It is always a challenge to try to say something intelligible about the deepest mystery of the Christian faith. That mystery is the threeness as well as the oneness of God, a belief we call the Holy Trinity. Of course words and thoughts fail us altogether when we try to speak of God. We cannot even say, God exists, because that would suggest that God is an object in the universe. God isn’t alive in the universe: God is the source of all being, the reason the universe exists, not a part of it. I don’t know about you, but I feel my head exploding when I try to get hold of that thought.
There is a whole tradition of Christian theology that claims that all we can say about God is what God is not. It is a humble and honest approach. But while we can’t say what God is, we can speak with a measure of confidence about how God relates to us. We can do this because God has chosen to be known to us in this universe.
And that requires storytelling. It’s not about mathematical formulae of One and Three. Instead, we can speak of God interacting with people. That is what the Bible is, after all: a long and winding story of people getting to know something about God. As the Bible Challenge participants know, it is a book packed full of stories – some lovely, some disturbing, some challenging, some deeply horrifying, some simply baffling. We have to inhabit them in our imaginations to get some sense of God.
So today we have the story that is so often read at ordination services, and which influences our worship here in ways that you will easily see. Holy, holy, holy sing the seraphim, while the temple is filled with the smoke of incense. The seraph picks up a burning coal with tongs, just as our thurifer does, but he touches it to Isaiah’s lips. And the prophet, rather than yelling with pain, knows at once that he has been absolved of his sins, and he responds to God’s question, Who will go for us? With the
words, Here am I; send me. Does that remind you of the post-communion prayer when we say, We offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory. Today it will be an even more dramatic sending, because we will give a lit candle to little Alexandre and commission him as Isaiah was commissioned.
In the gospel reading from John, we have another story. A man comes secretly to Jesus by night, not wanting his associates to see him, and has a whispered conversation. Jesus gives him an odd image of a grown man being born from above, and says he will be lifted up as Moses lifted a snake on a stick in the desert. Somehow this action of water and the Spirit will lead to eternal life, and the man lifted up on high will show that God’s love is infinite. Nicodemus goes away trying to make sense of these picture-lessons. I am sure his head was exploding too.
By the time Paul was writing to the Romans, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection had spread around the Empire. But how to make sense of it? Paul says that the Spirit leads us to pray alongside Jesus as a child to its Father. If we are united with Jesus in that way, our suffering too will lead to glory, as the cross led to the resurrection.
Do you see how the mysterious idea of God was gradually described in new ways, involving a dynamic relationship? The writers of the Bible, the visionary prophets, the witnesses of Jesus’ life, the apostles preaching the good news, struggled to find words for these experiences. Being commissioned by God, being reborn through the Spirit, sharing Jesus’ sense of being God’s Son even in the midst of suffering. These experiences led the first Christians to try to put into language their sense that God called them, prayed alongside them, and gave them new life. And eventually they were able to speak of God as the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
Stories help. Pictures may help too. I love William Blake’s sketch of the Trinity on the cover of the service sheet. We see a parent embracing a dying child, whose outstretched arms are mirrored by the giant bird hovering above. The theologian Sarah Coakley says of this image, “Christ is veritably leaping into the Father’s arms, in an ecstasy of simultaneous joy and costly gift… Here is the circle of divine desire perfectly enacted, under the aegis of the Spirit’s own longing love.”
This is an image you might want to take home and meditate on. And I would like to end today by turning to another imaginative art, a poem by the 17th century priest George Herbert. You’ll find this in the leaflet too. It is a beautifully compressed prayer, in three stanzas, and it is called Trinity Sunday.
|Lord, who hast form’d me out of mud,
And hast redeem’d me through thy bloud,
And sanctifi’d me to do good;
Purge all my sinnes done heretofore:
For I confesse my heavie score,
And I will strive to sinne no more.
Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charitie;
That I may runne, rise, rest with thee.
In the first stanza, the first line is addressed to the Father, the Creator; the second to the Son, the Redeemer; and the third to the Spirit who sanctifies us.
In the second stanza, the poet refers to the past, the present and the future: the sins of his past life, the sins that lie on his conscience now, and his hope of avoiding future sin.
And in the final stanza, the three-fold pattern intensifies. Each individual line has a Trinitarian shape. First it is heart, mouth and hands that need God’s touch. Then it is the three Christian virtues of faith, hope and love that are prayed for. And finally the poet asks that he may run, rise and rest with God – in other words to follow in the way of Christ, rise to new life with him, and rest with him forever in the heart of God.
Today Alexandre is brought by his parents and godparents to be baptized, to be born from above of water and the Spirit. We pray with George Herbert that as Alexandre grows up, his heart, mouth and hands may be used in his Creator’s service, that the Spirit may fill him with faith, hope and love, and that his journey with Christ through death and resurrection may lead to his eternal life with God.
That is how the threefold God chooses to be known to us. And that is what sharing in the life of the Trinity is about.