Sermon preached by
Close your eyes please and think about God.
What did you see? Which part of the Trinity did you visualize?
Did you think about the image of God described in Isaiah, seated on a throne surrounded by Angels? Did you imagine the God of the Old Testament who walked with Adam in the cool of the evening in a garden? Did you see God the Father as the angry God who sent the flood, destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah?
Did you think of Jesus? And how did you see Him? As a baby, as the child in the Temple? As the young preacher of fire and zeal, as the gentle healer? As the friend, as the Crucified God. As the exalted Judge over all?
Did you think of the Holy Spirit, as flame as wind, as flood tide?
I have a friend who has to interview clergy for chaplaincy jobs and one of his favourite interview questions is “Which member of the Holy Trinity do you most relate to? Father, Son or Holy Spirit. I asked fearfully, “What is the right answer?” “Ah”, he replied smugly, "there isn’t a right answer, but you get some interesting replies.” So I am asking you - which part of the Trinity most appeals to you? When you pray, do you envisage a wise Father God, perhaps bearded and kindly? When you pray to you speak to Jesus, and in which form, as the earthly friend of fisherman, full of love and compassion or the Heavenly Jesus enthroned in majesty and splendour? Do you think of the Holy Spirit, mysterious and intangible but powerful ? There isn’t a right answer, not one which will make you a better or a worse Christian.
I will let you into a trade secret. Lots of clergy find preaching on the subject of the Trinity really daunting. I suppose that I could have launched into a long historical description of how the concept of the Trinity evolved from just the briefest hints in the Bible. I could go on at length and because you are so polite and nice to me, you would listen while I described to you the various Councils of the early church and theologians which honed the idea into the concepts we say we believe in in the words of the Creed. But, you will be relieved to hear, I am not going to do that, instead you can stop Charlie or Sam afterwards and they will fill in these background matters. Instead I am going to ask you to think about this very fundamental question – how does the idea of the Trinity help me, know God? How does the Trinity help us know God?
There is a profoundly moving painting by Massaccio in Florence which shows the Trinity. It is painted to look as though you were looking up into a barrel vaulted side chapel. Jesus is set high above the viewer, stretched out upon the Cross. God is shown as a tall straight figure gazing out high above the heads of the viewer. His appearance has become familiar to us, since he is shown as a white haired bearded wise figure, like a calm dispassionate judge or prophet. Between the heads of the two male figures, almost missable is the Holy Spirit, in the familiar form of a dove. A bird seems to me a good visual symbol for something which has no form. Birds are the least substantial of all creatures which breathe. They are here and gone in a twinkling of an eye. They are constantly moving and always mysterious. At the Baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove. The painting shows the way the three forms of the one God are intertwined and interlocking. God’s arms support the Cross on which Jesus offers Himself for us. The three parts of God therefore are joined in offering Jesus to the world for our redemption.
The arms of God the Father are outstretched and they mimic those of God
the Son. The dove similarly stretches his wings all symbolising the way God
reaches generously out to us. They are seeking to join with the world rather
than remain above it. The interlocking nature of the One God, its mutual
dependence are summed up in this simple but highly sophisticated painting.
God the Father is that part of God which creates and originates. God the Son is that part of God which is fully at one with us: fully in love with us human beings, God the Holy Spirit is that part of God which activates and moves through our world changing and transforming. For some people the notion of the Trinity is not helpful because they already have an understanding of God which is so mature and integrated that they keep all these functions of God going in their spiritual mind at once. But most of us can’t.
I am going to suggest then that the concept of the Trinitarian threefold
God helps us because we find it hard to conceive of a loving God who is at
once human and is also formless and activating. That as we move and change
through our lives one or the other aspect of God gains in importance. That
is God’s gift to us, but the belief in the threefold form of God is a useful
corrective to imbalance. If you get deeply involved with the distant concept
of God as the Creator, it is possible to lose sight of God as the personal
saviour, the suffering human who is fully one with our humanity. It is
perhaps possible that we might so immerse our self with the human Jesus as
our friend that we screen out the energising transforming aspect of God,
which sweeps away our complacency and false security. And so on. The concept
of the Trinity holds out to us way of knowing the Unknowable. Whenever we
think of the Trinity we can hold together in our minds the interlocking
aspects of God the Creator, God the Son and God the Spirit, with out the
perfect balance they provide our spiritual lives can become unbalanced or
stale. In the painting the removal of one aspect would skew the harmony and
balance, without their mutual dependence the Cross would fall.