Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 22nd May 2016
“Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Yourself. Amen.”
Today, the Feast of the Holy Trinity focuses our minds on the deep mystery that is at the heart of our Christian faith – God is three and God is one. We endeavour to explore, to talk about that mystery at the heart of God, but it is as difficult for us today as it has always been. The people who wrote the different books that make up the Bible reveal their attempts, their struggle to describe God, and familiar though these stories might be, they still have the power to catch us by surprise because they are not what we might imagine.
In Genesis (Ch 18) there is the story of Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. Significantly for us on Trinity Sunday, it tells of Abraham meeting three angels, but the angels are not described. Read on, and it becomes clear that Abraham thought he was dealing with men, only gradually realising his mistake. Then there is the experience of Moses – the story appointed for this evening. Moses could only liken his experience of encountering the Divine to a blazing bush on fire, yet not burned away by the fire. Ezekiel (Ch 1) has an extraordinary vision which he describes in great detail over 28 verses. Towards the end he sees the ‘likeness of a throne’ with what appears to be ‘something that seemed like human form’. The form shines as if with fire and even a rainbow and upon seeing it, Ezekiel falls prostrate, recognising ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’.
Turn to the New Testament, and the book of Revelation says (4:2-4) ‘At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.’ Wonderfully colourful all of these images, yet we are led to understand that they are attempts to describe that which remains essentially indescribable.
Yet in every generation, the struggle to explore the mystery that is God continues and like the people who have gone before us, we draw on picture language – the simple pictures of children, the philosophical language of philosophers and theologians, and everything in between. But at the end of the day, the philosopher or theologian may have come no closer to the heart of the mystery of who God is than the child or indeed adult who looks at a clover leaf and finds it both strange and beautiful. Language limits us, and our limited human perceptions struggle to comprehend the sheer wonder and glory of the One who created all that is. We struggle to convey with our words the sheer vastness of God’s love, infinite and yet utterly intimate at the same time.
And yet – a Trinitarian understanding of God is central to our Christian faith rooted in those words of Jesus spoken to his disciples: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
God is the Divine Father, the Creator of all that was, and is and is to come. Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets knew from their own experience of life that God was the holy One – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory – so wrote Isaiah, and so we say or sing week by week in the words of the Sanctus. He was the one at whose voice the world was called into being, at whose voice the foundations of the world would shake; at times apparently stern and demanding, but known with equal certainty to be faithful, compassionate and just; He was the one whose very essence is self-giving love, available not least to those who are weary and exhausted, a source of comfort, strength and hope for he does not grow faint or weary.
And yet he was also distant, remote, for no one could look on the face of God and live – until that is He chose to reveal himself in the vulnerability of our humanity Emmanuel, which means God is with us. In the life of Jesus, in his very being, the people of God were and are enabled to see something of the self-giving nature of God, His vulnerability, his concern for all mankind and His supreme love, in a manner never before experienced. Through our Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection, we are given the hope and the assurance that no matter what happens, nothing can separate us from the love of God. In Jesus, God made known to us His will for all people.
And then, following the Ascension, the followers of the risen Christ became conscious of a new influence upon them, a new power. They found themselves filled with boldness, courage and enthusiasm, a power which united them as never before. That gift of the Holy Spirit is the power by which they and we are made aware of God’s presence within us and around us, transforming our lives, and leading us into all truth; the Spirit unites us, inspires us, and energises us.
To concentrate purely on the divine nature of God is to lose sight of his humanity, vulnerability and the power which is at work among us now. To gaze permanently on the humanity of Christ is to lose much of the mystery and magnificence of the divinity of God. In praising too strongly the gifts of the Spirit, to the exclusion of all else we neglect the perfect example of humanity and the glory and mystery of the divinity.
So how then are we comprehend and explain the reality of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The disciples hesitated – they struggled to make sense of the reality of the mystery they were living alongside. Nicodemus, learned scholar ‘though he was, struggled to understand. True, he recognised in Jesus a teacher come from God, wanted to know more, but was also anxious to avoid giving the impression that he intended to become a committed disciple, so he came to Jesus by night. Jesus answers Nicodemus, taking him step by step deeper into the mystery of God. But for all his theological learning, Nicodemus lacks spiritual insight and has yet to learn that God’s creative power is not limited to the material and the physical. There also exists a realm of spirit in which God is at work. Jesus acknowledges in his conversation with Nicodemus that there is much that is mysterious, but there is also much that is mysterious about the natural world but that doesn’t mean it’s not discernible – the wind may be invisible but its effects are nevertheless undeniable. Nicodemus, the distinguished scholar, ought not to be ignorant of the power of God to change lives. Read on in John’s gospel and we discover that the search for understanding in Nicodemus continues leading him to become a follower of Jesus for it is him who, with Joseph of Arimathea, takes the body of the crucified Jesus, wraps it with spices in linen cloths in preparation for burial.
Like Nicodemus, in the face of the mystery that is God, perhaps we can’t understand…..yet. But that shouldn’t stop us searching for understanding, praying for discernment, while remaining content to live with the mystery. Our lives and the lives of all baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, are lives of faith and hope and love and in a very profound way become part of the divine life itself. We who have been made in the image and likeness of God live mystically in God in our relationships of love for each other and our neighbours – however imperfect that love may be. God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.
As we endeavour to live a life of faith rooted in God, who is revealed in the Son and made known through the Holy Spirit, we do so like the disciples before us. In the face of mystery we may hesitate, we may be uncertain, we may doubt, but ultimately we fall to our knees in worship. Amen