Isa 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
May I speak on this Trinity Sunday, in the name of the most blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a bit of a joke, or perhaps a cliché, in the Church of England that the curate always preaches on Trinity Sunday. By going to Africa Nicky has gone to rather extreme lengths to get out of that one!
But the reason that cliché exists is because many perceive Trinity Sunday as being the difficult one to preach on – and therefore good training and experience for the curate to have a go at. The concept of God being both three and one at the same time spends 51 weeks of the year locked away in the ‘too difficult to think about box’ and only brought out once a year in a flurry of unsatisfactory metaphors and heresies. And, after 10 minutes or so, when everyone is thoroughly confused it can be packed away again and we can return to thinking about God and Jesus and, sometimes, the Holy Spirit in distinct categories.
But I hope and I pray that in my relatively short time preaching amongst you that that is not the impression of the Trinity that I have given. For me the concept of the Trinity is not an abstract idea about God that we fail to understand once a year rather it is the lived and living experience of how God encounters us and how we encounter God. It is the Trinity which makes Christianity unique and it is because of the Trinity that we don’t stand far off from God but that we are sanctified and lifted up into the life of God – which is surely the goal of the Christian life.
Let me unpack that a little, trying to avoid both unsatisfactory metaphor and heresy.
Our first reading this morning was from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and, at first glance, it seems to convey an image of God which is anything but Trinitarian. I mentioned last week that if someone asks you whether you believe in God it is perfectly valid to ask what kind of God they are talking about and I suspect that for many people this image of God that we encounter in Isaiah will be exactly what they mean: A Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, the hem of his garment filling the temple and surrounded by incense and angels. Isn’t this exactly the sort of image of God that we sometimes feel a bit embarrassed about, but here it is, a thoroughly biblical vision of God.
The God of this vision is utterly holy – and, as I have said before, do not confuse holiness with niceness or politeness – this holiness is like a consuming fire which burns away everything that is not holy. In fact there is something there about the Eastern Orthodox view of hell, which is not a separate place away from God’s love but, rather, it Is how the unholy experience the presence of God. But that’s another sermon.
The God of this vision is so holy that even the angels, the serephs, have to cover their faces in His presence and Isaiah himself is terrified:
“Woe, is me, I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips…yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
There is a consistent thread in the Old Testament that for a mortal to look on God would be to die, because we could not stand to come into the presence of such pure holiness and live.
And yet, even in this image in which God seems so singular, so un-Trinitarian and so unapproachable, we are given hints that all may not be as it seems and that God seeks to reach out to his people.
First the hints: You may recognise the song of the angels who surround the throne, because these are the words of the Sanctus we sing each week. God is not just holy, he is “holy, holy, holy” This is one God, but he is thrice holy.
And then there are the words of God himself – he doesn’t say, ‘who will go for me, whom shall I send?’ but, rather, “whom shall I send, who will go for us.?” Both singular and plural, in the same sentence. And that may remind you of the words in Genesis, when God created humanity: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
But even more important than these hints of God’s plurality are the fact that God wants to reach out to his people. Don’t forget that the God we first encounter in Genesis did not sit far off on a throne, rather he walked amongst the trees and flowers of the Garden of Eden, wishing to enjoy and share his creation on a personal level – it was the fall of mankind which exiled us from the presence of God, rather than God wishing to be absent from us.
And in the prophets, including the prophet Isaiah, it is evident that God has no desire to sit in splendid isolation but, rather, that he keeps reaching out to his creation in love in order to bring them back to himself. Although Isaiah is aware of his unholiness and his unworthiness to stand in the presence of God, that is not an obstacle for God – his lips are touched with a burning coal and his sins are burned away and blotted out. “Who will go for us?” Isaiah says, “Here I am send me.” In a space of a few verses Isaiah is completely transformed from a sinful being to one able to speak God’s words to his people, in order to bring them home.
But, sadly we know that people are very good at ignoring prophets – in fact it seems to be human nature to prefer to ignore or kill prophets rather than take them seriously, because to take the call of God seriously is to run the risk of having to change ourselves.
Therefore, although God continually reached out to his people through the prophets, ultimately this did not bring the people home to God.
But, God does not give up on his people. God decided that there was only one way left to bring his people home, and that was to do the job himself – and this is where we fully see the ‘us-ness’ of Isaiah and Genesis become the ‘Threeness’ of the Trinity.
At Christmas we remember the Word of God stepping into creation and being born as Jesus. What makes Christianity so distinctive from both Islam and Judaism is that we don’t believe Jesus was simply another prophet, sent by God to proclaim his word to a fallen world. Although intellectually easier to understand, that has never been the position of Christianity, because that is not the Jesus we encounter in scripture. Rather, the Jesus we encounter in the bible the church understands to be both fully human and fully God – a mystical union of our human nature and God’s nature.
Of course, we know that the world followed it’s usual path of killing even Jesus, but the events of Easter and the Ascension remind us that death could not keep Jesus down and, in both his resurrection and ascension, God the Son redeemed and made holy our humanity and lifted it up into the very presence of God. God made our human bodies and said they were good, God was born into a human body and his embodiment sanctifies our embodiment, and the human body of Jesus is now an eternal part of the life of God.
How do we share communion with one another and with God? We become the body of Christ by sharing the body of Christ.
Last week, at Pentecost, we thought more deeply about God the Holy Spirit. About not only how he was present at the creation of the church on the first Pentecost, but about how he was also present at the creation of the world, present at the creation of Jesus, present at the baptism of Jesus and how Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit after he had gone, how the Holy Spirit would continue to instruct both the world and the church in the ways of God.
And our reading from John reminds us that the Holy Spirit was not only present at the Baptism of Jesus but is an essential part of each of our baptisms: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” And lest anyone think that these are mere hints that were only built upon by the later church then we should not forget the words of Jesus in the Great Commission: “Go and baptise all nations, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The Trinity is thoroughly biblical and is found on the lips of Jesus himself.
The threeness of God, the Trinity, is not a difficult piece of theology to grapple with once a year. Rather, it is an essential, I should say the essential, part of the economy of God, of God’s plan to lift us back up into his life – Threeness of person but unity of nature and purpose. There is no division in the life of God, but only communion – Father, Son and Holy Spirit speaking with one voice and one purpose. The Holy Spirit within us, inviting and prompting us to become ever deeper followers of God the Son and, as we become more Christ like, so we become sanctified and lifted up into the presence of God the Father.
Because, as our closing words of John remind us,: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This is the love and purpose of the One God, that we know and love as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.