A sermon for Trinity Sunday
Preached at St Mary’s Potterne, Sunday 27th May 2018
The first question one might ask today is ‘Why have a Sunday dedicated to celebrating a doctrine, to celebrating a Church teaching?’ It is much more straightforward to understand why we celebrate Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, commemorating specific events, moments in history, or at least our salvation history. However, why would we celebrate a concept, even a concept that is nowhere to be found in the Bible explicitly, as it was only first mentioned by the Church Fathers in the late 2nd century?
On the other hand, one could argue it is the most important Feast we celebrate, because the doctrine of the Trinity is the culmination of our understanding of who God is. It is the recognition that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet one God. Three, yet one.
Although we say this in our Creed week after week, for many of us it is still a question: what does this mean? My 14- and 15-year old GCSE pupils faithfully copy the answer from the textbook, that God is the Father; God is the Son and God is the Holy Spirit, but that yet the Father is not the Son etc. And maybe these words are familiar to us too.
However, what I would like to suggest this morning is that this knowledge is not necessarily getting us very far. When we approach the Trinity, or maybe more simply put, when we approach God, we are not approaching a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be entered into.
To avoid getting too deeply into theology and philosophy, let me give an example. Could you bring to mind a person you have known for quite a long time? I guess, for most of us, this will be a person we have got to know reasonably well, and in most cases someone we like or have come to appreciate. When thinking about this person, over time, we will have learnt a number of things about them. How old they are, where they live and have lived. Maybe which school and university they went to, and – if they are very good friends – we may even have discussed politics or religion.
Over time, we have got to know a lot about this person. We may even be able to predict and anticipate their behaviour and reaction to things. However, I suspect, that there are still things we learn about this person that occasionally surprise us. There is always more to know.
Moreover, I think very few of us have entered into any relationship with another person only to know more about them. No, instead, we want to get to know our friends, and when we think about it, we realise that this is a never-ending process. So, as we approach others, especially those whom we know, we approach them not as a problem to be solved, but someone with whom we form a relationship. In addition to this, I suspect that most of the time, we don’t even really think about how we approach them, or what their identity is, we just relate to them.
I would like to suggest that this is very similar to where we start when we relate to God. I don’t think many people will start their journey of faith by thinking about the Trinity. Our starting point is an experience of God which draws us into a relationship. Although there is only one God, that experience will be different for each of us. Some will meet God in the words of Scripture. Others will have the strongest sense of an encounter when listening to music or seeing a piece of art. And yet others, many others, will meet God in another person. In their gaze, their love or their need. And, as I said, it is that encounter that draws us into a relationship with God.
Having started by comparing our relationship with God to our relationship with others, this comparison starts breaking down rather quickly. And it is precisely here that the concept of the Trinity becomes something that will aid us to draw deeper into our relationship with God.
When we try to speak about God, we quickly realise how difficult this is. God is not like one of us, although that is how we can meet him in the person of Jesus. God is above and beyond everything, yet we can meet him in ways that feel more personal than any other encounter we may have had.
When we try to speak truthfully about God, we realise that our normal understanding of the world doesn’t apply to God. This is what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, as we hear in our Gospel reading [John 3.1–17], when he says that he needs to be born from above. To be drawn deeper into a relationship with God, we need to let go of what we think we know, of the things of the flesh, and start again, be born of the Spirit.
Instead of using words to define things and tie them down, we need to start using words to make a beginning, to build things up. So that is how we need to approach the Trinity. By seeing its apparent inconsistencies as ways that open up a deeper understanding, ways that open up a conversation between God and us.
At the heart of our understanding of the Trinity is relationship. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are in continuous conversation with each other, and we are invited into this conversation. Of course, would one try to say this to someone like Richard Dawkins or any other convinced atheist, it doesn’t make sense, but it does when we have started that relationship with God already.
But, one can ask, where do we start? If we haven’t had an encounter with God, we’re unlikely to pray for one, as to whom would we be praying? However, if we’re not open to an encounter, will we ever experience one, as we have already dismissed the idea in advance? It is here again that the Christian understanding of the Trinity can help. We believe that the Spirit is already at work in each of us. We don’t have to start the conversation with God, because he has already done so. It is up to us not to withdraw from it.
And it is on that thought that I’d like to finish. Whether it’s our conversation with others or with God, the only thing we can really do wrong is to withdraw. Saying the wrong thing can be redeemed by forgiveness, but only if the conversation is still going. When the conversation stops, all is lost.
That brings us from Trinity Sunday, the culmination of our journey through Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, all the way back to Christmas Eve: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Amen.