Sermon: Trinity Sunday, 27 May 2018, St John the Divine

Readings  Isaiah 6.1-8; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers


On Trinity Sunday we try to talk about God.  That is very difficult.  All our language about God is picture language.  The abstract language used by philosophers and theologians is just as much picture language as the more down-to-earth illustrations that have helped many of us relate to God when we say our prayers, or try to say something meaningful about God – when we call God Creator, Father, Guide, Strong Rock, Shepherd, or whatever else it might be.  I think the professional theologian who asserts that ‘the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa’, is no closer to the mystery of God than the child who looks at a three-leaf clover and finds it strange and beautiful.  Indeed, the clover, with its three in one nature, perhaps says more about the Trinity than any number of weighty theological volumes that have been written about this doctrine.  As so often, when confronted with mystery, words fail us.  And even the words we do have, like those we say and sing this morning – in the Gloria, the creed, the readings, the Eucharistic prayer, the hymns, and certainly the sermon –  all have their limitations.  For all these words point beyond themselves to something which may actually 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.

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 all recognise:  The grace of the LJC, 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 the disciples: 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 a 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.   But 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 fragmented people in an often fragmented and divided world, for which, sadly, there is a surfeit of evidence – not least in the week of the start of the Grenfell Tower hearings, and the Manchester terrorist attack anniversary. 

Nonetheless, an element of 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 offers many different images of God in its pages.  Among them are God as liberator, restorer, healer, fortress and 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.  It is through language that we can, at least tentatively, express what we understand about the nature of God, and our experience of God, while still recognizing that all the language in the world will never be able to sum God up, and all our images put together will never exhaust the divine. 

But, to finish, back to the Trinity.  Isn’t it at least possible that the relationship between the three persons of which it speaks is a symbol of both love and of wholeness.  But this is no abstract or claustrophobic, self-absorbed love-in between Father, Son and Spirit that is totally divorced from our human brokenness and fragmentation.  The Trinity is not some dry-as-dust theological formula to explain God – as if we or anyone could.  On the contrary, it has to be much more grounded than that, if it is to have any real resonance with our human experience. 

The Trinity is surely every bit as much about how we ought to be as about how God might be.  The imagery of the Trinity calls us towards reconciliation, wholeness and unity in all our human dealings and relationships here and now.  It urges us, also, to strive towards reconciliation and wholeness within ourselves, so that we might be saved from the inner brokenness and fragmentation that can be so debilitating and destructive, and which can waste so much of our human potential.  If that healing, leading towards personal and communal wholeness, can become a reality both within and among people, then thanks be to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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