Our Glorious State

Sunday 3rd June 2012
Year B, Trinity Sunday
St Giles, Shermanbury

If you are stationary at a roundabout looking at a sign board with destinations indicated to the right, left and straight on, is this one sign or three? Could it be a perfect, self-contained entity if there were only two destination indications or would it then be faulty and incomplete?  Is it intrinsic to the truthfulness of the sign board that it must tell of the three destinations which can be reached by turning right, left or driving straight on?

These are the kind of questions which philosophers love to discuss and which theologians - and preachers on Trinity Sunday - should steer well clear of. God, bearing no human attributes outside the Incarnation, is innumerate. You can't count God, except to say that there must, in some sense, be one because that is the nature of God as we understand him from our Judaic traditions but, even then, the idea that God is one is only a metaphor, the best we can do with our limited language.

And the logic goes on from this to say that the Feast of the Holy Trinity is not an occasion for abstruse philosophical speculation although it is important to know why we so frequently fall into this way of thinking. The Fathers of the Church, notably at the Councils of Nicaea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) were trying to reconcile the manifestly non-physical being of the Creator whom we colloquially call "father" with the embarrassingly physical being of the Redeemer, whom we colloquially call "God's son'; and then there was the nature of the Sanctifier, whom we colloquially call the "Holy Spirit' who was non-physical like the creator but clearly not the same phenomenon at all. The Greeks puzzled over what commonality these three divine manifestations possessed in order to give them the same designation of God. The big breakthrough came with the formulation that Jesus, God and man, possessed two natures in his one person; after that the idea of three 'persons' in one God was a relatively short step. But how do we picture it? What does it mean to us? Would we think differently about God, for example, if the Fathers of the Church had decided that Jesus being "consubstantial with the Father", a phrase in the Nicene Creed, was as far as they were prepared to go? And would we think differently if the Holy Ghost was born of the Father instead of proceeding from the Father and the Son, a distinction, incidentally, which split the Western Latin from the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was an odd dispute and the tail end of a struggle to describe God which, to give the Fathers credit, was so hard fought that we haven't dared unpick the Creed since the Council of Nicea in 325 AD which, I think, is a pity because much of what it says reflects the controversies of the time and doesn't do much to help our personal and corporate encounters with God. Who can honestly say that this Trinitarian Creed which we recite so regularly helps us to worship God or love our neighbour better?

So far, then, not much cause for celebration but I want to suggest a different and, hopefully, better way of looking at the Trinity. You will remember that earlier I described the Trinity not only in terms of the familiar names of Father, Son and Spirit, I also described it in terms of what its component parts, usually called 'persons' have done for us. There is an expression in theological circles which says that God is a verb not a noun and although this sounds rather glib, it has a ring of truth for me which I want to try to communicate.

If we think about what each 'person' or attribute, or manifestation of God has done for us, we are immediately awestruck by the range of God's gracious generosity. First, we think of the created universe in which we live, with all its wonders, comforts, challenges, pleasures, certainties and surprises; although we have shamefully tarnished it, it is still recognisably God's work. Then there is God's second eruption out of divinity and into humanity and that is the Incarnation. I wish we had a Feast  day separate from Christmas named for the Incarnation because our quite understandable love of the baby, wrapped up as it is with decorated trees and gift giving, only pays tangential tribute to the miracle second only, if they must be ranked, to creation itself. That we were made at all is wonder; but that God became human to express divine solidarity with creation is a concrete expression of commitment to us which we find it hard to imagine. Perhaps that is why we pour all our gratitude and hope and humanity into recognising the baby; perhaps that is the best we can do. And then there is our good friend, the Sanctifier,  our Sister the Spirit to whom, shamefully, e only dedicate the one great Feast of Pentecost. The Spirit, with us now, is God's presence given to us forever  when Jesus donned the  mantle he had laid by to be with us in the flesh whose presence we should treasure as much as we treasure creation and incarnation.

This, then, is a feast of thankfulness not only for the riches of God but also for God's richness which is the summation of the journey we began on the First Sunday of Advent, it is the climax of the story of the intersection between timelessness and history which we call creation, incarnation and inspiration or love, flesh and Grace. We are not celebrating a theological discourse but a life whose essence is the divine-human transaction. That sounds rather more like the seminar than I intended, so let me try to put it more simply. We are privileged, through creation, incarnation and inspiration, to be able to love God freely by means of grace which makes our necessary imperfection tolerable. We were made to love - that is our nature and to sin is to deny that nature - and the history of God in our world is an account of how we were made to love and how our imperfections, grievous though they may be, cannot compromise the nature of our createdness.

I short, this is the Feast when we thank God for what has been done for us and we now have half a year both to think and to thank, to pray and to praise, before we yet again begin to live the story of our glorious state.