SERMON: Trinity Sunday

SERMON: Trinity Sunday

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Pearson on 26th May 2024

To me, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, briefly expressed as ‘One God in Three Persons’, is the best proof that Christianity is true and from God – no man-made religion would have come up with something so difficult to understand.  And so easy to misunderstand!  In reality, most Christians throughout history have centred their faith and worship on one of the three. This is much easier to deal with.  Very traditional churches emphasise the Father, but for probably the majority of Christians today Jesus is centre.  The Holy Spirit was largely ignored until the rise of Pentecostal churches and the charismatic movement in the traditional denominations in the last century.

I have one important message I hope you will take away from this sermon.  God is not the same as us.  He is not a human being on a cosmic scale.  He is definitely not a human male in the sky with flowing robes and a white beard.  Our human minds, however brilliant, are not able to fully understand God.  So any god you fully understand is by definition not the true God, it is an idol.  It does not matter how intelligent or well-educated you are.  So, don’t worry about not understanding the Trinity!

Yes, I know this sounds like we are helpless, faced with a God it seems we can never relate to.  The good news of the Gospel is that we have a God who chooses to reveal to us what we need to know to follow and worship him.  We can differ as to the best way for us to hear God’s revelation: some prefer words, others relate better to pictures, while other learn best from sensory experiences and more abstract images.  I will briefly give examples of each of these ways of getting some understanding of the Trinity and you can see which you think you find the most helpful.

But first: how did we come to have this difficult idea of the Trinity?  Although the term ‘Trinity’ is nowhere used in the Bible, the elements of the doctrine are all found in the Bible.  The development of the first part, that there is only one God, is the story of the Old Testament. The law of Moses required that Jews every day recited the prayer called in Hebrew the ‘shema’ which begins “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is One LORD”; a God who could not and must not be represented by pictures or statues.  Despite that, the history of Israel is of repeated turning to more easily understood gods worshipped by other people in the area, such as Baal the fertility god of the Canaanites.  This idol worship would be denounced by prophets; when their warnings were ignored, the God of Israel would then bring disaster on his people until they left their idols and came back to him.

By the time of the New Testament, the oneness of God was firmly established in the Jewish faith, which set them apart from the rest of the Roman empire which had a pantheon of gods.  This was why it was so difficult for Jews to accept that Jesus was actually part of this one God.  And especially difficult after he died the death of a criminal.  The Jewish followers of Jesus were forced to come to a more complex idea of the One God than that of the orthodox Jewish faith by a number of things.

The first was what Jesus said about himself and his relationship with the God of Israel.  For start, he addressed God differently.  For Jews God was so holy his name was never pronounced: but Jesus addressed him as “abba”, which in Aramaic and other semitic languages is closer to “daddy” than the more formal “father”.

There were some Biblical precedents for a familiar approach to God, so it was the second thing which really made the disciples take seriously the idea that Jesus was more than a prophet – the Resurrection.  Although on rare occasions prophets had raised someone from the dead, as the disciples had seen Jesus himself do, no prophet had himself been raised from the dead.  Jesus had a different relationship to the God of Israel than the prophets.  We see in the Gospels and the Epistles the early Church working out what that relationship was: God incarnate, the Son.

The third thing was Pentecost.  Jesus had promised the disciples that when he left them he would send them another advocate and guide – the Holy Spirit.  This – or, rather, she, because the word Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek is a feminine noun – arrived in a spectacular way on Pentecost and has been at work in the Church ever since.

The first attempts by the Church to produce a doctrine of the Trinity were in the first three or four centuries AD and done by church councils in the context of Greek philosophy.  The Greek philosophers, like most of their successors the Christian theologians and philosophers, preferred to understand things through words.  These early attempts ended up with the creeds we still say today. This approach involved using many words: you may notice this when we say the Nicene Creed after this sermon. 

Those preaching to people who were not classical philosophers tended to resort to physical images when trying to explain the Trinity.  We all know the story of St Patrick and the shamrock.  The Celts used interlaced designs –one example is on the front of your notice sheet, with three pointed loops interwoven with a circle, the unity.  Medieval Western Christian art tended to depict the Trinity in a vertical image; an old man sitting on a throne, sometimes wearing a papal triple tiara (the Father), holding against his knees a cross with a dead man nailed to it (the Son) and a dove hovering somewhere around the Father and Son (the Spirit).  This reflected the very hierarchical structure of the Medieval Catholic church and Medieval European society. 

The Eastern Orthodox church forbids any depiction of God except the incarnate Jesus.  It pictures the Trinity by using icons of the Biblical story of the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, which it regards as a physical foreshadowing of the Trinity.  You will recall that in this story three men approach Abraham’s tent, and he invites them to stay for a meal.  After the meal they tell Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son.  A reason why this is understood as a manifestation of the Trinity is that Abraham addresses the three with the singular ‘my Lord’.  The men then go towards Sodom, but Abraham stays and bargains with ‘the Lord’ over the destruction of Sodom. The best known, and perhaps the greatest, of these ‘Hospitality of Abraham’ icons is that by the 15C Russian orthodox monk, Andrei Rublev.  The three figures, whose gender it is impossible to determine and who differ mainly in the colours of their clothing, are seated in a circle around a table.  They gaze at each other – as you follow the gazes you find your attention going round and round the circle.  This is the heart of the Orthodox approach; the Trinity as beings in loving communion.  And there is a space in the front, which seems to invite the viewer to join the group.

The sense of movement in this icon, missing from some other traditional images of the Trinity, leads us to an important aspect of God’s revelation of himself to us.  He is not the static, unchanging, outside observer of the created universe, the 18th century Enlightenment view of God.  The study of geology, the discovery of the structure of the atom and of evolution were some of the things that made it clear that creation was not static. And the movement that originates with God is that of love.

One of the first Western theologians to express this view of the Trinity was Richard of St Victor, a monk in Paris, writing about the time our church was being built.  He taught that to be perfect, love had to involve more than one person.  Each of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit shows love in a different aspect, together making perfect love which flows out to creation.

This approach was particularly developed by the Franciscans, beginning with the writings of the 13C Franciscan theologian, St Bonaventure.  His thought can be described as “circular” – we come from God, we exist in relation to God, and we return to God – and the basis of this circle is the Trinity.  There is continual movement: the Father’s overflowing love is a vast and living current of water, flowing out through Christ, the fountain, to creation, by means of the Holy Spirit, and then returning to God. 

Another image of the Trinity which invokes endless, flowing motion, is what is technically known as perichoresis, a circle dance (you might recognise the second part of the word as the root of ‘choreography’).  It is significant that folk dances from many different cultures include dances which involve dancing in a ring.  Any of you who has ever participated in this kind of dance will know how it can bring a sense of community with those you are dancing with, and a need to do the same as your neighbours are doing and to cooperate with them.  Any attempt to do your own thing is likely to bring the dance to a confused halt!

So, if some of you come up to me at coffee and say, “sorry,  I still don’t understand the Trinity”, I will have done what I set out to do.  God cannot be grasped and held by the intellect alone.  I will end with a quotation from the English spiritual masterpiece, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ by an anonymous 14th century writer:

‘But now you ask me, ‘How am I to think of God himself, and what is he?’  And to this I can only answer, ‘I do not know’…By grace it is possible to have full knowledge of all other created things and their works, and indeed of the works of God himself, and to think clearly about them, but of God himself no one can think.  And so I wish to give up everything that I can think, and choose as my love the one thing that I cannot think.  For he can well be loved, but he cannot be thought.  By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought he cannot be grasped nor held…beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love..’

I end with the writer’s advice, which all of us should take to heart when seeking God: ‘do not give up, whatever happens.’  Amen