SERMON TRINITY 22 MAY 2016
Today is a day on which it is known between ministers that many choose to have a little holiday, or have some other pressing engagement. Maybe you are lucky I am here! Today is Trinity Sunday and, as such, a day when we can get caught up in long theological words and abstract concepts that may do nothing much to enlighten our lives, let alone encourage our faith. And yet it is a day which marks one of the most important aspects of Christian faith. We just don’t like delving into it too much. There has been quite a run-up to this Trinity Sunday, hasn’t there? Jesus’ post resurrection appearances, the ascension, Pentecost, and now this. After this we settle down for progression through the long season of Pentecost which takes us right up to the end of the Church’s year.
Today is a day when, perhaps more than any other, a casual visitor to the church might be bemused. We have sung about cherubim and seraphim falling down before this God in three persons, the blessed Trinity. There is a lot of language that can be hard to make sense of. We could talk about the three persons of the Trinity being of one substance, about Jesus being begotten not created, but I don’t intend to start unpacking those concepts that the early church father wrestled over.
Where do we begin? Before we try and put three into one, let’s pause. What do you think of when you hear the word “God”? I can tell you now that we won’t all answer that in the same way. Some of us instinctively go to “God our heavenly Father” which could, at a pinch be broadened out to include Mother, though that is often seen as a modern invention, unscriptural and so on. And now is not the time to debate that. But “God our heavenly Father” is what come into the minds and hearts of many of us as our first thought. Others will have an emphasis on Jesus as being the core part of faith and the one to whom we instinctively turn. Still others will find the imagination captured by the Spirit, finding there what drives and energizes life. Let’s be clear, this is nothing to do with being right or wrong. There will be times in life when we look to one of these more than another. And I think it is a real blessing that we can do that.
We are mostly ok with the Threeness. It is when we try to make three go into one that it can seem like a conjuring trick for the brain. We aren’t used to thinking in threes. We can think in twos, in pairs, in a binary mindset. We do it all the time: Black and white, right and wrong, left and right, hard and soft, short and tall, and so on and so on. Too often the “right or wrong” dimension of that takes over. We easily get pushed into making choices when there are two things, thinking we have to prefer one over another. I think we can manage two-ness in relation to God more easily. Father and Son together, being one, is not too hard to comprehend. After all Jesus talked about being one with the Father and part of the mystery for us is in seeing Jesus as God incarnate, the Word made flesh. We can also deal with God being Father and Spirit together, because the Spirit seems to be God at work. Then Jesus and the Spirit. After all, we have heard in the last two weeks about Jesus promising that he would send the Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit that had empowered him. So it seems a bit easier to make two into one. But can we deal three? “God in three persons”?
Christians think of themselves as part of the monotheistic tradition, rooted in the firm belief of the Jews in the one true God in a world on many gods. You know, it’s easy for us to feel the one God concept is natural from where we stand after centuries of what could once be described as Christendom. Only in recent times have we become aware of different religions around us that do not follow one God, and we still often assume superiority towards our neighbours who may be Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or whatever. For the Jews, their monotheistic belief was what distinguished them, set them apart. In Jesus’ time the ruling power was from Rome, that powerful empire that dictated how people could live. People had their household gods and their different temple gods, never mind then having emperors who claimed deity. It wasn’t always easy for the Jews to claim that there is only one God.
Then along comes Jesus, who was accused of claiming to be the Son of God, which title, in the first three gospels, he didn’t name for himself. At his baptism the voice of God calls him his son. And even in John’s gospel, where he speaks of being the Son of God, his sonship was what he also wanted his disciples also to experience.
As regards the Spirit, there are many, many references to it in the Hebrew Scriptures. But it was something different to speak of God as actually being three, not one. The word “trinity” is never mentioned in the bible. Matthew, at the very end of his gospel, in words that are thought to have been added much later, talks about Jesus disciples being told to go and baptise people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But Matthew doesn’t make them into one. The doctrine of the Trinity didn’t appear until the late 4th century although people spoke of Father, Son and Holy Spirit had been spoken of from well before that. How that worked led to disagreement and the Council of Nicea was summoned by the Emperor Constantine in 325CE to help resolve differences that had arisen between different parts of the church. Constantine didn’t want any splits or disagreements in his realm. The Council produced the first agreed creed that tried to express how God could be three in one. It is hard to imagine the discussions that must have taken place and the language that they wrestled with. This first Nicene Creed was amended in 381. The Apostles Creed that is perhaps used more often comes from the eighth century.
The struggle to understand how Father, Son and Holy Spirit could all be one, equally, didn’t actually arise for quite a long time. To begin with people presumably just accepted what they discovered from their own experience. Nowadays many people feel uncomfortable with these creedal statements, because, how, really, can they express our personal experience of faith? For a start they say nothing of Jesus’ life and ministry. They move straight from his birth to his “suffering under Pontius Pilate”. It is quite an interesting exercise to think about what one might put into that gap. But however we may think, or not think about the Trinity, it is right there, a headline, if you like, about Christianity.
When I was talking with the Muslim students from Charles Sturt University a few weeks ago, the Trinity was something that they wanted us to explain. Three persons in one? How? Muslims don’t claim divinity for Mohammed. For Christians to do so for Jesus, who was also human, is a big stretch. Even accepting that as a matter of faith, we are still left with the “three persons.” The word “person” isn’t what we mean as an individual person when we use that word normally. It is actually the word “persona”. We sometimes talk about people having a different persona at different times. Have you seen films or plays like Shakespeare where the actors would hold a mask in front of their face to indicate another character? It’s more like that. We perhaps also get nearer to understanding it when we use descriptive words: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. They point to something that is often said, that “God” is not a noun but more a verb. If you can get your head around that.
But, however we want to think about it, the point is really not how much of a headache we are giving ourselves by trying to make sense of it. Rather it is about what it means for us. And here, I think, is where the Trinity gets exciting!
In our worship we often speak of words such as “God has called us here.” That is pointing to something about our humanity. We are all a three in one in a sense. We are all body, mind and spirit. I think we feel the truth in that. We get very caught up or bogged down, to use two contradictory metaphors, in the day by day issues of our lives. Our bodies are amazing creations but can let us down. We can become acutely aware of our physical vulnerability as well as our strength. And when we are ill, our bodies can demand an awful lot of our attention. Our minds are constantly on the go, holding too much information (look at what we have been doing so far in this sermon), stressing us out about decisions, trying to remember everything we need to do at work, at home, even at church. Our minds and our bodies together seem to demand our attention. When that happens, we can also be aware that this is not how life is meant to be. We hunger for more, deep down. We hunger for something more mysterious that can allow us to see differently, to find meaning in more than just our everyday routines and activities. I tried to express this hunger in a verse of a hymn I wrote that says “Deep in our hearts we long to fill that God-shaped space within, but all the efforts of our minds prove but a gesture thin.” Becoming aware of that God-shaped space within is, I believe, God calling to us. God puts a much needed hunger in our hearts, and that is what I hope we may find is fed a bit in worship.
But the God-shaped space is also about our yearning for love, our very basic need for relationship. Our relationships can anchor us, affirm us. They can also make us aware of gaps. Our relationships always have ups and downs. We can, indeed feel alone within them. When we feel alone we get lost. We lose the markers that remind us of who we are and what we might be, what purpose our lives could hold. That can happen to us at any age or stage of our lives, because it is something deeply human. One of the things that, hopefully, is becoming more widely appreciated is that as people age and lose their independence, what matters more than a place of security where one is cared for, fed and given their medication at the right time, is to know that one’s lives still has some value. However old or young we may be, we hunger for a love that understands us and that sees through our pretences and disguises. It is a spiritual need and when it is not met it can have physical and mental consequences.
Why are we here? I think we are here because God calls to us, whispers to us, gently leads us on to find him / her. God wants us to discover a relationship of love that is more meaningful than anything else because it fills that God-shaped space within. In the Trinity we have God who is always relational. God is not a static “one” but an interweaving Threeness that is constantly moving, threading into our lives, recreating through that dynamic energy of love that is God’s very nature. The Trinity is sometimes expressed as a dance of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, generating newness, not wanting us to be fixed but always to be ready to make new discoveries as we learn that this is an energy of love. This is not an enforcer, but an invitational God who calls out to us to see that God is ever at work recreating. Sometimes we are too blind or too set in our ways to see, but that doesn’t stop God’s activity. It couldn’t. And so, when we feel stuck, when it feels as if we don’t know where to turn, when we become depressed or burdened with failure, this relational God who is love will always wait beside us patiently, ready to whisper in our ear when the moment is right, ready to tap us on the shoulder and get us to turn around and realise there is a different way of looking at things.
God call us to come together, to form community as God is community: God who is the Father and Mother, the source of life and wisdom and so much more; Jesus who has shared our humanity and walked the road of our world’s suffering, showing us how to love, how to forgive, how to find healing and justice and peace; the Spirit who is ever active, empowering and renewing – this God is relational in God’s very being. And what we see is that that relationship cannot be exclusive and inward but is ever reaching out to humanity so that we may create our own relationships of love and our communities of caring. But there is always more than that too, because the very earth we share is part of this God’s good creation. This fragile planet and awe-inspiring universe is also what we are called into relationship with, to love and to care for. We may be making a pretty bad job of that, but see how life insists on bursting forth from within, adapting where it can, and even when it dies, most often becoming part of the renewal of more life! The example of trees sprouting back new growth after a fire has raged through is a wonderful image of this resurgent life.
We are not called to romanticise about this. We are invited to see what the realities are that surround us in our own lives and in the world. But we are invited to do this from faith in a God whose call is into relationship with God’s very self. Then we may find our hunger fed and our spirits nurtured. Then we may learn the true meaning of healing. God is love and, thank God, God is also relationship that reaches out to touch us so we can keep on finding ourselves.
We may make creedal statements, and we are about to do just that, but while these may unite us with people across the centuries and around the world, they can never encapsulate who we find God to be for ourselves, in our own lives. However else you may think of God, think of love and of relationship with you, whoever you are and whatever you may feel your life to be. That’s what the Trinity is all about.