In a survey carried out a while ago, clergy were asked which Sundays of the year were the most difficult to preach on, and guess which one came first? Yes, it was today – Trinity Sunday. (The second, incidentally, you might be interested to know, was Remembrance Sunday.) Some studiously avoid preaching today, as they feel obliged to try somehow to ‘explain’ the Trinity. Now, weighty theological tomes have been written about this doctrine, and doubtless many great sermons have sought to expound its meaning. Yet, so often, words fail us. Even the words we have, like those we say and sing this morning – the Gloria, the creed, the readings, the Eucharistic prayer, the hymns, and certainly the sermon – have their limitations. For all these words point beyond themselves to something which may, in reality, be inexpressible.
On Trinity Sunday, we realise the impossibility of ever doing God justice by talking about him. We ask too much of language when we expect it to convey this profoundest mystery of all. As T.S. Eliot put it: “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place.” For how can we speak about the God who is both high and deep, beyond us yet within us, encompassing all that has been, and is, and is yet to come? ‘To whom then will you compare God?’ asks the prophet. I don’t know about you, but I can barely comprehend the mystery of another human being, or my own self, let alone the mystery of God.
Paradoxically, perhaps what the preacher on Trinity Sunday should be saying is that there is nothing to be said. On this holy ground, seeking to encounter this mystery we call God, we can only be silent. Trinity Sunday could make contemplatives out of all of us. Pascal once said that all our troubles derive from one basic fault: our inability to sit still in a room. That is what the contemplatives and mystics down the centuries have always understood. They teach us that, when the words run out, we become open to God in new ways. Well, there’s one idea for getting out of preaching a sermon today! However…
I guess the Trinity is a concept many of us may struggle with. There is no explicit reference to a doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible, though some passages point towards the doctrine which became established in the Christian church very early on in its life. Paul alludes to it in the words of the benediction we are recognise: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’. Matthew’s Gospel does the same in the commission given to Jesus’ followers: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, though this has often been regarded by scholars as a later addition to the Gospel, perhaps stemming from early Christian worship.
What we have inherited from the church of the first few centuries of the Christian era is one way of trying to talk about God and to define the nature of God. It was a human attempt, which began in the second century and which developed in earnest after the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, to formulate an orthodox view of God and how God could be known: Father, Son, Holy Spirit; one in three, and three in one. And, ever since, people have wrestled with this mind-boggling mathematical conundrum. One understanding of the Trinity which has developed more recently, and which I certainly find helpful, is that it represents a perfect example of community between the three persons. They are so closely bound together that they are no longer three, but one. That notion of close communion is a powerful one for a fragmented world and fragmented people, and we’ve certainly seen enough evidence of that these past few days. Nonetheless, the mystery about the Trinity remains. And maybe that’s the point, for if God is who we say God is, isn’t God essentially a mystery beyond all our human thoughts, ideas and language? Well, yes, but….
The Christian tradition, uniquely, leads us to think otherwise. It says we can know something about God, for God has, indeed, entered fully into our human experience in Jesus. And Jesus is depicted, in John’s magisterial opening to his Gospel, as the Word who became flesh. And that leads me to wonder. Given that all our language is limited in attempting to talk about God, might not a whole range of complementary, rather than merely alternative, words and images be useful to put alongside that of the Trinity? After all, the Bible itself, our foundational text, offers many different images of God in its pages. Among them are God as warrior, liberator, restorer, healer, shepherd, rock or refuge. It is obviously the case that the tradition of the church speaks of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but it would be sad to suppose that revelation, and thinking about the being and nature of God, ended once the decisions of early church councils had been made.
Yes, all our language is, in the end, inadequate. But we have to carry on attempting to talk about God in the only way we can as humans – through language. It is language which gives meaning to the human experience, and which shapes our understanding of reality. That is why language, and the way we use it, is so crucial. And one of the most important things to remember about language is that it changes and develops: it is organic, not static. That is why the Church invests quite a lot of time and energy in looking again at its liturgies from time to time. It’s also why the words of hymns are revised occasionally, or new hymns enter the repertoire. It is not just change for change’s sake, even though that might be our initial reaction to changes in language. It is through language that we can, at least tentatively, express what we understand about the nature of God, and our experience of God. But all the language in the world will never be able to sum up God, and all our images put together will never exhaust the divine.
There are two potential risks here. First, the church – being a hierarchical institution quite keen on retaining its power and influence – may try to stifle any thinking about God which departs from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit formula. But, second (the other side of the coin), the very freedom of expression language gives us can too easily let us fall into the trap of making God into what we want God to be, and that could lead us so far away from inherited Christian belief that what we believe becomes unrecognisable, something else altogether, when put alongside the church’s heritage of belief about God. So, I am certainly not suggesting we should abandon the traditional teaching of the church that God can be known and spoken of as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I still want to encourage us to be adventurous in the language and the images we use to talk about the divine. So don’t be anxious when a sermon opens with the words ‘In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer’ rather than ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. And don’t get agitated when God is referred to as Mother, or she, or when a hymn adjusts an older text slightly. We may not always like the changes made, and we might get on our high horse about PC language and inclusivity gone mad. Let us at least recognize that these, too, are attempts to say something meaningful about the divine and about the divine relationship with our humanity. Let me end traditionally: as we look to encounter the divine in a million and more different ways, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you, be with us.