Posted: Monday 28th May 2018
Trinity Sunday Year B 2018- Rev’d Simon Buckley
Isaiah 6: 1-8; John 3:1-17
The first of the readings set for today – the one from the prophet Isaiah – happens to be a favourite of mine from the Old Testament. I heard it again only a couple of weeks ago at the installation of Bishop Sarah as she became the 133rd Bishop of London and the first of them to be a woman. It’s a reading that, as some of you may have heard me say before, was pivotal to my own journey of faith and to ordination.
I think I was in my early to mid-teens when I first read it aloud at a service in church and the words where God asked “who shall I send, who will go for me” and the prophet Isaiah said “here am I, send me” leapt out at me. I remember feeling, deep inside me, that God’s words were addressed to me and my response was the same as Isaiah’s:
Who will go for me? Here am I send me.
A response, I’ll admit, delivered with a mixture of eagerness and anxiety: part “please, please sir, can I go?” and part “well if no one else is offering ….. I’ll give it my best shot!”.
And in this morning’s passage- as is usual with this reading- we stopped at verse 8; however, it’s only from verse 9 that Isaiah hears what it was that he had signed up for, what he was being asked to go and do. Isaiah agreed to go before being handed the job description: one which included a rather bleak picture of the challenge ahead and the fact that Isaiah would need to be committed to it for the long haul. God does this regularly in the Bible- he just has the power to get people to co-operate with his plan before fully revealing the plan to them. If you recall, when Jesus called the twelve disciples he didn’t tell them what they were going to do in any detail either, he just said “follow me” and they did. And I think I too, when hearing in that passage from Isaiah God’s call to do something didn’t know precisely what it would involve. I just knew I had to say yes to it.
As a teenager I automatically assumed it was a call to ‘be a vicar’, naively thinking that’s what people who wanted to serve God had to do. But God doesn’t only want people to be clergy, and it was probably at theological college I acme to understand that we all, as members of the body of Christ exercise a ministry as ‘ambassadors for God’ in a multitude of ways, and sometimes clergy do that least well! But as I look back with the benefit of 40 years of theological reflection, I think at its heart I thought I was being called to share the story of God’s love and to be a sign of that love to others.
I certainly didn’t think that it was a call to fill out complicated Diocesan faculty forms, or taking on church school governance, health and safety checks in the kitchen learning about employment law and data protection… or even about wrestling with the inexplicable doctrine of the Trinity. Which, I know, it being Trinity Sunday you’ve all been dying for me to get to!
I thought the call to which I was responding was simply to reflect to others something of the picture of God I had glimpsed, and just as Isaiah had actually seen – though in technicolour and with six winged angels, to boot!
And at its heart the doctrine of the Trinity is people’s attempt to put into words something about God which they have glimpsed and do not fully understand. A God which no one picture can fully illustrate, which is why we end up talking about one God who is only fully portrayed when seen in three different ways:
- as Father- personal, loving and creative;
- as Son- sharing our humanity and able to identify with what it’s like to be us,
- as Holy Spirit- moving amongst us still.
Put those three together and you certainly have one God who is nothing less than Almighty.
But trying to explain how they fit together – how they categorically are not three Gods is another matter; and often the harder people try to explain it the more difficult it becomes to understand. Sometimes we just have to go with it- just as Isaiah responded without understanding the ‘hows, whys and wherefores’ of his calling. He and I were urged to respond and – logically or not- we had to go with it and see if it was right, or true.
And any thought we give to the doctrine of the Trinity is only helpful in so far as it enlightens and enlarges whatever experience or belief about God we already have rather than confuses it. I’m indebted to the novelist and writer Sarah Maitland for a piece she wrote in The Tablet, a Roman Catholic weekly paper, last year which I found really helpful.
A new way to think about God as Trinity dawned on her thanks to a slogan she saw on someone’s tee shirt regarding a Triathlon he was running; and the triathlon, she realised offered a dynamic, lovely and theologically complete image of the Trinity.
A triathlon is, as the name suggests, a sporting event made up of three different disciplines (it’s something my niece enjoys energetically doing and something I’m quite happy lazily reading about her doing on Facebook!). It consists of running, cycling and swimming. But it’s a single race. Three parts: one event. You don’t ‘win’ separate bits of the event and then get averaged out. The clock runs from the beginning to the end- even whilst you’re stripping off your wet-suit and looking for your bike. There is a unity to the whole, despite the three clear constituent parts of it.
Now the early Church fathers put great effort into trying to explain that when thinking about God – we should recognise the unity of the whole of God but recognise the three clear constituent persons of it. We should neither confuse them, nor divide them.
Firstly, we shouldn’t confuse them because they, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are different. They are separate and distinguishable from one another- despite their similarities and common root. That’s why the three- leaf clover is actually a poor image for the Trinity -because on a clover all three leaves look more or less exactly the same as the other. The Holy Trinity and a Triathlon each have a unity made up of individually unique and identifiable parts: not three Sons, nor three bike rides.
Secondly, we should not divide the Trinity because taken away from God the father, then Jesus Christ ceases to be God’s son, just as if you take the swimming out of the triathlon and just embark on that heat on its own you’re no longer competing in a triathlon, but something else entirely: a swimming gala. Take one of the persons away from the Trinity and each part and the whole is diminished.
And, of course, for most athletes when taking part in a triathlon there will be one of the events they find comes more naturally and another at which they have to work harder. To be good at a triathlon means working most hard at the part of the event which comes least easily. And isn’t there a parallel there – some of us find the incarnate humanity of Jesus, Son of God, easier to relate to than the huge ‘immortal invisible’ creator God; but equally there are those who experience the Holy Spirt or God’s immanence most directly, most intensely, most meaningfully. We may need to put more effort into understanding one part of God’s nature than others.
All three elements matter and add up to one race, or one God. I hope you may find that ‘triathlon image’ helpful.
But if you’re still baffled, then take heart from Nicodemus in our gospel reading. He had glimpsed something of who Jesus was and came to him by night wanting to know more, but he struggled with the God-talk and couldn’t understand how people could be ‘born again’. However, Jesus didn’t say to him “look, if you find that difficult- just wait till I try and explain to you about the Trinity!” neither did he say “until you understand this intellectually, there’s no point you being here”. No, he simply states God’s longing that people should come to salvation through encountering him – the Son of God- and receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus doesn’t insist he understand theology that doesn’t resonate for him, he just offers him himself – the one to whom Nicodemus was instinctively drawn to respond.
Unlike Nicodemus we are drawn here by day rather than night, for a variety of reasons and by seemingly different forces: We may have glimpsed something of God’s glory in some way, or just feel that there’s more to life than what we see around us, perhaps we have heard the words of Jesus and felt their magnetic pull. Whether on Trinity Sunday or anytime, when we come together to explore what God is like we do so not to be clever and certainly never to make God more difficult to understand either than God already is or our little minds are capable of accepting. ‘The Trinity’ – like all church doctrine- is there to help us understand more of what we each have glimpsed of the love of God for this world, in order that we might each respond to God’s call and play our part in sharing that love with others: To help us speak of the God we have glimpsed.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. God calls us all so that we, in our different ways, will go for him to share this good news and spread his light.