St Francis, Terriers - Trinity Sunday  (11.06.2017)

Tony Dickinson

If you were watching BBC 4 late at night two or three years ago, you may have come across a series called “Old Jews telling Jokes”. The channel also ran a series of “Vicars telling Jokes”, but they weren’t half as funny! This story is about a vicar and an elderly Jew. He was crossing a busy road outside the local church when a car came speeding round the corner and knocked him down. The parish priest was in the church and heard the sound of the accident. He came rushing out, pausing only to pick up the oil for the sick, and darted into the middle of the road, without any thought for his own safety. The priest knelt down by the old man and cradled him in his arms. He could see that the old man was in a bad way, so he took out the oil and asked “Do you believe in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit?” The old Jew’s eyes rolled heavenwards. “Oy, oy, oy!” he gasped. “Here I am dying and he’s asking me riddles!”

It isn’t only Jews who have problems with the idea of God as Trinity. Muslims insist on the unity and uniqueness of God, “tawheed” in Arabic. The Muslim confession of faith is that “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” One of the greatest sins in Islam is the sin of “shirk”, which means the linking of anything or anyone in partnership or rivalry with Allah, in worship or adoration. So to find that Christians set aside a day on which they worship God as “three persons” seems to them, at best nonsensical and at worst blasphemous – especially the idea that Jesus is in any sense the “Son” of God. A prophet, yes, and someone with a very special role in the conflicts which will arise before the day of judgement, but not, so far as Muslims are concerned, any different from Moses or Elijah, or even Muhammad.

Now it must be admitted that the way in which Christians have tried to explain the Trinity hasn’t helped. Too often we seem to treat it as a problem in higher mathematics. Or we seem to be operating with three gods rather than one God. Or we get things out of kilter by focusing too much on one of those three “persons”, usually Jesus. No wonder, when we try to explain our faith, we very often sound as if we’re talking in riddles!

So why not just ignore the Trinity, as the Unitarians do? Why not just get on with proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord? Well, if we take this morning’s gospel seriously, we discover that part of the earliest proclamation was baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Matthew, writing probably in the 80s of our era, records the instruction to baptise in the threefold Name as coming from the risen Jesus. Thirty years before that, St Paul had ended his difficult correspondence with the church in Corinth by calling on “the God of love and peace” as Father, Son and Spirit. The earliest Christians speak and write of God in terms of “Trinity” (though the actual word isn’t used for a couple of hundred years), because that is how, since Jesus, God is being experienced. Paul, in particular, recognises that in Jesus God comes to us as pure gift, grace; that that grace is the gift of God’s love: and that the gift is recognised through our communion, our participation together, in the Holy Spirit.

In a sense, this is what the mature Christian life is about – moving beyond a love-affair with Jesus and the sense that “my God loves me”, into the realisation that Jesus is the gift of God’s own self, in a human life, to every human person; moving beyond a fascination with Pentecostal pyrotechnics and spiritual one-upmanship into a realisation that the Spirit is the breath of the whole body of Christ, the “communion” which is one of the images, one of the models, of what Church is: and, finally, moving beyond an awe at the wonder of creation into a deeper understanding of the Creator as infinite, universal, unconditional love. This isn’t about riddles or abstract ideas. This isn’t about intellectual assent. This is about living experience of the Love that will not let us go, the Love that flows eternally through the universe.

The Christian life is about entering ever more deeply into that Love. Christian faith is about allowing ourselves to fall into the stream of that Love, aware of our insignificance and, at the same time, of our infinite worth in the eyes of God who “gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” The Holy Trinity isn’t static. God as Trinity has been described as “a flow, a relationship, a waterwheel of always outpouring love”. Consciously or not, we are part of that flow, part of that cosmic outpouring and receiving.

The Holy Trinity isn’t static. The Trinity is dynamic, vaster than we can imagine, “[measuring] the waters in the hollow of his hand and [marking] off the heavens with a span, eternally creative, not just in the “big bang” billions of years ago, but here, now, in the reshaping of landscape, in the nesting of a pair of robins and the fledging of their brood.

As Julian of Norwich recognised seven centuries ago, the whole of creation is fragile and insignificant. “The Lord showed me”, she wrote, “something else, a tiny thing, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of the hand, and as round as a ball. I looked at it, puzzled, and thought, ‘What is it?’

“The answer came: ‘It is everything that is made.’

“I wondered how it could survive. It was so small that I expected it to shrivel up and disappear.

“Then I was answered, ‘It exists now and always because God loves it.’ Thus I understood that everything exists through the love of God.”

“Everything exists through the love of God” – and God’s people exist to proclaim that love, in our deeds and our attitudes as well as in our words. God is dynamic. So must we be. The “Great Commission” with which St Matthew’s Gospel ends is about action. “Go… make disciples…baptize… teach…remember.” As we do, we become part of the unending flow of love which maintains our life, and the life of everything that is made. We enter more fully into the mystery of the Holy Trinity, renewing life and hope and joy in a cheerless and threatening world, reminding us that “even the nations are like a drop in the bucket.” And as we enter that flow we are carried along, carried out of our fears and into God’s future

To him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit...