The Trinity: Relational at the Core

26 May, 2024

By the Rev’d Andrew Coyle

Season: Trinity Sunday

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8 | Romans 8:12-17 | John 3:1-17

How do we experience God?

How do we speak about our experience?

How do we speak about God?

I think we experience God in two different ways, two different ways that are nonetheless intertwined. God is transcendent, bigger than us, beyond us, “other” than us. God is mystery.

How many of us have looked up at the sky on a clear night and marvelled at the wonder and vastness of the universe and felt the immensity of time and space, an immensity that seems so utterly beyond the scope of our understanding, so big that we cannot hold it all together in our minds, so big that it seems beyond our comprehension. How many of us have contemplated the oceans, the mountains, the desert and the bush and felt that all of those things are beautiful and that in their beauty they speak to us of a power and a presence that both encompasses us and is beyond us?

And for many of us, those experiences lead us to wonder at the mind, the intelligence, the magnitude of the being or presence that can conceive of the complexity and beauty of the world and the entire cosmos and hold it all together in a single encompassing awareness and purpose. And perhaps we cannot help but be led towards awe and worship as we behold the beauty and incomprehensibility of it all and experience the transcendent otherness of God.

And, yet, just as God is so utterly beyond us in this way, so God is also personal. God speaks to us, engages with us, relates to us. God makes God’s self known to us.

How many of us have felt a presence beside us, around us, within us, and known that that presence loves us, and felt the peace of that presence envelope us? How many of us have heard a voice that was not our own speak to us in the silence of our minds, a voice that was not the product of our own thoughts or consciousness, a voice that came from somewhere else but nonetheless sounds within us, a voice that offers comfort and peace. God is transcendent, incomprehensibly beyond us, and God is personal, intimate, engaged with us.

And we see this in scripture, often simultaneously, both one and the other. In the story of creation in Genesis, God brings light and life out of darkness and void, and does so with a word:

“Let there be light;”
“Let the waters be gathered together and let dry land appear;”
“Let their be living creatures in the water, the land and the air;”
“Let us make humankind in our own image”.

This is the ultimate story of God’s transcendence: God the Creator, calls all things into being, yet somehow exists before time and space, seemingly separate from and outside of the created order. As the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures unfolds, however, we experience God’s intimacy with God’s creation and with God’s people, and we begin to understand that God is committed to a personal relationship with God’s creation. God speaks to God’s people.

God speaks to Abraham and Sarah. The text tells us that, “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre”. And then goes on to tell us that Abraham looks up and sees three men standing near him. Interestingly, Abraham addresses the three as if they are one, saying, “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant.” And, I guess, it is tempting on this Trinity Sunday to read into this episode an expression of God’s three-fold nature, but my point is really that God has made God’s self known to Abraham and Sarah in flesh and in word.

God talks to them and God offers them a future. God also speaks to Moses. In the Book of Exodus, we read that, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend”. At the same time, however, when Moses says to God, “Show me your glory, I pray”. God responds by telling him, “You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.” And then God places Moses in the cleft of a rock and covers him with a hand, only taking that hand away after passing by, so that all that Moses sees of God is God’s back.

In all of this there seems to be an apparent contradiction in the text: Moses speaks with God face to face. Yet Moses is not allowed to see God’s face because he would not survive the experience.

And I think we see in this very clearly the two dimensions of the reality of God: God is both transcendent and other – indeed, God’s otherness is dangerous to human beings – and yet God is also intimate and personal, speaking to Moses as one would to a friend.

That same otherness and intimacy is present in our reading this morning from the Book of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah has a vision of, “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple”. It is a vision of God’s transcendent grandeur and majesty and Isaiah is understandably overtaken by fear and awe, saying, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Yet God speaks to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me!”

Otherness and intimacy, transcendence and personal relationship – this is what God is like.

You’ll be aware of course that I haven’t actually said anything about God as Trinity, but we are getting to that, because our experience of God and the language that we use to describe that experience of transcendence and intimacy becomes more fully comprehensible when we reflect on our experience of Jesus. The New Testament, perhaps most explicitly the Gospel of John, speaks of Jesus as God’s incarnate Word. That same divine Word that brought creation into being at the very beginning becomes embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ.

And just as God calls creation into being at the very beginning, so, according to the Apostle Paul, in Christ we are a new creation. And we become this new creation through God’s intimacy with God’s creation. In the Gospel of John, we read that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In Jesus, we see God getting personal with God’s creation – so personal, that in Jesus, God enters our humanity, our mortality, even, in order that we might see how much God is invested in God’s creation. Because we matter to God, because the whole of the created order matters to God, God becomes matter itself, human flesh and blood, so that we might get a closer look at God, so that we can hear God, touch God, and know God in our midst.

And, of course, what we hear and know of God from Jesus, is that God loves us and that God desires our healing and our liberation from all the things that keep us bound up in fear and death. And all these things are made known to us through Jesus’ life, through his death, and through his resurrection.

You’ll be aware that I still haven’t said much about the Trinity. Perhaps we’ll get to the end of this sermon and I still won’t have said much about the Trinity as such!

But what our conceptualisation of God as Trinity does is illustrate this dynamic of otherness and intimacy that I have been talking about, this dynamic of transcendence and deeply personal engagement that seems to characterise God’s relationship with humanity and indeed, the entirety of God’s creation, and which also seems to be characteristic of God’s very identity. We speak of God as Trinity because in doing so we recognise the essential Oneness of God who reveals God’s self to us in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life; Our Source, our Saviour and our Sustainer all of whom participate mutually and equally in this dynamic interplay of transcendence and intimacy.

We speak of God the Creator in whom, perhaps, we most clearly experience the transcendent otherness of God. But in the account of creation it is God’s spirit that sweeps over the face of the water and it is through God’s Word that God expresses such a fundamental relationship with God’s creation, reaching out in divine invitation, calling forth and ordering the matter of the universe in a way that draws the universe into God’s creative purpose:

“Let there be light”, says God.
“Let there be life”.

God is Source, Word, and Spirit in the act of creation. In a similar fashion, the Father and the Spirit are present and active in the work of Jesus the Son. Jesus is the Incarnate Word, God in human form, an expression of divine intimacy with humanity. Yet, at Jesus’ baptism we hear a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. This is the voice of the Father, the transcendent One, who is reaching towards us in Jesus. At the same time, we see the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove, and it is the Spirit that drives Jesus out into the wilderness for his confrontation with Satan.

All three persons of the Trinity participate equally in a unity of purpose, because they are One God, a transcendent reality that reaches out to us in intimacy, desiring relationship, desiring our redemption, desiring communion and community with us in ways that reflect God’s own communion and community of self.

I want to finish with a word about language.

The traditional trinitarian formula of Father, Son and Spirit suggests that God is masculine. The theological consensus, however, is that God is beyond gender. Like all of our language about God, the language of Father and Son is more properly understood as a metaphor, which, in this case, expresses something about the relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed speaks of Jesus as “the only begotten Son of the Father”. It is a way of speaking about Jesus that declares his identity with God.

Unfortunately, however, naming God as Father in this way has shaped our tradition in ways that have impoverished our theological understanding and also done actual harm to women in particular by privileging the male over the female and providing an ongoing support for and expression of patriarchy. Mary Daly has provided us with a succinct summary of this dynamic, saying, “If God is male, then the male is God”. You may have noticed that in our liturgy throughout the Church’s year we are very careful in the way we talk about God.

We try to use language in a way that does not impute a specific gender to God, and in doing so, we are both reflecting a theological commitment to neither constrain our understanding of God nor perpetuate the harm that many people have experienced through the patriarchal institutions of our society, the church included.

Jesus said, “I came that you may have life and have it abundantly”. And that is the good news that we seek to proclaim.

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