"Preaching about the Trinity is only difficult to the extent that talking about God is difficult." Find out why Trinity Sunday is the best Sunday in the Church's Year. A sermon from the Revd Canon Jonathan Baker.
A Trinity Sunday sermon by Revd Canon Jonathan Baker
John 3. 1-17
Trinity Sunday is the best Sunday in the Church’s Year. This may come as a surprise to those of you who are used to hearing sermons on Trinity Sunday which begin by saying ‘Preachers always find Trinity Sunday difficult.’ But talking about the Trinity is only difficult to the extent that talking about God is difficult. Without the Trinity it isn’t possible to say anything very sensible about God at all. That’s why I say that Trinity Sunday is the best Sunday in the Church’s Year. It’s the Sunday when we can bring together different insights into the nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and into our human response to God, without contradicting ourselves.
To help us to do that, we have been given a Gospel reading today which culminates in a verse which summarises who God is and what he has done: John 3.16 – ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ It’s one of the most famous verses in the Bible, it’s a verse every Christian ought to know and memorise and think about. And as we think about it, as we try to understand what it says about God and what it promises God has done, so we find ourselves face to face with the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I’m going to break the verse down into three parts, so that I can make three points, but only one sermon. The first part of the verse consists of only one word. God. For God so loved the world. What is this word God? What do we mean by it? What do these three little letters signify? The basis for the Trinity is the belief that there is only One God. So the Oneness of God is crucial. God is the ultimate Reality which holds the rest of reality together. God is the source of everything. In Biblical language, he is the Creator. God is not one object among others, only slightly more impressive; God is in a category of his own, without whom there would be no other categories. God is the maker of the universe, but altogether different from the universe he has made. Since you and I are products of the universe, and limited by its boundaries, it is very difficult for us to imagine the existence of anything outside the universe, let alone speak of it. This is why debates about the existence of God are often so sterile, because they constantly risk talking about God as if he belongs within the universe, along with you and me, and can therefore be thought about, investigated and discussed just like anything else within the universe. But if we do that we’ve misunderstood the basic nature of God, which is that if human minds could understand and make sense of God, it couldn’t possibly be God, because God doesn’t belong in this realm of space, time and reason. So when people attempt, rashly, to talk about God as I am doing now, they often end up using the language of mysticism. They say God is ‘beyond’, or ‘other’ or ‘transcendent,’ and they may suggest that we shouldn’t try to talk about God at all, but remain silent. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, ‘Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent.’ Sceptics might say that the reason we don’t find it easy to talk about God is because there is no God. But part of the reason why human beings in every culture have tried to talk about God, even though the words aren’t up to the task and crack under the strain, is because we seem to be hardwired to perceive that there is a reality which is bigger than the world of things which we can see and hear and touch and smell and taste.
The story of the Old Testament is the story of Israel discovering, over centuries, that the God who rescued her from slavery in Egypt was the creator of the whole world, and that there is only one God. By the end of the Old Testament period, the Jewish people had become convinced monotheists, believing that there is only one God – a unique belief in the History of Religions up to that point. But this Creator stands outside the world he has made, and doesn’t have to obey its laws. As Isaiah puts it, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.’
So how can we possibly know this mysterious and unknowable God? How can we hope to encounter this God who is so far away and yet so near? How can we speak of a God who cannot be contained by words and who causes us to fall silent?
Surely we cannot, unless God chooses somehow to make himself known? This is what the Gospel promises has happened: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. God has taken the initiative and reached across from the eternal realm of heaven which we cannot know into the created universe where we exist. Knowing the limited capacity of our human minds, God has entered our world, he has come down to our level, and in the words of the 16th century theologian John Calvin he has ‘accommodated himself’ to us. We cannot rise up to his level; but he can choose to come down to ours. That is what the story of Jesus is all about. It’s a story of revelation – of God showing us what he is like. The closest he could get to showing us his true nature within the confines of this three dimensional world in which we live, was to become a human being. For God to be truly himself within the limits of this physical world means he becomes human. It appears therefore that human beings are more god-like than we realise. The dividing line between humanity and divinity is very narrow indeed, because Jesus was both perfectly human and perfectly divine, without compromising either nature. And in becoming human and dying on the cross, Jesus revealed God’s love, his compassion and mercy, his generous and sacrificial self-giving, his desire to heal and make whole, his authority over the created world and over the powers of sin and death. Jesus reveals God’s nature. And because the dividing line between humanity and divinity is so narrow, Jesus also reveals to us our true human nature. He shows us that we are most human when we are most like God – compassionate, forgiving, generous, self-giving. Jesus reveals even more than that. Jesus describes himself as the Son, and God as his Father. It appears that whilst there is only one God, within God there is the Father and the Son. There is love and trust. There is giving and receiving. There is intimacy and relationship within the very nature of God himself. The Trinity is the reason why we can say that God is love, which suggests that to be fully human, to be whole and fruitful as people, we need to be sustained by relationships of mutual trust and love, within which we can know and be known. This is a fundamental truth we can all recognise – the most damaged human beings are the ones who have never been loved and who have never learnt how to trust. Why is this? Because we are made in the image of God who is Trinity, who in his own Being is Love, shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who exist not as separate entities, but in the perfect unity of Love. Jesus’ death on the cross shows what God’s love looks like in an imperfect and fallen world where everyone thinks that the best way to be human is to look after number one, protect our own interests, preserve our independence, stay self-sufficient, and view everyone else as a potential competitor and therefore a threat. Trust then becomes a weakness, selfishness becomes a strength. In such a world, the reality represented by Jesus Christ can only be rejected and crucified. Nevertheless, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that we might know God and know ourselves – or as our Gospel puts it, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Jesus shows us life, as opposed to the various ways of perishing we otherwise choose for ourselves as a substitute for real life.
What then of the Holy Spirit? The spirit isn’t explicitly mentioned in John 3.16, although earlier in his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus has said some puzzling things about the need to be born of the Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus continuing his work in the world and mediating his presence in the world, often through the followers of Jesus. It is the Spirit who works within the world to bring it back to God. Do you find yourself longing for something more, for a greater sense of meaning in your life, a stronger sense of worth and purpose? That’s the Holy Spirit, drawing you towards the life of God. Do you find yourself attracted to Jesus, wanting to experience his presence, his forgiveness, his love? That’s the Holy Spirit, opening your eyes to the truth of Christ’s divinity and humanity. Do you find yourself looking at your own life from time to time, wishing you could be a better person, wishing you could wash away some of the things you’ve done, wanting to be more generous, more tolerant, more considerate? That’s the Holy Spirit, opening your eyes to the truth of your own humanity and your need of renewal. Above all, it’s the Spirit who helps us to believe in Christ, who helps us to fall in love with him, who makes us want to be united with him. Everyone who believes in the Son, and finds eternal life, does so because the Holy Spirit makes it possible.
So can you see why Trinity Sunday is the best Sunday in the Church’s Year? Not only does it sum up in a nutshell the whole story of the Bible, from Old Testament to New Testament. It’s basically saying ‘God is Love.’ This God out there who is beyond our knowing and yet who is within us and knows us better than we know ourselves. This God who is eternal and yet became a human being 2,000 years ago in Palestine. This God who lived long ago and yet who meets us today, in bread and wine and in eternity, who invites us to wonder and adore, to repent and believe, to trust and receive. This is the God we worship. He is the Trinitarian God who is Love – who reveals love, who shows us love, who invites us to receive and share his love. This God who is Trinity is really very simple. It’s not difficult. Love, love and love again. Love stretching from before the foundation of the cosmos into eternity, out of which the world is born. Love taking human form and reaching out to us on the cross, love bearing all pain, never giving up, enduring even unto death, and on into resurrection. Love poured out at Pentecost to transform hearts and lives, to energise and expand, to release and to heal. Love we are invited to receive and to share.
As the Gospel says: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.’ In other words:
God is One and God is Three
God is Love – for you and me.