June 11 2017 sermon Trinity Sunday
When we come to speak of God on Trinity Sunday, we stand as we do every Sunday with the only tools at our disposal, mere words.
And as we know words can be tricky things to tame and use properly.
One danger we find is when language is used that is overblown, exaggerated, well out in front of the topic at hand. This cheapens language and words. As my old minister Trevor Byard was fond of saying, “You’ve got to hold something back for Judgement Day when you really want to say something”. That is, if you have fired all your best shots, used your most elevated language, you’ve got nowhere to go when you really want to give voice to something of ultimate importance and profundity.
I cam across the following example recently. This is fair dinkum. What are the following words written about?
“Sophisticated and luxurious, there is no tolerance for compromise of any kind. As a symbol of prosperity, wealth, spiritual richness and enlightenment, every leader wants to live up to their potential. It becomes a woven blend between the body, the mind and the spirit in a glory of outstanding achievement”.
But more relevant today is the experience at the other end of the spectrum. Rather than talking something up too much we find we simply cannot talk something up enough. We are so often acutely aware of the total inadequacy of our words when we do want to capture, explain or represent that which is of ultimate importance for us. There is a deep Christian tradition that refuses to attempt to speak of God directly, knowing not just the futility of doing so, but the inherent danger of thinking we have somehow managed to grasp the reality of the eternal in our mere human utterances. Jews would never utter the sacred name – no-one could gaze upon God and live Moses could only see the back – When we stand in this tradition we are left with the disconcerting truth that on Trinity Sunday whatever we say about God we are wrong. And yet, yet…. neither can we accept that we are simply reduced to silence upon this most important of topics for us. We find we must speak for God has spoken to us in the Word who took flesh and dwelt among us. Go therefore and baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and make disciples of the nations”. And so we find ourselves in the paradox – “God is that which we can never speak of, yet God is that which we can never cease speaking of”.
So today we find ourselves trying to give expression to the particular Christian revelation of the Trinity. Of the Three in One. Now much of the talk this Sunday will focus upon the three different expressions, or revelations, or persons within the Godhead, traditionally known as Father Son and Holy Spirit. And of course this is precisely the point of departure, theologically, with the other two great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam. Had this conversation with Motalleb, and Sayed and Nader at our various meetings when the conversation has turned to the question of major differences between Islam and Christianity.
“It is only through the recognition of the triune God that Christian dialogue with Jews and Moslem’s becomes interesting and dialogue-worthy”. Jurgen Moltmann
Jews and Muslims look with dismay at this talk of three in one, and think it is a bit much. A bit like the famous comment I came across again in an interview with Princess Diana in what is really a very revealing interview of her life as the Princess of Wales, including the bulimina and the self harm, and the infidelities of her and Charles. But the comment that is relevant today
BASHIR: Do you think Mrs Parker-Bowles was a factor in the breakdown of your marriage?
DIANA: Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.
And that is what Jews and Moslems say, three persons in the Godhead, it is a bit crowded.
Many Trinity Sunday sermons put the emphasis upon the three, and I have certainly done that many time, but I am also very open to the notion that on Trinity Sunday the emphasis is upon the one. That is, despite the many and varied ways humans experience God, God is not many but one.
In a lecture given by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan he was speaking to a group of Muslims about basic Christian beliefs and behaviour, and to try and explain the person of Jesus Christ. I think it is one of the more profound comments upon this great unfathomable mystery that is revealed in the doctrine of the Trinity.
“We call him the Son of God. But we do not mean by this that God has physically begotten him, or that he is made to be another God alongside the one God. We say rather that the one God is first the source of everything, the life from which everything flows out. Then we say that the one God is also in that flowing-out. The life that comes from him is not something different from him. It reflects all that he is. It shows his glory and beauty and communicates them. Once again, our teachers say that God has a perfect and eternal ‘image’ of his glory, sometimes called his wisdom, sometimes called his ‘word’, sometimes called his ‘son’, though this is never to be understood in a physical and literal way. And we say that the one God, who is both source and outward-flowing life, who is both ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, is also active as the power that draws everything back to God, leading and guiding human beings towards the wisdom and goodness of God. This is the power we call ‘Holy Spirit’. So when we speak of ‘the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, we do not at all mean to say that there are three gods – as if there were three divine people in heaven, like three human people in a room. Certainly we believe that the three ways in which God eternally exists and acts are distinct – but not in the way things in the world or even persons in the world are distinct.”
Taking on board the Archbishop’s comment what it is saying is that if God is Three but One, maybe Trinity Sunday should not about be about three, but one. It is saying that despite our many and manifold experiences of God, despite our language of Father Son and Holy Spirit (or Creator, Redeemers and Sustainers or whatever) God is not three, but One. The God who spoke into the utter and outer darkness and whose voice rolled across the aeons, “let there be light” is the same God who hung on the cross in abject rejection, is the same God who breathes within you today. All God, there is one God. How can this be, how can this be: Well the only way to talk of this is to use the language of relationship and community. To not do so is to make God a single lump of God. To use the language of the triune God is to allow God to become dynamic, relational, communal and interesting. It is a love song, an ode to and about God.
And what does this say about the way we organise our lives, our families, our relationships, our work places, our schools, our governments?
What is captured is the dynamic nature of God – God is found in relationship, God is passionate, God comes to us, God loves and suffers and that suffering is redemptive for us. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer when arrested and sentenced to prison said as he first walked into his prison cell, “Only a God who suffers can help me now”. In the heart of God is the suffering of the Father who’s only begotten Son is killed by sinful humanity. The transforming power of God is not seen in the ruling monarch imagery, but in the suffering broken heartedness of the triune God, as the Son lays down his life to the eternal pain of the Father. All that can only be expressed in the language of vibrant relationships.
As the Spirit indwells us, and reverberates through the church this is to become our life and witness, the worship of the triune God becomes our delight.