Trinity Sunday, 12 Jun 22
Many people know that online dating is not much fun. Swipe left or right when the picture of the potential love of your life comes up. Maybe he or she is lying about their age or their job. Maybe that lovely kitchen in the background isn’t really their’s. ’Twas ever thus though. Henry VIII, who didn’t have a great track record on these matters, of course, is said to have been disappointed when he met his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, in the flesh for the first time. Back then it was not unusual for the wealthy and important people to marry people not having seen them. Indeed there are some bizarre instances of people getting married and only meeting each other after their wedding day! Henry VIII blamed the fact that they weren’t happy on her not being as good-looking as he had been led to believe by the painter Hans Holbein, whose painting of Anne had been the only depiction Henry had seen. He subsequently dubbed her the “mare of flanders“ somewhat unkindly. Typical man always blaming the woman, I hear you say.
So, today’s sermon is not going to be a series of dating tips, you’ll be pleased to hear, but I do want us to think about how we come to know God. How do we come to know what He looks like? First, comes the warning that at one level we never know God fully here on earth. “No one has ever seen God,” St John writes at the beginning of his Gospel, his account of the good news of Jesus Christ (St John 1:18). It’s striking to note that in the Gospels only three people claim to know who Jesus is: First, God the Father who in the Baptism and the Transfigurations says, “This is my Son, the Beloved;” (St Matthew 3:17; 17:5). Secondly, St Peter who acclaims Jesus as “the Christ” the anointed one (St Matthew 16:16). Thirdly, the devils of the Capernaum synagogue who before they are thrown out of the one they torment, assert: “We know who you are - the Holy One of God,” (St Luke 4:34). We are therefore not to be awe-struck by everyone who says they know who God is. Indeed, the more confidently they assert it the more likely it is that they are wrong, I would suggest.
Far better than asserting we know God is to assert sincerely that we seek Him. The psalmist, as always, gives us beautiful words to express this desire: “Thou hast said, “Seek ye my face.” My heart says to thee, “Thy face, Lord, do I seek.” Hide not thy face from me,” (Psalm 27:8-9). And elsewhere, “As a [deer] longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God … When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42:2). It is the cry of confidence of Job in his sufferings that he will see God one day and knows then that all will be well (Job 19:26). I could go on. Resolve each day then, O beloved of God, to seek the Lord. Let’s not rest on our laurels thinking we have Him worked out already. The God who surprises us will always continue to do so here on earth.
And yet we are not to remain in ignorance. The Faith proposes to us that we can observe God through the world He has created. “The Heavens are declaring the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:1) the Psalmist declares and, as we heard in our psalm this morning, the heavens, the work of the hands of God inspire us and humble us (Psalm 8). Indeed we looked at some of these natural ways in which we discover who God is in our Study Group on ethics when we examined some of the natural laws within the world that can be perceived even by those with no faith: commandments such as do not kill or do not steal. It is also evident through observation of nature that there is intelligent design behind all that we survey: that God is love hence life only flourishes where there is love.
It is not possible, however, for someone just to study the world and come to know everything that it is necessary to believe about God. A huge amount needs to be revealed. This is in part a recognition that God’s nature is so beyond our reckoning that we need Him to be in charge of the revealing, we can’t just work this out ourselves. Saul, who after His conversion became Paul, knew a vast amount about God and the Old Testament Scriptures but he needed that revelation on the road to Damascus so he could know the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 9:1-22). Revelation doesn’t always involve folk being thrown off horses or bright blinding lights, you’ll be pleased to hear, but it illustrates that God reveals, it is not just our discovery.
One of the things, for example, we would struggle to discover without Divine Revelation is the great doctrine of the Trinity which we celebrate today. God is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: one God. Normally we learn that 1 + 1 + 1 = 3 but when it comes to God we believe that 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. Weird, isn’t it? Well, it makes sense actually of what we’ve been celebrating for the last two months. God sends His Son to die for a fallen humanity thus Jesus comes in to the world. But He’s not just some decent bloke who you’d love your daughter to marry or who would make a great preacher at a church service, He is able to forgive sins and, as a sign of His power, He heals the sick. He calms the winds and the waves. He is worshipped by Wise Men, ministered to by angels, gives admission to paradise to a penitent thief. I could go on. Jesus is God and only God could die on the Cross to save all humanity even though God does not by His very nature die. More than that, as we celebrated last Sunday with the tremendous feast of Pentecost - how marvellous it was too! - Jesus has promised that we’re going to be able to do amazing things because He is going to be with us until the end of age. His followers will somehow find words to communicate the awesomeness of God. His followers will endure persecutions, grief, failure, fear but He will continue to be at work among them and in them through the Holy Spirit. We see then three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but we know one God.
The Church teaches us this. St Patrick may have seen signs of the Doctrine of the Trinity in three leafed clovers; St Augustine of Hippo may have observed two lovers and the love that exists between them and seen this as a pattern for the divine life, but ultimately this is not discernible by sitting at home alone, studying the beautiful English countryside or indeed scrolling through Google search engine results. It is revealed in the Church to her children. We need to be adopted by grace, as St John reminds us (again from those opening verses of his Gospel, 1:12) becoming His children, so there is clearly some sense in which we cannot just be left to our own devices if we are to be saved.
Part of the beauty of this feast of the Holy Trinity then is that we are reminded we are called in to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ where we continue to discover more and more but one always grounded in our membership of the Church. Let’s just say a bit about this shared discovery of who God is. Well, through the Church we receive the grace we need to be faithful, imparted under such forms as Holy Communion. Through the Church we are taught, using things like the Profession of Faith (the Creed) we make at Mass which gives us phrases to reflect on, teaching us who God is. Through the Church we are taught by things like the sermon, I hope, and study groups that meet.
We’re also taught by each other, seeing the whole diversity of people God calls into a relationship with Him. When we gather we are to be sensitive to the fact that we don’t know what each person is going through in their personal lives, yet still they have come to worship the Lord, broken, confused and drained as much as we are, maybe more, maybe less. If we struggle to love them, we will struggle to love God, as St John reflects in one of his letters (I John 4:20). This reminds us too that we discover God in our service of others, in our attentiveness to the poor, in our forgiveness of others. One image that has always stayed with me was in a hot July when I was at second school doing some work experience in my old primary school. The children were getting changed for PE and I’d been asked to help this boy by the teacher. He’d taken his black shoes off and needed to put his plimsols on, which were clearly a bit small for me. He presented me with this dirty, sweaty foot with a sock and clearly expected me to take hold of it and put the plimsol on. I don’t think I’d ever done anything so yucky before and I have to say it made me realise I couldn’t be a primary school teacher! Anyway, if we have that repugnance within us in such situations how much of a greater leap is God making in sending His Son to die for us while we were still sinners. The leap is not to do with bodily hygiene or cleanliness but it is the repugnance with which God will look at our sin and yet He holds not Himself aloof from all those who come to Him. He loves us, He dies for us, He gives us His flesh to eat.
So yes, it is with others, that we are to discover who God is. But it must also be personal, true to us. God is not a force, nor a thing, not just an it, no. We use a personal pronoun for Him, Him, because we are to have a relationship with Him. He calls us by name. He knits us intimately in the womb of our mother. He gives us our gifts and talents, to make people laugh, to speak more than one language, to be able to cook, to sing His praises in His house, to read in public, to teach the young, to clean the beautiful world He has made. He comes to us at Mass and we are to consume His Flesh and His Blood. We can chat with Him when he abides in the Tabernacle and He will speak to us in the still small voice of calm.
So, brothers and sisters, if you find yourselves thinking you’re not sure you know God or don’t understand some thing about Him, this is not a reason to be depressed or for feeling inadequate. This humility keeps us grounded in the reality of how much beyond our thoughts God is. But this great feast of the Holy Trinity calls us more deeply in to the mystery of who He is, our calling to be lost in wonder, love and praise as we see the divine life of three persons and one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to Him glory and praise, now and for ever.