Sermon for Williamstown
May 31st, 2015
Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
One of the things that Trinity Sunday does is remind us, in case we’ve forgotten, just how unique, or possibly weird, the Christian understanding of God is. My most recent reminder of this was in Nazareth, in Israel. On the road to the Church of the Annunciation a billboard has been erected that quotes from the Koran:
“O People of the Scripture (Christians)! Do not exceed the limits in your religion. Say nothing but the truth about Allah (The one true God). The Christ Jesus, Son of Mary, was only a Messenger of God and His word conveyed to Mary and a spirit created by Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not say “Three gods” (Trinity). Cease! it will be better for you. Indeed, Allah is the One and the Only God. His holiness is far above having a son.”
Having read this sign, Christians then go to the church built over the house identified as the one in which Mary was living when the archangel Gabriel told her that she was going to bear a son. That’s what makes us different from the other two Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam. All three Abrahamic faiths worship the one God, but we Christians insist on saying that the one is simultaneously three; that God was not above having a Son, and that that Son was himself God.
The insistence of Christians that God is both three and one can cause great difficulty if we think about it as a mathematical problem. But we’re not trying to reconcile three and one as an intellectual exercise. The doctrine of the Trinity is a statement of faith, not of maths. Saying that God is Trinity summarises what faith in the God of Jesus Christ means. It declares that the God who became incarnate in Christ and is with us now as Spirit, is the one true, living God. When we say that God is three, we say that the invisible, transcendent God was made visible and immanent in Jesus, and is still with us, within us and between us and around us, as Spirit.
In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures the prophet Isaiah has a vision of a God who is holy, mighty, absolute, other. Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne with the mere hem of his robe filling the temple, attended by praising seraphs. The voices of the seraphs are so loud that they shake the building, and the building itself is filled with smoke. This is a literally awesome image of God; an image to fill us with awe. This is a vision of the God who is wholly other than human; the God who is the almighty.
In response to this image, Isaiah becomes aware that he is a mere mortal, and definitely not God. The transcendence of God reveals to him his own sinfulness, and he responds in fear and sorrow: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ In comparison to the Lord of hosts Isaiah, like all humanity, is unworthy, inadequate, puny. God is enthroned, high and lofty, and Isaiah is unworthy to see even the hem of God’s garment. Yet he has seen this vision, and it leaves him terrified.
Isaiah is not left in this terror. Isaiah has seen the holy God who fills the earth with glory, and realised in contrast his own sinfulness and inadequacy – and immediately that sinfulness is forgiven and that inadequacy overcome. Isaiah reports: ‘Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”’ The seraph is quoting the technical language of the rites of forgiveness in the Temple. Before Isaiah can even formulate a request for forgiveness, that forgiveness has been granted. It probably wasn’t painless; lips being touched with a live coal would end up scorched, at the least. But it was complete. Isaiah’s guilt is gone and his sin buried.
This may be why Isaiah answers immediately to God’s call with: ‘Here am I; send me!’ Most people called by God in the Bible protest, arguing that they’re not qualified. But Isaiah responds to his call with alacrity, because his feelings of inadequacy have been overcome. God, the Lord of hosts, the almighty, the holy one whose praises the seraphim sing, is also the one who forgives and calls into service.
Christians see this almighty, holy one, in the life of a human being. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ God is not only the Father, the Creator, the Almighty, the Lord of Hosts. God is also the Son, the Saviour, our Brother, who came to live among us so that the world might be saved through him. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we know that God watches over the widow and the poor; God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike; God welcomes the stranger and embraces the enemy. We know all this because God is experienced and known through Jesus Christ.
When our Brother and Saviour Jesus returned to our Father we weren’t left alone. The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, continues to be active in the world, bringing us into communion with the Trinity. ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’ It is the Holy Spirit who creates the church to which we all belong, and into which we’re welcoming James today. Humanity and all creation are brought into relationship with God by water and the Spirit.
I hope this is giving you a sense of why the doctrine of the Trinity excites me. (Yes, I am the sort of geek who gets excited by theological doctrines.) I’m particularly excited by one portrayal of the Trinity. What has historically been the most common image of the Trinity is something like the one seen in this 18th century fresco by Luca Rossetti da Orta. I look at this image and I see a hierarchical Trinity; God the Father is definitely more important than God the Son, and they’re both more important that the Holy Spirit, who is portrayed as a dove rather than as a person.
But look at the icon of the Trinity that is most famous today, the 15th century icon written by Andrei Rublev. Rublev’s icon is based on the story of the three visitors who met with Abraham under the oaks of Mamre, and in this icon the Trinity is portrayed as a group of equals. This is exciting! When we say God is Trinity, we say that God in God’s very self is a community of mutuality, equality and love. And since we human beings are made in the image of God, we are also made to be members of communities of mutuality, equality and love, in imitation of God. The church, as the body of Christ in the world, is called to be such a community; which is one of the reasons that we here in the Uniting Church ordain both women and men as ministers, declared thirty years’ ago that we’re a multicultural church, and welcome GLBTI people.
Today we are baptising James in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. James is being born from above through water and the Spirit. As part of that liturgy we will say the Apostles Creed together, and we’ll say that we believe in God, the Father Almighty; Jesus Christ, God’s only Son; and the Holy Spirit. That’s not something that we can explain with ice, water and steam; or the three leaves of a clover; or with any of the many other metaphors that ministers try to use when talking about the Trinity. It’s something in which we can rejoice. The one God who created the world, became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and continues to love us and accompany us as the Holy Spirit, welcomes us into the community of love that is God. That’s what James is being welcomed into today, a community of love. Let us be glad and celebrate. That’s what the doctrine of the Trinity is – a celebration. Thanks be to God. Amen.