Preacher Revd Neil Summers
The theology of the Trinity is notoriously difficult to talk about, making today a Sunday many preachers wish they had booked as a day’s leave. Well, let’s start with the Church’s official doctrine, which is that there are three distinct persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – but one God. It was a doctrine that took the Christian Church three or four centuries (and many battles with heresy) to formulate – although the principle, at least, of the Trinity was already there in essence in the NT writings of both Paul and John, and in the Letter to the Hebrews.
The basic problem of trying to understand the Trinity, put simply, is: how can God be both three and one? If we worship one God, how is it that in scripture, and in the creeds and traditions of our church, we also affirm pluralism within God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit? This concept of holding together both unity and difference is really difficult to comprehend. And yet without that unity and difference, the Christian take on the mystery of God makes no sense. For our Christian understanding of God is not just a human formula or a speculative theory, but the expression of all we believe God to be: the origin and ground of all being; the Word made flesh in Jesus who lived our human life; and the Holy Spirit who continues the life of Jesus in the world, and – almost incredibly – enables us to become bearers of the divine.
So talk about formula might all sound a bit academic, with not much relevance to a Sunday morning in Richmond on the last day of May 2015, and it would, I think, be a mistake to give the impression that the doctrine of the Trinity is merely a matter of fourth century word games. It is surely more about the Christian concept of divinity: God as a loving community of persons, who invites us to mirror that model of close communion both within our own lives and in the quality of the relationships and communities we create.
Perhaps we can begin to understand more of this by looking at the 14th/15th century Russian artist Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity (you should have the image in front of you). To understand the Trinity is to understand God not as some sort of all-powerful distant deity looking down upon the world, but the God who is encountered in relationship and who also calls us into relationship. This icon actually depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (you can read about it in Genesis 18), but the painting is full of symbolism – not least in the colours of the vestments, though unfortunately we don’t have time to look at all that now. Abraham serves his visitors a meal and, as the conversation progresses, he seems to be talking directly to God, as if these ‘angels’ were in some way a metaphor for the three persons of the Trinity, and therefore for God. In Rublev’s representation of the scene, the three gold-winged figures are seated around a white table on which sits a golden, chalice-like bowl. The composition is a great circle around the table, focusing the attention on the bowl or chalice at the centre – food for the angel guests, obviously, but also – for Christians -with strong resonances of the Eucharist.
So, on one level this picture shows three angels seated under Abraham’s tree, but on another it is a visual expression of what the Trinity means, what the nature of God is, and how we approach God. Interpreting the picture makes it clear the Trinity it is not something static, and neither is it a hierarchy of power. If we look at these three figures around the table, what we see is a picture of equality and mutuality. We see also sort of circular movement: on the left, the Father. At the centre, the Son. On the right, the Spirit. If you look closely, the Father looks forward, raising his hand in blessing to the Son. It is impossible to tell whether he looks up at the Son or down to the chalice on the table, but his gesture certainly expresses a movement towards the Son. The Son looks back towards his Father while the hand of the Son points on, around the circle, to the Spirit. We see the movement extend towards us, the Father sends the Son, and the Son sends the Spirit. The life flows clockwise around the circle, and we complete the circle; we are invited into the space at the centre of the table, to complete the circle with our response. This movement is flowing two ways: from the Father, to the Son, to the Spirit, to us, the space at the table; but then back, anti-clockwise, from us, to the Spirit, to the Son, and to the Father. We are being invited to participate in the Trinity. Each of us, in our own unique personhood, is being invited to share in that circle – our unique and individual difference is taken into, and becomes part of, God’s unity and harmony. We are offered an invitation to participate in the intimate communication that is taking place between three figures who are so closely connected, they are essentially one. Imagine yourself being part of that.
That notion of interdependence and close communion is, I think, a powerful one for fragmented people in an often fragmented world. For the relationship between the three persons is a holistic symbol of both love and of wholeness. But this is no abstract, claustrophobic, sugary, 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 we are to find meaning within it, or 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. And just as crucially, 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 the doctrine of the Trinity will have done its work.
The Trinity affirms both plurality and unity. We’re all different, but God’s image in us is what makes us one – or ought to. God’s very nature is a call into relationship, for us to find God’s story in the other. The space at the table is for you, and for me, but it is equally for everyone else, too, not least the one who is different from us, but who is, nonetheless, still our neighbour. A church like St. John’s which claims an inclusive theology can be assured on this Trinity Sunday that, although it is far from easy to achieve, its ethos is built on nothing less than what Christians claim is the very essence of God’s being and nature. There is a place at the table and a share in the divine life for everyone.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.