Before I say anything else this morning, I think that it is worth noting, that by rights Deacon Wendy should be preaching this sermon today instead of me, because on this third Sunday in our season of celebration, having focused together on the Ascension of Christ into heaven, and then last week on the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we come today to celebrate our belief in the Holy Trinity: God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A strong, and laudable tradition has grown up in the life of the Church that the junior cleric, the person who has been ordained for the shortest period in a group of clergy, is always the one who has the responsibility of preaching on the Trinity delegated to them!
Around the world today, parish priests will be sitting back as they leave the responsibility for saying something sensible about the mystery of the Trinity to their curates, because preaching on Trinity weekend each year is by and large agreed by the clergy, to be the worst experience of the Christian year. What do we say about our belief in the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity – which is after all the greatest of mysteries in our Christian tradition? Even preaching on giving money to the Church is easier than preaching on our understanding of the nature of God, who is ultimately beyond our comprehension.
When I was a young boy we were taught in Sunday School each year on the Festival of the Trinity that although one plus one plus one is three; one multiplied by one, multiplied by one is still one. I have never forgotten that illustration as one of the most unhelpful explanations I have ever heard about the Trinity. Even then as a young boy, it simply baffled me to think that the Trinity (the Christian understanding that God is both three and one, both one and three) can be explained away as nothing more than just a mathematical game.
For the first Christians, for the first disciples of Jesus, the Trinity was not a theological doctrine which had been taught to them by others — it was a description of their experience of God at work in their lives. Because the earliest Christians were actually Jews (just like Jesus) they knew above all, that God must be one. The Jewish scriptures were clear about it, and Jesus had reminded them of it on many occasions. They worshipped the God who had created the Universe and who was the source of all that was good and life-giving, and they knew that however hard they tried to understand that God – that in the end he was entirely unknowable, beyond the time and space that he had created. Even calling God “he” was a way of ascribing human words to a being, that was beyond human understanding. They worshipped the one God who created all that is, and not the many little gods who received devotion from the other religions around them. As good Jews who now followed Christ those familiar words of the ten commandments weren’t up for negotiation: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, you shall have no other gods before me.”
But this created for them a serious problem. Their belief in one God seemed to deny the experience which they lived in Jesus; that Jesus contained for them all those things which pointed to the divine life. They had encountered God in the actions and words of the human Jesus and they found God revealed and active in this Son, who welcomed outcasts into the Kingdom of God and spoke the word of forgiveness on God’s behalf. So the question for them became, “if God was one, then who was Jesus, and why did they experience through him such an incredible and tangible sign of God’s presence? If God was one, and beyond time and space as the creator of the world, then who was Jesus?” Then there was the experience which followed Jesus’ rising from the dead, and his ascension to heaven: after Pentecost which we celebrated last weekend – the experience of those first Christians who found God in a new explosion of energy which sustained and guided them; they called this experience the “Holy Spirit of God,” and likened it in some way to the presence or spirit of Jesus in their midst. It was as if (although Jesus were no longer with them) he was still there every time they gathered together, doing all the same things which he had done before. If God was one, then who was Jesus, and what was the sense of Jesus which they still felt even after his ascension?
The early followers of Jesus, reflecting after his death, and resurrection and ascension, had to re-think their understanding of the being of God, because of their experience of God’s acts among them. They could no longer hold to the same strict idea of monotheism – of one God – which they had inherited, because they knew that there was more to their experience of living in the presence of God, than could be adequately described in the ancient formulary of there being just one God. They knew too, and were adamant about the fact, that there could not be many gods. The alternatives which they saw in the many religions of the culture around them neither rang true for them, nor seemed in any way to correspond to the experience which they had known in Christ. So as they expressed their three different experiences of God, they found them to be linked in a way that had not been described before. They experienced the God who created them and the whole world, and who loved them and sent God’s son, they experienced the Son who loved them and sent his Spirit, and they experienced this Spirit, this presence of Jesus even when he was no longer physically with them, still driving them forward and outwards in mission. They came to understand these three experiences, these three persons, as in some way one, and yet also three: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life. Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is three, and God is one.
At the heart of the character of God they found that the work of mission, the Church’s work of being sent out into to all the world, was not only foundational to the church’s character, it was foundational to God’s character as well: it was God who sent Jesus, it was Jesus who sent his Spirit, and it was this sending Trinity who sent the Church out into to mission in the world. In turn, what those early Christians experienced about God, led them to be people who were sent out by God into to the world, in the same pattern as God’s pattern of sending within the Trinity. In 1998 when all of the Bishops in the Anglican Communion around the world met together at the Lambeth Conference they spent time reflecting and discussing together this very thing that we are reflecting on this morning; and in the report of their discussions they said this:
“Mission goes out from God. Mission is God’s way of loving and saving the world. God calls his creatures to a future greater than they could ever make for themselves… But the deeper we go into the meaning of God’s call as it is recorded for us, the more we see that it tells us something of what God is. God does not simply call; God sends… We believe in a God who is completely engaged in mission and whose very life is a movement outwards, giving and sharing divine life and joy… So mission is never our intention or choice. It has always started already. We have been caught up in God’s own movement of love by being called to be with Jesus. To be with or “in” Jesus is never to enjoy some static or private relationship within him; it is to be moving with him from the heart of God to the ends of the earth…”
John Chrysostom, one of the early Christian preachers, likened the Trinity to the sun. Imagine in your minds, a sunrise over the ocean, the heat of the midday sun, and a sunset. Each with particular beauty and necessity, each emanating from the one gaseous, fiery globe of light which keeps all of us alive, and yet three very different experiences. Saint Patrick talked about the Clover Leaf, the great Irish leaf with three distinct parts and yet one whole. Much more recently we have come to speak about water, which we drink as liquid, or use to cool us as a solid in ice, or see coming off our morning cup of coffee as the vapour of steam.
These and other images can help us to express what we mean when we talk about the Trinity, they may be helpful for us to express the inexpressible, but we must not forget that the doctrine of the Trinity was formed initially not as a result of theological debate (although much debate came later), but through the experiences of people like us, who encountered God at work in their lives as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the God that we worship today: the God who lovingly and purposefully created each one of us, who lovingly entered into relationship with us through his Son, lovingly remains with us for ever through the power of his Spirit, and who calls us in the life of the Church to be both a sign of him to each other, and to the world around us.