Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Trinity Sunday 2022
The difficulty about that trinitarian doctrine is the difficulty of comprehending a love that goes so deep.
The Reverend Justin White Priest Vicar
Sunday, 12th June 2022 at 11.15 AM
For much of the last 20 years I have been a school chaplain – teaching (as you might expect) Theology and Religious Studies … but also Physics, for my background is in Science. Some years ago, the school inspectors were in, inspecting the girls’ school where I was then serving. The inspector responsible for examining the humanities subjects spotted me in the school corridor (sporting my give-away dog collar) and followed me into the classroom. I was nervous, but prepared. I handed the inspector my risk assessment for the lesson. He looked at me somewhat askance. I then gave him a pair of safety goggles. His puzzlement turned to trepidation. The lesson proceeded. It took him 20 minutes before he sheepishly got up and left the classroom, realising that this was, in fact, not a Religious Studies lesson but a Physics lesson! I had been teaching Year 9 girls how to wire a 3-pin plug. The inspector had imagined that that was my elaborate metaphor for the Holy Trinity. He later admitted: he could see how the earth pin might be God the Son, for He came down to earth. He could see how the live pin might be God the Holy Spirit, for He enlivens all things. But, for the life of him, he could not see how I was going to make God the Father the neutral pin! So here we are on Trinity Sunday. It has been quite a liturgical journey. Way back in Advent we prepared to receive God as a human being. At Christmas and Epiphany we actually received Him. Almost at once we were plunged into Lent, and struggled to reform ourselves, so that we might be better witnesses when Easter came round. At Easter we heard again – we acted out, we witnessed – Christ’s dying and Christ’s rising. 2½ weeks ago we watched Him ascend. Last Sunday, in a deluge of uncreated fire and wind, we received the Holy Spirit. And that, you might say, is it! We have crossed the canyons of Advent and Lent; we have scaled the mountains of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. From tomorrow the life of the Church is resumed, green and ordinary. And yet there is one more thing to do. On this last great Sunday, we turn our minds from what God has done in the world to gaze on God Himself. On this culminating day we meditate on God Himself; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, ever Three, ever One, world without end. And, would you know, it is a physicist who inspects me in that task this morning. Right below this pulpit is the memorial to the great 17thC physicist and polymath Robert Hooke. I feel the heat of his scrutinizing gaze. You’ll all be familiar with Hooke’s Law: The force (F) needed to extend or compress a spring by some distance (x) scales linearly with respect to that distance. I can see you all nodding sagely and knowingly. Or, in another way of framing it: the strain, or deformation, of an elastic object or material is proportional to the stress applied to it. What’s that, you say? You can hear the rumble of an approaching analogy? Oh! What strain has the doctrine of the Holy Trinity undergone as preachers, such as myself, stress over attempts to articulate that doctrine! Robert Hooke told us that if you apply a strain beyond the elastic limit of the material, permanent deformation results. In theological terms, we call that heresy. The Trinity is like water. Water has three states: solid, liquid, and gas. Although the water changes forms it is still H2O. Just as water changes forms so too does the Trinity take different forms. I am conscious of the Canon Theologian sitting behind me. His blood pressure has just increased by several millimetres of mercury. No! Emphatically, no! No one molecule of H2O can actually exist as solid, liquid, and gas at the same time. To suggest that this is like the Trinity is to teach the heresy of modalism. Excommunicate him! God the Holy Trinity is three persons. The Trinity is like an egg. In one egg you have the yoke, the white, and the shell - composing one full egg. The Canon Theologian is now foaming at the mouth. No! That is tritheism. Anathematise him! Our God is three persons in one substance. The Trinity is like the light (Son) and heat (Spirit) created by the sun (the Father). The Canon Theologian has just had an apoplectic seizure. No! That is Arianism. Burn him! Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully God. These ‘helpful’ analogies have strained our doctrine beyond the limits of elasticity. They are deformed. They are not Christianity. So, what is the preacher to say on Trinity Sunday? “Three persons in one substance”. The trouble with that formulation, as one commentator has observed, is that it evokes a picture of three people sitting in a bowl of soup. Three persons in one substance. That same commentator observes that things get worse if you go on to try to imagine these three persons having discussions with one another about how things are going. “I think one of us should become incarnate,” says one. “I’ll go!” says another. “What am I going to do while you’re away?” asks the third. No, we must give up this picture of three distinct individuals. There is only one substance, God, but there are three persons. The Greek word is ‘hypostases’, which is better because no one really knows what it means. Not even the Canon Theologian. What the Church has tried to formulate for us is that there are three aspects of the one divine being. The word ‘aspect’ already has one sailing perilously close to the elastic limit! Nevertheless, three aspects. Your idea of God cannot do without all of them together, and none of them can be reduced into the others. One aspect is that God is the absolutely transcendent ground of all being, the boundless ocean of infinity, from whose creativity all things issue, the uncaused cause of things, seen and unseen, beyond our capacity to comprehend. A second aspect is that God is the superlative intelligence, in which all the archetypes of being are established and ordered with perfect wisdom, from which emanates the form and intelligibility of all things, without which was not any thing made that was made, yet which takes form, and lives among us, full of grace and truth, as an embodied mind and self-illuminating consciousness. The third aspect is that God is the dynamic energy, the giver of life, which imparts being to the forms conceived by the divine wisdom, valuing them, affirming them, delighting in their peculiarity and particularity. Glorious, heady stuff! But is that all too abstract for you? Well then, we must begin and end with Jesus. Where else?! Had I no knowledge of Jesus – the divine self-revelation – I don’t think I would believe in God at all. Looking at the world, what I would see is meaninglessness. Lots of sound and fury, but signifying nothing, and ending in nothingness. A stream of existence that rushes over the precipice of death and is swallowed up in the sea of oblivion. Everything at the mercy of time and chance. The reason that I don’t believe that is because I have witnessed Jesus and had my vision of the world transformed by what He did and what He said and who He is. I have come to understand Him and his self-revelation as that of the only-begotten Son of God; given to us because “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” What kind of love is this? What kind of giver gives such a gift? Furthermore, those who accept this gratuitous gift, and acknowledge that love by taking upon themselves the threefold name of this God, are ‘born again’ into a world not subject to the vagaries and futilities of time and chance. It is looking through Jesus that I come to see that world, governed by God. When I look at the world through Him I see not a stream that disappears in an ocean of oblivion, but the Way that leads through Truth to Life. The conviction of this is a voice within me that enables me to cry out to God: “Abba! Father!” That voice is, I believe, the Spirit placing the words of Jesus into my mouth and my heart. We call God Father because Jesus called Him Father, and the Spirit gives us that name to say. Where did the appellation ‘Son of God’ come from? Did it perhaps begin when Jesus’ disciples heard him pray to his Father and they saw in that dialogue a relationship of unmatched intimacy and familiarity and authority? God is the one whom Jesus called ‘Father’. Jesus is the one whom God called ‘Son’. The power that enables us to see and confess this is called ‘Spirit’. It begins and ends in Jesus. The belief in God as One and Three – as Trinity – stems from the starting point of Jesus, and flows back to the same. “Would you like to know your Lord’s meaning?” asks the Lady Julian of Norwich, medieval English mystic. “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love.” Who? What? Why? Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Three in one; one in three. Any problems with that – go and see your maths teacher! No. The difficulty, if it be a difficulty, about that trinitarian doctrine is not the difficulty of a mathematical puzzle, or a metaphor strained beyond limit, but rather the difficulty of comprehending a love that goes so deep. The Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are one in the oneness of love beyond all our understanding … to whom alone is, was, and shall be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, dominion, majesty and power, in all eternity. Amen.