Is it possible to explain the Trinity in a sermon in words of one syllable? Mike Higton, who is Professor of Theology and Ministry at the University of Durham, attempted just that in a sermon on a previous Trinity Sunday, and here is his sermon. At the end he offers some brief reflections on the process.
Help us this day, O Lord, to hear your words and know your voice so that we may live our lives for you.
Please, take your seats.
Do you know the One-Bit Word Game? It’s a game where you may not use words that have more than one bit – one part. Now: I need some help here. Tom, what do I mean by ‘bit’? (Nice and clear, please)
[Tom calls out: ‘Syllable!’]
Thanks. I had to ask Tom: I can’t say the word he said. In this game you are out as soon as you use words of more than one bit, and the word he used is
a three-bit word. And this is a one-bit talk. Let me try to tell you why.
This day is the day in the year when we set our minds on the fact that God is Three in One. And the claim that our God is Three-in-One – that’s a claim that you might think is hard to get your head round. You might think it’s the kind of claim that sits a long way from the life of faith, your life of faith.
You might think that you need a big brain to get it right; you might think you need lots of long, long words. And what I want to tell you on this three-in-one day is that it’s not like that. This is a truth you can grasp; this is a truth at home in your faith; this is a truth you can feel in your heart. This is a truth that does not need long words – one-bit words will do.
The first thing to say, though, is that God is more than our minds can grasp. We heard, in the first text that was read just now, the tale of a man of God who stood in God’s house and saw more than he had thought to see. His mind was blown, not by long words and hard thoughts, but by God – by his glimpse of all that God is.
God is more than our minds can grasp. We don’t, we can’t know how God’s life works, and when we say that God is three-in-one that’s not meant to help us tie God down; it does not tell us how God’s life works. It does not mean we get to say, ‘Oh yes, now I get it, now I see what it all means, now it all makes sense to me’.
No, it is not meant to help us put God in a box. In fact, it’s meant to help us not to put God in a box. It’s meant to point us to ways in which
there is more to God than we might have thought – more to God’s life, more to God’s love, more to the way God shares God’s life with us.
To see what I mean, what I want you to do – all that I want you to do – is to think what it is like when you pray, what it is like when you come to God and talk to God – in praise, or to ask God for help or to own up for things that you have done wrong. Think what it is like when you pray.
First of all, we pray to God as the one who made us, the source from whom all good things flow: the Lord who sits on the throne of the world, the one whose voice can make the world shake, the one who made the world, and holds the world, and loves the world.
We here, in our own small church or at home, or in the car, or out on a walk – we pray to this One. And though a lot of the time we might not give much thought to what we do, from time to time, it might get through to us just what a bold thing we do. We pray to God, we talk to God, we ask things of God: the King, the Lord of Hosts, the one whose life is the fire at the heart of all things. That on its own should make our minds reel.
But that’s not all. When we pray, we do not pray on our own. There is one by our side who prays with us, the one we call the Son. We heard in our text from John those well-known words:
For God so loved the world – God so loved us – that God gave us his Son, his … one Son
to be by our side, to pray with us, to pray for us. When we pray, our words join to this man’s words, and wing their way with his, to the one he called – well – to the one he called his Dad. We do not pray on our own.
Don’t think that there’s you on your own down here, and God on his throne up there, and that when you pray you try to throw your small voice up to God and hope that it might reach all the way. No. You do not pray on your own. There is one by your side who prays with you, a man sent by God to be with you, a man filled with God’s own life, a man who is so filled with God, that what he does – well, those are God’s deeds, and what he says – those are God’s words, and so when he prays by your side, that is God who prays by your side. When he joins your words to his that is God who joins your words to his.
We don’t just pray to God, we pray with God; God prays with us. Do I know how this works, how it can be that this is God too? No, I don’t, and no long words can help me there. Why should I think that my words, my mind would give me that kind of grasp on God?
All I can say is that, in some way too deep for words, God lives in this man who walks by my side. I don’t need to know how it works I just need to trust that it’s true – to know it, to feel it, to rest in it. This is God by my side, and I do not pray on my own.This is God by our side,
and we do not pray on our own.
So: when we pray, we know God on the throne, the one to whom we pray, and we know God once more, God by our side the one with whom we pray.
And that’s not all. When I pray – let’s say, when I pray for a friend who is sick, when I cry out, ‘Oh God, Oh God, please help my friend!’ it’s not that I bring this friend’s pain to a God who might not have heard of it, who might not have cared, if I had not thought to pray.
No. My love, my care for my friend – that’s what I feel when I dip my toe in the stream of God’s love for my friend, when for a while I flow in that stream or it flows through me – when God’s care, God’s love,God’s life flows through me. And so, when we pray, when we yearn, when we long to see God work, when we, in our own small, weak ways, feel love and care flow through us – that is God’s life too.
That is God in our hearts, God in our guts, God’s life in our lives: the stream that bears us up. We heard this in our text from Paul. We know that we can call out to God and say, with Christ, ‘Dad! Dad! Please help!’ And when we do that – when we know with at least a small part of our minds that each one ofus is a child ofGod – that is the breath of God in our minds, the fire of God in our hearts, the stream of God’s life in our veins.
So, when we pray we do not pray on our own. Yes, we have God the Son, God by our side who joins our words to his, But, more than that, we have God in us, God in our hearts, God in our guts. This stream that flows from God and flows through us – that too is who God is; that is a side of God’s life. That stream is God one more time.
And so we say – though we don’t know how this is true, we don’t and can’t know how it works – that God is not just the source, the one from whom all good things come, and God is not just the Son, the one who stands by our side and will not let us go, but that God is the stream, the flow, the one in whom we are caught up, the one in whom we rest, the one in whom we find our life And we can know that, too, when we pray.
So there is God, the one to whom we pray, the one to whom we look, to whom we call out, the one who made the world and who loves all that has been made. And then there is God by our side, God once more the one with whom we pray; God in the life of this man who shares our life, this man who lives the life of God by our side, and who pours out his life in love for us. And then there is God in our hearts, God in our guts,God one more time, the stream in which we dip our toes, the stream in which we long to swim, the stream which filled the Son and can fill us too, and bear us in love back to our source.
The life of the one God meets us in all these three ways, and all that we meet in these three ways, has its roots deep, deep down in God’s life –all the way down in God’s life –in ways that our minds are not fit to grasp in ways that break our words to bits.
One life, one love, one will, works through these three to meet us when we pray, to catch hold of us, to bear us up – and to take us home. And that’s why our words for God need to stretch; one-bit words, it turns out, will not do on their own.
We call the source, the one to whom we pray, God the Father. And we call the one by our side, the one with whom we pray, God once more, Jesus. And we call the one in our hearts, the one in whom we pray, God one more time, the Spirit.
And that is why we call this God – the God we meet when we pray, the God we know when we pray – that is why we call this God ‘three in one’; that is why we call our God Trinity.
O Lord our God,
help us to know you when we pray.
Help us to know you as the one to whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one with whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one in whom we pray.
Help us to know you, and to love you,
and to live our lives for you,
one God in three,
Holy Trinity. Amen.
Mike Higton reflects: The basic idea for this sermon has been rattling around in my head for at least a year, though I have no memory of what prompted it. I have long enjoyed the challenge of explaining difficult topics simply – however uneven my success – and I somehow got attracted by the idea of taking far too literally the common exasperated phrase about explaining things ‘in words of one syllable’.
When I finally came to write the thing last week, I found it easier to stick to single syllables than I had expected. The only line that took some head-scratching was, for some reason, the one where I wanted to refer to Isaiah’s vision in the temple. That took a few goes, and I only realised late on Saturday night that I had left an ‘about’ in there.
I did find two things more difficult, however. One was simply to keep the sermon short enough. Short words don’t necessarily make for brief explanations – and my first draft was significantly too long. The other, closely related, was to get past the anxiety that I wasn’t doing enough justice to various aspects of the doctrine that I do care about, but which I came to realise were not necessary to my purpose on this particular Sunday. So I cut nearly all of the material which tried to root this talk about the triune economy more firmly in God’s immanent life; I cut most of the material which tried to relate the work of the Spirit more clearly to Christ; I cut a line or two which distanced what I was saying more clearly from social trinitarianism. If I’d had time for another round of revision, I’d probably have tried to cut even more: I have a hunch that it’s still not quite as simple as it could be.
There is one particular conviction that underlies my attempt to write the sermon in this way. This sermon was written for delivery in my local church, in a village near Durham. As it happens, as an academic theologian, I probably know the history and interpretation of the doctrine of the trinity better than most of the other people in this church, simply because I’m the only one of us who has ever had the training required to lecture on it. I am deeply convinced both that this knowledge is important – that it matters for the life of the church – and that there is no interesting sense in which my possessing this knowledge means that I thereby know God better than do the other people in my church.
I don’t know what people will remember of this sermon’s content, but I do hope that they might remember for a while that they once heard someone preach about the Trinity in very short words – and that this memory might help them believe that the doctrine doesn’t speak about technical and abstruse realities, but about matters close at hand. (Previously posted in 2018.)
Other resources for reflecting on the Trinity and preaching on Trinity Sunday:
(The picture is from the stained glass in the Church of Tervuren, Belgium.)
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