In reposting my articles from previous years about Trinity Sunday and preaching on the Trinity, I have been led once more into some fascinating conversations, as a result of which I would like to ask three questions in relation to mystery, community, and calendar.
Michael Sadgrove, former Dean of Durham Cathedral, has just posted his wonderfully lyrical sermon from 2008. I think it is an excellent example of preaching with a poetic touch, and it makes me want to preach more poetically even as Michael himself finds Michael Curry’s wedding sermon makes him want to preach more dynamically. The final paragraph is particularly inspiring:
In this morning’s gospel, the risen Jesus says farewell to his disciples with the words: ‘all authority in heaven and on earth is given to me’. It is the climax of the gospel, the culmination of all that St Matthew’s story has been leading up to. ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’. It ends as it began – with the angel’s promise to Joseph that the child would be called Immanuel, God-with-us. The narrative has travelled far since then. But the promise is the same: that Yahweh the high and hidden one, who is beyond all words and images, the creator of the world and the holy one of Israel, is in our midst, present to us forever as grace and truth. This is God the mighty and eternal who calls worlds into being and loves us into life. This is God the compassionate and merciful, who bears on his heart for all time the sorrow and pain of the world. This is the God enthroned in majesty who answers the longings of the ages and shows us his glory. This is God who is Trinity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to whom be all might, majesty, dominion and power now and to the end of time.
(From a rhetorical point of view, you might want to note the use of repetition and expansion, alliteration, and binary pairs.) But on his way to this moving conclusion, Michael makes two claims: first, that the Trinity is mysterious; and secondly that such mystery should lead is into silence rather than words.
On Trinity Sunday, we realise the impossibility of ever doing God justice by talking about him. We ask too much of language when we expect it to carry this deepest mystery of all:
words strain, / Crack and sometimes break under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place.
I can barely comprehend the mystery of another human being, my own self even, let alone the mystery of God…‘Of that whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent’ said the philosopher Wittgenstein. It’s holy ground that we tread today.
Now, I don’t want to get into a philosophical discussion concerning the impossibility of our understanding God. But I want to ask two questions: does the Trinity contribute to the incomprehensibility of God, or to the revelation of God. And should this lead us to speak of him less or speak of him more?
On the first, we see in the New Testament a dynamic of development from Jewish monotheism into a dyadic understanding where the person of Jesus is incorporated into the identity of the one God:
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so–called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Cor 8.4–6)
and this is extended to include the Spirit:
But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3.16–17)
But for Paul and the other NT writers, this is not seen as a great mystification of God, but a clearer revelation, and this points to the different way in which they speak of the Trinitarian nature of God. In recent years, we have felt we needed to focus on the Trinity as a description of God’s inner life, and we are left with very few words. But Paul and the apostles talk of God the Trinity in his outer life, in the way that God relates to the world and the way that we experience God. (The technical terms for these two approaches is to speak of the ‘immanent Trinity’ and the ‘economic Trinity’.)
And for the NT writers, this new understanding leads them not to silent contemplation, but to the speech of testimony.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1.1–2)
Michael Sadgrove is quite right in saying that love needs to lead us to action—but it appears that the revelation of God as Trinity in the person of Jesus also leads us to some kind of speech and explanation.
The second sermon posted in response to discussion came from Baptist minister Peter Thomas. It is of a very different kind from Michael Sadgroves’s (it might actually be a talk rather than a sermon), but there are some important things in it that I like very much—most especially Peter’s focus on the unity of action of Father, Son and Spirit:
The Father raises the Son to life, the Father gives the Spirit to the Son and the Son pours out the Spirit on the Church.
Peter rejects tritheism (think clover leaves and fidget spinners) and modalism (think ice, water and steam) and articulates well the biblical dynamic of the Trinity. But there is one point where I would want to dissent, which is his appeal (commonly made) to the love dynamic in the Trinity as a pattern for human relationships. That cannot be the case: the relationships within the Trinity can never be either analogy for or motivation towards our relationships with others, since the persons of the Trinity are not persons as we are persons. Different people have different minds and wills, and (as Michael Sadgrove points out), other people are in a deep sense ‘mysterious’ to us. When we love another, we are involved in loving an ‘other’. None of that is true for the ‘persons’ of the Trinity, since (in orthodox belief) they have one mind, will with one will, and act as one. That is why (John 17.21–23) notwithstanding, the call to love in the NT has as its pattern not the love of God for God, but the love of God for us.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4.9–11)
Where does that leave us? I think with Michael Roberts’ rather helpful summary of the Trinity as articulated by Athanasius, in three words and ten letters:
We start with God OVER us as creator and Father and then move to God WITH us, or if you prefer it in Aramaic Emmanuel. As in Jesus we have God in human form who wandered around Palestine for some 30 years. Here is God with us. And thirdly, move to God IN us, the Holy Spirit who was sent by the Father (and the Son) on the first day of Pentecost to be IN us as Christians leading and guiding us.
All this is very brief and clearly needs expanding, but it gives a good and simple framework for understanding God as Trinity.
Notice that, one again, we are firmly in the territory of the ‘economic’ Trinity, and have avoided all speculation about the ‘immanent’ Trinity—that is, we focus on the dynamic of God’s revelation to us and engagement with us as Father, Son and Spirit. Peter Thomas summarises:
If somebody famous has not yet said that “the mystery of the Trinity is not a truth to be understood but a reality to be experienced” then I hereby claim that quote for myself, and will retire on the profits of the books I shall write on the subject.
I wonder if we get too hung up about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday because we misinterpret the purpose of the calendar, and treat it as though it were a syllabus for discipleship. So we cover the incarnation at certain times of year, then the crucifixion, then the resurrection, and ascension and the gift of the Spirit—and so on. But rather than being a syllabus, I wonder if it more functions as a periodic assessment, a little like an MOT in stages, ensuring that we incorporate these doctrines in our preaching, rather than asking us to focus on these alone at these times alone.
Surely our preaching should always be Trinitarian—for if it is not, it is not Christian preaching. All our preaching should treat God as the subject of the story, and focus on God’s initiative and purpose. All our preaching should (implicitly or explicitly) see Jesus as the focus and climax of God’s purpose and Revelation. And all our preaching should that our response to what we have heard must be enabled and empowered by the Spirit of God at work in us—else we are just worshipping the human will. (How many times have you and I encouraged or urged a certain response to what we have learned, and have not mentioned the work of the Spirit in us? If so, our preaching has not been Trinitarian and so not been Christian preaching.)
Whatever you say tomorrow, may God the Father direct you, God the Son equip you, and God the Holy Spirit empower you and breath life and grace into your every word.
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