SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SUNDAY, JUNE 19th 2011
Readings: Genesis 1.1-2.4a
2 Corinthians 13.1-11
I remember too clearly the abysmal attempts of those who produced sermons in the chapels of my youth, laboriously producing inadequate and misleading images of the Trinity to instruct their less than impressed young audiences. I remember only too clearly the ubiquitous blue or red carpets, imprinted with the fleur de lis, representing some imagined form of the trinity – or perhaps an obsession with the Ace of Clubs – prevalent in churches I suspect from Reykjavik to Invercargill. I remember learned dissertations on water, ice and steam – probably one of the more heretical representations of the Trinity – or visual demonstrations of the relationship between a projector light-bulb, the stream of light emanating from it, and the area enlightened by that light-stream as it terminated on a wall or paper or some other illuminated surface.
The illustrations were as creative as they were misguided: there is no illustration of the Trinity. The Trinity is divine, unique, and utterly, as the so-called Creed of Athanasius (which is neither a creed nor by Athanasius, though it is deeply profound, nevertheless) put it, utterly incomprehensible. Like the doctrines of Ascension and Pentecost that we have observed in past weeks (doctrines which pave the way in both the liturgical year and in the language of faith), the doctrine of the trinity is not a mathematical formula to be applied to problem solving, nor a complex puzzle to be solved, but a mystery before which to kneel in adoration. It is not for purposes of random routine that I cross myself at the name of the Triune God, but because an act of worship is the only appropriate response to a mystery that can never be unravelled, and whose extent is ultimately encountered only in the stark brutal simplicity of the Cross of Christ.
Language will fail – even art will fail – in attempts to describe the Trinity because language and indeed all human understanding is necessarily finite. When we master the language of the trinity we will have usurped the place of God – and, as people like to say, that’s not going to happen. The attempts of humankind to build a tower to the heavens to usurp the place of God, as told in Genesis after our creation story, are a timeless parable. To find the origins of the universe, to define the source of energy that began the magnificence of creation: these, even these, though impossible to the finite processes of your brains and mine, are child’s play alongside the incomprehensibility of a Creator God who is three in one.
Nevertheless the language of trinity began to invade the very first utterances of the Christian community. The linking in sentence structures, linking in prayer and in blessing of the words God, father, son and spirit, was an unavoidable outworking of the first Christians’ experience of encountering the Creator and redeemer of the universe in the person and story of of Jesus Christ, inexplicably made known and present to them in worship, in fellowship, and in the exploration of the Hebrew scriptures and later of the writings that came to be known as the New Testament Christian scriptures.
So let us not look for cerebral explanations or visual demonstrations of this most central of Christian doctrines, this doctrine that is a sine qua non of Christian belief. A sine qua non? A ‘without which not’: we may, as Anne reflected in her Ascension sermon, believe many things by jettisoning this doctrine, but we will not believe in Christianity or even in Christ. This belief is that which sets more than any others the boundaries of collective Christian belief. But it is not about cerebral, rational belief. It is about receiving and hanging tenaciously to the belief that God was in Christ, and that Christ is made known to us in our own lives even yesterday and today and tomorrow. Above all, perhaps, it is about knowing that God is love.
This may appear to be a sudden shift of thought. But while we may never comprehend the trinity, we can nevertheless experience God’s love, God’s essence (for God is love) in triune form. Out of God’s creativity God creates beauty and vastness and complexity – and creates humanity with which to share and enjoy it. We can sit as it were at the feet of the fact of creation and its source the Creator and marvel at the complexity of the labyrinthine connections of the universe, the vast intricate intersections of fluke and chance that have brought you and me into being, sustained our being, and will continue to sustain the being of all the vast web of intricacy that is yet to come. We can marvel at the complexity of the universe and the delicacy of the human eye that beholds some infinitely small aspect of it, we can marvel at the inexplicability of the human capacity for love – while acknowledging our too often revealed capacity for hatred – and gasp with the psalmist ‘what is a human being, that you, Creator God, care about us’. For as long as we have life and love life – and that is of course not a universal experience – we can whisper our halle, halle, halle to the Creator whose acts of sharing love breathe creation into being.
We might note also, though, that life is not always as it should be. Our lives, no matter how carefully we live them, will sometimes experience darkness, and many lives appear to experience inexplicable paroxysms of darkness. Sometimes, of course, these are self-inflicted, sometimes they are inflicted by others, sometimes the darknesses are afflicted by nature. No life is devoid of darkness, and in some lives – those for example caught in the hells of sexual abuse, substance abuse, or the economic and military greed that produces the world’s refugee camps and killing fields – in some lives the darkness seems unconquered. Yet there are enough testimonies in history to remind us that even in some of humanity’s deepest darknesses sparks of love have been fired, and Good Fridays – individually or even en masse – have turned into Easter hope. We can give thanks from the depths of our being for the experience of the Trinitarian God made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ, entering into human experience, and transforming even the heart-cry ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ into the hope of resurrection. We can note, too, with awe the surprising claim that within decades of his death his followers were worshipping the crucified criminal carpenter, naming him in the same breath as the Creator, and claiming not only that he had been raised from death, but that, even at the beginning of Creation, he had been present as the command, the Logos of God, creating a universe to share with us.
In the same breath – and that word breath is the same word as spirit – we can give thanks that the touching, transforming, healing love of the God-revealing man of Nazareth is not restricted to a short passage of three years in an obscure region two thousand years ago. From the first breathings of God that massaged order into chaos, that massaged being into the void of non-being, and that manufactured you and me and our loved ones into our infinitesimally yet God-breathed niches in cosmic history, from those first stirrings of divine breath to the present and on to an infinite future, there has been a way, a means, a method by which all that we need to know of God is available to us. God, the Creator, God the Redeemer, God the always-available even to us throughout space and time and eternity; incomprehensible God, God: mystery to be worshipped and adored, not understood.