Preacher Canon Robert Titley
This morning at St Mary’s we looked at how picturing God as Father Son and Spirit might help give shape to our experience of God. We were helped in this by the prophet Isaiah, who had a vision of God, rather like Ezekiel and John the Divine do tonight; and – more unexpectedly – by the newly-elected president of FIFA, world football’s embattled governing body. His unusual acceptance speech (and Mr Blatter is an unusual man) contained an expression of the shapelessness of much modern western spirituality when he revealed that, while the votes were being counted on Friday, he prayed to ‘God, Allah, or whoever is this extraordinary…spirit in the world.’
Alongside this we placed ‘Father, Son and Spirit’ the quite distinct shape given by Christian talk about God as the Trinity. This talk comes out of the experience of Christian people conscious of meeting the one God three times, or in three ways: to put it crudely, God above them, as creator; God beside them as one of them, in the person of Jesus, who shares their flesh and blood; and God within them, as the Spirit who is the will in their will, the presence among them they cannot see.
Three ways of meeting the same God. There is a price to pay in making our picture of God apparently so complicated, whether in the chiselled formulas of the Creeds (we have just said one of them) or the polymesmeric imagery of Ezekiel or the book of Revelation tonight. Compare this with the crisp simplicity of a Muslim picture of God who is one and one only, and to whom we offer our submission, or islam.
Do we overcomplicate? If there are three ways of experiencing God, do we need to say that God’s own identity has a threeness about it? After all, we can experience another human being in three different ways without saying that she or he is three persons in one. Spend a week with the Prime Minister and you will experience him as – say – party leader, head of government and family member, but there is still only one David Cameron. This, if you are interested in jargon, is the question of whether we believe in an ‘economic’ Trinity or an ‘immanent’ Trinity. Is our talk of Father, Son and Holy Spirit only a way of talking about how God deals with us (‘economic’) or is it also a way of talking about how God is?
Near the start of the Christian movement, people feel driven to talk of God in Trinitarian terms because they can’t do it any other way without selling short some precious part of their experience of God; and they can’t believe that God just happens to encounter them like this, that God chooses to do things this way but could have chosen to do them in quite another way. They find it hard to see God as essentially whimsical. It must be that God is as God does; or, as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth put it, what God can be, God is.
This is significant. Imagine that you flee from all the complexity and take refuge in one of the simplest statements about God in the whole Bible, from the first letter of John (4.8): ‘God is love’. Think about it what it says and does not say. It does not say ‘God acts towards us in a loving way’, or even ‘God loves us’. It says God is love. Now for love to exist there has to be a lover and a beloved and a channel of loving communication between them. There has to be giving and receiving. So if God is love, then before ever there was a you or a me or a universe at all for God to love, that giving and receiving must have been part of God’s own life. And if the giving and receiving of love is indeed part of God’s own being, then God’s love for us is not the needy love of someone who needs company in order not to be lonely. It’s more that God’s love for you and me – and our very existence – is a kind of overflowing of the love that already flows between the Three Persons of the one God; and this makes possible a relationship between us and God that is genuinely free and generous.
So there it is. Very proper but not very satisfactory. The difficulty with preaching about the Trinity is that what should be a love song turns into a manual for an intricate gadget or a solution to a puzzle. I’m not sure that helps us much to give shape to our experience of God. Perhaps what we should have done tonight was to have no sermon at all but just sit for ten minutes looking at a picture of the Trinity, like the icon of Andrei Rublev. I bottled out of that, I confess. So perhaps a bit more confession will help.
I asked how the language of the Trinity might help shape our faith. The truth is that my faith has changed shape over the years. It’s not that it has been stronger at some times and weaker at others (though that’s true) but that its character has changed. And it still is, so I have come to be grateful that the Christian way of talking about God is expansive, rich and sometimes teasing, that its scriptures contain words with the limpid simplicity of ‘God is love’ but also those boggling readings we hear tonight. I’m grateful that the door of revelation that opens into heaven in tonight’s reading leads into a very large room indeed, with space for you and me to move and evolve while still feeling that we belong.
If the heart of faith is less something monolithic that you submit to, but something more dynamic, as suggested by those three words ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’, then you are not most at risk not when you say (for instance) ‘I can’t picture God as a loving father’, or ‘I can’t see how Jesus can be human and divine’ – there is time and eternity for all that. You are most at risk when, in a question of belief or unbelief, you are unwilling to be surprised, or you dare to think that, this side of heaven, you have arrived.
For me, Cardinal Newman had it about right. ‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’