Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2021
Quite a while ago, I did an online course about Quakers, just out of interest. People could make comments and ask questions as we went along, and one thing I remember is someone asking why a certain person talked about the importance of praying directly to God but then prayed to Jesus instead. It seemed she hadn’t grasped that for Christians Jesus is God.
She’s not alone in her confusion because we set a puzzle in Christianity by saying there’s only one God and then talking about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We say this is a mystery: three persons but one God. Three sides, like the three leaves of the clover leaf; three ‘states’, like water, mist and ice, but one element. But none of the many images we use are exactly right, and it’s a well-known saying among preachers that it’s impossible to preach on the Trinity without falling into heresy. So, it’s no wonder that most Christians, let alone non-Christians, feel confused about the Trinity.
We need to understand as much as we can, though, or we lose a great gift. So, despite the dangers of trying to describe the Trinity, I’m going to talk geometry for a while. Many people think of the Trinity as an isosceles triangle, with two long sides leading up to the Father at the top, and a short side at the bottom with Jesus and the Holy Spirit at each corner. This reflects our human way of putting things into hierarchies. It works well for providing good management in business and industry and is vital for effective armed forces. You get a clear line of command, everyone knows what they can and can’t do, and everyone knows where to lay the blame when things go wrong. But, there is no hierarchy within God. In theology speak, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal.
Another way of thinking is to see the Trinity as an equilateral triangle. Here, the three persons are distributed equally, but then we often fall into only ever addressing one of them.
But we could also see the Trinity as a circle. In a circle there’s no beginning or end, no top or bottom, just an eternal dance round and round. And this, I think, is a good way of seeing the Trinity. We can imagine God, always there, always the same, always existing in a perfectly balanced relationship.
But, you might be wondering, what difference does this make? Why the geometry lesson? Well, this is important because the belief that God is Trinity is the basis for the belief that God is also love. If God were not Trinity, but just a solitary individual, the most we could say with confidence is that God sometimes or often chooses to act lovingly but is not in himself love. When we talk about God as Trinity, we say that, even before there was anything outside God for him to love, God’s nature was expressed in the loving relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God cannot help but love because God is a relationship of love, an eternal circling dance.
And this is not just some inward-looking love or an abstract idea. Instead, it has all the hallmarks of love that we recognise: it’s personal, dynamic and creative. It’s full of delight and generosity and wants to be shared. It longs for everyone to see the true loveliness of the beloved, delights in all their successes, and longs to help in their difficulties. And we, the beloved, are invited to join that relationship, to be in God, and God in us. Instead of searching after God we’re invited into the circle. Instead of praying to God, we pray in God.
This, I think, is why we get the story of Nicodemus this morning. Like many religious people, Nicodemus believes to some extent that God is love. But to him God’s love is measured and sensible and follows a set of rules. And he’s worried that Jesus might not be following the rules like he should. He’s gone further than many of his contemporaries, to give him credit, but not yet far enough. Jesus challenges him to let go of his measures and rules and launch himself into the unmeasurable totality of God’s love. God doesn’t love us when we’ve met some requirements, when we’ve changed enough to be lovable, or when we’re lucky enough to be born with the right colour or gender. God just loves. And trying to measure the love of God is like trying to control the wind. Hence, the climax of this passage: “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”. ‘This is the point of it all’, says Jesus, ‘that God’s beloved people may live with us forever, in our circle of love’.
So, the Trinity isn’t just an idea for theologians to argue about, or a mathematical puzzle. Instead, it’s the basis of who God is, our relationship with him, and our hope for the future.
Thanks be to God!