Sermon for TRINITY SUNDAY Sunday 3 June 2012
TRINITY SUNDAY, 2012 SERMON BY THE VICAR AT HIGH MASS
Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17
We celebrate the Eucharist and preach sermons, we baptise and absolve, anoint and bless in the threefold name of God.
We pray to the Father, through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We sing psalms and canticles and hymns which end with doxologies, ascriptions of glory to Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the Catholic Creeds, we profess our faith in God as Father, Son and Spirit.
And yet in those same creeds we speak of “one God, the maker of heaven and earth”.
How can we talk about God as Trinity without becoming “tri-theists”, with Father, Son and Holy Spirit being seen as three separate and individual gods, or without submerging the three into one undifferentiated mass? How can we talk about God’s unity so that we can make sense of the Christian way of talking about God as One in three Persons?
The early Christians did not begin with a ready-made formula for this -something which sceptics like to make hay about. But neither did we begin with a complete canon of Scripture. Both developed as the early Christians found themselves overwhelmed by a presence, a Holy Spirit that led the, back again and again to the pattern of their lives with Jesus.
The disciples experienced Jesus as far more than a pious memory, a precious founder figure whose image and memory they would wistfully protect and tend.
Instead, when they gathered together they found that he was alive to them in the breaking of the bread. As they listened to his remembered words their hearts burned within them.
So his disciples came to realise that fellowship with Jesus was not something they could master once and for all. Instead, Jesus knit them together in a new way as the risen Christ became the pattern of their new life.
It was as if the Spirit that had been sent to them, was taking them deeper not only into Christ’s life, but into his own relationship with the One he called “Abba.” They began to cry out to him, not in a spirit of fear, but with Christ’s own Spirit, seeking to know the Father as Jesus knows him, and to know themselves as God’s beloved, God’s lost and returning prodigals, God’s children.
What these early followers discovered was a new way of encountering God through the mystery of God’s own life on earth. They understood with growing clarity that Jesus’ own life was simply and purely a relationship with the One he called Father and whom they knew as the God of Israel. And it was into this relationship between Jesus and the Father that the early Christians were brought.
Questions about these things are not the preserve of sophisticated moderns like ourselves. The early Christians faced them too and expended much effort in seeking answers. One way of safeguarding the unity of God was to say that the persons of the Trinity were simply temporary: each mode of being was a temporary way that God related to us at different points in our history. The Church rejected this as untrue to its experience of being called into existence as a community of love dwelling within an infinite communion of eternally loving Persons.
It also rejected claims that Son and Spirit are subordinate, second division deities, somehow less than the Father, for they saw that the Father never holds back anything from the Son or the Spirit.
Part of our confusion and difficulty here comes from our ideas of the self which stress individuality rather than interdependence. We assume that when we speak of “person”, we mean a solitary “I”, an ego, rather than a conversation, a relationship, in which we become more ourselves through our fellowship with others. The doctrine of the Trinity is not just an abstract intellectual puzzle. It challenges us to ask what we mean by terms like personhood and unity, but when we do we find that it makes more sense.
A rather neglected Anglican theologian of the last century called Leonard Hodgson pointed to the difference between mathematical unity and organic unity. Mathematic unity is arrived at by eliminating all multiplicity. This is fine for numbers, but inadequate for creatures which have a more richly complex unity. The more advanced a living being is, the more complex its unity. The amoeba, which may many of us were introduced to in biology lessons, is about as near to mathematical unity as living things can get, but we would not want to be an amoeba and we would be very dull if we were.
If we are to understand the unity of God, it will be more helpful to learn from human beings rather than numbers. Our unity is more complicated. It embraces not just the biological variety of our bodies but the psychological and spiritual network of relationships that are part of being a human person. We are who we are through the persons who love and have loved us, and through our going beyond ourselves to love others – even when that is a costly and demanding business. And we see ourselves, or are seen by others, as less than we should be when we fail or refuse to do that. We count it as a strength, as a sign of greater personal wholeness, when we are able to go through life without rejecting either relationships with others, or aspects of our selves which are difficult to integrate and accept.
Our experience of this rich and complex unity built on relationships may be more helpful that maths in finding ways of talking about the divine unity. We will think more truly if we try to move upwards beyond human personality to a richer organic unity, than if we descend through the amoeba and the atom seeking to reach a pure mathematical unity. Although mathematic unity is marked by decreased multiplicity, organic unity is complex. And the more complex an organism is, the more intense must be the unifying power of the life which pervades and unifies it.
Christians inherited an understanding of human beings as made in the image of God: “Let us make man in our image”, says God in Genesis. God also says that it is not good for us to be alone. If our fulfilment is found in communion with others, then that communion must reflect the nature of the God in whose image we are made.
And we know about that God not through intellectual speculation but in our Lord Jesus Christ and his life of communion in the Spirit with the Father; a life of self-giving love which expresses and reflects the very being of God as the perfection of love within the life of God. We must be born from above because we can only learn this from Jesus and not from each other. He is the one who can teach us about heavenly things.
He is the one in whom God’s passion to save the world, to bring it to that complete relationship with its Creator for which it was created, and not to condemn it, is worked out. Within the unity of divine love, God has embraced not only what is other than God – the creature – but even that which is hostile to God.
We find the unity of the divine love in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the sending of the Spirit upon the Church. These are not just events in the past but continuing spiritual realities. They have their source not simply in earthly events but in the eternal loving communion of God. We are always being drawn to share in them anew, at deeper and deeper levels; both individually through prayer and meditation and together as we celebrate the Eucharist. We grow in it as we seek to love God and be faithful to his will for us in union with Jesus and inspired by the Spirit.
St. Paul speaks in Romans of the Spirit praying within us. He says that we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. We think of prayer as something we must do on our own but it is the Spirit who prays in us, uniting our hearts with the heart of God, by filling our hearts with the heart of Christ, allowing Christ’s prayer, his conversation with the Father to come life at the centre of our life: “When we cry ‘Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” It is the Spirit who teaches us to say “Our Father.”
The work of prayer is the activity of God the Holy Spirit freeing us from the grasping, fearful, self-important bundles of instincts we have been taught to think of as our true selves, so that we might discover the person we are created to become in Christ. As we are drawn into his relationship with the Father, we are given the freedom and clarity of vision to want what is true and desire what is authentic: we are “born from above.”
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses