An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Trinity, Creation and Prayer

A sermon on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5 & John 16:12-15 by Nathan Nettleton

In a few minutes time we will dedicate this new prayer station, and given how much our children have looked forward to its arrival and enjoyed even its very rudimentary temporary predecessor, I would not, had I been planning carefully, have chosen to do this on a night when half our children were off on camps or being flower girls at a wedding. Fortunately, they will be able to enjoy this prayer station for a long time to come. On the other hand, given that it is designed to inspire us in praying for the care of the earth, if I had been clever enough to plan ahead so as to be dedicating it on an occasion when one of the set Bible readings was especially appropriate, then I probably would have chosen today. But I have to admit that I was not that clever and so unless it was some sort of intervention by God, it was nothing more than coincidence. A happy coincidence though, for tonight the church calendar and its set readings invite us to consider and celebrate God as Trinity, and our first reading from the book of Proverbs contained a wonderful song celebrating the playful joy and delight within the Trinity as the earth was brought forth and its wondrously vibrant, diverse and beautiful eco-systems were formed. The passage depicts God, and in particular the Holy Spirit, as a great artist or master artisan, delighting in the carving, moulding and decorating of the natural world. And so this is a great night to have with us some of the great artists and craftspeople who have so generously and skilfully created this station for us. They and their work bear the image of God’s creative genius, energy and delight, and we are honoured by their presence. And perhaps the way that this completed work has actually been created by a group of artisans, rather than any one individual, is also something that can speak to us of the God who exists as a creative community.

Of course, it must be admitted that speaking of God as Trinity has not always inspired people to ponder the creative activity of God, or the joyful playfulness of God. For many people down through history, any talk of the Trinity has caused fear and anxiety, because so often the Church has used this doctrine as a weapon to demand unquestioning orthodoxy and to condemn its enemies. Our brothers and sisters in the Jewish and Islamic faiths have especially had reason to fear, because this doctrine has often been front and centre in crusades and persecutions against them; a history which we must acknowledge with shame. Even among people for whom talk of the Trinity hasn’t evoked fears of persecution, it has often just seemed to be an example of theology at its most obscure and difficult to understand. We know we are supposed to say we believe in it, but for God’s sake don’t ask us to explain it or to explain why it matters. Most of us are very ready to leave that to the professional theologians.

Perhaps another symptom of this is the way many people nowadays are willing to say that they admire Jesus and appreciate his teaching and his legacy, but they are not much interested in the Church or in further talk of God. Jesus the historical human is quite popular. Jesus as the second person of the triune God is at least a yawn if not a complete turn-off. But the origins of the doctrine of the Trinity lie in the early attempts to make sense of the encounter with this popular historical human Jesus. Even before his death, but certainly in the encounter with his resurrection, people were beginning to identify him as being somehow a divine person or a god, but these were a people who believed fiercely in there being only one God, so how were they to make sense of this? Some of course said that he simply was God, the whole of the one God, come down to earth. But others suggested that that couldn’t be, because that would mean that God had been dead for three days, and if God were to die, the universe would collapse. And others said it could not be because Jesus made no such claims for himself, but spoke so often and so intimately of God as his Father, and also on occasions, such as the one recounted in tonight’s gospel reading, of a Spirit of God who would come and take over where he left off. So the concept of the Trinity arose as a way of explaining how we experienced Jesus as God and yet as one who related to another or others as God.

Unfortunately, it must be admitted that once we had formed that explanation, not only did we often turn it into a weapon of oppression, but we also made a fundamental mistake in the conclusions we began to draw from it, a mistake that has continued to seriously distort our understandings of God ever since. This fundamental mistake was that, having agreed that Jesus is one with God, we then took all the things we thought we already knew about God and interpreted Jesus in light of them, when the whole point of God’s self-revelation in Jesus was to get us to do the exact opposite of that: to take all the things we saw in Jesus, and reinterpret God in light of them. Though it wasn’t in tonight’s readings, the Apostle Paul describes Jesus as “exact likeness of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). In other words, if we want to know what the invisible God is like, we should look at Jesus and project all that he is and does on to God. Instead, we have assumed that we already knew most of what there was to know about God. God was an all-powerful warrior, king and judge who rules the earth with an iron fist, demands perfect obedience, and burns with a fierce and vengeful anger over our disobedience and unfaithfulness. And God, like all the other gods of the ancient world, was a god whose anger would destroy us all unless it could be appeased by the paying of a price in blood. So having failed to ask the most important question — does any of that description of God still make sense if God is exactly like Jesus? — we set about constructing a theory about Jesus that would enable us to leave that picture of God intact and somehow fit Jesus into it. And so we end up with doctrines of Jesus which ignore most of what Jesus said about God and most of how he behaved, and instead make him out to be little more than the perfect blood sacrifice that pays off a violent blood-thirsty god.

So what happens if we go the other way, and interpret God through what Jesus said and did? And, for that matter, through most of what the Apostles said and did? I mean, just by way of example, in our reading from his letter to the Romans tonight, Paul didn’t say “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ because Jesus manages, at great personal cost, to stop God from hating us and hurling us into hell.” Instead he said, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace.” He describes God as a God who is characterised by grace, not by blood-thirsty anger. God is infinitely gracious, he says, and we can know that because we have seen that in Jesus and begun to experience it in and through Jesus. And then at the end of the extract we heard, he speaks of God’s love being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Paul is describing God in terms that do justice to his conviction that Jesus is the exact image of God. He sees God as a God of grace and love and extravagant generosity, and he knows that because that is what he saw in Jesus. He is also describing God as Trinity, although without sounding like either stuffy academic theology or as some kind of threatening orthodoxy test.

We are talking of Trinity because it is not only the one Jesus called Father who is to be understood through the revelation in Jesus, but the one he called Spirit too. As Jesus himself said in our gospel reading, the Holy Spirit does not speak independently, but takes the things of Jesus, and makes them known to us, and these things of Jesus are at the same time things that belong equally to the Father. Or in other words, all of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — speaks with one voice and sings from the same song sheet. The Trinity is not some kind of three-way good cop – bad cop routine. All that characterises one characterises the others, and our starting point is and must always be Jesus, for Jesus is the one we have been able to see and hear and touch; the one who is our revelation and point of contact with the whole. So much is this so, that we are probably justified in sometimes talking rather imprecisely about them. John asked me recently how I could talk of Jesus being everywhere present among us now, when surely it was actually the Holy Spirit that we are talking about, and I think he is probably technically correct, but if what the Holy Spirit is doing is taking the things of Jesus and making them present to us now, then the less technically correct language may actually be a helpful reminder of just whose Spirit this Holy Spirit is and whose life and teachings this Holy Spirit is continuing.

Now there is one more step we need to take here, because what I have said so far doesn’t quite get us to an understanding of God as Trinity, but just as identical triplets, and God is not just identical triplets. We don’t just understand the Father and the Spirit individually through the revelation in Jesus, we understand the relationships between them through Jesus. Because the existence of God is not so much in the individual three, but in the relationships that bind them together. There is a sense in which it would probably be true to say that if the three became separate individuals who no longer related to each other, God would cease to exist. God is much more than the sum of three parts, and the love and grace and powerful creative energy of God exists not in the individual persons but in between them in what is created by their constant engagement with one another, and their continual self-offering to one another and gracious receiving of one another.

And if all that is true, then as we bring our conversation back, full circle, to the creation this intrinsically relational God has made, a creation that we are part of, then the most important questions we need to ask are “what sort of creation would such a God create?” and “how would such a God intend for those who are part of this creation to relate to one another?” The answers, of course, are again to be found in starting with Jesus, because Jesus is not only our point of insight into the inner life of the relational trinity that is God, but he is also our point of insight into what the life of God looks like when projected into creation. Or to put that more simply, Jesus is the full revelation of what the world is intended to be like and how God’s creatures are intended to relate to one another: a world and a web of relationships that is completely free of all rivalry, hostility, jealousy, defensiveness, and possessiveness, and is instead characterised by a gracious and loving inter-dependence, full of generosity, hospitality, compassion, beauty, joyous playful creativity, and a reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving. We, then, are called to mirror that life in all our relationships with one another, in our relationships with the earth itself, and in our representations of all this in works of art and craft and word and music and service and stewardship. Which, of course, brings us back to this prayer station which is now to stand here among us, week by week, as a constant call to prayerfully enter into the fullness of this life, the love dance of the Trinity.


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