This is a sermon for Trinity Sunday, given in the “church next door.” There was a baptism immediately following the sermon.
It’s a very big thing to bring a child for baptism. In a moment Bayden’s parents and godparents are going to be asked some serious questions, and we are all going to together reaffirm our common belief in the Christian faith.
You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, Bayden is just a baby, he doesn’t understand yet what we are doing, and he won’t remember it when he’s older. Does what we’re doing and saying here really matter? I’ve heard people make that kind of comment about baptism services before. Perhaps similar thoughts have occurred to some of you.
But I think that kind of questioning comes from a place of not fully appreciating what’s at stake. If all this were about was making Bayden a member of the Christian family, allowing him to be one of “us” instead of one of “them” – however you define us and them – then what we do and say wouldn’t matter. We wouldn’t need the promises or affirmations, just a quick dunk and you’re in. Let’s all go eat.
But today is Trinity Sunday; it’s the day when the Church celebrates our experience of Who God is, and baptism is Bayden’s way in to relationship with that God. What kind of God you have a relationship with is actually important, because it shapes how you understand your own identity and your place in the world.
So when we come to baptise Bayden in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, what are we saying about God?
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?”
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 Paul said, 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. I hope that as Bayden comes to baptism today, he and his family can experience something 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?
There’s one more thing to say about this experience of God, and that is that it’s not just about individuals.
The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us as a community; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us. Our life together 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 understanding of God into which Bayden is being baptised this morning.
So I invite Bayden’s parents and godparents to bring him forward for baptism into relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.