Trinity Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday

 In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

One of the pleasures associated with being Rector of St Bride's is that, like our regular tour guides here, I occasionally have the opportunity to show visitors around our amazing church building, with its extraordinary history, which is always a joy and a delight.

As our regular congregation members will know, huge fun can be had by inviting visitors to stand at the back of the church and admire the painting in the curved apse above the high altar depicting the Holy Spirit, the celestial choir and various angels - beneath which can be seen two stone alcoves containing statues of Moses and Aaron. 

The fun part being that, thanks to the extraordinary skill of the artist, Glyn Jones, it is all an optical illusion: there is no curved apse at all - it is in fact a flat wall; nor are there any alcoves or statues - they, too, are painted onto the same flat surface.  And it is fascinating to observe our visitors' faces moving from disbelief, to puzzlement, to astonishment, as they walk right up to the wall itself and discover the truth for themselves.  Because from the back of church they were confident that they knew what they were seeing; in fact, they did not.

In my previous church in Edgbaston, hung an oil painting of one of my illustrious predecessors as Vicar there - a portrait which used to spook all the groups of school children that I took round, because wherever you stood: straight in front of the painting or to the far left, or the far right of it - the Vicar's face turned to look at you.  By which I don't mean that his eyes followed you - I mean his whole face turned.  And however closely you looked, it was impossible to work out quite how the portrait painter had done it.

Some of you will be familiar with the extraordinary work of the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, who is most famous for producing what are sometimes referred to as his 'impossible constructions' - visual conundrums showing, for example, a flight of stairs that appears to go both up and down simultaneously.  Escher takes very familiar structures and then, with consummate skill, plays with them, challenging the boundaries of what we regard as normally possible, in the process.

I was reflecting on these artistic phenomena when thinking about today, Trinity Sunday.  Because although the parallel is far from exact, it does seem to me that there is an interesting point of contact with the notion of God as Trinity, which is to do with the elusive nature of God - God who passes all understanding - yet, who can be known to us, limited human beings though we are. 

Reflecting on my own life of faith, I can remember revelatory moments when the reality of God's presence was indisputable close - and yet it was never containable, because one always knew that such a momentary glimpse was only ever a drop of water in a vast un-ending sea.

There is a conundrum at the heart of our attempts to speak about God, and the things of God.  On the one hand, we have to use human language and imagery, with all its inbuilt limitations, in order to say anything at all about God, because that is all we have at our disposal; and yet, God will, by definition, transcend any analogy that we attempt to use of him: indeed, my very use of the masculine pronoun in that statement when referring to God itself invites challenge.  But that is precisely where an understanding of the Holy Trinity comes in helpful.

Every year I remind myself of the observation made by the seventeenth century priest and poet John Donne, that the Holy Trinity is there, not in order to make the idea of God more complicated, but rather to make it more simple.

Think about scripture for a moment.  It is in scripture that we encounter God as Father, the Creator of all things.  It is in Scripture that we encounter God the Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  And it is in Scripture that we encounter the Holy Spirit, the power of God at work in the world, inspiring and encouraging and empowering people to do God's will.  Sometimes the Bible speaks of these three as if they are distinct from one another: hence, we are shown the Son praying to the Father; and the Spirit empowering the Son.  At other times they are referred to as if they were one and the same (as when Jesus tells the disciples, 'Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father'; and declares, 'The Father and I are one').  And yet, what does not exist anywhere in scripture, is a carefully honed doctrine of the Trinity, nor any clear explanation of how these three realities of God, which at times might appear in tension, or even mutually contradictory, fit together. 

In our Gospel reading today in which we heard the closing verses of Matthew's Gospel, the Risen Lord commands his followers to go and make disciples of all nations and to baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - but that text is an extremely rare example in scripture of what we would now call a Trinitarian formula.

A God who is mighty and powerful might easily seem far removed from us and difficult to love - a God who is remote from the complex and broken reality that is the stuff of our daily lives - were it not for the fact that God also makes himself know to us as the Son, who not only came to earth and dwelt among us, but who experienced the full reality of human life, with all its sorrows and hardships and pain and heartache, and did so on precisely the same terms on which we ourselves experience them.  'Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.'

And our experience of God the Father and God the Son would be incomplete without God the Holy Spirit: the Spirit who blasts through our lives when we least expect it, who disturbs our complacency, and overturns our priorities, and sets us ablaze with the love of God.  The Spirit who brings us comfort when we are afraid, who strengthens us when we face tasks that feel beyond us, and who prays both for us and from within us.

God the Father; God the Son; God the Holy Spirit.  Our understanding of God is inadequate, impoverished, and distorted without all three.  Without the fullness and richness of the Trinity, we would fail to do justice to the Christian experience of God throughout the centuries: God the Creator, God the Redeemer, God the Sustainer.  God is so much bigger than any one model, or image, or experience, or name could ever hope to encapsulate. 

The Bible reflects the lived experience of a people who encountered God in all of these realities.  And yet not even scripture attempts to suggest that there can be a neat and tidy explanation of how they all fit together.  For the simple reason that, if there were a neat and tidy explanation, it would not be God that was being explained - any more than you can come up with an adequate definition of love.  Trying to find a way of fitting all our insights about God together neatly, is a bit like trying to make sense of an M.C. Escher graphic.  Sometimes the wisest and most creative response is simply to step back, slightly bewildered, and say, 'Wow!'

A moment ago I mentioned love, which is undoubtedly the best place for me to draw this sermon to a close.  Because ours is a God of love.  And whatever else you might say about love, it can only ever exist in relationship.  A love shared equally between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is a love that is dynamic; a love that is unending; a love that is full to overflowing; a love that spills over and floods the world.

And a love that is that powerful, and that generous, and that boundless, cannot help but transform our lives too.


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