A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
27th May 2018
Let’s get the maths out of the way this morning first. If we start by trying to understand the Trinity rather than to encounter it, then we will probably never really get anywhere. The Trinity is not chiefly a doctrine to be understood, but a mystery to be encountered. The place to begin to grasp the Trinity – if such a miserable word as ‘grasp’ is adequate to the task – the place to begin to grasp the Trinity is in worship and prayer, not in trying to work out how something can be three and one at the same time. And that’s what I want to explore with you this morning.
Those of you who have been at St Mary’s for some time will remember that a few years ago we began a series of what I called ‘discipleship conversations’. Put simply, we gave everyone at St Mary’s the opportunity, if they wished to take it, for a significant one-to-one conversation with a member of the Ministry Team about faith and life. Many people did; in fact, once we’ve got our ministry team back up to more than me, we will probably make the offer again. It’s very easy to do corporate stuff and to neglect individual faith journeys; it’s in my view one of the biggest sins of omission by clergy.
Anyway, as part of those conversations, we offered folk a number of ways into the experience. And one of those was to start with the Holy Trinity. We provided people with an image of a triangle and at each of the three corners, we placed the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And we asked people, giving some hints, to identify which Person of the Holy Trinity they most related to.
It went something like this: those who find God through the Father tend to be those who appreciate mystery in worship. God is someone above and beyond them, perhaps they find it hard to articulate who God is because God is Other. IF you asked them where they find God most clearly, they would perhaps say ‘in the created world’ or in ‘the splendour of worship’, where knowing God comes primarily through experience of the transcendent, of being taken out of the everyday to a place of awe and wonder. These you might call ‘Father Christians’.
Others though, come first to the knowledge of God through the Son, through Jesus the Word made Flesh, the Crucified and Risen Saviour, whose life is recorded in Scripture and celebrated in the seasons of the Church from Advent to Ascension. These Christians see friendship with Jesus, relationship with him to be the primary way of encountering God. IF you ask them where they find God most clearly, they might point to Scripture, especially the Gospels, and in serving their neighbour as Jesus gave them an example. Instead of the ‘Father Christians’ who perhaps see God as above and beyond them, these ‘Son Christians’ see God as primarily alongside them, journeying with them through daily life, someone to turn to in conversational prayer in everyday moments, someone whom they can model their lives upon.
And then there are those who come first to the knowledge of God through the Holy Spirit. These are the Christians of Pentecost and the Church, who first and foremost find God not above and beyond, nor alongside, but within them, a guide and inspiration for daily living. If you ask ‘Spirit Christians’ where they find God most clearly, they are likely to talk about contemplation, prayer and meditation, perhaps emphasising the guidance of God within in daily life. Such Christians are likely to find worshipping with other Christians deeply important, and to find community living a vital element of their faith. They find God in quiet meditation, corporate prayer and, sometimes in shared mission.
Father Christians, Son Christians, Spirit Christians.
But all Christians.
Unity in diversity.
And each with a partial understanding.
If, as I said at the beginning, the Trinity is first a mystery to be encountered rather than a doctrine to be understood, then ask yourself if you relate to any or all of these ways into the knowledge of God. Even if you’re not a regular churchgoer or aren’t sure if you’re a Christian at all, you may find that you are particularly drawn to one of these ways of understanding God. And the gift of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it can affirm your experience, or even that gnawing sense of being drawn closer to ‘capital S’ Someone you don’t quite get. These three ways of knowing God are not three different religions or three different ‘truths’ but part of a way of knowing God that is unified but diverse. God the Father who holds all creation in God’s hands, God the Son who enters the world as Jesus Christ and preaches the way to God, and God the Holy Spirit who is the Love who creates community out of difference and who comes to each of us to tell us inside that we are friends of the Son and beloved of the Father. Each of these has their place, each is – as one famous writer had it – part of a Community of Love that overflows into creation. The Love of the Father drawing us out of ourselves to love, the Love of the Son teaching us that giving of ourselves is the way to love, the Love of the Spirit filling us with love and empowering us to go out in love. It’s not surprising that we are drawn to one or other of these Persons of the Trinity, because we are such a diverse creation. One of these ways is likely to draw us towards the Divine.
But it would be a mistake to think that, once we know God in one way, we can and should be satisfied. If we are given the same shared love of the Trinity that draws us to God then it makes sense that we are invited to share not just the experience and love of one part of the Trinity but the fullness of God. The writer to the Ephesians puts it like this: I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all God’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know his love that surpasses knowledge that you maybe filled to the measure with all the fullness of God.
The call of God to each of us is not to know more facts, but to God more deeper. Indeed, I think I’ve said this before, that what the world needs more than almost anything else is deep people, people with a breadth to understand how we can be diverse yet one, how God is working across the world as Father, Son and Spirit, to make Godself known in a myriad of ways, and with the spiritual insight to connect and live out the Gospel in response. The love of the Trinity is far bigger than any of us can comprehend, but, as Ephesians puts it, knowing that love in an even more profound way, beyond what we already know (if indeed we know God at all). It is not only possible to know more of God than we already do, it is vital that we do for the sake of the world.
I guess we shall be talking about ‘that sermon’ for a little while longer, but if like me, you found your heart singing in response to Bishop Michael Curry’s words at the Royal Wedding last week, that is because in part he invited us to go deeper in love, to go beyond our limited understanding to an even greater living of love in the world. We may be Father Christians, Son Christians, or Spirit Christians, but we need to know the gifts one another bring, and we are invited to taste more than we have of the breadth, depth and height of the love of the Trinity.
Let’s keep silence for a few moments to connect with the God who invites us deeper in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…