Nuns on the Run is the story of two small-time crooks (played by Robbie Coltrane and Eric Idle) who are on the run both from the Police and the Triads. They hide out in a convent, disguised as nuns, where Eric Idle finds himself scheduled to teach the A-level Religious Education class. He’s horrified. Robbie Coltrane, a lapsed Catholic, tries to reassure him by telling him how easy it will be. What’s your first lesson on?” he asks. “The Trinity!” Robbie’s face falls. “The Trinity! Now that’s a bugger!”
Not Trinity Sunday again …
Most ministers and preachers appear to experience a similar sinking sensation when Trinity Sunday comes round. Far from a sense of excitement and awe at a service focused very specifically on God, the overwhelming sense is one of dismay – how to explain the inexplicable! “Trinity” means pulling out illustrations of shamrocks and sun, sunlight and warmth. For me, it conjures up the memories of trying to get my head around Barth’s “Revealer, Revelation and Revealedness”, or of listening to Nicholas Lash expound his (helpful) notion of the Trinity as “speaking of God in three ways”.
Having worked for a couple of years in local government with a Shi’ite Muslim, it also conjures up memories of heated debates, Shabir demanding that I explain how I can possibly call myself a monotheist when I clearly believe in three Gods! And in parenthesis, I must say that one of the most helpful things I have discovered on the doctrine of the Trinity is Moltmann’s insistence that to be Trinitarian is what it means to be Christian, and to be neither a monotheist nor a polytheist.
The drama of salvation
But all of this is to miss the point that our texts make so clearly this week: the “doctrine of God” is not a matter for academic debate or catechesis, but the outcome of our experience of God in Jesus Christ. The Trinity is a necessary corollary of salvation. Jesus, in this famous chapter from John’s gospel, talks of having descended from heaven, being the only-begotten Son of the Father (who loves the world and has sent him to save it) and of the Spirit who blows like the wind, bringing new life/birth. The Trinity, in other words. And if our response is, “Yes, but I’ve always thought that this is a great “gospel” passage”, then the response is, “Precisely!” Let me put this as forcefully as I can: the fundamental point to be made on Trinity Sunday is that the doctrine of the Trinity means nothing less or other than rehearsing the story of salvation! And if we do something other than that in the pulpit this Sunday, we are taking a drama and turning it into a conundrum – and that is neither faithful to the Scripture nor is it the place of preaching! The Trinity is the story of God’s passionate determination to be present with the world. It’s the reminder that God’s primary disposition towards the world is of love, not judgement. It is about the fact that the saving God is the God of resurrection and recreation, giving new birth and Life to human beings. And it is the reminder (in the person of Nicodemus) that none of this makes sense or fits easily into good religious schemes about reward and punishment, or stringent holiness movements, because God is a God of grace!
The Trinity, in other words, doesn’t just tell us who God is, but about what God does and what God is like! This is the day to get into the pulpit and tell again the wonderful, joyful story of who God is and how passionately, uncontrollably, inexplicably and inescapably this world is loved. It’s the Sunday to re-awaken a sense of wonder and to renew faith, because it is Gospel Sunday!
The “Three-in-One” stuff
If the Trinity is about the drama of salvation – about rehearsing the gospel story – what’s the point of all the stuff we usually think of in connection with the Trinity? What about the “Three-in-One” stuff? The doctrine of the Trinity attempts to safeguard our thinking and talking about God. It helps us to “get it right” – not in the sense of “explaining” God, but in the sense that we don’t create an idol in place of the Living God whom we worship in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit. I want to pick up on three aspects of the gospel story of God that the “Three-in-One” formula enshrines and protects: the fact that relationship is fundamental to the life of God; that the Spirit draws human beings into the very life of God through resurrection and adoption; and that it is appropriate to worship both Jesus and the Spirit because they are divine.
Three Persons: Love and relationship in God
The “Three Persons in One Godhead” stuff (Triunity: three in one) isn’t a cleverly-devised formula to keep Christians (and everyone else!) scratching their heads for millennia, or for keeping theologians in business! Again, it belongs to the drama of salvation. Look at the gospel passage. There is the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Three Persons. Not one Person. The story of salvation in Jesus Christ teaches us that it doesn’t do simply to talk about God only in singular terms. God may – indeed must – be One, but there is relationship within God. Three Persons in dynamic relationship. And the “cement” holding them together is love. There is a dynamic unity of love and will which means that God sends Jesus into the world to be its saviour, which will necessitate death. But Jesus is no unwilling sacrificial lamb! Jesus is a volunteer! In John’s gospel, Jesus’ high priestly prayer does what the Gethsemane account does in the Synoptic Gospels – it establishes that there is a unity of divine will! The love of God for the world is matched by the love of the Son in going to the cross. The loving self-sacrifice of the Son is matched by the love (not anger!) of the Father, who abandons himself to the loss of the Son. Which constantly makes me wonder, by the way: why does so much Christian preaching lead people to suppose that Jesus loves the world, but has to appease God who is angry with it?
The Spirit is sent in the same way as the Son is sent. In John’s gospel, the Spirit is “Another Christ”. Paul picks up on this, as we have seen in recent weeks, when he insists that anyone who has the Spirit belongs to Christ because the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (as well as the Spirit of God). In John’s gospel, the role of the Spirit is to “lead the disciples into all truth” (14:26, 15:26). Jesus makes the Father known to them. He does so as the Word made flesh– the one who has come from the bosom of the Father (1:18). As such, the disciples can trust absolutely what they know of God through Jesus. To see Jesus is as good as seeing the Father. It is to see God – but in human form.
That is why the disciples preach Jesus! Jesus came (in John’s gospel) to make the Father known. However, he was rejected and crucified. The rejection of Jesus was also the rejection of the God whom he called Father. Yet God does not allow the crucifixion to stand as the last word. Unknown to those crucifying him, Jesus is the Lamb of God, whose death takes away the sin of the world (John 1: 29). This means that the disciples preach Jesus. They don’t just repeat his message: now they have a further story to tell – the story of God walking among us in Jesus and saving us though his death and resurrection. They can tell this story because it is God’s story! The Jesus story is not simply the story of God acting through a man: it is the story of God as a man! Jesus is the act of God.
“Three in one” therefore insists that we have first and always to speak about God in terms of relationality. To be God is to be in relationship. The relationship between God and the world flows out of the relationship of love that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It means that Jesus is not just a man of God, but God as a man! And if Jesus shows us not only what God is like, but what it means to be human, then we come to understand that to be truly, fully and freely human – to have “Life in all its abundance” – is to be related in love to God and to one another.
The Spirit of Resurrection and Adoption: being drawn into the life of the Triune God (Romans 8: 12-17)
Jesus (particularly in John’s gospel) comes to reveal the Father. This revelation is not “facts about God”: it is to draw us into the very Life of God, so that we become in reality what we are intended to be through creation – children of the Living God. The risen Jesus does this through the Spirit.
The primary role of the Spirit in Romans 8 is resurrection. This is the Spirit of Life who liberates us from death (8:2). To have the Spirit dwelling in us is to belong to Christ (8:9). We saw this last week. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. Yet look at 8:10, and what Paul says: he has just finished explaining that if the Spirit of Christ indwells us, we belong to Christ. Then he says, “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness”. Note that, in Paul’s, eyes, having the Spirit is the same thing as having Christ. This is not because Jesus and the Spirit are the same. They are distinct persons. Rather, it is the Spirit of resurrection who raised Jesus from the dead and now dwells in us, so that we undergo death to the old life and resurrection to the new. What happened to Jesus at Easter happens to us through faith in Christ: we immediately pass through death and resurrection, so that we are already on the other side of our own death! That is why Paul can talk as he does about there being no more condemnation for those of us in Christ Jesus (which is how he has begun the chapter and concludes it in vv31ff).
But this means that the Spirit is also the Spirit of Adoption. Not only are we raised from the dead, as Jesus was, but we are drawn into Jesus’ life as children of the God whom he addresses as Father (v15). Isn’t it curious how much time and energy we often spend worrying about what will happen to us when we die? It’s as though the answer to that question has yet to be settled – when Paul goes to extraordinary lengths to explain that it has already been answered! The only person whose death was open to question in this way was Jesus himself – and God raised him through the Spirit! Now we who have the Spirit have Christ. We have already died with him and been raised with him – and we shall be glorified with him. That is already settled. We have been incorporated into the life of the Triune God! That is what “Life in all its abundance” means! We are incorporated into God’s family life. That is why one of the most ancient formulas of salvation was, “He (Jesus) became a man, that we might become divine”. And that is exactly right! How about that for a message for Trinity Sunday, eh? We share in the life of God!
The Oneness of God: Love and worship
I have suggested that the Trinitarian formula of “One God in Three Persons” is made necessary because of salvation. We encounter God in three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And yet Judaeo-Christian faith has always insisted that God is One. There is only One who is worthy of worship, and that is God. There cannot be more than one God, because that could be potentially conflictual! What if one God wanted one thing and another God another? Where would we poor humans be? How would we decide what to do? We have already seen that we talk about Three Persons as a way of expressing the unity of will between Father, Son and Spirit – the unity of love. This unity of will and purpose means that we have to do with three Persons, not three gods! The statement “God so loved the world …” is an expression of the love of the divine family for the world. We cannot preach or believe as though there is a difference in attitude towards the world among the three Persons – particularly between Father and Son.
I remember hearing a sermon by Rowan Williams in which he said – almost as an aside – that “We must not preach as though Jesus, on the cross, was changing God’s mind about us!” Suddenly, all the unease I had felt about the gospel as I had heard it preached came into focus. I had heard it as, “God is holy and we are very sinful. God is angry with our sin. By rights, God should judge us. Yet the sinless Jesus gave his life for us voluntarily. Jesus took the punishment from God that was ours by right, so that, if we have accepted Christ as our personal saviour, God looks at us and sees the righteous Jesus and accepts us”. There was a sense there – no matter how often and forcefully I heard John 3:16 quoted – that the Father is basically itching to let fly with some thunderbolts, but Jesus (who is the “nice guy” in the godhead) deflects all that anger on to himself, so that God’s thirst for judgement is satisfied and we’re okay. Now I know that that’s to caricature things – but actually, it is to do so only slightly and far less so than we fondly imagine we are doing! Grace is as much the Father’s idea as the Son’s! There isn’t a “playing off” of holiness against mercy within the godhead. We are loved by God – Father, Son and Spirit – with the same saving love. And our response to that grace ought to be love: to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength.
Love issues in worship. What set earliest Christianity apart from other messianic Jewish sects was the insistence that it was appropriate to worship Jesus. Now, if worship belongs only to God, then this was a very serious error … unless Jesus is as divine as the Father. That is what John tries tirelessly to tell us in his gospel. His is the story of Jesus that is constantly presenting us with the divinity of Jesus and the outrage that it caused. Jesus’ claim to divinity in John’s gospel is unequivocal: “Before Abraham was, I AM!” It is in John’s gospel that Thomas confesses Jesus as “My Lord and my God”. This is the faith of the Church. But it is not about playing metaphysical games, or rehearsing ancient controversies. It is saying something fundamental to everything we are and do as churches: we love Jesus and worship him as God. So Trinity Sunday ought to be the Sunday when we worship as on no other day! It’s a day for renewing our love and celebrating God’s story in worship.
God with us – the foundation of Word and Sacrament (Isaiah 6: 1-5/Psalm 29)
Poor old Isaiah! He’s in real trouble – and he knows it! He’s in the temple, and he sees the Lord, glorious and lifted up. That is not good news! He knows he is in mortal danger. To see Yahweh is to die, because Yahweh’s majesty and holiness is awful. Yahweh’s voice can smash mighty cedar trees, uproot cities, flash forth flames of fire, shake the wilderness, send huge oak tress skittering and strip the forest of its leaves (Psalm 29: 5-9). Yahweh is no tame god! So Isaiah’s first response is “Woe is me! I am lost!” (Isaiah 6: 5). That’s a very polite version of what he’s effectively saying!
Isaiah 6 and Psalm 29 belong to a venerable tradition of the threat of Yahweh’s presence. Yahweh has no business being on earth – it’s far too dangerous for human beings. It’s dangerous for two reasons. The first one is moral: Yahweh is holy, and we are not. Yahweh’s holiness is a “consuming fire”. The second reason is one that is less dominant in the Bible but strong in the classical Greek tradition: God is God and Spirit; we are creatures and mortal. That which is spirit has no place among the earthly. In fact, the aim of human living is to discover how to flee the earthly into the realm of the spirit.
Here in Isaiah 6 we have a moment of the same sort of grace that we will see in spades in the Incarnation: God’s presence doesn’t destroy, but cleanses, liberates and commissions. That Jesus is God incarnate is an affirmation that God is not the sort of god who cannot be present on earth. Nor is God restricted to the sterile environment of the Holy of Holies. In Jesus, God enters into the depth of human darkness and living. Neither the fact that God is creator nor God’s holiness can keep God out! The grace of love is too passionate – too driving a force. It is transgressive. It bursts through the boundaries of purity and divinity with startling, life-giving energy and power. It is a astounding because it is entirely inappropriate! We look around, and suddenly discover, in Jesus, that God is among us!
And isn’t this precisely what we mean by Word and Sacrament? “Sacrament” means that God can be present in created stuff. God can be present in bread and wine and water because God was present in a human being – Jesus! And because it is God’s incarnate presence in Jesus that is foundational, we know that God’s presence is a good thing! It is liberating, cleansing, forgiving and saving. It is grace, not judgement and destruction! It means that this world is a place where we can and do expect to encounter God.
Astonishingly, it also means that this world is the place where things happen to God! Now that is totally outside the rule book on How to be God! Things don’t happen to God. But things happen to the Triune God who walks among us in Jesus Christ! God took suffering and death into God’s self. In Jesus, God embraced human history. And as a result, God continues to be among us, present not only in Word and Sacrament, but in people and relationships. We meet God “in many a guise”. And we do to God in Jesus Christ. When we give a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, we do it to Jesus. And when we do anything to the very least of our world, we do it to Jesus. When we are agents of grace (we children of God), people encounter God in and through us.
God’s mission and our mission (Isaiah 6: 6-8)
Isaiah is not consumed by the fire; he is cleansed by it. And the cleansed and renewed prophet is faced with Yahweh’s question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God is a missionary God. The earliest theological use of “mission” (meaning “sent”) referred not to sending missionaries, but to the sending of the Son by the Father and the sending of the Spirit by the Father (and the Son, depending on where you lived!). Mission is God’s idea, and God’s project. To be drawn into the life of the Triune God is to be drawn into God’s saving project of transforming the world into the kingdom. To be “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven” is not only to “sing God’s praise” but to live it out in involvement in the world.
What makes out involvement particularly special? After all, there are many other groups and people who are involved in transforming the world – often with more commitment and to greater effect! That is perfectly true, and it means, for a start, that Christians ought to be far more generous about recognising allies and fellow-workers, regardless of what faith (or none) they profess. According to the parable of the sheep and the goats, we ought to recognise them as brothers and sisters, because what we do is as significant as what we say. In other words, the disturbing challenge of mission is that it blurs our neatly-drawn boundaries of who’s in and who’s out. It means that Christians who oppose the transformation of unjust structures (in Palestine, for example) are enemies of the Kingdom, opposed to God’s salvation, while humanists and communists who deride any faith in Jesus but who do his will are worshipping the Triune God!
What is Christianly distinctive about our involvement, though? It is because it is done in the name of the Son and in the power of the Spirit. That is not playing games with doctrinal formulations. All I have been saying implies that it means that our involvement in the world, its people and its transformation can never be separated from our faith in the missionary God we discover in Jesus and through the Spirit. Being translated, that means we cannot extract our actions, activities, the deployment of our resources, our priorities and decisions from the gospel story of God in Jesus. Mission and Christian faith and proclamation go hand in hand – because mission is the making a reality of the Good News of what God has done in Jesus Christ to save this world.
That means that we might be no more effective than others (although we believe that God is able to take a mustard seed and grow a mighty tree from it, so that the effects of what we do can be totally disproportionate to their size). We might be less effective than other groups who may, for example, have a far better grasp on how structures work than we do. The point is, though, that we believe and proclaim that the transformation of the world into the place where peace and righteousness kiss is more than a human project. It is God’s project. The transformed world discloses the gracious God who walks among us in Jesus and is present in and with us through the Holy Spirit. This is the God who yearns to draw us into the divine Life itself. We cannot but continually set out the clear invitation: come and find Life! Come and love and worship the Living God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom be glory in the world and in the Church forever!