Trinity Sunday 22 May 2005

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day on which we celebrate all the different aspects of God. It’s actually a very difficult day to preach on, since it’s very easy to get bogged down in the sort of theology which none of us understands, and which we can very easily get wrong.

The trouble is, of course, that the concept of the Trinity is trying to explain something that simply won’t go into words. We are accustomed to thinking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and most of the time we don’t really stop and think about it. Trinity Sunday is the day we are expected to stop and think!

The thing is, the first half of the Christian year, which begins way back before Christmas, is the time when we think about Jesus. We prepare for the coming of the King, in Advent, and then we remember his birth, his being shown to the Gentiles, his presentation in the Temple as a baby. Then we skip a few years and remember his ministry, his arrest, death and resurrection, and his ascension into heaven. Then we remember the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, and today we celebrate God in all his Godness, as someone once put it. The second half of the year, all those Sundays after Trinity, tend to focus on different aspects of our Christian life, and how what we think we believe informs, or should inform, the way we live. And today is the fulcrum, the changeover day; the one day in the year when we are expected to stop and think about God as Three and God as One.

And it is difficult. It’s a concept that doesn’t really go into words, and so whatever we say about it is going to be in some way flawed. It took the early Church a good 400 years to work out what it wanted to say about it, and even that is very obscure: “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.” The whole thing incomprehensible, if you ask me!

This morning, with the children, I talked about water as ice, liquid water, and steam. I could have brought in an egg – shell, yolk and white – or an apple, with core skin and flesh. All of which are sort-of pictures, but only sort-of. Nobody really understands it. And, of course, that is as it should be. If we could understand it, if we knew all the ins and outs and ramifications of it, then we would be equal to God. And it’s very good for us to know that there are things about God we don’t really understand!

It’s called, in the jargon, a “mystery”. That means something that we are never going to understand, even after a lifetime of study. Lots of things to do with God are mysteries, in that sense. Holy Communion, for one – we know what we mean when we take Communion, but we also know that it may very well mean something quite different, but equally valid, to the person standing next to us. Or even the Atonement – none of us really understands exactly what happened when Jesus died on the Cross, only that some sort of change took place in the moral nature of the Universe.

Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, we live very happily with not understanding. We synthesise some form of understanding that suits us, and, provided we know it is not the whole story, that’s fine. And the same applies to the Trinity. It doesn’t matter if we don’t really understand how God can be Three and One at the same time; what matters is that we love and trust him, whatever!

Of course, the terms “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” aren’t the only ones people use to refer to the Trinity. I’ve heard people say “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier”, or “God the Unknown, God the Known, God the Worker of Miracles”. And there are plenty of other names for God used in the Bible: the Good Shepherd, the Rock, Strength and Refuge, Provider, Emmanuel, which means “God with us”, even Wisdom, a female personification. And, of course, all those names do show us aspects, glimpses of Who God is – we can never grasp all of God, and it wouldn’t be right to try. Even Moses, you remember, was only allowed to see the merest glimpse of the shadow of God’s back, and that was nearly too much for him. But finding a name, an aspect of God, that you need right now, can help enormously in one’s prayers, I find. And that changes as we grow and change, and as our perception of God grows and changes, so if we need to think of God as “the good Shepherd” right now, last year, we might have found it better and easier to pray to the Lady Wisdom, and next year we might find ourselves meditating on the Shadow of a great rock in a weary land!

The Bible never actually uses the word “Trinity” - it’s a term that came later when they tried to put it into words. Strikes me, it’s one of the things that we human beings like to do, to try to put things into words that won’t actually go! Understandable, really, but it doesn’t always help. But the Bible does have the concept of the Trinity – the two New Testament readings we had both mentioned “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, yet the Bible makes it clear that God is One! That lovely reading from Isaiah, that was our first reading this morning, about our Creator:

Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”

Says it all, doesn’t it! And today is not really a day for deep theological reflection, nor a day for self-examination to see where our lives don’t measure up to God’s standards. It’s a day for enjoying God and praising him!

Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth. Amen!”

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