Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-end, Matthew 26.16-end
May I speak in the name… of the mystical Trinity; Father Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Liberator, Sustainer; the one, the three, the many; the immanent – the economic; the divine dance; the crucified God; the endless relationship, the dance of atoms; quarks, protons, electrons; plants, planets angels, and God. The love that invites, welcomes, calls us to participate; that sends us out; the love that baptises our humanity in the task of being human, and surround us in an ocean of holy love.
As an ordained minister it’s funny, (and challenging) to discover what people presume you to be about… we’ve spoken before about the Magpie; the recipient of all kinds of projections, folklore, superstition etc. I am often told what I believe by other people, only to then throw them off balance by telling that I don’t believe those things at all! “No I’m not against homosexuality, yes I do know what Grime music is, no I don’t believe in a seven day creation, I do believe in climate change, I don’t know why God allows suffering, and no I’m not sexist.…”
Often I am also told “well you believe in a higher power”.. (well that’s more straightforward isn’t it?).. I mean we might – in this church – be tempted to agree to ‘believe in a higher power’.. but I have a confession to make. I don’t.
I really don’t believe in a higher power.. in fact ‘I’ needs a cross, ‘believe’, needs a cross, ‘higher’, needs a cross and ‘power’ needs a cross… the whole statement I totally refute. And on this day, Trinity Sunday it’s a good day to come clean and make my confession known… and to explain why it is the Holy Trinity that makes me deny my belief in a higher power, and may might inspire you to do the same!
It’s the classic curate’s sermon; the test of one’s mettle.. how can they explain this infinite mystery in a fifteen minute sermon. It’s usually the point that three ropes, or an egg, an ice cube or some clover gets taken out and used to explain things… But actually, they don’t work.. the metaphors are weak and distracting, (plus often heretical!) so sadly I wont be trying to explain the Trinity this morning… what I want to suggest is that the Trinity is not for us to understand…the Trinity is God. We cannot understand God, as the Isaiah passage so eloquently reveals, but the Trinity yet provokes us to live richer, deeper and more vivid lives; we are invited to participate in the Trinity of God, and to share what Jesus is talking about in his commission.
If this is unfamiliar language, or sounds daunting, don’t let it be. The Trinity is the way we describe God as both one God and Three persons; Father Son and Spirit. It is—I believe—the most exciting thing about Christianity, it is where the distinctive and compelling vision of faith emerges.. it is within the Trinity that we find our energy to face some of the most challenging issues of our times. Why we have a ‘Trinity Sunday’ seems so odd, when every day, every moment, every thing is entwined in God’s self-giving relationship.
So let’s step back briefly into the very early beginning of the church and ask where did this idea of God as three in one emerge? (Hold on to your hats – this is a whistle-stop tour!)
The Mediaeval theologian Anselm speaks of Christianity as “Faith seeking understanding”. And that is how the early church began it’s work. “Father Son and Holy Spirit” are only mentioned twice in the Bible, yet the teaching of Jesus, the rumours of the Hebrew Bible and most importantly, the lived and prayed experience of the early church began to reveal a Trinitarian understanding of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It took 400 years, (and a shed load of arguing) to (roughly) agree, but it was the work of Ireneaus, and these guys—The Cappadocians—who finally developed a clear theology of God in response to the question, “how can God be one and three at the same time?”
Their work was stunning really, and we repeat a lot of it in the creed which we will soon say together; all of God is all of God, all of God is involved in the life of God.. The father creates, the son creates, the spirit creates – or saves, or love, or inspired or tenderly hold us like a mother to a child. Let’s think on that for a second; we speak of the Spirit of Christ, or the Spirit of God, but we can equally speak of the Christ of the Spirit… what new images might develop in our faith and life if we can imagine Father Son and Holy Spirit as equal and mutual but different..
Furthermore the Cappadocians developed these words; ‘eternally begotten’, ‘proceeding’… ways to say that God has always been Trinity; there was never a Father before the Son.. Christ is begotten of the father—but eternally.. always begotten, and the Spirit too, proceeding – always.
What the early church was struggling to achieve was a way to explain; to define the ‘Essence’ or ‘Being’ of God. What the Cappadocians gave them was a language to express this;
God is one essence (ousia) existing as three persons (hypostases): Father, Son and Spirit.
But to develop a Doctrine is different to believing, and to seek understanding is different to believing. Although a doctrine of the Trinity emerged, it was a doctrine for a mystery, (for the Cappadocians, a love that flowed and binds together). As much as reason was applied, the Trinity remained beyond the grasp of understanding, beyond knowledge.
It wasn’t until the enlightenment era that things started to evolve again… Culture often influences theology… and around the 16 & 17th century, belief in absolutes truths began to dwindle; The place of experience and subjectivity began to grow, as did thought about humans as individual, self-determining people, and how we might begin to think of a ‘Divine Being’. This too began to influence how we understood God as Trinity.
Four significant thinkers in the modern age have affected our thinking. The father of modern liberal theology Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a huge volume on theology and left the Trinity to almost an afterword. ‘it is not part of the lived Christian experience’, and therefore irrelevant to most Christians – he said.
Yet Karl Barth, (you may have heard of him!), set himself in opposition to Friedrich and began his even bigger work, “Church Dogmatics’ with a full treatise on the Trinity.. This is how God chooses to reveal Godself… and that’s it – don’t worry about experience – just deal with it!
It was Karl Rahner who suggested that what we experience of God, might be the same as who God is; using a technical term, ‘The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity”.. We can begin to glimpse that whatever divine intimacy exists as God relates to Godself, we are also enabled to experience that in prayer, action and thought.
Jürgen Moltmann – to whom we will return a little later, was to have a major impact also. But let’s remember what these thinkers were doing was still an attempt to define the ‘Essence’ or ‘Being’ of God. It was still an examination of God, a way to describe the nature of God.
So lets get back to my confession about a higher power. We may already begin to see that this self-giving, mutual relationship of God to God contradicts the idea of an unchanging higher God. The Cappadocians were struggling to form a theology that could respond to Greek philosophy, (which understood God as higher, un-moving and unchanging). The foundations they laid enabled John of Damascus to use the term ‘Perichoresis’ as a way to speak of a ‘Divine Dance’, an eternal, giving and loving inviting. A relationship not enclosed – but outward facing.
Theology lags often behind philosophy however, and the thought that God is somehow higher – the legacy of Greek thought – remained deeply influential.. However, through existentialism, the idea of the person began to change from an individual self-determining unit to a relating self, from me to we… we began to understand as caught in a circle of relationships, that we are because of others around us. “I am because we are”. So this affected theology – finally.. An individual self-contained vision of personhood, (‘persona’ means mask), sees the world—and God—very differently.
It was Jürgen Moltmann who may have most deeply affected our present thinking about the Trinity. Moltmann experienced the horrors of war, but also the hospitality of the British as a POW. He also had to come to terms with the horrors of the holocaust in his home country. He picked up on an old phrase from Martin Luther, ‘Deus Crucifixus’, ‘The Crucified God’, to point to something truly compelling about the Trinity. If Jesus has died on the cross and suffered human pain, then Father and Spirit has suffered too. The cry of “My God, why have you forsaken me” is eternally present within the Trinity; a rift, a tear, a constant ache. A voice of suffering humanity, and indeed all of creation, speaks within the Godhead, and God is understood as embodying weakness and vulnerability, as well as resurrection hope.
“The one who cannot suffer is a loveless being” Moltmann.
U2’s Bono at Love Manchester last week said something similar; “grief will not end, because love does not end.”
So Power, and Higher Power are deeply challenged by a deeper thinking into the Trinity, and this too is where Belief comes into question. Because in the end, we are not invited to believe in the trinity, we are invited to participate in the Trinity.
Rublev’s famous Icon, (and Michael L Radcliffe’s reinterpretation – below) shows an open inviting table.. but I want to suggest we are all icons of the trinity in our outward loving, and giving, and living.
It has been suggested that the three points/characters of the Trinity could be removed and instead we simply recognise that our worship and our lives focuses on a divine relationship. The relationship which holds the universe together has icons everywhere; in diversity and unity; in planets and stars; in atoms and molecules; and in young people and communities gathered together in Manchester and London to say ‘we will continue to live, and to laugh, and to love, and to welcome others despite the fear of violence and hatred’.
Icons of God’s loving relationship emerge in feminist theology, disabled and queer theology, black and liberation theologies; where ‘norms’ and ‘binary divisions’ break down. The Trinity is saturated in exuberant lavish passionate love and overflows into life.
So my confession stands.. (you don’t have to take it on board yourself – it’s simply a suggestion), a chance to say something profound and meaningful about faith in the strange of times; to ask again what does God really mean to us – what does God provoke and inspire in those inside and outside the church;
‘I’ really don’t ‘believe’ in a ‘higher’ ‘power’.
But instead, maybe, our confession would say ‘we’ ‘participate’ in ‘vulnerable’ ‘love’.
Endless Trinity; beguiling mystery, enthralling, inspiring and provoking– invite us always to delight in the wonder of God, to turn our gaze outwards… and to hear once again these words of Jesus; to go into all the world, participating and inviting others into God’s vulnerable love.