A sermon on the Icon of the Trinity by Nathan Nettleton
What better way to celebrate Trinity Sunday than to receive and bless the precious gift of this new icon of the Trinity? And so I thought I should do something different tonight and take the icon itself as the text for my sermon.
All the other special days in the church calendar celebrate stories or events in the life of Jesus, but this day and this icon celebrate a doctrine or a teaching about the nature of God. At first glance that may seem somewhat removed from the practical living of our discipleship, but in fact, it is seeking to tell us what God is like, and what we believe about that really changes things. Whether we think God is remote or intimate, vengeful or merciful, angry or generously loving shapes everything we do.
It might come as a surprise to you, but in some ways we can describe the doctrine of the Trinity — the belief that there is only one God, but that that God exists as a community of three persons — as a scientific teaching, but I don’t mean by that that you can prove it using scientific technologies. A scientific hypothesis is a theory put forward to try to explain a reality that is observed and experienced but which seems not to fit with what we previously understood of reality. The doctrine of the Trinity is like that. The early Church was experiencing God in ways that didn’t quite fit their belief that God was only one person, but also didn’t fit the idea of there being many gods. The Trinity is the theory that has best made sense of the data of experience and continues to do so.
But like many of the theories that today’s physicists come up with, it is not easy to put into words or get your head around. Sometimes preachers seem to want to simplify it into a little diagram or a simple analogy like water existing as liquid, ice and steam, but these endeavours are usually about as successful as comparing Einstein’s theory of relativity to a teacup. The Trinity is a mystery, not a puzzle. Puzzles can be solved, but the more you explore mysteries, the deeper they get. And so one of the things we are reminded of each Trinity Sunday is that it is impossible to do justice to the nature of God in words. Language is simply not up to the job. So from early times, the Church has used icons as a way of engaging another part of our brain in the contemplation of the deep mysteries of God. They are a way of prayerfully putting into colours and shapes the truths that can never be adequately captured by words alone. It is not either-or, icons or words. We reach out with both, which is why those who produce the icons traditionally speak of writing an icon rather than painting an icon.
The original version of this icon of the Trinity was painted or written by a Russian monk named Andrei Rublev about 600 years ago. Most of the biblical references to the Trinity are, of course, in the New Testament, but Rublev took his inspiration from a story in the book of Genesis where Abraham welcomes three messengers into his home near the tree of Mamre which you can see in the background. Abraham welcomes three strangers, but he addresses them with the singular title, “My Lord”, and so Rublev and others saw this as an early glimpse of the triune God. Rublev’s Trinity is widely regarded as the greatest of all the Russian icons and it is a great privilege for us to receive this newly completed version of it. Pavel Florensky once, only partly tongue-in-cheek, said, “There exists the icon of the Trinity by St Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists!” In terms of logic, that of course makes no sense at all, but part of the point of icons is that some truths lie beyond logic and words, and so as an expression of praise and worship, I think he puts it rather well.
One of the first things you notice when you begin to read this icon is that the three faces all look the same. We’re not even sure who is who. Some people have concluded that there are clues in the clothes and body postures as to which member of the Trinity each figure represents, but they’re not all agreed and we don’t know for sure what Rublev thought. But even if we did, the fact remains that the icon speaks to us of the way in which the three members of the Trinity are images of one another. We’ve heard a bit about this from John’s gospel recently. Jesus said things like “those who have seen the Son have seen the Father”, and “the Spirit will take what is mine and reveal it to you”. So the icon reminds us that the love and mercy we have seen in Jesus are not a foil for an angry vengeful Father. All we have seen in Jesus is equally true of the Father and the Spirit.
And what we see very clearly depicted of all three here is love, a radical love based on mutual trust and submission. When you contemplate the three here, you will see that each seems to be looking at the other with an expression of love, reverence and even deference or submission. But it is thoroughly mutual. It seems to flow round the circle. It is not hierarchical and it is the very opposite of rivalry. The love we see here draws us to one another and unites us in communion, whereas rivalry always drives us apart and fractures us into isolated bits. One of the reasons we can say that God is love is that we have seen that God exists in this constant communion of love, and has done so even before there was anything else in the universe to love. Love is never alone, and in this community, or should I say tri-unity, there is a constant mutual giving and receiving of love that would be complete even it remained forever self-contained.
But another thing we see revealed in the icon is that God’s love does not remain as a closed circle. The opening chapters of the Bible tell us of the overflowing creative love of God which so longed to share itself that God began creating, and that God created us — humanity — in the image of God, of the God who is Trinity. So in the same way that we see the three bearing the image of one another, so we too bear the image of God and are created to participate in this flowing communion of mutual love and trust. This image-bearing is not intended to be at a distance though. In Jesus, one of the persons of the Trinity has become human, and so taken our humanity into the heart of the Trinity itself. And, having taken on our humanity, Jesus now invites us to share in his divinity, in his divine relationships with the Father and the Spirit. We can see this invitation in the icon as, from the vantage point of the viewer, a place opens up for us at the table. This is not a closed meeting, but a table of radical hospitality. We are invited to complete the picture, to take our place at the table, to join the circle of communion and share in the extravagant hospitality of God. As Henri Nouwen said of this icon, “It seems to beckon. It seems to say, ‘Join us. Join us in the circle of true love, where there is joy for evermore.’”
When you do that, when you accept the invitation and take your place, all sorts of things begin to change. That’s why when we come to the Table each week, our words of welcome include a hint of warning, “Come because Jesus offers himself to you, and you want to offer yourself in return.” When you offer yourself to this relationship, you will not escape unchanged. If you begin to regularly eat at the table of a family who have welcomed you in, you are gradually drawn into the flow of conversation and life that characterises the regular gathering. At first you are not able to make out all the patterns and relationships, but after a while the patterns become clear and you begin to find your place in it. All the more so at this table where the relationships are so deep and mutual and transformative.
So if the love and community and hospitality which we see God beckoning us to enter in this icon are fundamental to who God is and to who we become when we are drawn into it and have the divine image renewed in us, then they are also fundamental to who we truly are and to how we are called to live in the world as people who sit at this table.
When one member of the Trinity becomes human here on earth, the whole Trinity is caught up in suffering the tragic brokenness of humanity. Into this eternal and unbroken communion comes the searing pain of the divine Son suffering a God-forsaken death, the divine parent suffering the death of the beloved child, and the Spirit binding the other two together through agonised unspoken sighs. Into the horror of every human suffering, the divine love reaches, calling us, beckoning us, yearning for us to respond and come back to the table, to the place of healing, of home, of refinding ourselves in the communion of love. In the Trinity, all our suffering is held or contained in the cup that does not pass Jesus by, the cup in which the blood of Christ’s suffering is given for the life of the world. And so in the icon we see not only a cup on the table, but that the inner lines of the outer two figures create the shape of a cup. When we are drawn in to take our place at this table, we are drawn right into the cup itself, into the cup where Jesus offers himself to us in outpoured suffering love, so that healing can come to wounded humanity and hope can enter a dying world.
The icon reminds us then that we are gathered to the Table at the cost of Jesus’ suffering and death to be fed with Christ’s overflowing love for the world. And so, while the icon shows us how we are being drawn in, in the same move it is showing us how the circle we are being drawn into is a circle that is constantly open and reaching out. This is the circle that remains unbroken while sending the Son into the world and then constantly sending the Spirit into the world and now sending us into the world. As Jesus said in the gospel reading we heard tonight (John 3:1-17), we are sent, blown by the wind of the Spirit, and we know neither where from or where to, but we do know why: that the flowing circle of love around the table may continue to expand to heal the wounds and feed the deepest hungers of all the world.
Ultimately then, in this icon God is calling us to become the icon. As we are drawn into this communion of love that is the Trinity, we as the Church, as a communion of people who gather around the table, are called to be what this icon is, a beautiful, beckoning, inviting revelation of the self-giving love and mutual submission and radical hospitality of the God who is known to us in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God and mother of all creation, as in the beginning, so now, and forever. Amen.