A sermon preached online at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 30 May 2021.
The two big feasts of the Church’s year, Christmas and Easter, are now over. Today is Trinity Sunday, and the framework is set for this next season of the Church’s year, with all the ‘Sundays after Trinity’ that we’ve got ahead of us – 21 of them this year!
Most of the festivals and seasons of the Church’s year have a gospel story connected with them, but not today. The Trinity refers to a reality that has no date, no beginning and no end – the deep and holy mystery of God – which we refer to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Bible is full of wonderful and memorable stories no more so than in the gospels. That’s largely how theology is done in the pages of the Bible – not as an abstract, metaphysical set of propositions, but as stories told and passed down, retold and lived.
And that’s the case for you and me too. Our understanding and experience of God is bound up with who we are and what’s happened to us in our lives. And to explain what makes us tick, what do we do? We tell our story.
What’s surprising is that those thinkers in the early Church who hammered out the doctrine of the Trinity, at the same time waxed eloquently about the limits of human speech.
They sensed, as all the great figures in the Bible do, that God is such a deep and holy mystery, that in using words we’re reaching the very limits of human speech. For them the doctrine of the Trinity provided just a framework to ensure that nothing inappropriate was said about God.
Think back to our first reading this morning where the prophet Isaiah is worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem. There the prophet has a vision of God:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.
And in our Gospel reading we heard Jesus talking to Nicodemus about the Spirit being like the wind which:
blows where it chooses; and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
Both stories invite us to join with those great thinkers at the beginning of the Christian movement who understood the doctrine of the Trinity as saying just enough to reflect the Church’s experience and understanding of God, while leaving as much as possible unsaid.
Because just as with people that we’re close to, the longer we spend with God, the harder it is to find the right words.
You might think the opposite would be the case. That the more we knew somebody the easier it would be to talk about them. But that’s just not so.
Often the more we know someone, the less able we are to talk about them. We’ll probably end up suggesting that rather than trying to describe them, it’s best if you meet them for yourself. So we take our girlfriend or boyfriend home to meet our parents.
And if that’s true with people, it’s even truer with God.
So whether we’ve just started out on our Christian journey or been faithful over many years, talking about God is not easy, and it doesn’t get any easier the longer you go on. Yes, the knowledge may deepen, but if anything the words get harder to find.
This analogy can be taken a little further.
Because sometimes there are things we say about someone that captures the essence of who they are. These may be obvious to us when we first meet them – they may impress us as being very gentle or having great integrity.
As we get to know them better that first impression may be confirmed. And years later we may still refer to them as very gentle or having great integrity, but now there’s a whole hinterland of stories and experiences that we bring to those descriptions.
The words we use to describe them are still as simple as at the beginning, but our knowledge has deepened.
And that’s the case in our spiritual lives too.
Christians have found that there are three ways of talking about God that capture the essence of who God is, this holy and deep mystery: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Our knowledge of God deepens over the years – yes, please God. But that doesn’t give us any more words or any more information. What it does do, is give us a wealth of experience and stories to bring to those same precious words.
So today we begin this next season of the Church’s year – the Sundays after Trinity. And we do so:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.