Here’s the sermon I preached yesterday, Trinity Sunday. I was told after: ‘Now that’s how you preach on the Trinity. Say as little as possible as eloquently as possible.’ I’ll take that as a compliment. I think….
Genesis 1.1-2.4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20
+ In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If Pentecost last Sunday was, as I suggested, a celebration of the breadth of God’s imagination and the wild, mad inclusiveness of God’s creativity, then this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, often feels more like a lamentation of humanity’s lack of imagination (or at least clergy’s lack of imagination!). Preachers the world over will be returning to the same old hackneyed analogies to explain the Trinity. They will use apples, clover, Mars bars and water/ice/steam in their efforts to make the Trinity as accessible as possible to their poor congregations. Training rectors will try not to laugh as they listen to their curates attempt to preach on the unpreachable, and they will shake their heads in despair as they hear heresy after heresy proclaimed from the pulpit.
Speaking about the Trinity can feel a bit like walking a tightrope of spider-spun silk only to arrive at the middle to discover that, like the emperor’s new clothes, there is in fact, nothing there. And as we preachers have been flaunting our own greatness and knowledge, all who are looking on are giggling, wondering when the realisation will hit us. And so we go plunging down into the great abyss below.
And yes, that confused, mixed metaphor was deliberate. Because that’s what it feels like trying to preach a sermon which addresses head-on God’s three-in-oneness and one-in-threeness. Or as the Athanasian Creed not so helpfully clarifies: the ‘one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons or dividing the Essence. … The Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal’.
Just saying it makes my head hurt, pondering it for too long would probably make my brain explode.
One morning earlier in the week, as I was looking at the texts for today and Justin was making a cup of tea, I asked him (as I often do!) ‘If you had to preach on the Trinity, what would you say?’ And without missing a beat, he came back with, ‘Well, the idea of the Trinity is really just poetry, isn’t it?’
Yes, of course the doctrine itself is rooted in the ancient church’s careful articulation of both the divinity and humanity of Christ, and there is some magnificently beautiful philosophy and theology that came out of those discussions.
But with great poetry — or great music for that matter, or great art — when we begin to break it down into its constituent parts, it begins to lose its force, its mystery. We can talk about rhyme, metre, phrasing, cadence, brushstrokes and perspective and thus admire the complexity and craft of a great work of art, but these things do not necessarily tell us about our relationship with the piece we are studying. They do not tell us why it affects us in the way it does. They cannot explain why a certain poem comforts us, a piece of music makes us weep, or a particular painting unsettles us.
And so it is with the Trinity. We can throw around the technical terms of perichoresis and ousia, and they may (or may not) lead us to marvel at God’s complexity and unknowability, but, more dangerous than treading naively into heretical waters, we run the risk of reducing God to mere abstraction.
That’s not to say that intellectual and academic reflection on the Trinity is inherently wrong. Not at all. Indeed, it has its own integrity and purpose. But when we make that the focus of our attention, when we search too desperately for a logic we can understand, we too easily cease to to notice that mysterious hold God has over us, God’s eternal longing for us to draw near. We find ourselves standing to the side watching the divine dance rather than allowing ourselves to be seduced into the heart of it. We become observers rather than participants.
Poetry, music, art do not need us, to be what they are. God does not need us, to be God. But in each — and in God most of all — there is such generosity, such spaciousness, that we are invited to come ever closer, to give ourselves over to the experience, to become part of something other and far greater than ourselves.
Matthew writes at the end of his gospel that when the disciples saw Jesus on the mountain near Galilee, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And that seems about right for this Trinity Sunday. Worship and doubt. Wonder and confusion. Heart-break and head-ache.
But God, One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, responds always the same, though often in ways that take us by surprise.
Whether it is the great wind blowing over creation, the earthquake as the stone rolls away from the tomb, the tongues of fire that fell at Pentecost or that brief moment of silence after the birth and before God’s Word uttered his first cry. Always, it is the same. Always it is God saying, ‘I love you. I loved you when I created you. I loved you when I redeemed you. I loved you when I sanctified you. I loved you before time began and I will love you when this world ceases to be’.
Our language about the Trinity may be complicated and difficult.
But the language of the Trinity is love. The being of the Trinity is love. Love is its metre, its repeating phrase, its brushstroke. It is that simple.
It seems only fitting to end with a poem, one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets:
Father, part of his double interest
Unto thy kingdom, thy Son gives to me,
His jointure in the knotty Trinity
He keeps, and gives me his death’s conquest.
This Lamb, whose death, with life the world hath blessed,
Was from the world’s beginning slain, and he
Hath made two wills, which with the legacy
Of his and thy kingdom, do thy sons invest.
Yet such are thy laws, that men argue yet
Whether a man those statutes can fulfill;
None doth, but thy all-healing grace and Spirit
Revive again what law and letter kill.
Thy law’s abridgement, and thy last command
Is all but love; oh let that last will stand!