This is the text of a sermon for Trinity Sunday, in the parish where I am now licensed.
Sometimes I think the people who put together the lectionary – the guide to what the readings for church services each day should be – have a real sense of humour. Here we are, on Trinity Sunday, and the epistle reading included Paul’s instruction to “agree with one another.” And yet it took another four centuries or so – and plenty of not agreeing with one another – for the church to begin to feel that we had a satisfactory way of talking about God as Trinity, which took into account what the Bible has to say, as well as the lived experience of believers.
And I want to emphasise that lived experience as important. For example, it was because Christians worshipped the Spirit, sang songs in praise of the Spirit, and prayed to the Spirit; because they recognised the Spirit as present and active in the church’s life, that they found they needed a way of speaking which recognised the Spirit as God, as much as the Father and the Son.
It raises the question in my mind; if we don’t use the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to describe our experience of God, have we explored the potential of our faith as fully as possible?
Let me put that another way. We talk about God as Trinity. And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”
I’d like to begin to scope out an answer to that question.
What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father? Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God? Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence? Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?
I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.
And then, what is it to talk about God the Son? The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Philippians says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.
There is, I think, something important consider here. And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites. Sometimes in the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine. The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.
I have to tell you, that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash. There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son. Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption. In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.
Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that? Some of us will have experienced, or known others who have experienced, “charismatic” expressions of the Spirit in the life of believers. That is all well and good and to the glory of God. But even for those of us who haven’t, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is still there to be seen. As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.
All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer. It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully. It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.
I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God. It’s just possible that I’m a lot sillier than Rowan Williams. But I hope that if I can say anything which is of use at all about the Trinity, it will be something which speaks of that exhilaration. Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst. Who wouldn’t be exhilarated? Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?
This brings me back around to Paul’s instruction to “agree with one another.” All of us are here today because something about God has been deeply attractive to us. The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us. Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy. God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.
That is my answer to the question “So What?” That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today. And this is the vision in which I think Paul would encourage us to agree with one another, to join our hands and minds and voices in unity of purpose and direction.
The Lord be with you.