not come about by accident – just over two weeks ago we celebrated the feast of the Ascension, when the resurrected Jesus, God the Son, was lifted up to sit at the right hand of God the Father. And last week we celebrated Pentecost when God the Holy Spirit descended on the church to fill it with life. On Trinity Sunday we seek to draw those strands back together, but not into a unity, but rather into a tri-unity or a Trinity.
Now some Vicars I have known tend to get a little worried about Trinity Sunday, they seem to think that it is the only Sunday in the year when we have to talk about the nature of God, and that it is all rather difficult and complicated and hopefully we can get back to just talking about Jesus next week. But I hope, and I pray, that over the last three years or so of me preaching here it has become clear that the concept of the Trinity runs throughout my preaching and theology.
What does that actually mean? Well, for me it means that it is meaningless to talk about Jesus the man without also recognising that he is God the Son. That may sound obvious but I am still amazed at how many Christians routinely put Jesus and God into different categories. There was a picture doing the rounds on the internet a few weeks ago of an American holding up a placard saying: “Top three candidates for President: 1. God, 2. Jesus and 3. Donald Trump.”
Not only does that put Jesus into a different category from God but it also entirely misses out the Holy Spirit. It made me cross for other reasons too, but those are just the theological ones.
Of course we aren’t red-neck Trump supporters with all that entails on the intellectual front but how easy it is to think as God and Jesus rather than thinking of God the Father and God the Son.
And it is also meaningless to talk about the Holy Spirit without recognising that the Spirit is fully and completely God to the same extent as both the Father and the Son.
But I hope that I always make this clear in my preaching because, for me, the Trinity is not simply a tricky concept to be tackled once a year and then put back into the box marked ‘too difficult’, rather it is of such fundamental importance in the story of salvation we see worked out in Jesus Christ, in the story of the church of which we are a part and in the nature of the God whom we worship that the Trinitarian lens should be the lens through which we view and interpret our entire Christian journey.
And we should make no mistake that the concept of the Trinity – God in three persons but one God – is a uniquely Christian view of God.
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.
There has been much talk recently about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God and you will doubtless all know that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God and that Christians who speak Arabic refer to our God as Allah. However we cannot ignore what our respective scriptures and faiths actually say about God. The Koran pays high regard to both Jesus and Mary but it denies utterly the resurrection and the divinity of Jesus and it assets that God or Allah is a unity, never a tri-unity. Therefore in order for the Christian God to be the same as the Muslim view of Allah you literally have to strip out both God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, and, for me, that so changes the nature of God that, for me, the God that Muslims pray to is fundamentally different from the God I know and worship.
When I was studying for ordination on one of the very first evenings at college we were challenged to think about our faith as series of concentric circles surrounding a core. And we were asked to think about which bits of our faith we could strip away and live without, and which bits were the core and could not be removed without removing our faith altogether.
For example in the outermost circle we might place the building in which we worship. Now I love this building and I love ancient churches generally but if this building weren’t here and we had to worship in the school hall would we still be a church and would we still be Christians? Of course we would and so that circle can go. Although that may sound like an easy example I know there are plenty of people who would place the church building near to the core of their faith and react to any change to the building as an attack upon their faith.
And it is possible to go through the same thought process with any part of what it means to be a Christian – is the literal truth of the Genesis account of creation part of your core belief or could be said to be peripheral? It is a very interesting and challenging exercise and I commend it to you. Well, as you can probably guess, for me the irreducible core of my faith, the one thing I could not strip away and continue to call myself Christian, is the understanding of God as three persons sharing the same Godly nature. One of my student friends challenged me on this and said that surely the saving work of Jesus should be the core. My response was that Jesus saves us not because a good man laid down his life for others but because God the Son stepped into creation and died for us. Jesus was not promoted into the Trinity because of his work as a human, rather the story of Jesus is the story of the Trinitarian God reaching out to humanity in love.
Because, at heart, the Trinity is an eternal relationship of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But that is not a closed circuit relationship of love, rather it is one that continually invites us in – through the saving work of Jesus but also by the empowering work of the Spirit. Without God the Son and God the Spirit we are simply worshippers facing a distant deity but with God the Son taking on our humanity and God the Spirit dwelling within our humanity we are lifted up to partake of the very life of God.
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.