A Sermon for Trinity Sunday
June 8, 2012
One day, a lifetime or so ago, I was standing in the market square in Cambridge outside the Odeon waiting for three friends to turn up. We’d arranged to see the film “Ghandi” together. Sure enough, they came into view, laughing and chatting with each other, and as I watched them, I thought of all they meant to me, both individually and as a group of friends. We’d climbed mountains in Scotland together and walked the coast-to-coast path; we’d prayed together and gone on demos together; marvelled at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, talked late into the night and done all the things you do when you’re twenty-one. I felt my heart welling over with love for my friends. Then they looked up from their conversation and smiled and waved, and I ran over to join them, and we all went in to see the film. It’s a quite unremarkable memory, but one that has stayed with me all these years.
How do we begin to speak about the Trinity, that great mystery which we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday, the eternal nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Perhaps the place to start it not with words but with an image: here it is, the Rublev icon, perhaps the most famous visual representation of the Trinity. An icon is not a piece of art for art’s sake; icons were made as a means of prayer, and praying with Icons has long been treasured in the orthodox tradition as a way of entering more deeply into the divine presence.
For the Icon makers, there was a prohibition on representing God the Holy Trinity in a direct way, and they cleverly got around that by using a story from the Book of Genesis. In Genesis 18 we read a story about how Abraham entertained three strangers under the Oaks of Mamre. Abraham offers them hospitality, and they prophecy that his wife Sarah will give birth. The identity of the visitors is uncertain, but the suggestion is that they are divine messengers. The Icon maker takes this story and develops it into an image of God the Holy Trinity. With icons eyes are always important; here the three figures make eye contact with one another, suggesting the interplay of relationship between Father, Son and Spirit. The openness of the group seems to want to invite to onlooker to join in with the group, and the right hand figure is stretching out a hand as if to draw us right in. The bowl on the table is they to remind us of the bread and wine of Holy Communion: the picture wants us to know that by sharing in the bread and wine that are Christ’s body and lifeblood entering into the flow of love that is the Trinity.
Notice how there is no implied hierarchy in the icon. The three figures are on a level. They’re very similar, but not identical. There’s a sense of equality and balance in the image.
I expect some of you will know this picture very well. For others it may be new, and a bit strange. For me there is a wonderful quality of gentleness in this Icon. it speaks to me of a God whose nature is essentially about relationship, about gentleness, about invitation.
let me take you back to the Odeon on the Market Square. As I’ve treasured this memory over the years, it’s become a kind of Rublev Icon for me. There they were, Richard and Colin and Karen, a group of friends chatting away, enjoying each other’s company, but then delighted to see me, opening up the group to include me in; and me confident in our friendship, able to be sure that the bonds holding the group together were stretchy enough for me to belong too.
It’s easy to get confused on Trinity Sunday, Three in one and one in three cuts across our usual categories of what’s singular and what’s plural. We’re used to things being one, or three, but not usually both at the same time. A simple mathematical approach to the Trinity is pretty much a dead end. The language of Trinity wants to tell us something completely key about God: and that is that God is about being-in-relationship. Relating and relationship is the essence of the Divine nature.
And we see that in each of our three readings for today. Isaiah in the temple is confronted with a magisterial vision of the God in his glory: earthquake, smoke, singing, angels’ wings. Isaiah is filled with holy terror: and yet the purpose of this vision is not heavenly pyrotechnics for its own sake. The purpose is to draw Isaiah into relationship.
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said, “Here I am, send me!” The one who sends and the one who is sent are locked into relationship with one another.
Our readings from Romans sets out the way in which all of us who are “in Christ” Paul puts it, are invited into a new set of relationships with God and with one another. Just as Jesus was able know God as Father, so are we: just as an adopted child is made fully part of the birth family, so are we made God’s adopted children. We’re not hangers- on, we’re not bystanders to Christ’s saving work, we’re fully part of the family, “we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. ” This is a call to a confident faith. We don’t have to be tiptoeing around the margins of the community of faith, perpetually overcome by our own unworthiness. Our unworthiness, or lack of it, is neither here nor there. Because of God’s saving work in Jesus we are actually joint heirs, co-inheritors with Christ of all God wants to share with us. That means that God is saying to us, come right on in, you belong.
It is this same invitation that Jesus extends to Nicodemus in our Gospel passage: his challenge to the man is to be born again by water and spirit: to risk entering into the love of God and being changed and saved by it.
Here is our hospitable God, the Trinity of love, inviting us to come on in and share in the overflowing grace that is Divine Life.
It matters what kind of God we believe in, because that will shape the lives we lead and the communities we create. Too often the Church has projected a distorted view of the Trinity as a kind of hierarchy presided over by a God the Father envisioned as a strict Victorian patriarch. If we picture God as a rigid hierarchy then we will fashion our society – our church structures – in a similar way. But if we take seriously the picture of the Trinity as a community of love, equal and reciprocal, eternally hospitable……. what would that mean for the way we shape our world? What would it mean for the way we shape our Church?
Frances Eccleston May 2012