Trinity Sunday 2018. (Year B) Isaiah 6 1-8, John 3 1-17.
Reverend John Howard,
United Methodist Church
Today is Trinity Sunday. If you believe the conversation between preachers, and who is there better to believe!, then you would think that the Trinity is the hardest subject to preach on. In one sense they are right, who could ever claim adequately to describe God. In another sense what better subject is there to preach about than God? It is at the same time, the most natural and the most challenging of subjects.
The Trinity is in fact simply a way of explaining the nature of God we believe in as Christians. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. No other religion has this concept of the nature of God in three persons yet one being. The word Trinity is not used in the bible, and yet the three persons of the Trinity are in almost every page.
Our Old Testament Lesson was the call of Isaiah. Immediately we pick up the majesty, the sense of awe, in the presence of God. The seraphs, the smoke, the constant echo of praise all serve to elaborate upon the holiness, the otherness, the sense that God is greater and more remote than we can imagine. Isaiah’s cry “Woe to me” is made because he, in the vision, sees God. In Hebrew understanding, anyone who sees God must die. It is more than flesh & blood can survive to see God. We find this idea a number of times in the Old Testament, most famously on Mount Sinai where Moses sees God pass by from the safety of a cave. So since Isaiah “sees” God’s holiness, his first reaction is to say “I am ruined”. The meaning of holiness is that God is over and above and greater than anything that we can ever know. Sometimes we use the phrase the “Otherness of God”, the sense that God is beyond our experience, beyond words, simply holy.
In our New Testament reading – Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus is really about the nature of God and his relationship with creation. While he asks Jesus about being born again, he is enquiring about what is meant by Salvation. This question goes to the heart of the nature of God. God who calls human beings, that he has created, to adopt in spirituality the stature of a baby, as accepting, as enquiring and as humble as a child, must be a God that has none of the pride and love of status that human beings have. The great saying of Jesus, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” again indicates the nature of God: The fullness of the love of God, the self-giving nature of God, the vocation of the Son in the purposes of God, the desire of God that the children of God will not be condemned for their wrong but commended for their right, all says much about the nature of God,
Sadly for many of us our understanding of the Trinity has hardly changed since Sunday School.
• God the Father, Powerful, awful, in its true meaning, rather distant, the creator.
• Our image of Jesus is of a white European male, gentle Jesus meek and mild. The image of Jesus surrounded by children or fluffy white lambs.
• We think of the Holy Spirit as rather like Casper, in the film, “The Friendly Ghost”, but with a halo, and flitting about, working overtime trying to keep us all in line with what was etched on those stone tablets!
There are many problems with these images. They are quite separate, even if they reflect the three, there is no sense of the oneness of the Godhead. Jesus said “I and the Father are one”. Secondly they are deeply infused with modern cultural influences. Thirdly they are hardly a challenge to us because they are remote from everything that we experience from day to day. This is paradoxical that they can be at the same time, remote from modern life, yet cast in modern cultural images.
What we need to do is not so much to throw out these old images of the Trinity, but rather to recognise they are useful only as stepping stones on the way to forming a new understanding, more integrated with life. The Trinity is not the last word in understanding the nature of God, it’s nearer to being the first. There are many more beyond.
Isaiah’s vision of the holiness of God, his awe and his fear at his encounter with God the Father, speaks of a power and a majesty much, much greater than we imagine. Our experiences of life and especially science, should help us to know more of this God, but always deepening our awe, not our familiarity with God.
The earthly Jesus was a Palestinian Jew, he would have looked much like the pictures of Yasar Araphat. Much that Jesus did and said was far from meek and mild, it was outrageous, revolutionary, and deeply disturbing. But, at the same time, he was alongside people, accepting them, showing them love. He promises to be with us.
The Spirit in the bible is often described with images of fire, wind or the dove. The origins of the word “Spirit” comes from the word “wind.” In the New Testament Greek the same word is used for them both. However its effect is often more like fire, burning, destroying, cleansing. The dove, again used in the bible for the Spirit, introduces the aspect of gentleness, of guiding rather than directing, of evolutionary change. The spirit is the movement of God – the energy of God – given to his people.
What must not be lost in this, is a sense of “community within the Godhead”. That is where this icon comes in. The nature of God is in a relationship between persons that come together as truly one. Today we need to hear this as never before: God is himself community. In a world where personal rights, personal self fulfilment, personal ambition often takes priority, the Christian God by contrast is a community. If we want to know that God in our lives we need to be alive to community. We will discover that God in the relationships between people, within the sick, the poor, the widow and the orphan, indeed the mystery is that we find Christ himself there.
This is the God we worship. We don’t flatter his (or is it her?) pride, that’s not the object of worship. The impact of worship upon us is to effect changes in ourselves as we recognise the wonderful, and awe inspiring, and loving, and powerfully creating – nature of God, Father Son & Holy Spirit. If we have a good understanding of the nature of God it deeply and profoundly effects us as people as we face the challenges of life, and therefore brings to us life in all its fullness.
Our challenge every day is to learn more of the God we worship. If we do, if we increase this understanding then we grow more God like, more Christ Like, more Spirit filled.
Let us conclude with this prayer for Trinity Sunday:
Let us pray:
O God our mystery,
you bring us to life,
call us to freedom,
and move between us with love.
May we so participate
in the dance of your trinity,
that our lives may resonate with you,
now and for ever. Amen.