Trinity Sunday 2010 (morning)

"I have much more to say to you than you can now bear…" but this evening, in Morland, I will tell you the rest. This is the first of a two part sermon, focussing on the Holy Trinity, in which I will set out my vision, at the start of my ministry among you, of the sort of church community we might grow to be in the years ahead.

You might find this surprising, but Trinity Sunday is my second favourite Sunday in the year (Easter being the first). I'm always dismayed when I hear preachers fumble their way through the Doctrine of the Trinity as though it were some great impenetrable fog which the Church Fathers, in a moment of madness, foisted on us to our eternal bafflement - a mystery none of us really understands, but don't worry because next week we can all heave a sigh of relief and go back to believing in just one God again!

But if you are among the number that think the Trinity is a confusing and rather regrettable part of Christian belief, then I hope that by the time I've finished with you this morning, you'll never think so again.

But the fog isn't perhaps such a bad place to begin because, as our offertory hymn - which we'll be singing shortly - reminds us, it is impossible for us to know anything about God unless he reveals himself to us. We can put forward theories about God (and I hear such theories all the time), but we're just fumbling around in the dark trying to understand a being far beyond our comprehension or capacity to imagine. So if we simply speculate about God, we're guaranteed always to be wide of the mark. The only way we can understand anything about God is if he reveals to us who he is.

And as Christians, we are in a unique position amongst those who talk about God, because we believe in a God who has revealed himself to us - in concrete form - in Jesus. And if we're right that God has done that - become one of us and revealed himself to us in all his fullness - then goodness me, hadn't we better listen to what he has to say?

And the first thing to say about the Trinity, is it's not a doctrine, it's a person. The Christian understanding of God as Holy Trinity wasn't concocted by a bunch of theologians, speculating about God. It came from our experience of God revealing his inmost self to us in relationship - first through Jesus and then through the Holy Spirit.

So that's the first thing to take away from us this morning. Worshipping the Holy Trinity means that God has revealed who he is - in his inmost self - to us. And we must have the humility to listen to what he has to say and not presume to invent God for ourselves based on our own ideas. Now, I'll be saying more about that this evening and I hope you can make that, because there is some important thinking to be done, but for this morning I want to focus more on what sort of person we find revealed in God and what it means for us - as individuals and as a community and how that shapes our priorities for the way ahead.

So the second thing to say about the Holy Trinity picks up on the God that is revealed to us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And it's very simple: it reveals that God is a God of relationship. At the very centre of God's existence we find a relationship of three distinct individuals - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three persons so utterly committed to one another in unquenchable, all consuming love, that they are completely defined by their relationship with one another.

And so the Holy Trinity reveals a God who is, in his inmost self, love. At the very centre of God's reality, at the very heart of the universe, is loving relationship. Isn't that wonderful? So that's the second thing I want you to take away from today: the Holy Trinity means that God is loving relationship.

He isn't just a God who relates. He is a relationship. He isn't just a God who loves. He is love. And just as we can only know God by what he reveals himself to be, so we can only know what love is once we understand who God is. So knowing this God is fundamental to our existence. It's not just an optional extra. If it's love that makes us human and makes life worth living, then this is a God we have to know.

Now, having made two very important points about God, we'd better make a third (it is after all, Trinity Sunday so everything has to come in threes today). And the third point is also devastatingly simple. God has revealed himself to us. And he's done it for a reason. We're part of what's going on in God's life. We a have an important part to play.

The bible tells us that we are made in the image of this God - this God who has revealed himself to us as a relational being. And that means that we too are relational beings. We are created to live in loving relationship and so we crave the sort of love that only God embodies. We crave that love and we are hard-wired to express that love, but sadly, we're not very good at it. Our ability to love has become impaired through what we call sin - a concept we'll have to revisit on another occasion - and as a result all our relationships have gone awry. Even the best of human relationships are impaired - marred and distorted by our selfishness, our weakness and our own hurt backgrounds. We're all injured lovers. And if we struggle to understand a God who is by his very nature love, that is probably because we understand so little about love ourselves.

We have simply no idea what an overwhelming force true love is. And that is a tragedy. So great a tragedy that God himself came to us to show us what real love is, to restore us to relationship with him so that we might learn to love once more.

And so here is the third very simple principle I want you to take home from Trinity Sunday - the Holy Trinity means that my purpose in life is to love like God does. So there you are, three simple and profoundly beautiful points that the Holy Trinity means for us: (1) God has revealed who he is in his inmost self; (2) in his inmost self God is loving relationship; and (3) therefore my purpose in life is to love like God does.

And that means that our calling, as God's people, is to reveal God in the world by doing three things: (a) gazing on God to lap up everything he tells us about himself; (b) letting his loving nature sink deep into our souls; and (c) changing the way we live until we love in the way God loves.

And my vision for our church (and I deliberately say church, rather than churches) is that we will become a community that discovers how to relate to one another in the same way that God relates within himself. And if we can do that, not only will we change the world, but we'll also change ourselves. Then we'll know what living really is.

So how do we learn to love like God does? Well there is an awful lot to say about that, but lets again begin with simple principles. Firstly, God is diverse. The three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three different people each with their own characteristics, their own voice, their own abilities and their own distinct purpose in life. So diversity is part of God's nature.

We all know that it's easiest to love people who are most like us. And things go awry in our relationships when we think people are like us and then, when we actually have to live with them, we discover that actually they're surprisingly different from us in all sorts of irritating ways. And the longer we live with them, the stranger they seem to become until we begin to doubt whether we were right for each other after all.

But God isn't love because Father, Son and Holy Spirit are basically the same. God is love because they each live by sacrifice. Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist for one another. They are entirely selfless - using all their powers, their gifts and their wills to promote the welfare of one another. They are entirely focussed not on themselves, but upon one another. So completely do they love one another, to the very depths of their souls, that they are in fact one.

So the one-ness of God is not about mathematical unity. It is a far more profound one-ness that comes from the complete dedication of their love for one another. So God is truly three and truly one.

It is the saddest feature of church life that too often we come to church focussed on what we want and we battle against those who want something different - even accusing them of blasphemy - and then all too often we walk away from each other when we fall out. But ironically it's when we walk away from one another that we truly commit blasphemy because walking out on relationships in that way is the complete antithesis of God.

God is diverse, God is selfless and God is totally committed in relationship. And he is calling us to love each other selflessly, sacrificially and with complete commitment, no matter what we might receive in return for our love, because that's how he relates to us. In Jesus' life, God relates to us in exactly the same way as he relates within himself. Nothing we can do will ever shake his commitment to us. His love is constant, steadfast, totally committed and self-sacrificial.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus, having existed in a relationship like that, to come to us bearing the same love, opening himself up to us and making himself completely vulnerable in trusting relationship and to receive in return our violence, our hatred or just our complete indifference? Yet he did bear it, constantly and unwaveringly. And despite it all, he still offers us his inmost self - the ability to love with an eternal, unquenchable passion that will transform our lives completely and enable us to discover our true selves beyond the selfishness, beyond the manipulative control and beyond the narrowness of our impoverished horizons.

So at the start of our journey together my call to you is to make a commitment to one another for God's sake. Whatever our own preferences might be, our calling is to put one another first - using all our powers, our gifts and our wills to promote the welfare of each other. And to commit, before God, to one another - that whatever we might do to upset one another or tread on each others' toes, or whatever we might lose in the process of growing together, we will remain committed to one another in relationship. That is God's call to us. It's a tall order, but if we're prepared to answer his call, God himself will accomplish it among us.

And now, as a footnote, you might be wondering what this has to do about collaboration in ministry which, if you remember, is what I said last Sunday, was my vision. Well it's simple. Our ministry is to grow together until we become one church (even if we keep 6 buildings), loving one another in the way the Holy Trinity loves. And so it is a completely joint enterprise. I am just the focal point for it, but it is completely our ministry and if we can grasp the vision, it will be a life-changing experience for us all.

Now, I want to finish with a bit of fun that illustrates what I've been talking about and I'm going to use music, because music illustrates the Trinity far better than anything. Last week, at my licensing the choir sang a masterpiece from the English renaissance and what I love about renaissance music is the way the different voices weave in and out of each other to produce something sublimely beautiful and whole.

Well, today I'm going to illustrate the same principle with a very different piece of music. It's a piece called Tiger Rag, played by Louis Armstrong and his All Stars. In this piece, the band play a number of different melodies all together. And they don't fit together. In some cases, they are even playing in a different time signature and that makes the piece inherently unstable because they should all arrive at the end at different times.

Towards they end they are playing in three different time signatures and at times you think they're all going to fall apart. But they don't. They hold it all together because they do three crucial things: (1) they know their own tune backwards and give voice to it shamelessly; (2) they have played together so often that they understand one another instinctively and so can cope even with each others' mistakes or improvisations; (3) they listen intently to one another the whole way through and adapt what they're playing in response. And the result is quite exhilarating - many voices, yet one breathtaking piece.

And I'm going to play it now as a piece of reflective music to lay before you an image of what I hope our church will be like once we begin to relate to one another as God does.

Preached: Crosby Ravensworth (united service) 30 May 2010