A sermon preached on Sunday 16 June 2019
Romans 5: 1-5
In a speech to the Prayer Book Society, the comedian and author Alan Bennett once observed that in the Anglican Church “whether or not one believes in God tends to be sidestepped. It’s not quite in good taste”. “The Church of England,” he continues, “is so constituted that its members can really believe in anything at all, but of course almost none of them do.”
Trinity Sunday, which we keep today, poses a challenge to those of us who- like the Anglicans Bennett is gently parodying- like to keep our religion vague or open-ended, those who, whilst maintaining some form of religious affiliation, prefer not to have to think too closely about exactly what we mean when we talk about the notion of “God”. But today invites us to reflect on the fundamental question: what is God- whatever the word God means to us- and what is God like? It invites us even to be so specific as to ask, Who is God?
The answer, for Christians, is the Trinity: God is one God, who exists in three persons and one substance, Father, Son and Holy Spirit- three in one and one in three. In speaking of the doctrine of the Trinity, we enter a world of puzzle and paradox. The language we use is technical and philosophical, its meanings debated and honed over centuries. We sing of the persons, consubstantial with one another and- with particular resonance today- repeat the Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit again and again as a formula at the end of the Gloria, Collect and psalms.
Some may experience this language as dryly intellectual or out of touch with reality. For some, it’s even oppressive: “The feeling of Sunday is the same everywhere,” says a character in a Jean Rhys novel: “heavy, melancholy, standing still. Like when they say, “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.”” For others, the nature of God is a live question. As a parish priest in the Old Kent Road, in South London, walking around in a dog collar and getting on the bus, it wasn’t unusual to be asked why I believed that the one, almighty God could also be a Trinity. And we- the Church- would always be challenged to defend the doctrine when visiting the local Mosque. In that part of the world, where there was a Mosque or Pentecostal Church on almost every street corner, it felt as if these questions weren’t academic but part of a daily, spiritual battle for the truth, of discovering more of who God is, even if none of us ultimately changed the other’s minds.
As well as being hotly debated, over the centuries, reflection on the Trinity has inspired some of the richest and most poetic writings on love, gift and grace, a welcome reminder that God as Trinity is not something to be analysed so much as experienced; not something to be described so much as to be lived; to be felt.
Writing in the 13th century, the German Benedictine, mystic and theologian Gertrude of Helfta, opens her book on God’s loving-kindness by addressing the triune God in well established Christian tradition. But this is more than a formulaic opening. “May the deep of uncreated Wisdom call to the deep of the wonderful Omnipotence,” she writes, in language slightly reminiscent of today’s psalm, “to praise and exalt such breath-taking Goodness, which guided the overflowing abundance of your mercy down from on high to the valley of my wretchedness!” Far from dry speculation, the trinity of Wisdom, Omnipotence and Goodness of God are clearly something Gertrude has experienced through prayer, as well as thought about. She is passionate about the difference that praying to God the Trinity makes, just as Paul, in our first reading, a famous passage from the letter to the Romans, brings together the glory of Father, the suffering of the Son and the love of the Spirit, holding all three before him, as he struggles to cope with daily experience of persecution- and using this to encourage other early Christians in their difficult daily lives of faith.
Our Gospel reading brings out another important aspect of the Trinity. God is not just three persons, but three persons in relationship to one another. On their own each person could not exist: each finds their distinctive identity only in relation to the other two. That means the relations between them are just as vital as the persons themselves. God, then, isn’t only the nouns describing the three; God is the verb that connects them. God in His or Her very being is relational- God is dynamic. God is the dance, the movement from the lover to the beloved and back again: a reaching out and an embracing. This is the continual movement of a God who- even as Jesus prepares his disciples for the sorrow of leaving them before he is crucified- is endlessly creating, making and re-making, as the Spirit the bond of truth moves between the Father and the Son.
As well as Trinity Sunday, today is Music Sunday, an event established by the Royal School of Church Music, with whom we have a close relationship, and of which I’m proud to be a trustee. The purpose of Music Sunday is to celebrate the contribution of musicians to the Church’s worship and to increase awareness of the RSCM’s vital work. The anthem today, by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, “God the Holy Trinity,” which the choir will sing during communion, is written in three parts- a deliberate reference to the Trinity, written especially for today.
Music can help when it comes both to describing and to experiencing the Trinity. So much of the language- the images, the analogies- we have for the Trinity that we learned in Sunday School (like a shamrock, or ice, water and steam), falls short in some way- either emphasising too much the oneness or the threeness. Even the threefold naming of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit- could never fully describe the divine essence, or oneness. So, it’s not surprising that people have turned to music to express the beauty and mystery of the Trinity that both eludes and captivates us. George Herbert spoke of the Trinity as three notes of a chord, an image taken up in the twentieth century by the French mystic Simone Weil, who spoke of the notes as “separate yet melting into one, like pure and heart-rending harmony”. In this understanding, God is a kind of three-note resonance of life, notes mutually indwelling, without mutual exclusion and yet without merger, each note occupying the same space, yet recognisably and irreducibly distinct. As in a chord, the notes sound in and through each other, yet they are still heard as distinct notes, each reinforcing the others bringing out their particularity. No wonder singing in harmony is such a liberating experience for so many; through it, we- hopefully, at least- gain a glimpse of the dynamic movement and communion of the Trinity
This week was the two-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster. At the same as the newspaper reports reminded us of so much that has not been done, of communities still seeking justice, the scenes of crowds walking together, supporting one another in rebuilding their lives, campaigning for accountability and honouring the memory of those who died was sobering. After this time has passed, the groups could have given up, yet they have pushed for bigger goals, campaigning for greater fire safety and ending prejudice against social-housing tenants. This instinct to reach out and come together reflects the power and beauty of real relationship that is at the heart of God, the Trinity we can experience. In a society where many are isolated, the Trinity speaks of a mutuality in which differences are not dispelled but identity is affirmed and celebrated in friendship and community.
It may be that many of us would prefer, on a daily basis, not to be thinking too deeply about the technical aspects of the Trinity or debating the nature of God. The Trinity probably, I’m imagining, won’t form the subject matter of too many of our conversations in the pub or street, as it did for followers of the early church fathers in the fourth century. But the question of what God is like is being asked. The doctrine of the Trinity speaks of God in relationship to an uncertain and fragmented world. It speaks of the constancy of God in eternity- a constancy that is not static but dynamic, alive. So may we on this Trinity Sunday experience God afresh, and may we be people who live the Trinity, as we allow the dynamism of God in relationship to move us and set us free.