Readings: Psalm 8; John 16:12-15
When I was growing up, I was obsessed by space. My interest in the wonders of the universe was first piqued by a primary school project on the solar system after which, for several Birthdays and Christmases, I would ask for space themed presents such that my bookshelves were stacked with books on astronomy, my bedroom walls plastered with posters of galaxies and nebulae, the ceiling bejewelled with glow in the dark stick on stars, and my window obscured by my prized yet pretty ineffectual telescope. Trips to the London Planetarium, Jodrell Bank and even the Kennedy Space Centre deepened my fascination, as I marvelled at the rockets and munched on astronaut ice cream. So you can imagine my excitement when, 25 years ago, I heard that a woman from Sheffield had become the first Briton in space. Helen Sharman’s historical voyage meant that my dreams might just come true – that perhaps even some oik from Orpington would one day experience the splendour of our galaxy up close.
And whether or not you’ve owned a telescope or can tell your Big Dipper from your big toe, most of us here can relate to staring up at the stars with a sense of awe and wonder. Reflection on the majesty and mystery of the cosmos is common to all cultures and religions throughout the world and across the centuries, as we are reminded in Psalm 8 which was written thousands of years ago in a faraway land by someone who looked up into that same night sky and said;
“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the Earth!
…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.”
Looking up at the starlight and sunbeams, the psalmist considered the beauty of the heavens and shared our sense of amazement.
One thing he would not have shared though, is our knowledge of the universe. A thousand years before the birth of Christ, the common Jewish understanding was that the Earth was flat, the underworld or Sheol was beneath it and the sky was a sort of inverted bowl over the Earth with a few windows into heaven, where God lived. Over time, new experiences, fresh thinking and revelations led people to believe that the Earth was spherical, then that the Earth orbited the Sun, then that there were other galaxies…and bit by bit we built up a more complete understanding of the universe and our place in it. We still have plenty more to discover, and years from now, it’s highly likely that people will look back on our understanding with humour or disbelief, just as we do with the idea that you could sail off the edge of the world!
That said, for all our revised thinking about the universe, it doesn’t alter our shared enjoyment, wonder and love of it. Before we knew about black holes and red dwarves, quarks, protons and photons, the sun still warmed the skin, the moon swayed the tides, constellations guided sailors home and psalmists spoke of the glories of creation.
Well, today, in the church world, it is Trinity Sunday and psalm 8 offers us the perfect reflection for, as URC minister Susan Durber notes;
“Trinity Sunday is a kind of staring up into the great theological sky – of sensing, even if we can only bear it for a moment, the huge, thumping wonder of the great story and truth of our faith. On this day we are drawn to those who write star-like poetry about the God who is three in one, the holy Trinity of love.”
Today is a day on which we remind ourselves that we have come to understand God as Father, Son and Spirit – God in three persons, blessed Trinity. And just as with our understanding of creation, our understanding of the Creator – of God – has adapted and progressed over the course of history. Though there are whispers of the Trinity in the Old Testament – the spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis, hints about a divine Son of Man in the prophets for example – the psalmist certainly wouldn’t have believed that God was Trinity, nor would most, if not all, of those found in the New Testament for the understanding of God as Three-in-One evolved over centuries as the people of the way wrestled over their experience of Jesus, with revised thinking about the Creator, and with revelation concerning the Spirit. And in John’s gospel, it would seem that Jesus well knew that fresh revelation, fresh understanding about God would come when we were ready to hear it;
““I still have many things to say to you,” he tells his friends as he prepares to say goodbye, “but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all the truth.”
And so the truth of our story that we celebrate today is that God is 3-in-1.Does this understanding make our faith stronger, our path clearer, our love deeper ? Perhaps not. Perhaps, as Christian thinker Karen Kilby suggests, ‘the doctrine of the Trinity so easily appears to be an intellectual puzzle with no relevance to the faith of most Christians’. For just as the sun shone, the stars twinkled and the moon gleamed for the psalmist in spite of a lack of contemporary cosmological comprehension, so God’s grace, majesty, love would have been and are experienced by those who do not affirm the Trinity…which is a relief, for who here can truly grasp it?!
Yet perhaps, for all its bewilderment, our belief in the Trinity whispers the majesty of God, perhaps it witnesses to the mystery of God; reminding us that God’s glory is beyond our understanding or language; that there might be fresh revelation for those with ears to hear.
And today, as we embrace new friends from other churches, as we celebrate Sue’s baptism and Sue and Anita’s welcome into membership, perhaps our belief in the Trinity speaks of the joy of community. For the picture of the Trinity depicts a God who is not alone, isolated and separate but who is
Parent, Son and Spirit, a Trinity of love, in which love is celebrated, shared and strong, and through which holy love reaches out beyond itself to embrace all creation. If we are made in God’s image, then we too are not to be alone, isolated and separate– but to be a community of warmth and welcome in which God’s love is mirrored in our love for ourselves, for each another and for all creation. A love which welcomes the rich and the refugee, the stranger and the strange. A love which is radical, life-affirming and world-changing.
Today then, we marvel at the heavens and the awesome God who made them as we welcome new members, new friends, new stars in our constellation. When your fire burns bright, we will delight in you. When your light grows dim, we will shine for you. And together, we will sing of the glory of the Creator, shimmer with the light of Christ and sparkle with the mischievousness of the Spirit – one Holy Trinity, one breath-taking God. Amen.