The Trinity of Love

Sunday 19th June 2011
Year A, Trinity Sunday
holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist

In the 19th Century, so it is said, the barrow boys of Venice and Milan hummed the latest opera arias; and more than a thousand years before, that the streets of Byzantium rang to the sound of bitter disputes about the nature of the Blessed Trinity. Was Jesus human or divine, or both? What was the relationship between the Father and the Son? Where did the Holy Spirit fit in? It was a whole other world from the street rivalries of today between football fans.

The first thing to understand when beginning to consider the Holy Trinity is that the Creed which enshrines the doctrine was answering a set of questions thrown up by a knot of  serious disputes in the Church, so these came to the fore. It's interesting, for instance, that although Scripture is referred to as attesting to the incarnation and the prophets, there is nothing about its role in the Church and there is nothing about our sacraments. The second thing to remember is that the people of the 4th and 5th Centuries conducted their disputes in the language of the day, not just the demotic language of Greek with its own peculiar history but also the philosophical language of Neo-Platonism; so when various factions affirmed that Jesus was either wholly human or wholly divine the means used to define his existence as having both a divine and a human nature in one person fitted in with the way that people thought at the time about the difference between the human and divine; and when they came to think about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus they had to use the paradigm of substance versus appearance, and so they concluded that these two aspects of God were of the same substance but of quite different external appearance; and when it came to the Spirit, that aspect of God could not be created out of the Father and Son but had to "proceed".

Phew! I think that's quite enough of that!

Looked at from our perspective, untroubled by the controversies of the Byzantine Empire, a better starting place for understanding the Trinity is the proposition that God is love: from there it is not difficult to define the loving purposes of God in three ways, in the ways that Father John and I describe God at the beginning of our sermons. Rather than using the conventional "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" we say "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier."

To start with, then, the earth and all that is in it were given out of love by God the Creator so that we could worship and love in our turn, out of free choice; it is a privilege we enjoy above even the angels who are simply messengers who love out of duty. Depending on how we look upon creation history, that love which we impart to God and each other in our imperfection is either a blessing or carries the curse of 'original sin' or 'fallenness'. My own belief, probably based more on temperament rather than pure theology, is to think of imperfection as a blessing; the idea that we fell from perfection is, in my view, verging on the idolatrous idea that we were ourselves like Gods; the image of the naive Adam and Eve smacks to me of a golden age myth which put humans on a par with the Creator. On that reading, the serpent did us a favour.

But how we see creation history profoundly affects how we understand Jesus as the Redeemer. If we accept the idea of 'fallenness' then it is easy to understand the idea that Jesus in some way "saved" us from our sins or undertook an act of "atonement". Trying to work out what this means is quite difficult because the image of Jesus somehow assuaging the wrath of his Father is reducing God to human judicial processes. But if we don't accept the model of original sin, fallenness and consequent atonement, in what way did Jesus "save us"? For me it's fundamentally a matter of divine solidarity with our necessary human imperfection. The life of Jesus tells us that no matter how badly we behave, even going as far as killing God made Man, God's love is unimpaired; and it also tells us that Jesus is beside us in our imperfection, in our struggles to be better and in our failures. We have, then, the love of creation and the abiding love of the Creator expressed in an incarnate Jesus who, so to speak, saves us from ourselves.

If we have put those two pieces together, of a loving Creator and a loving Saviour, the idea of somehow abstracting all that love into a phenomenon we call the Sanctifier isn't difficult at all. What we do is to characterise what we know of God's love, what we apprehend in prayer, in the deepest livedness of our lives, as the presence of the Holy Spirit which informs not only what we are but also blesses us with incarnational perception; it is that Spirit which gives us faith as Christians in the Godhead of Jesus and which strengthens us when we falter.

If we think of the Trinity in these terms, in the connectedness of the Creator, Saviour and Sanctifier, embodying perfect love, we no longer need the Greek and Latin technical terminology and, instead of dry doctrine, we understand what we are for: we are created by God to love; we are informed by Jesus of how that love will prevail in spite of all; and we are given strength to go on loving and to believe in the power of love by the Spirit.

And so, while we may not be able to imagine singing in the street about a consubstantial and co-eternal Trinity, we can imagine singing about love. The problem is that that idea itself has slipped from Agape to Eros, from the selfless to the selfish; but that is a sermon for another day.

In the meantime, today is an opportunity to let our minds dwell on the richness of the Holy Trinity as the Creator, Saviour and Sanctifier, inhabiting every moment of our lives with perfect, timeless, personal love.