Trinity Sunday with Thanksgiving
In our tradition, as we have celebrated today, we conduct thanksgivings, dedications and baptisms in our weekly church services and prefer not to have them as an extra, out of hours, lock-in. The reason for this is that we see these services as one way of symbolizing a welcome to the church. We have, I would hope, been welcoming to Eva since she’s been coming along, of course, but today marks an official celebration of that welcome. And along with Eva, today, we welcome Ashlee, James and Oscar again, we welcome Rachel, Victoria, and Andrew, we welcome all the friends and family who have accompanied Eva here as we recognize that we are all now linked; that whatever we may or may not believe, we are all bonded in our love for Eva and her family and have promised to care for her as she grows up in this community.
And as a minister, on such joyful occasions, at weddings and baptisms and thanksgiving services, when you might be able to share the church’s welcome and God’s love with some who don’t come to church every week, you hope it’s a chance to show that the church isn’t, perhaps, as dull as some view it; that we aren’t quite as stagnant and cliquey as can sometimes be felt; that we have good news to offer everyone who passes through this building. And so, you hope for a good passage from the Bible to come up. You hope for something on God’s love rather than on the trickier parts of the Old Testament; you hope for something relevant and accessible to be the theme, rather than something obtuse and difficult to understand.
So you can imagine just how…erm…overjoyed I was when I realized that Eva’s thanksgiving service would fall on Trinity Sunday – a day when many churches grapple with perhaps the most challenging, most mysterious part of our faith! Now I was in the bottom set in maths at school…but I don’t think that’s the reason that I struggle to understand how God is one but three…God is three in one…that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit…with Jesus as God but also God’s Son…and within seconds, some of you might have deemed me a heretic, some might be getting a headache and others will already be working out what to have for dinner!
And yet, I do think that what we believe about God is important. I do believe that our beliefs about God can dramatically affect the way we view and live in the world. We don’t have to look too far to find religious groups who believe in a violent, wrathful God acting in violent, wrathful ways. Or of societies that worship a God purely described in male terms becoming strongly patriarchal and male dominated. And we might even be more hopeful about this concept too – we might hope that if we, here, believe in a God of love, forgiveness and peace, that some of that love, forgiveness and peace might rub off onto us and then onto others we meet.
So, whether we like it or not, for good or ill, our beliefs about God affect the way we behave. Our understanding of God as Trinity will impact upon our actions…so where to begin? How to explain things? Well, American priest Robert Capon described human attempts to explain the Trinity as like an oyster trying to describe a ballerina. And I think he had a point. We just don’t have the words, concepts or mental capacity to describe something so wonderful as the nature of God….so we are oysters grasping at words. But I don’t like being called shellfish….so I hope you will allow me to share with you some meandering thoughts about the Holy Trinity, in the hope that we oysters might look to the ballerina with awe and wonder, perhaps stumbling across a pearl of wisdom, even when our words fall short.
So let me start by looking at the idea. This week, I ticked off another entry on my Wales Bucket List by spending a day at the Hay Festival. And it was an amazing day. The great and the good, celebrities and philosophers, comedians and politicians were all there to share their thoughts, justify their actions and discuss their beliefs. It felt like a wonderful melting pot of imagination and creativity where a high degree of importance was placed on the social significance of ideas. “Ideas change the world,” one speaker concluded and boy, did the idea of the Holy Trinity do just that. You see, before Christians struggled with and articulated the Trinitarian view of God, God was largely understood as being singular, isolated, self-contained. God was in heaven, we were on Earth, with God’s apparent representatives – the King, the Pope, the priest etc, bridging the gap. This patriarchal set of beliefs established a hierarchical system where power came from the top and trickled down; where everyone knew their place; where there was one God, one King, one Rule and anyone or anything that questioned this uniformed, monochrome society was treated with suspicion or contempt. There was no room for difference in gender or sexuality, no place for differing beliefs or ideas…for such diversity might endanger the whole, tightly controlled system. As is often now portrayed in fiction, such as in The Hunger Games books, the Divergent series, even in the latest Mad Max film, in societies and churches throughout history, power really was held at the top, diversity was quashed and the word of the man on the throne or in the pulpit was sacred.
But then the idea of God as Trinity came along . It didn’t come suddenly or out of nowhere, for Christians had been wrestling with the idea of Jesus as God for centuries, but over time, bit by bit, the idea of God being an isolated, all-powerful, supreme monarch was challenged. Perhaps, instead, God is Father, Son and Spirit, followers began to think. Perhaps, at God’s very being, there is a relationship of love, disciples began to whisper. Perhaps, diversity is celebrated, the other is welcomed, authority is shared in God, Christians began to praise. And whether we picture this Trinity as three equals blessing one another and welcoming us to the Communion Table, as here in Rublev’s icon, or even as a vivacious Mother figure, Middle Eastern man and Asian woman, as described in the book ‘The Shack’…the idea that God might be three-in-one; that love, not power, is at God’s core began to change the world. For if God shared power, so might we; if God celebrated diversity, so could we; if God might be a community of equals, so should we! Looking around at the world, looking at headlines and recent election results, I think it’s fair to say that we still have a long way to go. But we must not get despondent. Perhaps instead, we might remain hopeful and more determined than even to announce God’s revolution of love, to strive for a society that welcomes the stranger, celebrates diversity and sees people of all religions and races, genders and sexualities, age and status as weird and wonderful, broken yet beloved children of God. With God’s blessing, minds can be changed, communities can be transformed and ideas can change the world.
And I’m aware that all this talk of revolutions and transformed societies makes me sound a little like Russell Brand – a man with whom I’m not too frequently compared! So with that in mind, perhaps, I should make one last attempt at describing the trinity.
Perhaps we might compare the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit – to a divine family. A family who allows each member to flourish in their own way; a family of mutual self-giving; a family who look beyond themselves to enlarge their circle of love. In his book ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’, Lancastrian minister Bill Vanstone suggests that, “God’s love is like a loving family who are complete in themselves but are so full of love that they welcome in an orphan into their home. And in the weeks that follow, the family comes to need the newcomer. Without him the circle is now incomplete; his absence now causes anxiety; his waywardness brings concern; his goodness and happiness are necessary to those who had come to love him.”
To me at least, such an analogy takes us from Russell Brand to another, more adorable, furry creature. To me, Vanstone’s description of the Holy Trinity bears more than a passing resemblance to the Brown family from the Paddington stories. For the Browns seem loving, content, complete in themselves and yet they enlarge their circle to include the orphan, Paddington. And in the weeks to follow, they come to need the newcomer. Without Paddington, their circle is now incomplete; his absence causes anxiety; his waywardness brings concern; his goodness and happiness are necessary to those who had come to love him, such that they would put their lives on the line to save him from harm. By the end of the film, Paddington has been adopted into their family. He has been fully enveloped into the circle of love.
Perhaps then, each of us is a Paddington at heart. As we faintly glimpse an understanding of God as Trinity, perhaps each of us is beckoned, greeted, enveloped into the family of God. Perhaps today, as we gave thanks for Eva, she was immersed in the love of the Father, Son and Spirit and welcomed again into that family.
So this is for Eva. As she grows up, may he help Eva come to know that she has been invited and welcomed into God’s loving family. May he serve as a reminder for all of us that sometimes the most complicated mysteries of life might best be symbolized by a bear who likes marmalade sandwiches. And may each one of us here come to encounter, be blessed by and get soaked in the transforming love of the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.