Tag Archives: John 3:16

How do you solve a problem like the Trinity…

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist’s on 31st May 2015 – Trinity Sunday. The readings were Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17.

I have here a bag of crisps. I am a huge crisp fan – they’re kind of my Achilles heel when it comes to healthy eating. Everything in moderation…

But these didn’t really do it for me: “Tyrrells summer butter & mint flavour. According to the back they comprise “the finest spuds, a dab of butter, a snippet of mint – summer’s holy trinity.” I’ll let you tell me at the end of the service if you think they live up to the first part of that billing as we’ll share them over coffee, but isn’t the “Holy Trinity” bit interesting?

It’s funny, but across our now supposedly ‘secular’ society it’s a phrase that still gets heavily used. A few months ago a headline read “Businessman buys £3m ‘Holy Trinity’ of supercars.” The paper explained that “Paul Bailey is believed to be the first British car enthusiast to own a McLaren P1, a Ferrari LaFerrari and a Porsche 918 Spyder.” Lucky boy. A quick Google showed me people’s opinions on the holy trinity of rock, holy trinity of advertising techniques and even a Sun headline that read “Historic picture shows holy trinity of 3 Popes together” – Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, in case you were wondering.

I find this fascinating. Common parlance seems to show that a ‘holy trinity’ – note it is always a ‘holy’ or ‘unholy’ trinity, not just a trinity – is three similar things, or at least three things linked in some way – Cars, foodstuffs, pontiffs. And there is a danger when speaking of THE Holy Trinity that we Christians fall into the same trap.

It’s understandable – someone like me gets tasked every year to stand up and speak on Trinity Sunday, trying to proclaim afresh this great declaration of our faith, one we repeat every Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed. And over the years I have heard many ideas on what the Trinity is ‘like.’ This is nothing new – St. Patrick supposedly used a shamrock in his attempts, meaning he is also Patron Saint of All-Age worship services. Some of us may have heard it explained as like an egg – shell, yolk & white yet still one egg or, and this could be my favourite, the Jaffa Cake – chocolate, sponge & smashing orangey bit.

The problem is, although analogies can be a good thing in this case they are always found wanting – and actually lead us down the well-trodden path of believing ancient heresies instead.

But it seems that we need something to hang concepts and experiences on to. When we eat unusual food we don’t say “I just had frog – it tastes of frog!” We say “It tastes a bit like chicken,” (which it does!) When Jilly Goolden tasted wine on Food & Drink – remember that? – it would be “Oh, I’m getting liquorice, I’m getting pear drops, I’m getting used petrol from a 1984 Ford Capri, I’m getting right on your nerves aren’t I?!”

Yet this is God we are talking about – the fact is nothing is truly ‘like’ God. We cannot ever truly comprehend the divine this side of heaven.

A story, credited to Edward J Yarnold, a Jesuit scholar:

St. Augustine of Hippo, the fourth century Bishop and theologian who wrote among other things the huge treatise On the Trinity, was pacing the Mediterranean shoreline of his native North Africa when he noticed a young boy scooping seawater into his small hands and carefully pouring it into a hole he had hollowed in the sand. Puzzled, Augustine watched as the bairn repeated this again and again. Eventually, curiosity piqued, he went over to introduce himself and ask the lad what he was doing. “I’m emptying the ocean into this hole,” came the reply. Augustine was dismissive – how could such a vast body of water be contained in such a small hole? The boy was equally dismissive in return – how could Augustine expect to contain the vast mystery of God in the mere words of a book…?

So, how do you solve a problem like the Trinity? Is it a leap of blind faith which we need to just accept & move on, or ignore & hope nobody asks about? Or are we approaching the whole thing from the wrong angle? If we view the Trinity, as 20th century theologian Karl Barth appears to, as an explanation of God’s revelation of Himself, we find that instead of being a problem to be solved, the Trinity becomes a framework which puts our efforts to understand something of God into a proper perspective. Rather than seeing the Trinity as a concept or idea about God, if we see it as God’s way of revealing Himself to humanity, God speaking to us, our questions move from “how do we understand the Trinity” to “what is God saying to us – to me – through His being Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”

John 3:16, possibly the most famous verse of the New Testament, is bound up in Jesus revealing it takes a Trinitarian God to work out our salvation, to repair our relationship with our creator & restore in us the promise of eternal life. By being born again in the Spirit we enter the kingdom of God the Father. We are born of the Spirit by faith in Jesus, the Son sent by the Father, who dies and is raised for us, lifted up to be gazed upon in faith and trust as was the bronze serpent that saved the Israelites from earthly, physical death in Moses time.

Each of us probably feels more drawn to, more able to ‘get,’ one of the persons of the Trinity over the others. That again is human nature, and says more about us than it does about God. Hopefully we use this starting point to explore the whole of God in Trinity, not just the person of His revelation that we feel most ‘comfortable’ with, which will then deepen and strengthen our relationship with Him.

But I think if allow ourselves to believe, as the Athanasian Creed so aptly puts it:

“we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither cShield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English_svgonfounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal…”

we find ourselves on the right track. Just because we cannot fully explain something does not mean it doesn’t work – I can’t explain how my laptop works but I wrote this sermon on it, so it must.

Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13 that

“now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

God has chosen to reveal himself to us in Trinity. If that’s good enough for Him, it’s good enough for me.

Amen.

rublev