Trinity Sunday, 31st May, morning
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
Revd Kate Tuckett
Occasionally someone will say to me something along the lines of ‘Kate, you don’t really believe this do you?’ I wonder if that ever happens to you too. Perhaps when it comes out at work, or among friends that you are a churchgoer. You can see the other person thinking that you seem reasonably intelligent, and yet you sign up to a faith at the heart of which seems to be a set of doctrines and dogmas that simply tie your mind up in knots. Jesus, human and divine. Eucharist, bread and body. God, one in three.
Today is the day when we celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity, God in three persons and God as one. It’s as easy target for those who want to ridicule religion, because logically it makes no sense. The Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the son is not the father or the spirit, the spirit is not the father or the son. The father, son and spirit, all are God and God is one. If we approach the doctrine of the trinity with our logical minds, all it seems to tell us is that God is bad maths.
The word trinity is never found in the Bible: it’s simply our way of trying to explain how God gradually comes to be seen as a communion of persons, a perfect giving and receiving. The church took its time in coming up with the doctrine of the Trinity, and much ink and blood was spilled over it and today this confusing doctrinal issue may seem too dry and distant to actually celebrate. But here we are, all of us, in some way or other, wanting to find good news from something that is profoundly inexplicable.
And I want to suggest that one thing Trinity Sunday challenges us to do is to re-assess how we know truth when it seems inexplicable or unbelievable. We have to live with paradox all the time because reality is paradoxical. Every day we are presented with a clash of contradictions, and perhaps one way our faith can help us to live is to give us a different way of seeing mystery. Many of the truths our faith presents us with do not demand blind belief; they demand new eyes, a different kind of way of looking at things that allows the shadows of life. Such a light allows a more compassionate, full and patient reading of reality. They demand a new response.
Western Christianity has not always been very good at looking at things with new eyes, tending instead to objectify paradoxes into dogmatic statement that demand mental energy instead of any inner experience. But the stories of our faith are not the things we believe, they are things we know. They are realisations and life experiences. There is nothing to believe or disbelieve, prove or disprove. If we are prepared to place our stories within them, we may know them for ourselves on some level. Doctrines and dogmas are good pointers in the right direction. But it is often easier for us to believe things than to be prepared to make these truths reality.
The doctrine of the trinity is something that can only be known not believed. Our supposed logic has to break down before we can comprehend the bare beginnings of the nature of what we call God. And if we are to enter the realm of mystery, to admit that God is too big for us to understand, we need humility. We need to shed some of our certainties and clothe ourselves with awe and wonder.
So let’s look at what the readings might say to us. We’ve heard about Isaiah’s fantastical vision filled with seraphs and a God too gigantic to be contained in the temple, whose power and presence extends to the bounds of the temple and expands to the whole of the earth. The ancient title, ‘the Lord of hosts’ suggests that God’s power will cover all the heavenly realms and their inhabitants. We hear the confession of Isaiah that he is not worthy of such a vision but yet is met with understanding and forgiveness. In responding to God he finds his sanctification and his vocation.
Jesus encourages Nicodemus to make a response as well. Picture him – he’s a good religious man – he’s a leader of the Jewish people. He approaches Jesus by night. Perhaps he’s afraid of losing his position of power; perhaps it’s only under the cover of darkness that he can try and figure Jesus out. What he sees in Jesus seems to be of god, but he can’t square it with what he’s been taught. And Jesus encourages Nicodemus to get out of his head into his heart. To experience being born from above. Being born from above, being born of the Spirit means that the wind blows where it chooses. This is scary stuff for those of us who like to understand, who like to have things sorted. We don’t know what happens to Nicodemus and how and whether he responds to Jesus’ offer of life and the gift of the Spirit. But it seems clear that seeing and entering the Kingdom of God is beyond our own power, regardless of our physical, intellectual of material resources. And the radical transformation offered by the power of the Spirit is utterly connected with God’s love for the world in Jesus.
The persons and the works of God are inseparable and interwoven in this passage. They depend on one another. They are relationship. The Trinity tells us that God isn’t a thing, an achievement, an edifice, a piece of technology, an impressive sight, even a dazzling light or a blazing fire. God is a relationship. There is nothing about God that isn’t relationship. And so we are called to respond to God, to enter this relationship rather than to understand it.
There’s a story about a well-known scientist, some say it was Bertrand Russell who once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun orbits about the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, someone stood up and said ‘What you’ve said is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.’ The scientist smiled and said ‘What is the tortoise standing on?’ The person said ‘Turtles, turtles all the way down.’
This is what the Trinity says to us – it’s relationship all the way down. This is incredibly difficult for us to know and defies all human logic. Most of us have huge resistances to allowing this to affect our lives in any meaningful way because the things our culture most values are the symbols that can only be acquired through relationships but don’t somehow depend on them. Money; a university degree; a good reputation; a tidy CV. This principles of turning fragile relationships into reliable possessions is at the heart of human civilisation. This is what institutions and law codes and professions do. We call it being prudent and responsible.
But this is entirely counter to God’s life. God’s life is the complete opposite. As we try to turn relationships into something more tangible, more reliable, more predictable, more transferrable, God is constantly turning the tangible, predictable and reliable into fragile, fallible, fickle relationships that sometimes lead to horrifying ends. The doctrine of the trinity reminds us that there is no form to God beyond this relationship. There is no solid rock, no lengthy beard, no gilded throne, no weighty sceptre detachable from the interdependence of the three persons. It’s relationship all the way down.
God turns dust into fragile flesh; punishment into forgiveness; death into healing and life; the wood of torture into the reconciled glory of restored companionship. It’s all the wrong way round. We want to turn relationships into something more substantial, more reliable. God turns what is reliable and substantial into relationship. This is totally paradoxical to our logical minds. But it’s a truth that sometimes we may catch a little glimpse of and experience, perhaps when we manage to still ourselves and be quiet for a while; perhaps through art or music or poetry or some other thing of great beauty that touches our souls; perhaps through a gratuitous and unnecessary act of kindness.
I read an account by the contemporary choreography wrote some years ago of an overwhelming experience he had when attending a music recital by the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker. He wrote: ‘It was the thing janet Baker was telling me as she sang one night at Carnegie Hall. Standing in recital, singing song after song in ravishing voice in languages I didn’t understand, her only message could be translated as I love you, I love you, I love you.’
And perhaps this is a secular description of the truth that is at the heart of the mystery of the Trinity; there is only love, all the way down. Only relationship, in the very heart of the Trinity. Only the eternal conversation between God and humanity: I love you, I love you, I love you.
This sermon uses material from the following
Rohr, R. (2008), Scripture as Spirituality, Cincinatti: St Anthony Messenger Press
Wells, S. (2014), Learning to Dream Again, Norwich: Canterbury Press
Winkett, L. in Slee, N. and Burns, S. (2010), Presiding Like a Woman, London: SPCK