June 16, 2019

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley, using Isaiah 6. 1-8 at Evensong on Sunday 16th June 2019, Trinity Sunday.

There are some occasions when I wish we could have a discussion rather than a sermon.  And this is one of them, this Trinity Sunday.  I’d like to ask you how you understand God, and what the idea of the Trinity means to you, and start from there. Is the Trinity, for you, obvious, or nonsense, or puzzling, or awesome (as the teenagers might say).

I actually did ask people what they thought a few years ago. I was doing some research into people’s understanding of God, and I asked volunteers from various Winchester churches, including the Cathedral, how they understood God.

People were generally aware there is a problem in saying anything about God at all.  For instance, one person said:

I think I think that we can’t put labels on God. We don’t have the vocabulary, understanding or anything. I am not trying to make him remote, I don’t think He is. . . . But we want to confine him within our own limited understanding – and I don’t think we can – or even should.

And another said:

We’re so small and the idea of God is so enormous that I can’t hold it and express it in words – the words slither away.

Everyone recognised that we can only grope after God, and that nothing we say about God can possibly be literally true.  Just think about the terms we apply to God: Father, for instance, or King; neither can be accurate literally when you think about it.  In the end, we have to admit that our descriptions are pictures, images, analogies, each with a glimmer of truth, but not a definition.

Isaiah, in this afternoon’s first reading, had a vision, which hugely affected him in his understanding of God and what God wanted of him.  His vision was based on the Jerusalem temple, and he saw God in glorious majesty with angels chanting ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord’.  Isaiah’s instant reaction was recognising his own inadequacy, his own sinfulness.  So then, in the vision, an angel flew to touch his lips with a burning coal, to blot out his sin and prepare him for what was to come. God said ‘Whom shall I send?’, and Isaiah replied, ‘Here am I; send me’.

Isaiah was a Jew, living hundreds of years before Christ.  The Jews didn’t have any doctrine of the Trinity, and still don’t today.  However, the idea of the Spirit of God wasn’t new with Christianity – the Jewish scriptures are full of references. And the Jews certainly believed in a God who communicated with humans – the Word or self-expression of God – though it is Christians who identify Jesus with the Word of God. So the doctrine of the Trinity was a natural development in the early years of the Christian Church, even though it can seem complicated to us.

There’s a lovely story of a Jew knocked down and severely injured on a London street. Among the crowd that gathered was a priest, who was carrying what was needed for the last rites.  The priest didn’t know the man was a Jew, so he lent over him and asked, ‘Do you believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’.  To this the Jew exclaimed, ‘Here I am dying, and he comes asking me riddles!’

A riddle it may sometimes seem, the doctrine of the Trinity.  But it’s not really.

Christians have identified various aspects of God’s nature: God is like a father, in that he has created the world and cares about it; God expressed himself in Jesus, whom we call Son of God; and God inspires humanity, so we come to the Holy Spirit. None of these images is sufficient on its own, but God has aspects of all three. God seems like a father to us, like the man Jesus Christ and like a holy wind or spirit.  Hence the idea of Trinity, which was debated and formalised in the early centuries of the Church. When I was teaching young confirmation candidates, I used the illustration of H2O. We encounter H2O as steam (or vapour, to be more accurate), as ice and as liquid water – three aspects or appearances of the same basic stuff.

But the Trinity in no way limits our glimpses of what the idea of God includes.  Isaiah had a powerful vision of utter holiness on God’s part, coupled with a divine desire by God to communicate, to forgive and to commission people in God’s work on earth.  And there are other images and ideas that we accumulate through life.

Some of the church people I interviewed had helpful ideas.  One said God was ‘Pure beauty or love, not really in a form as we’d see it here’, and another said: ‘Any description must include omnipotence, music, art, beauty and compassion’.

Several people identified God with light. One said: ‘He often appears as a bright light, which reappears when I have “got the message”’, and another described God as ‘a half-hidden light that I almost glimpse, like a light behind a screen, but if I try to concentrate on it, it disappears’.

Of course, it can be risky when we start inventing our own images. We can see this most horribly with fundamentalist zealots who view God as requiring death and destruction, like the more extreme 16th century Protestants and Catholics or the present day extreme Islamists. And even we moderate Winchester residents and visitors are liable to reinvent God to suit our own inclinations. We might assume God is purely on our side in war or disputes, or we might make God safe to live with, a protector of the status quo and respectability.  Voltaire wasn’t exactly a friend of the Church, but he had a point when he wrote: ‘If God has made us in his image, we have returned the compliment’.

But there are myriads of good and helpful images of God. None of them contains the whole truth, because God in the end is bound to be indefinable. If God were definable, he would not be God.  But the Trinity brings us back to the essence of our faith.  We believe in one God with myriad aspects, or which three are infinitely the most prominent: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We can trust in the everlasting arms beneath us, the love and example of the Man who lived among us, and the divine strength and inspiration we need for our lives. Let it be so.