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A Sermon from Sherborne
The Holy Trinity – God in human experience:
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is a most unusual day in the Church’s Year as it does not relate to an event in the Bible, or connect with the life-story of Jesus shown in the New Testament. Today is a unique occasion where we celebrate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – God in his wholeness. There are days in the year when we might acknowledge God as creator. We commemorate the saving acts of God on Good Friday and Easter Day, when we proclaim Jesus, the suffering and risen Christ, as our Redeemer. Last Sunday we celebrated the life-giving power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the world. But today we celebrate all three attributes of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Church talks about the revelation of God through Scripture, through the Sacraments and through the life of the Church and the world. However, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has not come about through a divine act of disclosure, as imagined by some people. There has been no epiphany or showing of God in his fullness. Instead we have come to acknowledge and experience God as having three distinct qualities, although being the one true God. The Church talks of three persons, but of one substance.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity arises from our own experience of the Divine in human life. It is only in our human lives that we can experience anything of the world, the universe or a sense of the Divine: we see and experience our created world in all its beauty and complexity. Indeed we can now see out into the universe and discover extraordinary images and data, reaching back to within a minute fraction of a second, relating to the moment of creation.
Yet the Early Christians and we are aware of the presence of the creator God. We Trinitarian Christians will call him God the Father because we understand and experience the world being created by him. Crucially, we Christians, insist that this creator God is defined principally by love. He is a God who by his very nature is love, and who created the universe in love. Love is the defining attribute of God above all else. God the Father has become the ‘First Person of the Holy Trinity’.
But of course, the story for us Christians doesn’t stop there – because of the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God, who is the perfect reflection of the Father’s love. It is through Jesus that the universe has been created, as is indeed still being created moment by moment. Jesus is understood and proclaimed to be the ‘Second Person of the Holy Trinity’. But that is not all of his work. Because Christians view the human race as ‘fallen’ from grace, to be imperfect and prone to evil, it is Jesus who came to us as a Redeemer, to enable us to live in a right relationship with the loving Father who created us. This ‘Second Person of the Holy Trinity’ is proclaimed as having the same substance as the Father. The Christ has not been born in time, because he was always beyond time as is his heavenly Father, with whom he is co-equal.
This mission of the divine Son involved the incarnation, in which he became a human being, without losing his divine Sonship. Therefore, when he ascended to heaven after suffering, dying, being raised and exalted, he carried his humanity with him to heaven. This wonderful and extraordinary action of the Son, enables us to follow him in faith and trust to participate in the Divine Life. So another attribute of God is experienced in this world. Christianity is sometimes described as an ‘earthy religion’ because it includes all the messiness and suffering of human existence, from the pains of childbirth experienced by Mary, to the humility and utter agony of crucifixion, with all its blood and emaciation of the body, resulting in death by asphyxiation. The Second Person of the Trinity truly entered human history with all its beauty, but also all its horror.
The experience of the Church was not exhausted yet. Christian men and women knew that they had been exposed to the presence of God; that God was present in their lives as a living source of love. They came to realize that love given by the Father to the Son, which was returned to the Father in an eternal cycle of love, required the presence of another source of the Divine. The Holy Spirit was experienced as the Third Person of the Holy Trinity who enabled love to flow between the Father and the Son. John Taylor, the much-loved Bishop of Winchester, wrote a book on the Holy Spirit entitled ‘The Go-Between God’. He proclaimed that the Holy Spirit had the attribute of being a conduit, a channel through which the divine love of the Father and the Son became a community of Three Persons caught up in this divine circle of love, described just now.
The joy and wonder of the Holy Trinity is more than this, as we know and experience ourselves. The community of love, which is the Holy Trinity, extends to the created order, to this world in which we live. We can be caught up in this divine procession of love, through the activity of the Holy Spirit in our own lives. We can proclaim to the world that this divine life of God, this divine community of love, does not just exist in isolation and have nothing to do with us. The Holy Spirit comes to us and envelopes us with the divine love, just as he did at the first Pentecost when tongues of fire alighted on the heads of those assembled.
Essentially, the Holy Spirit enables us to think of and experience the concept of divine hospitality. In our First Lesson this evening, we heard the story of the Hospitality of Abraham. Abraham, and his wife Sarah, were visited by three men at Mamre. Whenever the word ‘men’ is featured in the Bible, it often refers to the presence of angels. So some commentators see these verses in Genesis Chapter 18 as referring to God, accompanied by two angels. But as the description of ‘angel’ can also refer to the divine being of God himself, some commentators of this story in Genesis see God as three persons. The three men are interchangeable with the name of God. When they spoke, God spoke. Therefore, Christians down the centuries have sometimes identified these men as representing the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. As I have said, this story is sometimes called ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’ because he accepts their presence and offers food to sustain them.
Perhaps the most famous illustration of this act of hospitality has been shown in the work of the 15th century Russian monk, Andrew Rublev. He painted a most beautiful depiction of the scene at Mamre, with the three men sitting around a table. I quote here some words from The Revd Dr Timothy Gaden, whose description of the painting is most illuminating:
The figure on the left is the Father, whom we see robed in gold and majesty. He gestures with a blessing towards the Son at the top, who is clothed in the red of his passion. By indicating towards the chalice on the table, which you can just about see here, he makes reference to his role as the sacrificial lamb, whose blood will be shed for the salvation of the world. The Spirit, sits to the right, wearing the green robes that speak of the Spirit’s role in giving growth to the people of God. Their one-ness or unity is indicated by the way their heads incline one to the other, making the outline of circle. This shows how they are bound together into one by the common will and mutual love that unites them.
The extraordinary feature portrayed in this image of the Holy Trinity is the unforgettable theme of hospitality, which includes us. We are invited to the meal of these three ‘men’ because in the foreground there is a space at the table to which the Holy Spirit points.
The relationship of the Three Persons within the Godhead, within this divine community of love, expresses a mutuality of being that should be emulated by human beings in society. We also should relate to one another in a mutual reciprocity of love, where no person is superior to another, where there is no claim of authority or power over another. To acknowledge the reality of the Holy Trinity and celebrate the mutuality of reciprocal love, is to participate in a celebration of love which spills over into human relationships in this world. To be a Trinitarian Christian is to be someone who accepts the indwelling of divine love in the world and the universe. We, who claim to be such people, who are baptized into the name of the Triune God, must also live our lives with similar hospitality and mutual love of others. Let us examine our own lives to see how we live in such an environment of divine love, and see how we might be those who help to establish the Kingdom of God in this world and the next.
I conclude with a quote from the Dominican teacher Herbert McCabe. In his book, ‘God Matters’ Fr McCabe describes the activity of the Holy Trinity as follows:
The historical mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal mission of the Son from the Father; the historical outpouring of the Spirit in virtue of the passion, death and ascension of Jesus is nothing but the eternal outpouring of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. Watching, so to say, the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity.