The Trinity – invitation not explanation?
Sermon for Adel Parish Church – Trinity Sunday 2021
Once – on holiday in the Scottish borders – we had the excitement of visiting ‘Hutton’s unconformity’. A fold of rock sticking out into the sea, it’s perhaps one of Scotland’s lesser-known attractions!
Actually, it’s one of the foundations of modern geology. The rocks tell an amazing story of land formation by sedimentation, geological forces, erosion. The point being that it represents millions of years’ worth of creation before human history began; vital evidence for a changing view of creation and history.
One of the first people to recognise this evidence for an ancient earth said…’the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time’. We’d turned stories about God into a literal account of 6 day creation, 6000 years ago. That piece of rock showed how wrong we were.
Hutton’s unconformity doesn’t tell us much about the earth…but it shows what it’s not – it’s not new, not created as it is now all in one go. It was the possibilities this opened up that induced dizziness.
Today is Trinity Sunday – I think this should be an occasion for ‘growing giddy’, as we look not back in time, but out into the vastness the Trinity hints at.
Instead, we tend to try to reduce ‘the Trinity’ to a literal ‘explanation of God. God’s like a shamrock; a triangle; ice, water and steam. All attempts to make a complex idea accessible – but in trying to explain, I think they miss something about this foundation of our faith.
The Trinity isn’t set out in the bible…but there are different truths about God that are difficult to hold together. Not surprisingly, as people tried, wrong ideas developed…
…Father, Son and Holy Spirit are 3 separate beings.
…God was first Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit…and so on.
So our creeds, setting out the Trinity, developed to say what God is not. They try to put the mystery of God into words – because words are what we have. But I think we should remember that words are inadequate – they only give us an outline.
As a scientist, I sometimes look on the Trinity like a well-established scientific theory. It fits with what we know, or experience about God. It’s been developed by throwing out things we know aren’t true. But it’s not necessarily the last word…it invites exploration rather than closing it down.
So what? Have I just replaced ‘the Trinity’s like a shamrock’ with, ‘the Trinity’s like a scientific theory’? I hope not – because science is always ready for the new and surprising. The latest theory is what fits the evidence we have so far…but scientists are always prepared for something else to come along and make us change the picture a bit.
Science is about truth but scientific theories aren’t assumed to have the whole truth. They invite further wonder and exploration. That’s what the Trinity does for me.
This week I’ve been re-reading ‘The Shack’. Not a book I particularly enjoyed, but it has an intriguing picture of the Trinity.
In it, Jesus is a young, middle-eastern carpenter; the Father (called Papa) is shown as a joyful, exuberant black woman; the Holy Spirit as a mysterious Asian woman. Clearly no more accurate than that shamrock…but it’s not meant to be a description of God – rather one man’s experience of God. And it made me think!
First there’s the obvious but important reminder that Jesus was not blond, blue-eyed, English looking. He was a young, middle eastern carpenter.
Then we have the Holy Spirit as more than dove, or flame. We sing about ‘God in three persons’; here’s an attempt to explore what the third person might be like. Obviously, the Holy Spirit is no more an Asian woman, than a dove – but the picture of the Spirit as compassionate, creative, mysterious, intangible, empowering, and always moving brought the Trinity to life.
God the Father as plump, almost brash, black woman, was quite difficult to cope with. But it too gives a new perspective. The main character in the book had an abusive father. So when he meets God – at a really low point in his life – God reckons a white, male authority figure is the last thing he needs.
Is God a black woman? I doubt it. But the idea that God relates to us in ways we can engage with does hold some truth. And as the book says, it’s probably no less accurate than our vague idea of God ‘as a large white grandfather figure with a flowing Gandalf beard.’ I heard a black priest say recently that reading this book was the first time she could imagine herself ‘made in the image of God.’
There’s a scene in the book where the three persons of the Trinity prepare a meal: laughing, joking and singing together. I found this really hard…far too human. But it helped me think about the love, the community which is the Trinity.
The God figure says, ‘If I were simply one God, one person, I wouldn’t be love. All love and relationship is possible for you, only, because it already exists within me, within God myself.’
That takes me beyond trying to explain how God can be three, yet one – to an exploration of what it means that God is somehow a community of love…that love exists within God.
I think the Trinity should make us giddy with excitement. I’m not particularly suggesting you read ‘The Shack’ – but there’s a world of poetry, art, literature, theology out there exploring this wondrous life-giving mystery. And these days we can just google ‘Trinity’ to find it! The creeds and scripture are there to help us decide what’s not true…but they’re surely not the whole truth about God…so get exploring!
And in those fantastic words from today’s collect…
Holy God, faithful and unchanging: enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love.