Event Name Sermon given at Matins on Trinity Sunday 2016
Start Date 22nd May 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

As far as we know, many of our earliest ancestors believed in many gods. Gods of trees, gods of sun and moon, gods of war and fertility. It was a natural imaginative projection from their own experience. They experienced life as a variety of many forces and things for which they had no explanation—the towering trees of the forest, the growth of crops, the rays of a rising sun, the thunder and lightning of storms, the moving pinpricks of light in the dark night skies, the alien power of other strange tribes around them—so it was a natural instinct to think there were many and various gods in and behind these many things.

This changed. A convergence of intellectual, religious and social changes transformed the many gods into one single source of everything: one God. The rational instinct of Greek philosophers was one cause. If God means that which is ultimate, rationally there can only be one ultimate, so there can only be one God. For the nomadic peoples of the ancient Middle East there was a different reason: the change came less through a process of reasoning and more as a dawning revelation. It was through the revelations of Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and through the political and human experiences of suffering, exile, and liberation, that the people of Israel became convinced that they were encountering only one God, and the many gods of the surrounding tribes were only human creations. Our modern era has added its own reasons too. Science, travel, urban experience, have domesticated the many mysterious forces around us: they've demystified the stars, drowned out the thunder, obscured the lightning, cut down the forests. In fact they have left such a disenchanted world there is no belief in God at all, for many. But where belief has remained it is now only One God, transcending this variety of things. Reason, revelation, urbanization: they've all combined to reinforce the fact that if we believe in God at all we now believe in One God—as we say in our Creed.

Of course we do! It's a distinguishing foundation of Judaeo-Christian faith, rooted in the Hebrew shema: 'Hear O Israel the Lord our God is One'. It is the heart of Islam too. And it is surely a huge advance. A plurality of gods tended to be chaotic warring, immoral, irrational forces, competing for attention. The One God is surely much more believable, consistent, and worthy of complete allegiance. Rather like the sought after single mathematical theory of everything, the very simplicity of belief in One God is compelling: it feels intuitively right.

So why is it, for God's sake, that Christian faith has nonetheless also cluttered itself with the complication of the Trinity? Why insist on God is also Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Not just God in three roles, as you or I might have three different roles in life (as say, a parent, a friend, a colleague). No—in Christian faith and doctrine God's Threeness is more fundamental than that: we're asked to imagine that God is actually more like (though not exactly like) a relationship of three different selves within God's own Being: yes, one in will, purpose and one in being, yet also something like three selves. Even as I try to describe this I stumble, of course. So I ask again: Why insist on this complicating stumbling block of Trinity?—a barrier to unity with other great religions, and perhaps a problem to ourselves, if we're honest!

The straightforward answer is that there was no choice for those who encountered Jesus Christ. For what they experienced in Christ was complex. They experienced God uniquely in and as Jesus Christ; but also God was not just in Jesus, any more than God was ever just in a burning bush or the stars in the sky; God was palpably beyond Christ, as well as in him, for God was also one to whom Jesus prayed and related to as his Father. In other words, what they encountered in Christ was more like a sort of conversation or relationship: a conversation between God in Christ and God beyond Christ: a conversation, therefore, within God; a deep relationship of mutual love within the One God. What's more, when they tried to pray to this God they found themselves drawn into this divine conversation by yet another element: God as Spirit flowing through themselves too, enriching the conversation further.

Complex indeed! But compelling—because, on reflection, isn't this actually an even more persuasive imagining of God, to see God the source of a diverse world having diversity within His own being as well? This seems even more intuitively right…

It is ethically compelling too, this Trinitarian conception of God. It should make a positive difference to how we live. Our ancestors who imagined many diverse gods could find themselves at war other precisely because they imagined their many gods at war with each other. Equally, imagining God as the opposite, just as undifferentiated oneness with one uniform source of power, may lead us to create totalitarian political or religious systems which suppress human diversity in the name of that uniform God—and that too causes conflict. It has done. As we know to our cost. Whereas imagining one Trinitarian God who shares a conversation of love and mutual respect between different selves within His one being, that should inspire a very different ethic, a very different way of constructing society.

So this strange, complicating doctrine of Trinity—this God who is one in will and being yet diverse in his life and rich in relationship—may well be strange: but it is no arbitrary construction. It is a saving revelation, an ethical inspiration, and an insight which rings true: a revelation, then, to be wondered at and worshipped, even when not fully understood. Above all, it is a revelation to draw us into its life; to draw us too into a life of love, mutual conversation with other selves, mutual respect for others—rather than supressing or ignoring them.

And in the end, because this is the life of God himself, this way of life is going to be the only way we can really live at all. It's not going to be just an optional lifestyle, but a necessity. As the life of God, the life of eternity, there will be ultimately no other way we can live…

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