John 16: 12-15
Last week we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, which marks the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in Jerusalem. Pentecost is sometimes described as the birthday of the church. It was also our birthday, the day 150 years ago when this church was opened for worship for the first time.
Today is Trinity Sunday, when we reflect on the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit. We will also be welcoming Niam, Bahram and Sedigh this morning in baptism: As I pour the water over them I will do so in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Trinity is a doctrine of the church which was defined in the creeds over a series of gatherings of the church leaders 300 years after Pentecost. Arguments as to the status of each of the three persons of the Godhead were hammered out over several decades. Many on the losing side were condemned as heretics.
But the material they drew on in the Gospels is very clear, especially John’s gospel, even if it emerges through prayers and dialogue rather than in any precise definition. Right through his teaching, Jesus refers to God as “my father” and others describe him as the Messiah. And as he approaches the moment of his arrest, he makes clear to the disciples that he will ask God to send them “the spirit of truth” also known as the comforter and the one who will reconcile them to God. We may not be able to define how all of this works, where one ends and the other begins, but these are powerful metaphors. Some see at the heart of God an interplay, even a dance, of relationship between these three.
For all that, the doctrine of one God in three persons is still complicated to try and explain to those who have not heard it before. It is a notion that is mocked in Islam, which declares that there is only one God, with an austere simplicity.
We might argue that in human religion there is a spectrum, with Islam at one end, in its strict monotheism and Hinduism at the other end, with many, many gods, some allied to particular places or groups of people.
The danger with a strict monotheism is that God becomes distant and remote – and often only accessible through an all-powerful priesthood. There were shades of this in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, where for ordinary people God lived in the Jerusalem temple, in the Holy of Holies, where only the priests could go. Roman religion was much more like Hinduism with multiple Gods each with their own temple: When Paul is in Athens he remarks on the large number of different temples. There is even one for the unknown God – a precaution in case they missed one out.
For me, the power of the Gospel message is that it takes the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures and their understanding of one God in covenant with his people, and then transforms it by making God universally accessible in a completely new way. Jesus Christ becomes the face of God, the example for us, who leads along a path which we can then follow, even through the valley of the shadow of death.
The Holy Spirit also enables an unmediated, personal connection for each Christian with God, conferring on each of us an insight into God’s truth, a truth which is not to be feared, for it is grounded in love. And a truth which we can discover and experience in our own hearts and minds, individually and as a community. For the religious leaders of Jesus day, this is radical stuff, threatening anarchy as they would see it. The struggle as to who had access to truth, whether it was the priestly authorities or every believer, was to be refought many times in the church over the centuries.
So, for Niam, Bahram and Sedigh, I want to say to you today that the water of baptism is a symbol for that truth which is a gift of God, for each of you.
The earliest Christians talked about joining “The Way.” As you join this way, God does not offer you riches or protection from suffering, he offers you the truth, the truth of God, written into his creation. God calls you to uncover what this means for your life. There is no one right way for all of us – each of you will, I pray, discover a meaning and joy prepared only for you.
And I pray that this connection will become the meaning in which your life’s direction may be found. And in this truth you will find that you are not condemned when you fall short, but endlessly forgiven, endlessly loved.
Richard Young (Rector)