Trinity Sunday 2018 St Mary Magdalene Madingley
Isaiah 6:1-8Romans 8:13-17 John 3:1-17
In the last couple of weeks I have had meetings with two very different people, and at the end of each one I have felt a surge of energy, joy and enthusiasm, with an over-arching sense of, “That’s what it’s all about!” I’m conscious of the fact that today, Trinity Sunday, preachers up and down the land will struggle to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, and people will leave at the end saying to themselves, “What was that all about?” Hopefully you might go home today having shared some of my enthusiasm, rather than the puzzled response which is all too common.
Before ever we try to define God to ourselves or to others, we need to acknowledge that, “Christian theology begins, continues and ends with the inexhaustible mystery of God.” Migliore.That is important in an age which seems to think of belief in God as being something for the unintelligent, the gullible, for those willing to give over their freedom to a coercive and [to the critics] non-existent other-worldly being. Those nay-sayers are not prepared to believe in a God whom they cannot define completely. And if they coulddefine him, they would say it proves he’s not a god!
Yet the God Christians believe in bears no resemblance to their negative image. Granted, the doctrine of the Trinity presents us with a huge potential for mis-interpretation and leaves most of us shrugging our shoulders and leaving it up to others to understand it. The problem is that it is not found in a few texts proving its truth in the Bible; it springs fresh and challenging from the reflections of the early church on their experience of being with Jesus in his earthly life, and later by their descendants in the faith as they considered the full ramifications of all that had been passed down to them.
They realized that there is a pattern throughout Scripture which may not spell out in great detail the concept of God as Trinity, yet underlying everything it is there, and when those early followers meditated upon the good news of the love of God in Christ that was continuing to work through them by the power of the Spirit, it was then not a matter of theory, but experience.
Indeed, the belief that God is Trinity provides the foundation for the belief that God is love. If we perceive him as one God, and that alone, we might be able to say that he acts lovingly towards us, but we come to see the concept of his being love as we recognize the love between the Father, Son and Spirit. So his love is not just as an abstract quality, but something which is personal, dynamic and creative. And we hear in Jesus’ words to his disciples the longing which exists in each part of the Trinity for the whole world to see the wonder and beauty of it all. We came into being because of that love, and the truly remarkable thing is that we are called to share in it.
The gospel reading introduced us to a man of integrity, who is puzzled; Nicodemus, who slips out secretly at night to have a private conversation with Jesus. As a respected religious leader, he would not have been used to being so secretive; he was clearly disturbed by Jesus’ teaching, but hadn’t got so far as to make a commitment to being one of his followers. He’s very polite to Jesus as he opens up the conversation, saying in effect that in his position he can recognize the activity of God in people, and he suspects that he can perceive it in Jesus. If someone said that to me, I know I would respond with words of thanks, and feel a little gratified with the comments, deserved or not. Not so, Jesus.
And Nicodemus’ confusion is intensified by Jesus’ response, that unless we are born again we cannot see the Kingdom of God; so he tries to steer the conversation back into the type of debating process which he was used to between religious leaders as they discussed points of belief and interpretation. It doesn’t work. Jesus questions Nicodemus’ credentials for discerning the work of God; he’s supposed to be a religious leader, but he couldn’t understand the first statement Jesus made, never mind follow his development of that thought.
If Nicodemus is to comprehend what Jesus’ ministry is all about, he has to be prepared to drop all his previous ideas of what God is like, in order to fully experience the love of God. And it is, as Saint Augustine said, this “mutual self-giving, community of sharing, ‘society of love’” which is the Holy Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not an abstraction, or even mere information about God’s “inner life.” It is experiential.Maybe we don’t need to grapple with it too much; if we can just recognize that God gives himself totally to us we will begin to know what God’s love is, both as expressed within the Trinity, and outwardly to us and through us.
Harry Williams said that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is unsatisfying if we try to define it too closely. He said that if we consider an image of God as Joy, then the Trinity comes into its own. It is through this joy that we see the communication between the Trinity, which God shared with usin creation. The joy of God within us gives us eyes and understanding, and opens up the world to us. It is a seed hidden within us, which we may recognize in others.
Which brings me back to where I began, with those recent meetings. One was with the Principal of the Institute of Orthodox Studies in Cambridge, who will join me in celebrating a marriage here later this year. There was an almost immediate meeting of minds, and more to the point, spirits, as we enjoyed talking about a wide-range of church-related matters. Quite what the couple sitting at the table next to us in the restaurant made of our conversation I don’t know, – I was conscious that they were listening in at various points – but I went home knowing that I had just enjoyed time spent with a fellow-believer, and a truly kindred spirit, and was energised as a result.
The second came as I met with someone whose road to ordination I am helping to mentor, as we talked about her experience of prayer. Again, I was overwhelmed by the “rightness” and the unforgettable nature of her experience of the glory of God. It is not just Isaiah who was privileged to become aware of the holiness of God, and when it happens it is life-changing. The privilege of hearing another’s deepest thoughts and experiences is enormous, and it also validates and encourages such things within us too.
Under both those circumstances there is no need to wonder precisely what that told us about the nature of the Holy Trinity. But what becomes clear to us is that as we see the mutual level of Father Son and Spirit, it reveals to us that we cannot be Christians in isolation. The Church, which means us, is always committed to others, and we see the presence of the Spirit shining in the eyes of those we meet. The Church is not just a group of individuals coming together, but a communion drawn together by the Spirit which is gifted to us by the Father and the Son. Through us the world may experience the effect of the Trinity, however we define it, if we allow it to work through us, and then, as Bishop Michael Curry said, “the world can be set on fire with love.”