On 31st May 2015, the Trinity Sunday, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17
Many years ago, when our children were still young, the Sunday School teacher, Richard, came up with a novel way of introducing the notoriously difficult concept of the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. Fortunately at the time, our local rugby league team was called ‘Wakefield Trinity’. Richard armed the Sunday School children with biscuit tins and wooden spoons. They marched into church banging the tins in time to the chant of ‘Trin-i-ty, Trin-i-ty’, just like a noisy crowd at a rugby match.
I have to say that, although the entrance made by the youngsters has really stuck in my memory, I can’t remember how Richard followed that up in explaining the Holy Trinity to those gathered. I do know he got a fair few disapproving comments from the older members of the congregation who weren’t so keen on the noise! Perhaps the explanation was lost on them too. Sadly the opportunity to repeat the event is not there as the rugby team is now called ‘Wakefield Wildcats’ which doesn’t seem much use for explaining or even introducing the Trinity.
I don’t think anyone disagrees that the idea of God being three and yet one is very difficult to get to grips with. In the passage for today from John’s Gospel there was a very favourable teaching situation as Jesus and Nicodemus conversed at night. Jesus, the Word of God, and the most brilliant teacher who has ever lived was talking to a Pharisee, a student of the word of God. Nicodemus was eager to learn from Jesus. There surely couldn’t be a better situation for learning to take place. Yet Nicodemus simply couldn’t understand what Jesus was trying to explain about the Holy Spirit and being born again or from above. Nicodemus was very puzzled as we can read: “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’”
Perhaps it would have been more worrying if Nicodemus had immediately declared that he understood everything. Any God who can be fully understood by a finite, human mind, must be an idol and not Almighty God, the creator of the universe. Despite the difficulties, generations of theologians have wrestled with the problem of God being one and three. In the early centuries of the Church this occupied the best theological minds around. It led to huge disagreements, accusations of heresy, excommunications, councils and creeds.
You might wonder, with such problems associated with the topic, why we bother to consider the Trinity at all. Why did Pope John XXII assign this Sunday to be Trinity Sunday in 1334? If concerning ourselves with an unsolvable mystery is all there is to this Sunday, it’s about as much use as a chocolate teapot and of as much relevance to our lives as that old philosophical question of how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. We can just forget it and move on.
However, the problem is that much of the Western Church, even after all its wrangling and struggling for understanding, did eventually forget the Trinity. It was the Celtic Church that kept that deep connection to God as three. The Celtic God is one God who embraces the world with his two loving arms. The right arm is Christ and the left arm is the Holy Spirit. Celtic Christians expected to be guided by the Holy Spirit as well as relating to creation and the Creator and to Jesus, the one we read about in the Gospels. In many prayers from ancient Celtic sources we can find the Trinity. For example:
I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me.
Trinity Sunday is a time for us to concentrate on who God is, rather than what he does, and how we relate to him. St Paul’s writing in the Letter to the Romans is itself not for the faint hearted but the small section we have read today helps show us how the experience of God as three impacts our lives (rather than just giving us a headache!).
Paul contrasts those who live entirely on a fleshly level, relating to the created world full of things, with those who live relating to the Spirit, the one who hovered over the waters at creation, bring order out of chaos. Those who concentrate purely on created things have only insecurity, fear and death to look forward to. If we recognise the Holy Spirit’s leading and guiding in our lives, we can have security, being assured of our relationship with God. We are adopted into God’s family, children of God as the Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirits. We need never fear that we are alone or abandoned.
We have a relationship with God that the Jewish people could not really envisage. Even saying God’s name was not something the Jewish people dared to do in case they broke the commandment not to take the name of God in vain. Calling God ‘Father’ was not something Jews would do. When Jesus did it that was just one more reason for him to be condemned. However, Jesus also taught his disciples to think of God as their loving Father. The prayer Christians have in common is The Lord’s Prayer which begins ‘Our Father …’. The Spirit doesn’t just use God’s name or the formal word ‘father’ but helps us to call God ‘Daddy’, ‘Papa’ just as a little child would do with their father. This speaks of intimacy, of being able to get up close to God, snuggle on his knee and communicate our deepest hopes and fears.
We relate to Jesus, the third member of the Trinity, as our brother and our model for living. If Jesus is our brother, we inherit the kingdom of God just as much as he does. We will be glorified, just as he is. He taught us how to live; what our priorities should be; how we should relate to others; how to love as he did and still does. Jesus also warned us to expect our lives to be like his in terms of suffering. We are likely to suffer in some way as Jesus did. It’s not a pleasant thought but we have that hope of glory before us. Nothing can take our adoption into God’s family away from us. Nothing can remove our place as heirs with Christ. Nothing can prevent the Holy Spirit from acting in our lives to guide and encourage us.
The Celts were right not to lose sight of all three members of the Trinity. We need them all, not as some philosophical puzzle but as a living reality in our daily lives. And so we pray with the ancient Celts:
The compassing of God and His right hand
Be upon my form and upon my frame ;
The compassing of the High King and the grace of the Trinity
Be upon me abiding ever eternally,
Be upon me abiding ever eternally.
May the compassing of the Three shield me in my means,
The compassing of the Three shield me this day,
The compassing of the Three shield me this night
From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.
From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.