A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

[Ed. This is the text of the sermon which I preached at St Albans Church in Ottawa on Trinity Sunday, 26 May 2013.]

These days it often seems as though the doctrine of the Trinity is an answer to a problem nobody asked. Theologians who rabbit on about the Trinity appear to be like the engineer in the joke about the manager in the hot-air balloon, providing information that may be technically correct, but which help the balloonist not at all.


Consider the bewildering and tongue-twisting formulations of the sixth-century Athanasian Creed, which can be found near the end of the old Book of Common Prayer:


Now the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity; Neither confusing the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, another of the Holy Ghost; But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. (BCP 695)


And on it goes, well past the point at which we might consider uttering an expletive and chucking the book into a dusty corner. The mystery writer and Christian essayist Dorothy Sayers once parodied this kind of language, writing of ‘the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.’


Although the Athanasian and the other great Creeds were composed as acts of worship and praise, they were written in an age when what it meant to be the church was first to believe, and then to belong. Nowadays, as church historians such as Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle have shown, Christianity is moving toward a model of membership the order of which is belonging, behaving, and then believing.


The Trinitarian understanding of God shall no longer be incomprehensible to us when we begin to see how the Triune God relates to us; how we belong to God who is Three-in-One. As Mark said a couple of weeks ago, quoting his Texan friend, ‘it’s all about relationships.’ How, then, do we relate to God here at St Albans? Our motto frames in what way we belong to God and the way in which that affects how we relate and belong to one another – we’re a church that’s Christ-centred and Spirit-led.

Part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, addresses this matter. ‘We boast in our sufferings,’ writes Paul, ‘knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character’. The word character referred originally to an impress made in wax by a stamp. Because we belong to the God revealed as Three-in-One, we are stamped, or impressed, with his image, an image of self-giving and peaceful relationship.

The character of our relationship with God is more than a matter of academic interest. It is a matter of personal, vital importance, for God has rivals of a sort, which are also seeking to be in relationship with us. These other ‘gods’, for lack of a better figure of speech, desire that we belong to them. They want to be in relationship with us, but the character of such relationships is much different than that which we have with the Triune God. Imagine the distinction between the character of these relationships as the difference between two different kinds of eating.


The kind of relationship that these other gods desire to have with us is illustrated perfectly by the nineteenth-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s work, Saturn Devouring His Son. Goya’s painting perfectly symbolises the character of our relationship to these gods. We are meant to be devoured, as it were. We are meant to give ourselves over to forces which appear to be beyond our control in order that they may consume us.
And this devouring extends to our relationships with each other. It is eat or be eaten. In order to fill the emptiness within, we feel as though we must figuratively devour others, by dominating and controlling them, so that their wills effectively become extensions of our own. And we fear that if we do not do this to them, they will do it to us. Eat or be eaten.


In our experience, however humdrum and mundane, we are at every moment presented with the opportunity to form a relationship with, to belong to, the devourers, simply by participating in the aptly named ‘consumer culture’.
It would be easy to launch into a tirade, but let’s just put it like this: we all know that we have to ‘eat to live’, so to speak. But at some point, a line is crossed. Our consumption no longer consists of working to sustain fulfilling lives but becomes cramming our lives with stuff. ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’: we must figuratively eat, and be seen to eat, more than the other guy.


The metaphor of devouring illustrates how both forces beyond our control and our own disordered need for sustenance can lead us into relationships of ‘eat or be eaten’, in which incessant and relentless – that is to say, ravenous – demands are put upon us by others, or upon others by us, for more and more of our emotional, psychological, and material resources, beyond our capacity to provide them. Little wonder that we may often feel empty, like a soulless husk slouching around, or else feel a constant sense of uneasy and vague dissatisfaction. Relationships characterised by the metaphor of devouring are the very opposite of fulfilling.


Against this kind of relationship we come to our relationship with God. To continue with our image of eating, our relationship with the Triune God is nourishing. It is depicted perfectly by the traditional icon of the three strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre, interpreted in Trinitarian terms.


We belong to God. We belong to God through baptism and through our participation in a community that is Christ-centred and Spirit-led. And this relationship with God nourishes and sustains us precisely because it is a relationship with a God revealed to be Three-in-One.


Our relationship with the devourers is empty because they are, in the end, nothing more than projections upon a cosmic canvas of our own inner emptiness. Our relationship with God is nourishing because God is a relationship of self-giving love through and through. In himself God relates in love, Father to Son and Son to Father, and the Spirit is the medium and communicator of that perfect and everlasting relationship of love. And such is God’s character that this self-giving love is not contained within God’s self but overflows to fill the whole of creation.


The devourers take from us and demand that we take from others. God gives himself to us and invites us to participate in the kingdom by giving of ourselves to others. We who belong to God are nourished and sustained through that relationship: to God as Father who creates the world by which we are fed and who gives us the gifts of Jesus and the Spirit; to God as Son who gave his life for us and who takes us into himself and offers us in love to the Father; and to God as Spirit, who continually sustains us by his life-giving and empowering presence in our midst.


God gives himself to us as Trinity in order to form relationships that nourish and sustain us. We who belong to God are in a relationship of love that is fulfilling in every sense of the word.

God gives all of himself to us not so that we may sit back and feel good about ourselves, but so that we can enact that love in our own lives and in the lives of others. The peace we have with God through Christ is a life of active loving. We who are nourished and sustained by the Triune God are called to offer ourselves for the nourishment and sustenance of others.
How this looks for us can again be illustrated by our motto. As a community we are Spirit-led. In our Gospel passage, Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit ‘will guide you into all the truth.’ The Spirit leads us to perceive the extent to which our own lives and the lives of others have been given over to a relationship of ‘eat or be eaten.’ Yet the Spirit also leads us out of such a way of relating to others into God’s peace through Jesus.
It is true that to be in right relationship with God we must give all that we are and have. Yet God does not demand more of us than that. God does not eat us up: in Jesus he gives us himself as Bread for the world.
Because we belong to God, because we are fulfilled in relationship with God, we are able to respond in self-giving love to the emptiness and hunger we see in so much of the world around us. Our relationship with Centre 454, characterised by a growing sense of mutual love and caring, is one way by which we are giving to others what God is giving us, and by which they are giving to us what God has given them.
There’s still work to do. When it is at its worst, the consumer culture in which we live tries to eat up us and others too. As followers of Jesus, led by the Spirit, our calling is to be signs and agents of God’s fulfillment to those who have been devoured. It is certain that in doing so we shall suffer, but we with Paul may ‘boast in our sufferings,’ for in our relationship with God we possess a hope that cannot be disappointed, the hope of sharing in the glory of the Triune God.


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