Summary: A sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity
The story is told of a man feeling suicidal, who climbed from his office window onto the ledge outside. Naturally his colleagues were concerned, and one climbed out and sat next to him on the window ledge. After a few words the conversation went something like this:
“I get a lot of strength from my Christian faith to help me in difficult times.”
“I’m a Christian too,” replied the man contemplating suicide.
“Wonderful, brother,” said the helper, “what denomination are you?”
“United Reformed Church.”
“So am I. What a co-incidence. Are you an Elder?”
Was your church Presbyterian or Congregational?”
“So was mine. What a co-incidence.”
“Do you use real wine or non-alcoholic for Communion?”
At which point the man who had climbed out to help the first man pushed him off the window ledge and shouted “die infidel!”
We can get very worked up over small matters in church. All too easily we can loose our sense of humour or our sense of proportion.
The doctrine of the trinity is something that has exercised a great many over the years. Down the centuries Christians have come to blows over the trinity at least as much as anything else.
The Athanasian Creed, with which I’m sure you are all familiar, was written in the 5th century as means to determine who was right and wrong. Amongst other things it says, “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” The late Leslie Weatherhead, commenting on behalf of the man in the street, added, “the whole lot incomprehensible”.
And that’s where a great many Christian find themselves, let alone agnostics and atheists. Many of us find ourselves in the position where the Trinity seems either irrelevant or incomprehensible to us. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, it isn’t all that difficult to grasp the basics. Water is always H2O, whether it is the liquid from the tap, or steam, or ice. God the Father cam among us in Jesus, and is still working among us today through the Holy Sprit. That’s as complicated as it needs to be.
However, don’t misled into thinking that God is understood, and that we humans have succeeded in describing God such that we know all there is to know about God. Oh no. Even if we can get a handle on the trinity, it doesn’t mean that we know all there is to know about God. Even if we can grasp something of the idea of God as trinity, that doesn’t explain everything, for God is still mysterious, and beyond what we can understand completely.
It was into this mysteriousness of God that Isaiah was speaking. The King is dead or dying, but there is a King who never dies: the Living God, is how some have described the first verse. What Isaiah is seeing here is not a physical picture of a person, but something more much of the imagination and the numinous, though none the less real for that. God is not described; it is enough to note that merely the hem of God’s robe filled the temple to know how great he is. Isaiah’s vision is of a mystery indeed, but not so mysterious that we know nothing. It is the living God, and it is very real.
The seraphs wait on God in worship, and their ’Holy, holy, holy’ is an expression that God is ultimate, beyond all else. For Isaiah holiness, though, was not about being religious, but about how one lived ones life. So it was that, in the midst of this vision Isaiah feels unworthy in the presence of God, but is assured that he is forgiven. As always in scripture, God takes the initiative in forgiveness and new life, and Isaiah is transformed from observer to prophet.
And it is this encounter Isaiah has with god that says something to us about God as trinity. Nowhere in the Bible is the idea of God as trinity explicit because the idea wasn’t understood until after the Bible was written. However, what we see with Isaiah is that although God is mysterious and cannot be fully known, the Living God can still be met, there can still be a relationship with God. This is what Trinity is all about, God the Father came to us in Jesus, in order to make it easier for us to relate to him, and he is still with us today, working among us through the Holy Spirit. And this, in his opaque language, was what John was talking about.
Another example of this is in our Sacrament of Holy Communion. To those outside the church it might simply be sharing bread and wine, a memorial to one who has died. To us, though, it is much more than that in ways that we cannot completely express. We do what Jesus did in an upstairs room, but we also remember that Jesus shared meals with his disciples after the resurrection. We also remember that God fed the people of Israel in the wilderness with manna and quails eggs. We also know that what we do is living activity, food for our souls, because the Holy Spirit is present in our celebration, making into something alive and different.