I remember that when I was very small I was taken by my grandfather to see a launch, at the shipyard where he worked on the banks of the River Tyne. I stood in the crowd and watched as a bottle was swung with due ceremony to smash against the hull of the new ship. After which, nothing happened. Nothing happened for quite a while, in fact. In my youthful naivete, I began to think that something had gone wrong, but of course it hadn’t. I became at last aware that the hull was moving, very very slowly at first, almost too slowly to see, like the minute hand of a clock. Then it gathered pace, and to shouts and cheers it slid smoothly into the river, where it was positioned by tugs so that the remaining work on the superstructure of the vessel could be carried out.
The reason why that story came to mind is that one significant thing that happens at a launch is that a new vessel gets named. Until the launch ceremony it’s still just a giant pile of metal on the stocks - but then she’s named, she’s given an identity, she becomes a ship. I suppose the other significant thing alongside that is that words of blessing are used, and the name of God invoked: when the ship’s been named, the next words are ‘God bless all who sail in her.’
Names are often very important in the Bible, in the Old Testament especially. I could think of Genesis chapter two, for example: Adam gives names to each of the creatures God has made, and that giving of names establishes the identity of each creature, and also Adam’s authority over them. I could also think of the ways in which names are changed to reflect a new reality or status, like when Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai Sarah. Their new names mean, respectively, ‘Father of a Multitude’ and ‘Princess’. Or when Jacob, after wrestling with the angel of God, received the new name of Israel - which means ‘God fights’.
In the Church calendar today is Trinity Sunday. All the churches which form part of the World Council of Churches, that is - are Trinitarian in belief: God, we say, is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and yet not three Gods but one God. One God who has chosen to reveal himself and make relationship with us in these three ways. We may speak of there being ‘three persons, yet one God’ - though for me the word ‘person’ can be a little misleading. I find myself thinking of an individual and separate human being, the chap sitting on the bus, the lady ahead of me in the queue at the supermarket, or for that matter the fellow standing in the pulpit to preach.
To say ‘three persons’ can feel as if we’re breaking God up into three separate and individual parts, but that’s not what the Church teaches. Each person of the Trinity participates fully in the life of the other two, so that, as Jesus says to his disciples, in St John chapter 17, ‘the Father and I are one’. That’s also why Paul can say as he reflects on what it means to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that ‘we have the mind of Christ’. Trinity is an essential doctrine, a belief that we as Christians are bound to share - but I don’t find myself thinking of it as a precise and complete definition of God, just our way of making some sense of how God relates to us and reveals himself to us.
How relevant to that is my reflection on names, I wonder? In the Bible the naming of things establishes identity, and says something about status and purpose - as when Adam names the animals. I suppose the same thing would have been true of the ship I saw launched. It occurs to me though that to give a name, or even to know and to use a name, says something important about relationship. The same person might be called ‘sir’, or ‘Mr Jones’, or ‘Dave’, or ‘Daddy’ - depending on what the relationship is. To give or know or use a name may also claim a knowledge of a person or even an authority over them, which is why Jacob asked to know the name of the person with whom he wrestled at the Jabbok ford.
The word God isn’t a name, but a title. But God does have names, in the Old Testament. He is ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’ - which sort of means ‘I am’ or indeed ‘I am who I am’. Like when he is encountered by Moses in the wilderness. He is also ‘Elohim’, which may mean ‘Majesties’ (note the plural). But the people of the Old Testament would have felt it wrong and even blasphemous to call him by those names. That would imply that he was in some sense their possession, rather than that they were his possession.
That’s why the name of God remains hidden and unspoken in most renditions of the Old Testament. God is generally called 'The LORD' - the word 'Lord' being printed in capitals. That’s an English version of the Hebrew title 'Adonai', used in place of the name of God because that name was too holy to be spoken aloud.
But we no longer stand under the Law, and Christ sets us free to call God by name. The name Jehovah in fact derives from the vowel sounds in Adonai, blended in with the YHWH which are the consonants in Yahweh. And while as members of the mainstream Churches we don't often call God Jehovah, we do sing hymns like 'Guide me, O thou great Jehovah'. And some Christian Bibles, like the New Jerusalem Bible used in Roman Catholic churches, always use the name 'Yahweh' rather than ‘the LORD’ (Adonai), as in other versions. But Jesus teaches us a new and better name than the Old Testament Jehovah. For when his disciples asked to be taught how to pray, Jesus told them: "When you pray, say 'Our Father, who art in heaven...'"
That’s amazing, don’t you think, that God the unknowable Creator of all things, we can call him ‘our Father’! St John writes: 'No-one has ever seen God, but Jesus Christ, the only Son from the Father, he has made him known to us.' On Easter morning in the garden, Jesus told Mary Magdalene to say to the others that he was ‘ascending to my Father, and your Father, to my God, and your God.'
Here is a great mystery over which the Church has pondered through many years. Jesus was a man with a known origin and provenance. He didn't appear out of nowhere. People knew him to be the son of a carpenter in Nazareth. One of a fair-sized family in fact: he had four brothers, and he had sisters too. His disciples knew all this too. They travelled with him, ate and drank with him, listened to him and learned from him. And they knew who he was, in human terms. They knew his name.
But as they reflected on all they had seen and heard, they wanted to say more about Jesus than the name Jesus could contain. He wasn’t just a specially good and godly man, he wasn’t even just a prophet like the prophets of the olden days. They’d seen how this man died, and they’d also seen what happened on Easter Day and on the days that followed. They wanted to say like Paul that in some way 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.' And then there is what John says right at the beginning of his Gospel. John’s great image is of Jesus as the living Word of God, the Word through whom all created things were made. The Word who first named all things into being.
And John also tells us that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." In his life and through his death Jesus shows us the truth about the Father: that he loves his creation with a love that cannot be denied and that calls us to respond.
John again tells us how Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be born again, not of flesh but of water and the Spirit. In both Greek and Hebrew the word translated as ‘spirit’ can also mean ‘wind’, and I’m reminded of how the wind makes itself known in the way it moves and changes things, though we can’t see the wind itself. If you were to catch the wind in a bottle, it would immediately disappear. Paul, writing to the Romans, completes the circle by saying that it’s through the Spirit that we’re able to call God ‘our Father’.
So it’s our experience of God that leads us to speak of him as Trinity, as Father and Son and Holy Spirit. This isn’t a philosophy dreamt up from nowhere, but the way God is to us, in scripture and in our own encounters with him. Nor is it the last word about God, a formula that neatly ties God up, just the best way we can find to express the ways in which he reveals himself to us.
In brief, we first of all know him and name him as our Father: and as our Maker and Creator, the Origin of life and the Ground of Our Being. He names himself Elohim and Yahweh, names that may speak to us of unapproachable holiness, but he also names himself as Father, and he opens the way for us to call him by that name.
Secondly, his nature and creative power is divine love, and that love was made visible among us in human form; in Jesus of Nazareth, the Man for Others, the Christ. Here is God present within what he has made and sustains in being, present among his people as both priest and sacrifice, as both lover and gift.
And the God of love continues to offer himself to us, continues to be present in and with and among his people. His love is revealed not only in the creative work of the Father, and the redeeming presence of Jesus, but also in the living power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God strengthens our faith, renews our vision, enriches our fellowship, enables our love.
This is why the Church dares to speak of the one God who is equally three persons: God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, together in a perpetually loving relationship into which we are invited, through which we too are made holy. Trinity is not a closed and fully worked out formula but a way to speak of the dynamic nature of God, the constant movement and interplay of love between Father and Son and Holy Spirit that affirms our being and inspires our love.
Love: the key to all of this is love. Whatever other names we may have for God, including those three great names of Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, to speak of God as Trinity is to affirm what one of the hymns calls ‘his new blest name of love’. Here is what establishes the unity of the Godhead. So finally, if we are Trinitarian in our belief and doctrine as the Church of God, so we should be Trinitarian in our action and service. The divine interplay of love and mutual sharing should be constantly and consistently modelled in us - in our relationships together as people of faith within God's Church, and in the service we as Church render to the world in God’s name. For Jesus who said ‘The Father and I are one’ also said of his disciples, 'May they be one as we are one, that the world may believe.'