by David Perril
Isaiah 6, 1-8; Romans 8, 12-17; John 3, 1-17
If you expected todays readings to give a clear understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, then I guess you will have already realised that they don’t.
The Trinity – Father, Son, & Holy Spirit has been the source of much confusion, misuse, and controversy through the ages, and I don’t want to add to that.
Three persons in one God, equal in divinity yet distinct in personality is not described in the bible, neither is the word “Trinity” found in the bible.
Early Christians arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity when they applied their God given reason to the revelation which they had received in faith. Jesus himself spoke about the father who sent him, and about the holy spirit whom he was going to send, He said that the Father had given him all that he has, and that he in turn has given to the Holy Spirit all that he has received from the Father. At least in this we see a unity of purpose among the three persons of the Trinity.
Alan Bennett wrote a play called 40 years which is based on the occasion of a Headmasters retirement. In one scene the headmaster is interviewing a boy before his confirmation. “Now Foster, I hope you have got the catechism all buttoned up” says the Head. “I’m still a bit hazy about the Trinity sir” says Foster.
“Three in one and one in three, perfectly straightforward” declares the Headmaster.
“Any doubts about that see your maths master!”
Trinity Sunday is the one festival in the Christian year that does not relate to events that have happened or that will happen in the future. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passiontide, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost all relate to specific events in the earthly life of Jesus. Trinity Sunday refers to a reality that has no date.
It is an essential annual reminder that we can neither manage or imagine God. We are dealing with things too wonderful for us to know – and things which we do not understand. God will always be beyond the capacity of our human minds.
As Rowan Williams has said – we can but “let God be God”.
We live by faith as well as knowledge and it is faith that teaches us that God is indeed three in one, Father Son and Holy Spirit. This is spelt out clearly in the collect for Trinity Sunday. We can acknowledge it by faith even when we don’t understand it by knowledge. The unity of the Trinity is what holds it together. The “three-in-one,” when together, makes the whole. Each part is necessary and without all three it is not whole – not complete – it lacks integrity. God, in the unity of the Trinity, is fully integrated and complete. The opposite of which is dis-integration & brokenness. And we only have to look around us to know that we live in a fractured and dis- integrated world. Yet, within this world, we are called, to strive, with God’s grace, to live & work to repair that brokenness. And our example, our model, is of course Christ himself.
Looking at Jesus we see a man – and we see God – two realities in one integrated life. The earthly and the heavenly become perfectly integrated.
From his poor and humble birth to his prophetic life on the margins, and ultimately by his resurrection – the life of Christ expresses the Father’s decision to make himself visible to all.
So as we look at the Jesus the man we see God himself, a human person who becomes a sacrament of God.
We are promised that, by the grace of God, we may live in Christ as he lives in us. So we too, are to become sacraments of God to the world. We are never going to fully understand how it works because we cannot have God’s perspective on it all. What we do know is that, through the gift of the spirit, we are called to pray, to trust and to live our lives in ways that somehow leaves the door open to let things come together so that God’s love can shine through.
We believe in a God who is creator of all things visible and invisible, a God of the here and now, and in the life to come. This is something deeply practical and personal, it is about the possibility of an integrated life with God.
In the stories of Easter, we revisited Jesus, in his resurrection appearances, doing what he always did, talking, eating, loving, making God present in his presence.
So God reveals himself as Trinity – from His inaccessibility in the Old Testament, where he is hidden in the ark of the covenant and in the temple only approachable by a few special priests – to the New Testament where in the human person of Jesus, by his incarnation, He becomes accessible in one place and in one time and to a relatively small number of people – then at Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, He becomes accessible to all people, and for all time. God has breathed into his disciples, and into us, his ‘spirit’, the breath of life, so that we are equipped to speak with his voice to the world. And so on this Trinity Sunday we have a renewed opportunity to look again at the supreme model of unity, integrity and wholeness – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What has all this to do with our Gospel reading this morning, perhaps it’s not immediately obvious, but bear with me.
Nicodemus was an intelligent man, a member of the prestigious Sanhedrin who was not prepared to be seen coming to Jesus in broad day light, he came by night.
He came with a willingness to learn, starting from the premise that Jesus must be genuine or he would not have been preaching and healing as he did.
It was a good start, and Jesus built on it to such effect that later, Nicodemus not only spoke out for justice in the Sanhedrin, but also gave generous practical help to Joseph of Aramathea in attending the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.
So Nicodemus was a man of compassion with a legal and enquiring mind. A man used to weighing up evidence with a passion for truth and justice. His encounter with Jesus was one of mutual respect and courtesy, Jesus called Nicodemus ‘Rabbi’.
Their meeting was full of genuine concern with important issues. Nicodemus was a man of integrity, yet he was still not able to make that final leap of faith, to accept Jesus and his teaching. He could not understand or accept the reality and necessity, or even the possibility, of being ‘born again’, of living in both the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit.
Part of him just couldn’t accept what Jesus was saying. Even today there are parts of the gospel that some people cannot accept, the baptism of the spirit, of being born are examples, but to be fully integrated Christians we must both accept it and also live it. Our readings make this clear. Jesus says ‘no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit’ and in the reading from Romans ‘if you live by the flesh you will die – but if you live by the spirit you will live’ and ‘all who are led by the spirit are children of God’ What does this actually mean? At face value it seems to suggest that we are to value the things of eternal life, things of God, above things of this world.
To live by God’s truth rather than by worldly standards. This is certainly true. But maybe it’s even more fundamental than that, and we have to go one step further. If we are to live in the spirit, in eternal life, then life cannot end when our bodies die. Physical death cannot be the end. So we must live our earthly lives with our eyes firmly focused, not on the horizon of the death of our bodies, but always on the horizon of everlasting life with God himself whom, we are promised, we shall see ‘face to face’.
If our sights are set on that horizon it should determine the way we live now, the decisions and choices we make, the way we relate to one another and, above all, the way we relate to God, taking the long view, that death is an event on the way to full knowledge of, and life with, God. Jesus is our model for living in this present dimension of time and space, constricted as he was in an earthly body, but also with eyes firmly fixed beyond this world and on eternal life with God. To live as Jesus did, as best we can, we must take his whole life as our example, not just the bits we find easy and comfortable.
We must also take into account the example of his suffering and death. The cross, His and ours, is a necessary part. We need to take to heart Jesus’ saying ‘unless a grain of wheat dies – it cannot bear fruit’ we too must accept the sufferings that come our way, as well as the joys, and pray that we may learn to rejoice in all things and to see them as opportunities to identify more closely with our Lord, to be enabled to worship our Trinitarian God with love and integrity.
So let our prayer on this Trinity Sunday be that we may live as :-
People who praise God the Father, the creator, who gave us bodies to live in this world,
People who praise God the Son, who through his life in this world, his teaching and suffering, brought us salvation,
People who praise God the Spirit, who leads us beyond this world and into eternal life.