Sermon for Williamstown
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday. We celebrate explicitly what is implicit every time we gather for worship: that the God we are worshipping is both One and Three. This is the central Christian understanding of God. We don’t worship a God who is an isolated individual, but a God who in God’s very self is a community of love.
If we look at the Trinity in the wrong way, it can seem a strange, impossible, even academic doctrine. How can we assert that God is both three and one? Insisting that God is triune can make it look as though we believe in three gods. Our siblings in the Abrahamic faiths, Muslims and Jews, have at times accused us of being polytheists. The Koran is clear about it; it says that ‘The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than God’s apostle and His Word which He cast to Mary: a spirit from him. So believe in God and His apostles and do not say “Three”.’ But we do say ‘Three’ and we simultaneously say ‘One’ and that’s the mystery that we celebrate today.
The Trinity is the Christian way of understanding God. But we don’t get it straightforwardly from the Bible. In today’s gospel reading Jesus refers to the Spirit of Truth who will guide us into all truth, and he refers to the Father and says that all the Father has is his. The three ‘persons’ of the Trinity are present in the passage, but God isn’t described in so many words as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. There are only two places in the Bible where that description is used. One is the commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. The other is the blessing given by Paul and used widely in the Uniting Church: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you’. That’s it; two verses out of the many thousands in the scriptures. It wasn’t until the fourth century, in the Nicene Creed, that God was finally firmly and doctrinally defined by the church as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity developed as a way of understanding who Jesus was and is. The early Christian community knew that God had been definitively revealed in Jesus. Jesus was human, the son of Mary. But Jesus was also God. And this God that Christians experienced in Jesus was still present with them in Spirit even after Jesus himself had left them. Through the Spirit, they continued to have a relationship with Jesus after his death, resurrection and ascension. Over several centuries the Christian community worked to find a way of describing this, and their answer was that God is one God in three ‘persons’. Doctrine follows faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is a summary statement of the Christian faith. By saying that we worship the Triune God, Christians are declaring that the God who became incarnate in Jesus and accompanies us as the Spirit is the one true living God. This is what we mean whenever we use the formula ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.
The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the Christian God is a God in relationship, a God whose nature is community. The God worshipped by Christians is not an isolated individual. God in God’s very self is a community of love, a community of equality, in which three exist so intimately with, for and in one another that they become one. The theologian Leonard Boff says that ‘God is the lover, the beloved, and the love between them’.
Through the incarnation, the Son of God becoming one with humanity, we’re invited to join this community, to become one with the Father, Son and Spirit as they are one. Eastern theology describes this as ‘deification’, being made like Christ, sharing in the divine nature. The Trinity shows us that the divine life we are invited to share in is a life of love and communion with others. We’re invited to live in the community of Christ created by the Spirit.
After all this discussion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit I want to talk about another description of God altogether, another way that the biblical writers portrayed God: through Lady Wisdom, who speaks to us from the book of Proverbs. What’s the connection between Lady Wisdom and the Triune God? One answer is that this description of Wisdom was one of the resources that the early Christians turned to when trying to describe how Jesus could be both human and God. Another answer is that Lady Wisdom is what the Holy Spirit looks like when personified. Wisdom, who was with the Creator during creation and was ‘his daily source of joy’, is the Spirit who moved over the waters in the creation story in Genesis. Most importantly, the description of Wisdom and her activities, even though told as metaphor, tells us a lot about the nature of the God we worship.
In today’s reading Lady Wisdom describes her relationship with God. She tells us that she was the firstborn of God, brought forth before creation, and then present with God as everything else was created. This immediately reminds us of the opening words of the Gospel of John describing the Son who was incarnate in Jesus: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ Early Christians saw in the relationship between Wisdom and the Creator a metaphor of the relationship between Father and Son.
The translation we read today says that as God created, Wisdom ‘was beside him, like an architect,’ but the Hebrew word translated ‘architect’ could also mean ‘little child’. Either Wisdom helped God create the world, or Wisdom grew up beside God, watching as the Creator created. Those of us who have watched children grow up can understand the relationship between ‘little child’ Wisdom and God that Wisdom describes: ‘I was his daily source of joy, always happy in his presence.’ Just as God rejoiced in watching Wisdom grow and develop, so Wisdom rejoices in watching the world and human beings grow; she was ‘happy with the world and pleased with the human race’. This might be one reason for Wisdom being pictured as female; she is rejoicing in the growth of humanity in the way that a mother rejoices in the growth of her children. For the writer of Proverbs, mothers were the first source of wisdom for young children, and this is the relationship that Wisdom has with us. Lady Wisdom shows us that the relationship between God and the creation is one of joy and delight, and that we are loved and cared for by God as a mother loves and cares for her small children.
Wisdom tells us other things about the nature of God. She calls out to us like a royal herald, raising her voice everywhere: on the heights; beside the way; at the crossroads where prostitutes would stand to have the maximum visibility and exposure; beside the gates in front of the town, where the town’s social, commercial and legal activity was centred. There is nowhere that Wisdom is not. Wisdom calls to us in the midst of our everyday lives. God seeks to reach us wherever we are. And because Wisdom is everywhere, we know that we Christians don’t need to separate ourselves from the world to find God. God is present and at work outside the church and the Christian community and the Bible.
Wisdom gives us a feminine image of God; Lady Wisdom, Sophia in Greek, is female. Because Jesus was male and because he referred to the first person of the Trinity as ‘Father’ it has been easy for Christians to fall into the trap of imagining that God is male. Lady Wisdom reminds us that the God we describe most commonly as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is neither male nor female and has feminine as well as masculine aspects.
So, to return from Lady Wisdom to the Trinity: the Trinity is not a strange, incomprehensible or academic doctrine. It sums up our faith in God; the one God who created the world, became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and continues to love us and accompany us as the Holy Spirit. And the Trinity shows us how we are to live as Christians, as people in loving community. We are created in the image of God, and the Trinity reveals that God in Godself is a community of love. This is what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday – and on every other day of the year.