Trinity Sunday, St James Colwall
Proverbs 8:1-4; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
To read and hear the sermon as delivered:
I want to assert that we modern people have more than a tendency to seek to define pretty well everything that we encounter in life. It is on Trinity Sunday, that we come up against, and are faced with, the ultimate futility of this approach to much human experience.
Some time ago, a particularly memorable ‘Thought for the Day’, by Colin Morris began like this; “I’ve got some interesting news. It’s just been disclosed that the Archbishop of Canterbury is made up of 80% water. The rest of him is made up of materials that could be purchased for a few pounds in a child’s chemistry set!”
After a pause he continued, “So, for that matter, is the Archbishop of Westminster, the Chief Rabbi and every one of you listening to me today...” Well, I imagine that that got the attention of his listeners. But what point was Colin Morris going to make?
He went on to develop a good argument about the wonder of human consciousness. He spoke of the mystery as to why we are capable of taking an ethical view of the world, the wonder of loving relationships, and all those things that make us human. What do these ideas have in common? It was argued that none could be (even remotely) addressed, never mind answered, with a purely materialistic view of the world. A view, which allows only for such evidence of human experience as can be measured by scientific means, must always be incomplete.
For some, the idea that each of us is capable, in some partial and often damaged way, of showing love, wonder and creativity, is one of the strongest arguments for taking a God-centred view of the world. It’s the way in which God’s image is reflected, in however damaged or dim a way, in every human being.
But Colin Morris set my mind going with his startling introduction about the then Archbishop. The thought that went through my head was this; if we, each one of us ordinary people, are so vastly more than we can either measure or explain, how much more, than we can either measure or explain, must God be. Perhaps, today we may feel forced to recognise that we ask too much of language, when we expect it to carry this, the most profound mystery of all.
The closing verse of the great Trinitarian hymn, Father of Heaven whose Love Profound by Edward Cooper, suggests that the only response to the mystery of God might be one of joyful, if open-mouthed, recognition of the great mystery of God. Edward Cooper’s closing verse says it all:
Thrice holy! Father, Spirit, Son,
mysterious Godhead, three in one.
Before thy throne we sinners bend,
grace, pardon, life, to us extend.
For how can we speak about the God, who is both high and deep, beyond us yet within, encompassing all that has been, and is, and is yet to come? To whom then can we compare God? If we think about it, we may understand that we can barely comprehend the mystery that is each one of us, let alone the mystery of God.
For many, the difficulty with the doctrine of the Trinity is that it can involve a stretching of the mind that can require us to stand our normal human experience on its head. If something or someone is one, in what sense can it then also be three? It’s a legitimate question. It might be something of an understatement to say that theologians haven’t always brought clarity to the argument. A great Roman Catholic scholar of the 20th Century, who has written on the subject, is Karl Rahner. As we might expect, Rahner wrote his great treatise on the Trinity in his native German.
The story goes that at a theological gathering one English speaker said to a German colleague, “….isn’t it good that Rahner is being translated into English.” Showing some frustration with the complex nature of Rahner’s treatment of the subject, the German replied dryly, “We’re still waiting for someone to translate him into German!” I should add that Rahner was regarded by some in authority as a controversial thinker.
But Trinity Sunday means much more than that which we find so problematic to express. And this ‘more’ is about what we can do. Indeed what we must do, if we are to live as Christians. In the Trinity, we see a pattern of relationship that speaks of how we are to be towards others, and towards the world. The three persons of the Trinity tells us that community is at the heart of God, a divine community, moving constantly out towards the world, and to one another, in self-giving.
As John V Taylor, 20th century theologian and former Bishop of Winchester has written, “Christian understanding of the nature of God in himself does aptly endorse the idea that ‘exchange’ lies at the very heart of the being of God. If the Church is to make a reality of our calling to be the ‘the body of Christ on earth’, then the Holy and undivided Trinity is our divine pattern.
And what a momentous calling that is, but it’s not a claim that we make of ourselves. Christ makes that claim for us, and the huge challenge to us is to struggle, in God’s grace, to make ourselves worthy of that highest of callings. On this Trinity Sunday, we may reflect on our experience of the church, and how we see priesthood. For many, it is as but one of the many ways in which we may try to be true to our calling.
It is said that the body of Christ is the ‘priesthood of all believers’. St Paul, in Chapter 12 of his First Letter to the Corinthians, offers us a way of understanding this ‘priesthood of all believers’:
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom; to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; ... All of these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually, just as the Spirit chooses.
Of course, there are aspects of ministry that are reserved to the priesthood, but that most certainly does not confer, upon the individual holder of that office, any greater gifts of wisdom, leadership or, indeed, spirituality, than are the gift of the ‘priesthood of all believers’.
And so, the ministry of the ordained has much to do with encouraging the gifts of others, of allowing others to use their gifts in God’s service, and in enabling the Christian community to be ever mindful of our dependence one upon another.
I believe that in that I offer a summary of the kind of priest Barrie has felt called to be, and has tried to be. And I thank God for that.
Of course, if we really do take to our hearts that model of mutuality, interdependence and support, reaching out beyond the comfort of our parish church, then we really will have taken the divine Trinitarian model of community, to be the light and hope on our path.
If we think on it, we may conclude that there is no other way of being a Christian community, no other path shown us by Jesus. If the church is to embody God's Trinitarian life in the world, then it cannot be about itself.
I say thank God for the mystery of the Trinity, the three persons in one substance, and let us, in silence, enjoy God as being the ultimate mystery: the
Thrice holy! Father, Spirit, Son,
mysterious Godhead, three in one.
And let’s not worry too much about the impossibility of the worldly struggle, to define and measure Him, who is beyond and above. Amen