Vicars mostly don’t look forward to preaching on Trinity Sunday. We find it hard to preach on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity without getting tied up in theological knots! Thinking about it, it’s probably no easier being a member of the congregation, and having to listen to us.
The fact is that we vicars don’t actually talk all that much about God when we preach. We talk about what God wants of us, and we talk about what God does for us, but we don’t talk a lot about who God is. And when we do try to say stuff about God, who God is, what God is like, language quickly begins to fail us. How do you express the inexpressible? God who made all things, God by whom all things are held in being, God the source of light and life: how do you define and describe God in mere words? But there comes a point - today - when we do have to try.
I would say that these days we’ve mostly forgotten what the word 'God' really means. God has become just a word; I suspect that’s why on the telly certain Anglo Saxon words are largely still banned, at least before the watershed, but it’s OK to say “Oh God!” at moments of stress, even on daytime TV. I actually get more offended by that than by the F word, but most people don’t. For most people, the word 'God' doesn’t mean anything much; not the terrible and remote figure that so filled Isaiah the prophet with awe and fear in the Temple; and not the God that Jesus taught us we can call “Our Father” when we pray. So in fact it’s not a bad thing to do some talking about who God is - at any time, and certainly on Trinity Sunday.
But we will struggle to find the words; how can God be summed up or pinned down? It’s a matter of finding words that can point to what’s beyond words, I suppose. However carefully my words are chosen, God will always be somewhere beyond their reach. But historically the Church has agreed on how to talk about God; and when we say the Creed, we say we believe in God as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit.
In other words, we speak about God as being those three Persons, and yet the Three are together one God. God is Trinity. Just said or sung quickly, it sounds quite a neat formula: “Three in One and One in Three, Ruler of the earth and sea.” But how, in reality, can anything or anyone be both three and one?
We could start to tackle that by thinking about how else we can say who God is: like the statement the Apostle John makes, when he says that God is love. I could be tempted to say that that’s all we need to say about God: that God is love. Perhaps, though, we should unpack that little word 'love'. It’s a little word with a wide range of meanings. One word in English to translate a whole lot of different words in Greek, the language of the New Testament. If I say that I love cake, I really just mean that I like it a lot. If I say that I love my brother, I’m saying something about the way I feel we belong to one another in a family. If I say that I’ve fallen in love, then that’s another love again. Love can be anything from liking, through sentimental attachment and family identity, to an involvement so passionate and complete that it almost excludes the rest of the world.
So what sort of love do we mean when we say that God is love? I want to start by looking at the very first words about God in our Bible, Genesis, chapter 1, a story of creation, one of the two stories of creation in that book. God speaks to create - he speaks and things appear. And order is formed from chaos, and all that is made is good. I tend to think of God speaking a word of love, that God loves each new aspect of creation into being. God creates the world in love, and the creation in Genesis begins a love story we can trace through the Old Testament and into the Gospels. We may reject God and spoil our own lives and spoil his world, but God continues to love us and acts to rescue us from the bad stuff that would otherwise drag us down. We see that in the words of Isaiah and the other prophets to Israel. And we see it in Jesus, as God sends his only begotten Son.
And here is the climax of the love story: the man who alone can show us divine love within a human life. Jesus lives with us and dies for us, and in him we see death itself defeated. Then last week at Pentecost we saw how the story continues: God comes to be present with his people in a new and different way, in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a new command to take the story of his love out into all the world, a story that’s our story too.
So God is self-giving love. God gives himself in Jesus Christ in costly self-sacrifice to free us from the impact of our sin. And he gives himself as Holy Spirit to lift and inspire us, bonding us in fellowship and service. When we say that 'God is love' we’re saying that God always and eternally gives himself - in creation, in redemption, in inspiration. And as the Church tried to tell that story it found it could do so only by speaking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The single word that sums this up, other than the word love, is “Yes”. God’s “Yes” in creation brings life into being - we can think of that as the Fatherly love of God; God's “Yes” in Jesus saves us from ourselves - we can think of that as the Brotherly love of God; God’s “Yes” at Pentecost makes us his partners in mission and service and joy - we can think of that as God's love planted within us, inspiring us to live in such a way that God's love is at the heart of all we do.
So in order to say fully and truthfully that God is love, the Church found it needed three ways of talking about the one God. God reveals himself to us, works for us and within us, in three distinct ways. The Doctrine of the Trinity is our attempt to tell the love story of creation and re-creation, of God's love for the world. But it’s only an attempt; the truth is beyond words. Trinity isn’t God sorted out and boxed up. It’s not the last word about God, just a starting point - a way in which we begin to engage with the mystery of God.
For if God is love, then that love is much more than just his love for us. In a sense, that would be to make us the centre of the story, and therefore more important than God. No: God is love in essence, love is his very being, and that was true before creation began. God’s creative love for us is just one expression of the love that God eternally is. No mere formula - not even the inspired doctrine that is the Holy Trinity - can bring God within the grasp of our minds. God will always be more than we can comprehend.
One last image that works for me comes from a prayer I use when I take weddings, asking that the love between these two people, and within the family they form, may flow out into the community around them, making a positive difference to other lives too. Now I think the doctrine of the Trinity says something like that about God. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, separate and yet bound together in a love that flows out and touches us.
Think of it this way. A family could be a closed circle, so that what connects its members does so by excluding others. But some families I know are open circles, in which the love within the family is constantly being released to be shared with others. People coming into their circle feel instantly welcome, and they quickly feel they're part of the family. I think it’s like that with God. The eternal love within God, the interplay of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a love that flows out for us to share. In the yes of Creation, and the birth and life and death of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God opens up his own life of love for us to share in, and we are welcomed in, and made part of the family.
We think of God as Trinity, and the Trinity model works because it’s a way of saying that God is love - love that creates, that redeems, that transforms. And yet the mystery of God remains, beyond our words and doctrines; we can’t know God, except as he reveals himself to us: as the mystery and wonder of love.