Tonight I will send a postcard to my university teacher in Systematic Theology at Halle University in Germany. I might choose a postcard showing Rublev’s so called icon of the Trinity, just because I was advised by a priest not to mention this all too famous icon this morning because everyone mentions it on Trinity Sunday. I will write this postcard because I remember him telling us, send me a postcard whenever you really preach a sermon on the Trinity, and today I am doing just that. For my professor the Trinity was just a hybrid concept, a theological construct. He couldn’t see how the doctrine of the Trinity could connect with any experience of the Christian faith.
And my professor is in good company. Pope Alexander II in the 11th century refused a petition for a special feast for the Trinity on the grounds that such a feast was not necessary in the Church, which daily honoured the Holy Trinity anyway in its liturgy. It was not till 1334 that what we celebrate today, Trinity Sunday, became an official celebration in the Church.
And there is another reason why the Trinity doesn’t seem to fit with our Christian experience. Trinity Sunday is no commemoration of any event in Christ’s life like the Nativity, the Passion or the Resurrection. This is the only feast in the Christian year celebrating a doctrine.
The Trinity is a theological concept, that is right. But it is not outside of experience. In fact, it is all about experience. I therefore invite you to follow me in going through the readings we heard this morning. What do they have in common? Are there connections between the readings which might help us to understand what we mean when we say we believe in the Holy Trinity, as we shortly shall in the Creed?
The first scene: The reading from the prophet Isaiah leads us to a significant turning point in the history of Israel. A whole era comes to an end with this reading. Israel was in exile, in Babylon. The exile was the ultimate catastrophe for Israel, a people whose God lived in the temple in Jerusalem, whose holy house was destroyed and profaned by heathens. They said: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. (...) How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137.1-2;4) And that was the point: How could they sing to the Lord in a foreign land? Their whole religion, the whole system of institutionalized worship had fallen to bits. Just imagine what it would be like for us: Westminster Abbey in ruins, no Archbishop of Canterbury, no priests, no Eucharist. –
For the people of Israel it felt like it was all over. But actually, it wasn’t the end. It was the prophet Isaiah who realized that God manifests himself in history, in everything that happens on the earth, in every place, in every time. God was not to be found only in Jerusalem. And so the people of Israel were not lost at all. What looked like the end, was actually a new beginning. And so Isaiah could sing out with joy: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40.1). He understood that God was not only the God of Israel, but the God who rules the whole earth, who can reveal his mighty acts however he chooses. This is the birth of monotheism in the history of religion. God was God over all the earth and over every nation and people.
This idea was so powerful and overwhelming that Isaiah couldn’t but praise God for his infinite power and wisdom. And so he asks these rhetorical questions in the reading: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counsellor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice?” (Isaiah 40.12-14a).
Isaiah saw that no one could advise this almighty God, who was everywhere. No one and no thing is like God who created the universe and in comparison with whom every nation and every continent are just a drop from a bucket, like dust on the scales. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.” (Isaiah 40.28).
Isaiah himself plays with this idea of God communicating in himself, with himself. And this connects so well with our understanding of the Trinity, where we see that this almighty God, who is everywhere, is a God in relationship – he himself was the Counsellor who directed his Spirit when he created all things through his everlasting Word.
The second scene is just as exciting as the first one. Our gospel reading today comes from the very end of St Matthew’s gospel. And just like the first reading from Isaiah, this one from St Matthew marks a great turning point in the history of Israel. We come to the end of Jesus’s ministry on earth. After all that his disciples have been through together with him, they now have to realize that Jesus is actually going away. He is leaving them, even though he has only just conquered death through the Resurrection.
I imagine that the disciples must have felt desolate. The one they had followed so enthusiastically, the one they loved so much, would no longer be with them. All their hope had gone. How could they possibly keep faith in a God who acts like this. It’s just like it was for the Israelites in exile: For the disciples, this feels like it’s the end. But … it wasn’t.
What happens here is something utterly remarkable. The risen Jesus gathers his disciples for the last time on a mountain and teaches them something completely unexpected, something completely new: You don’t need my physical presence on earth to follow me. - go, and make disciples of all nations. His invitation to live in communion with God, in his spirit of love, lives on. His invitation to discipleship, lives on. And with all the authority of heaven and earth, of the creator God, Jesus says to them: go and baptize the nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And remember that I am with you always, even to the end of time. Even though you don’t see me, I am with you.
And saying that, Jesus reveals that he is part of this everlasting God who also revealed himself to Isaiah. The Church later expressed this experience in the idea of the Holy Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
At this point Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that we heard read becomes interesting. Just before he ends his letter he writes: “Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Corinthians 13.5). Jesus is in his disciples, in all who were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We are the body of Christ, all together. And so the Trinity is embodied in the people of God. The presence of Christ does not depend on his physical presence.
Therefore the Trinity is very much about experience! Wherever we come together and live community, where we relate to one another we are to make room for God’s Spirit. And that happens as we learned in the readings when we let our own convictions go, as hurtful as it may be. We must not remain stuck to ourselves but see God and Christ embodied in those we meet to live in the Spirit of God.
And now we can perhaps see how our readings today connect: The God Isaiah experienced as not bound to any place or time is the same God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ, whose presence is not bound to a particular body at a particular time. And to understand that, to worship God in the Spirit and in truth, we have to let go of our own expectations. Isaiah only understood this unlimited and eternal Spirit of God because of the end of the cult in Jerusalem. And Matthew understood the presence of this unlimited and eternal Spirit only because of the end of the physical presence of Jesus. Both Matthew and Isaiah help us to understand we have to let go to make room for the Spirit. And in the end we have to let ourselves go to be part of the kingdom.
And then we can prepare to be Christlike to one another – to our friends, family, colleagues – to those who irritate us and those we can’t understand. Then we can be ready to meet Him at any time and in any place. It is then that the Incarnate Word is again realised in our midst, and we can create room for the Spirit that sets our hearts on fire for the God who comes.
And so let us say together the Grace: The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen.