Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Trinity Sunday, 27th
The Apocryphal story is told of a man who came to church only once a year. Nothing unusual in that, except that the chosen occasion, which never varied, was not one of the usual suspects, not he Christmas Eve midnight mass or the Easter morning eucharist. It was Trinity Sunday. And shen taxed with this strange behaviour he smiled and replied ‘It’s just that I love to hear the preacher sounding confused.’
Perhaps you’ll be thinking much the same by the time this is finished. Because we should start by posing the question: how is it that the doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine for which there is no substantial body of teaching in either the Old or New Testaments, came too be at the core of Christian belief – so much so that Christianity is divided between East and West over how it should be described. Even today it is the touchstone for most ecumenical bodies; the first and foremost requirement for membership is ‘Trinitarian faith’ – the worship of one God in three persons.
Nor is it a question that appears out of nowhere. If we don’t pose it ourselves, it’s posed by other faith communities. Jews, faithfully waiting for the coming of the Messiah, find the inclusion of the carpenter from Nazareth in the godhead puzzling, to say the least. And although they may politely refrain from pressing the point, followers of Islam are taught that Christianity has watered down the teaching of the one true God, perhaps even to the incomprehensive extent of worshipping three gods.
The greatest minds in the long story of the Christian faith have struggled with the question of the Trinity. Metaphors, similes, analogies have been piled high. Three persons and yet one: their relationship, their love, their cosmic dance and countless more qualities of the Trinity have been held to be at the very heart of the nature of God.
It’s bewildering beyond words. And when the words have almost run out, I want to suggest that most of us are left with what Jesus said to Nicodemus: ‘We speak of what we know.’
To begin at the beginning. In ancient times the common forebears of the great monotheistic faiths pondered the wonder of the heavens and the earth and seemed to see in them the hand of a mighty creator. Our uncountably-great-grandfather in the faith, Abraham, chance everything on following the One who claimed to b that creator. Abraham’s offspring, however imperfectly, followed in the footsteps of his faith and knew themselves to be God’s chosen people. Their creator God was the God of the harsh desert places and the harsh decisions it forced upon communities; a God who was intimately involved in the sweep of history and the outcome of a single battle; a jealous God, intolerant of false beliefs and religious infidelity and yet ultimately forgiving. A God who loved his people, yet whose greatness and whose holiness were forbidding and even dangerous.
It was faith in that stern God that the first disciples shared. We are not privy to what they thought they were doing when each one made the fateful decision to follow Jesus, but we can be sure it was a decision to follow a ‘man’, however exceptional he may have been.
But something happened as they tramped the dusty roads of Palestine with him. At times they questioned, at times they grumbled, often they misunderstood. But reading their story, you can’t escape the sense that he became a puzzle to them. They walked and talked and ate with him for months on end. They touched him, they smelled him at the end of a lonh hot day. He was a man, yet the things he did, the words he spoke, his very presence, seemed to strain at the limits of the definition. There was always a ‘something more’, something even the crowds sensed as they hear the author ity in his teaching. That the disciples didn’t understand it clearly, the Gospels all attest.
And why should we be surprised that these men, brought up in the strict monotheism of the Jewish faith struggled with the sense, the growing realisation, that he didn’t simply point to God, but that in him they somehow experienced the presence of God?
And then he was gone: torn from them. They were lost and bereft. They huddled together in fear which the Resurrection appearances had clearly not dispelled. Death may not have defeated him but he was no longer with them. Then, on that first astounding day of Pentecost, something burst into their lives which was beyond any experience. They spoke of w ind and flame on that day. In the days to come they spoke of a great force which carried them out into the world to heal and to teach as Jesus had. And it came to them with unshakable conviction that this too was God – not some act of the awesome Creator, not even the experience of the face of God seen in Jesus, but God ‘within’ them, fused with their own being, enabling and energising them to be the outreach of God into the world.
It would be generations bfore the Church felt able to speak with any real authority and clarity of what it all meant – the God who proclaimed Jesus as a beloved Son, the Son who pointed others to the Father, the promised Spirit who seemed to make no personal claim except to point tp Father and to Son.
It was, and is, a bit of a mess and its only justification is that they spoke of what they knew. Beware the expert who claims to know the domestic arrangements of the thre eperson household of the Trinity. If the statement that God is three persons and yet one has logic, it’s the logic of the madhouse. If the preacher is confused, it’s because at the heart of the nature of God there is a mystery.
There will never be a neat and tidy doctrine of the Trinity with the theological I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. Or at least, there will never be a neat and tidy doctrine worth listening to. The doctrine of the Trinity is anything but tidy, it is the child of that wild and wayward force, experience. They spoke of what they knew. We speak of what we know.
We speak of the awesome Father into whose hands we commit that which is beyond our power and comprehension. We speak of the Son who shared our trials and our temptations, who understands our weaknesses, and whose sacrifice stands as an example of the heights to which humanity can attain. And we speak of the Spirit who, if we will only loose our footing a little, will sweep us onwards towards the fullness of life that God means us to have.
We speak of what we know. And if sometimes what we know goes beyond what we can speak, that is as it should be when it comes to the mystery of God. This at least we can say:
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.