Readings Isaiah 6.1-8, John 16.5-15
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Every trade has its jokes, and an old one for preachers is about Trinity Sunday. Most special days in the calendar, like Easter and Christmas, mark a moment in the story of Jesus, but Trinity Sunday is about a doctrine, the belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which was a magnet for great controversy in the early years of the church. So (it’s argued) today’s preacher runs the risk of committing obscure but terrible heresies or just being incomprehensible. For some, then, today is a bit of a preacher’s short straw, with a hiding-to-nothing quality about it, like making a pizza delivery to the home of Gordon Ramsey. But I don’t see it like that: if God is indeed as we see God on this day, then that is the God we must preach every day. There is a challenge to today, but it is not just for me, but for us all.
The danger is that we give the impression that this three-in-one God is a kind of puzzle, a celestial Rubik’s cube: you may succeed in lining up all the colours, but so what? How will that help anyone get through the week? Christians talk about God sees the Trinity as the fullest, richest, truest picture of God (and so I believe it to be). But if that is to mean anything, it has to face the victims. Let us think of Christian congregations blessed in the name of the Trinity today – in Syria, in Palestine, even in Greece, which may yet topple from economic distress into civil chaos, let alone our brothers and sisters of other faiths, and of none, whom today finds in trouble and in need, for any God concerned above all with Christians would be less than the God of the gospel. How do they all fit into this wonderful picture of God? There are things to say – indeed we explored some of them at this service earlier in the year – but explaining the ways of God is rather bloodless, when it is the sheer bloodiness of the world that is the issue.
The world into which Jesus came was equally bloody. The gospels know about earthquakes, they describe storms and collapsing buildings and callous violence; and Jesus, as a human being, is in the middle of it all. Yet John’s gospel is forced to describe him with ‘God’ language as well as human language. The ‘word’ of God that made the worlds has been embodied, made flesh, in Jesus (John 1.14). Jesus, then, is a figure in whom two worlds overlap: the world of God, and the world of fearful, hurting men and women.
We see that in today’s second reading, part of the long conversation in John’s gospel, set on the night before Jesus dies. He talks about the ‘Spirit of truth’ that he will send his friends from the Father. No part of the Bible has the doctrine of the Trinity spelt out for us, but here we tremble on the brink of it. John has Jesus say that the Spirit will take the truth that belongs to him and declare it to the disciples. And what is this truth that Jesus has? It is the truth that comes from the Father.
Though the psalm may call God a ‘rock’, this God of Jesus is no monolithic lump: here we see at work this trinity, this ‘threeness’ of Father and Son and – between them – the Spirit. Here is the to-and-fro, initiative and response, within the life and the very being of God. There are no gaps, no barriers, only that ceaseless giving and receiving of perfect love. And all this on the night before the cross, when Jesus the Son will drink to the dregs the cup of human pain and death. Is this a solution to the problem of suffering? No – it is, rather, a hint that every pulse of suffering is felt by God the One from whom all existence comes, the One whom we see in the face Jesus and in his wounded hands, the One whose Spirit ‘helps us in our weakness’ and suffering, as St Paul will say (Rom 8.26). And the One who raises Jesus from the dead is determined that pain and death shall not have the last word.
When Jesus says these words to his friends, he does not invite them merely to peep into the life of God. He promises that they will be drawn into that life. It is the mark of healthy religion that a glimpse of God – though perhaps frightening – is fascinating: it binds you, draws you in, demands a response. But what response can we make?
Prayer is where we start. If you doubt the point of praying, just ask someone in trouble if they would like you to pray for them, and I suspect you’ll find your answer. Prayer is not a substitute for action, it is itself an act, of aligning yourself with the purposes and energies of God. It therefore leads to further action, to work with God, who never ceases to work at bringing life out of death. This work with God may be as immediate as offering to be a welcomer or a reader at this service, to do your part to make this place even better at helping people meet God. Or it may be that God is calling you to respond in some part of life that is far beyond here but at the centre of God’s attention, for a God that was interested only in the life of the church would be less than the God of the gospel: that is the God who made the worlds, whose face we see in Jesus, whose Spirit is even now seeking to be at home in our hearts.
A glimpse of God – though perhaps frightening – is fascinating: it binds you, draws you in, it demands a response. In our first reading, Isaiah has a vision of God in the Temple, and he is fearful. Yet when God says, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ he answers, ‘Here am I. Send me.’