Sunday, 31 May 2015

The One Where I Found Out I Was Preaching on Trinity Sunday

 The Trinity Shield. The corners represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the centre of the shield is the word 'God'.




Today is Trinity Sunday; a day universally dreaded by preachers. For, today we find ourselves trying to explain the Trinity. Sermons on Trinity Sunday are expected to be academic, theological assignments, using words such as 'modalism', 'co-eternal' and 'perikhōrēsis', and at the same time, be interesting, engaging and understandable, whilst the preacher avoids being heretical (another of those theological words, there). On top of that, the sermon must have relevance to our daily lives, and leave us with a deeper understanding of God and our faith!

You see my dilemma, then! 

Here are the things I must tick off:


  • Be theological
  • Be interesting
  • Be understandable
  • Be relevant
  • Don't preach an incorrect, heretical, understanding of the Trinity
  • Actually have a point that makes a difference

At this point, I'm inclined to ask whether anyone else in the congregation would like to have a go at this morning's sermon instead! No-one? Fair enough!

I've been thinking about this, and I think straight away, there is a trap in a Trinity sermon, and it's such a tempting trap to fall into! That trap is to try to explain the Trinity using a simile or an image. I'm sure you can immediately think of some things that people have told you the Trinity is like?

I've often thought of producing little bingo cards, with heresies on them you can cross off whenever a preacher talks about the Trinity - I nearly wrote some up for today - you could stand up and shout 'House' - or even 'Heresy!' if the sermon unwittingly used them all...

The trouble is, is that every image we try to come up with to explain the Trinity is wrong. You might have heard the explanation that the Trinity is like an egg, comprised of a shell, the yolk, and the egg-white? Or that it's like a three-leaf clover - one leaf, with three sections?

These seem like good explanations of the way God exists here - one God, comprised of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They're not, though. They're actually examples of a heresy called 'partialism'. Partialism is the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together make up God - that, like the individual parts of an egg, you must have all three - shell, yolk and white - to have an egg; otherwise, you have bits of an egg. And quite a mess...

Similarly, if you only had one section of a clover, you would not call that the whole clover. This is why the image doesn't work for God. An egg-shell is not an egg. A section of a clover is not the clover. But the Father is not a part of God. The Father is God. Christ is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Partialism leads to us denying the power in one or other of the persons of the Trinity. One usually comes out in charge, but that is not the case. All three are co-equal and co-eternal.

Some other images you might have heard are these: the trinity is like water, which is one substance, but can take liquid form, or ice or steam. Or perhaps you've heard the one where I could say I am a father, and a son, and a worker at my place of employment, but I do different things in each of my roles? These are surely better images than the egg or clover - there is no partialism here. Ice is not steam, but they are both H2O. The problem with these images, however, is a different one. Water cannot be ice, steam and liquid at the same time. This is an example of 'modalism'.  

Modalism is the idea that God behaves differently at different times - that, like me at my place of work, as a father to Isaac, or a son to my parents, God has a different mode depending on what - and when - he is doing; when he created the world, he was the Father; when he walked on earth, he was Jesus Christ; and when he works in people, he is the Holy Spirit.

This is not what we believe either. It leads to us believing in a schizophrenic God; starting to believe in things like disagreements between the Christ of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament. 

No, God does not have modes. Each person of the Trinity is co-eternal and co-equal. God does not put on a Jesus hat when saving the world, and then remove it and put on a Spirit hat when working within us - these are three distinct persons, who all exist at the same time, who have all existed forever.

The Trinity is not, then, like an egg or a clover, as this leads us to thinking of a partial God, with each person being incomplete. It is also not like H2O or someone fulfilling three roles, as this leads us to thinking of a God who has modes, and behaves differently at different times and places. The trinity is not like anything we can picture.

I read something online that pointed out that Trinity Sunday is the only festival in the church year that does not celebrate an event. Instead, today is dedicated to a concept, and one that our minds could never fully grasp. Like the learned Jewish leader, Nicodemus, in today's gospel, we are being forced to reckon with the fact that our human understanding can never fully grasp God. 

Today - Trinity Sunday - reminds us that whatever heights of learning we may achieve, and however long we contemplate and dedicate ourselves to the study of God, we are mortal beings, with a finite capacity for understanding, trying to understand the infinite immortal God. It is good sometimes to be reminded of this Holy Mystery - one of the great mysteries of faith. There is something oddly reassuring in knowing that we could never fully understand; that there is always more to discover in our search for God.

So, we cannot understand the Trinity. Does that mean we cannot learn from it? 

Without an image, we are left with the idea. The great paradox. God is one being. He is three persons. Before the universe began. The oldest relationship; the longest relationship; a permanent relationship. 

Three persons, forever in unity. God is a community in and of himself. A Greek word describing this aspect of the trinity is perikhōrēsis - it means rotation, and implies an everlasting, whirling dance.

In the very nature of God, lies our pattern for life - we are to live in community, to be in relationships - not necessarily partnerships, but relationships, with all people. In the essence of God, it is made clear that no man is an island. Not even if his name is Madagascar. 

If emulating God is our goal, then we must learn from the Trinity that community is at the heart of God. We may not understand God, we cannot fully understand God, but we can try to live as he shows us how. Living with, and for each other, with other people being our focus, our passion and our very reason to be.

That's the point. That's the bit that makes a difference. 

And that's my Trinity sermon.

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