Romans 8.12-17, John 3.1-17
Having worked our way through Easter, Ascension Day and, last Sunday, Pentecost, we are now celebrating the Trinity. This is not another event, but the start of exploring the new dimension in which we are to live our ordinary, everyday lives, following the breath-taking events of Easter. Appropriately enough the church calls this new season ‘Ordinary time’, taking us more or less all the way through from now until Advent. We are given plenty of time to discover how to live in a trinitarian fashion.
Richard, my husband, used to be vicar of a church called the Good Shepherd. Nearby was the church secondary school called Northbrook school. Part way through Richard’s time at the church a new head arrived just when the school building needed to expand in order to accommodate increasing numbers of pupils. After much negotiation it was completely rebuilt and the head seized the opportunity offered by the new premises to develop the school as an even more hospitable, inclusive learning community based on Christian values. He set the ball rolling by changing the name of the school to Trinity School, with the strapline ‘A place for everyone at the table’. The famous Rublev icon of the Trinity (on our screen today) became the school’s symbol. It offered the visual image for the starpline and the colours in the icon became the colours of the different houses in the school which were all called after angels (Gabriel, Michael, Ariel etc), identified with the angels sitting round the table in the icon. So, the whole school did indeed have a place at this heavenly table.
This invitation is of course there for all of us. We all have a place at the table. This community aspect of the Trinity resonates with our contemporary culture. We are more drawn to this than to, say, the image of Christ on the cross. It invites us to relate, to move out of our individualism. It also suggests diversity.
Interestingly the trinity features prominently in the writing of Julian of Norwich, the 15th century mystic and anchorite, living at a time when the image of the suffering Christ was especially popular. Meditating on Christ on the cross opened Julian’s eyes more fully to the depths of his love for us, a love that then drew her into the heart of the Trinity which is where she realised she dwelled. It’s this which is helpful to grasp as we consider the Trinity. The community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the place where we actually dwell daily as Christians. It’s our home base, the place from which we launch into our ordinary lives. Like many mystics, Julian’s vision of the trinity transcends gender. She often refers to Jesus as our mother. The Trinity is where we are held, surrounded, nourished by a depth of love that we see poured out in Jesus’ crucifixion.
The church didn’t finally agree the doctrine of the Trinity till the fourth century. Doctrine emerged as believers tried to make sense of what had happened with the coming of Christ. The first big question was Who is Jesus? That inevitably involved considering his relationship with God, whom he called Abba, Father, and then the Spirit which was so evident in the growth of the church. Pinning these things down in words became increasingly important as the gospel spread and aspects of it became distorted by what were deemed heresies. The church needed something against which to measure some of the whackier ideas about Christianity that were soon circulating.
My recollection of sermons about the Trinity in my younger days were that they were essentially about helping me get my head round the mystery of a God who is three in one. Maths, clover leaves and candles sometimes featured! This is good exercise for the brain and was perhaps more relevant back in the day when defending what we believe may have been a priority. Now, in our current context, we’re more faced with questions along the lines of, Does it work? Will it bring me fulfilment? Will I be welcomed? The invitation to find in the Trinity a hospitable space speaks to a culture seeking a place to belong, to be accepted, to be loved in company with others, to not be alone. We’ve been considering words that might describe our church as we design a new website. One member came up with these 3 – connecting, accepting, embracing. Very contemporary and very trinitarian!
The brief extract from Romans we heard earlier speaks of what it’s like to dwell in this trinitarian reality. We call God Father, having an identity as God’s sons and daughters, we live in freedom rather than fear, we share Jesus’ glory as well as his suffering. And we find ourselves willing to die to some of those things in our life that make us less than fully human as we share in Christ’s risen glorified humanity. Paul isn’t making credal statements here, but describing a way of life.
You can’t pin down the Trinity with words because ultimately its mystery. Nicodemus wants Jesus to explain, and Jesus replies in images – it’s like being born again, it involves water and the Spirit, so baptism might feature, but it’s more than that because like wind we can’t see it, only feel it, and the connections are made when we look at Christ, especially when he is on the cross. So we’re back with Mother Julian again – the depth of God’s love demonstrated on the cross draws us through the Holy Spirit into that hospitable space where we are wrapped around with love.
There are three Greek words associated with the Trinity. Agape – the self giving generous love characteristic of the Father, perichoresis – the harmonious movement connecting the three persons of the Trinity characteristic of the Holy Spirit, and kenosis – the emptying, pouring out of that love demonstrated in Jesus, the Son. All are illustrated in this icon. All three characterise authentic Christian living and authentic church.
If, like me, you have sometimes held back from accepting the idea that we have a place at the table, that we are invited to dwell at the centre of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit perhaps consider why that might be. In my case I used to think I needed to wait until I was a better person, sort of wearing the right clothes. As if I could ever be good enough to dwell at the heart of the trinity! The whole point is that we can only dwell there because Christ has swept our humanity, warts and all, into that close communion with the Trinity (as we celebrated at the Ascension). It doesn’t depend on what we’ve done. It’s the ‘being born from above’ that Jesus speaks about with Nicodemus, or recognising that we have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters to use Paul’s language in Romans. Speaking for myself, I think it requires humility to accept this. Surely I have to do something, to erase all the flaws in my character, to stop getting things wrong in order to be welcomed? No! That’s not the starting point. We start by accepting our place with Christ in the Trinity, the Christ who has demonstrated the depths of God’s love for us on the cross (while we were still sinners, Paul says), and then gradually those things that draw us away from God release their hold on us. We’ve moved house, we’re living in a different neighbourhood, to use another image, and it’s because there really is a place for us at the table, we can live our ordinary lives differently. Praise God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit!