God’s mission, and ours: Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2016

Scripture Readings: Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

God’s mission, and ours

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I was at school, I quite liked science- though I would never pursue it very far, because to do so you need to be good at maths, which I never mastered. But I did like the experiments. Earlier we were talking with the children about the different states of water- that ice and steam are, in fact, water in different states. At school, we once took a balloon full of hydrogen to the bottom of a playing field, put a naked flame to it, and it filled an empty cup with water- almost a magic trick. But the hydrogen had reacted with the oxygen in the atmosphere to make H2O- water. Liquid water, ice and steam are all made of hydrogen and water- different aspects of the same stuff. Light that you can see, infrared light that makes automatic doors work, X-rays, radar, electricity and magnetism, TV and radio waves are also different aspects of the same thing- different wavebands of electromagnetic radiation.

Nowadays, the scientists are trying to bring together all the different strands of knowledge about the universe, searching for the maths that will explain the forces which hold atoms together through to the gravitational forces which hold galaxies together. They all it ‘the theory of everything’- and they are tantalising close to working it all out.

I enjoy reading and hearing about science, but I’m sorry I never got very far with maths. Recently there was a wonderful BBC Scotland documentary about the building of the Forth Bridge, and at the end they asked people who had worked on it what they thought when they looked at it today. One man, who had been a very young civil engineer, said that for him, it was ‘maths in action’- and so it is. Because there is nothing on that bridge which isn’t there because someone calculated that it had to be there. And so it is with all of creation. Maths in the language of science. Numbers and equations explain the universe very well. Creation is really maths in action.

Russian icon of the Old Testament Trinity by Andrey Rublev, between 1408 and 1425Sometimes the doctrine of the Trinity is seen as anti-scientific because it seems to be rubbish maths. The conundrum is straightforward- we claim to believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But isn’t that really three Gods- Father, Jesus and Spirit? From the very beginning, Muslims have rejected the Christian idea of the Trinity, suspecting that it takes Christianity away from the worship of God, who can only be One. For our contemporaries, to speak of ‘God in three persons’ and to be pondering the Trinity makes it look as though Christians are totally out of church with the real world.

This week, the media will no doubt hone in on the problems which the Church of Scotland has in bringing the message of the Gospel to the real world. The challenges are absolutely enormous. Take one piece of maths which puts the Church of Scotland’s problems into perspective. Today the church has about 800 ministers, serving around 1,500 parishes. But because so many of our existing ministers are coming up to retirement age, and because of the low number of new people coming into the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the General Assembly will hear that ‘the Church of Scotland has to face the fact that by the early-2020s the number of full-time Parish ministers will have fallen to around 600’[1]. So, in just over 5 years’ time, we will have about ¾ of the ministers that we have at the moment. We cannot possibly expect that the Church can just carry on as normal, with a quarter fewer ministers. If three persons in one God sounds like impossible maths, 600 ministers doing the work of 800 ministers is even less plausible.

Maths clearly shows the scale of the issues facing the church. So why should we bother with the maths of the Trinity at a time like this? Because, brothers and sisters, the Church is not just any old organisation. The church’s is not going to somehow win back Scotland through the efforts of its members. We are never going to return to a golden age of filled pews. We are people who certainly take maths and science seriously- as do most of our contemporaries. But like many of our contemporaries, we suspect that the maths and science will never, in fact, give us a theory of absolutely everything. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we think that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy’.

But unlike most of our contemporaries, we know that there is something real behind our claim that there is more to life and the universe than what can be measured in numbers. We believe in God- but not just any God. ‘All my hope on God is founded’ says the hymn. But St Paul is specific about our God- who God is, what God is like- and more importantly, about our relationship to God.

In our reading from the Letter to the Romans, Paul says, ‘Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’. We Christians don’t just have a vague hope that there is ‘something beyond’. In Jesus Christ, we have met the God of creation. In Jesus Christ, we have been brought into a relationship with God. In Jesus Christ, we meet a God who loves us and cares for us, a God who goes with us and who will not let us go. That’s not an airy-fairy hope for something beyond the numbers. God is infinitely mysterious, but in Christ we know God is real.

And in our Gospel reading, St John tells us that Jesus promised his friends that even after he had gone, they would be led deeper into the knowledge and love of God. Jesus speaks to his friends of the Holy Spirit who is to come: ‘When… the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all the truth’. Here is a promise that God will continue to be at work in the Church, that God will never leave the Church, and that we still have discoveries to make about God’s care and love.

Thankfully, the doctrine of the Trinity is not, in fact, impossible maths. The Trinity is, in fact, really easy to understand. Like ice, liquid water and steam, we know God in different ways. We inherited from Judaism the concept of the single, creator God. And as the early Christians thought about it, they saw that there was something divine in Jesus of Nazareth- he was human, but he was also God. And they realised that they were still aware of the presence of the God of Jesus Christ at work in the church and in the world- they called that the Holy Spirit. Father, Son and Holy Spirit- three aspects of the one God, three ways that Christians know their God.

And as we think about the situation of the church in the world today, pondering the Trinity is not, in fact, just idle metaphysical speculation. For the Trinity tells us about our God, and therefore gives us a clue to what we ought to be about. We are a Trinitarian Church- we confess faith in One God, known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to grapple with what today’s readings show very clearly- that the God of the Bible is know in these three ways: Father, Son and Spirit. Or, if you like- God is our Creator, Redeemer and Companion. The Trinity is not bad maths- it’s a description of who the Christian God is.

Quite often, the church has faced times of crisis in its history. Today’s crisis is not the first time it’s happened. But it seems to me that thinking about the Trinity in a time of crisis is not an idle luxury, a retreat from the real issue. Thinking about the Trinity is a necessity, for a church in crisis needs to decide what is important.

Jesus in our Gospel reading says that one of the functions of the Holy Spirit is that ‘he will lead you into all the truth’. Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and Judea only last a couple of years. Many his followers would have been with him for even less than that. He could not unfold all the mysteries of God to them in that time. So he promises the Spirit will continue to lead them ‘into all the truth’.

We are never, ever, going to get to the entire truth about God- at least, not in this life. So we still need the Spirit to help lead us into the truth. Quite often people think that religious truth is something which was set down in the past- in a holy book, in dogmatic doctrines, in traditions which cannot be altered, even in buildings which are able to be touched. But John’s Gospel here suggests that the truth is something we have not yet reached. The whole truth is in the future, not the past. It seems that the Spirit of God works in the church to take us into the future. There new insights awaiting us, things we can dimly see, which are still to be fully revealed.

Which is why I’m, in fact, confident about the future of God’s church. The maths tells us that we are going to have to change utterly. We are going to have to lose things which were important to us, and move to a future which seems full of uncertainty.  But we know that we have a Spirit leading us into the truth. The crisis that we face today is the Spirit’s way of breaking the old to allow the new to appear. However painful it might be for us to see the familiar going, we can face the future with confidence. Because the Spirit is ahead of us, the Spirit wants to lead us ‘into all the truth’. We have new truths ahead to discover. The best is yet to come.

If our God is the one true God, creator of all that is, how can we not be confident? And if Jesus Christ has put us into a new relationship with God, in which we are the beloved children of God, how can we not be confident? And it the Spirit is carrying on the work of Christ, leading us into the truth, how can we not be confident? God, Father, Son and Spirit, is who is at the heart of the Church- the one we worship, the one whom we follow, the one who leads us. So how can we not be confident that, even if it’s very different than the past, the Church of the future will still be led and blessed by God?

And in this difficult present, listen to these words of St Paul to the first Christians of Roman: ‘We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance brings God’s approval, and his approval creates hope’. My goodness, we don’t have troubles to look for in the church today. Many of those troubles will get an airing at the General Assembly this week. Many of those troubles are very clear to us in this congregation. But Paul says of ‘troubles’- boast of them! Endure the troubles, they’re character-building[2] for us. Because for people of faith, troubles and difficulties are also places where God is at work. We who believe in the Trinity believe that the Spirit is at work, even in the hard places.

The Trinity is not a funny maths puzzle. It’s when the church takes seriously who the God of the Trinity is that we can begin to get beyond what might seem impossible maths problems for us today. For the God of the Trinity is a God who is at work in the world. A God who created and sustains the universe- the only and greatest God of all. A God who, in Jesus Christ, has come into the world, showing his love and making it possible to know God’s love. And a God who is still at work- in our messy world, and even when we feel like failures- leading us into a future of new truths to discover.

Thanks be to our God- our Creator, our Saviour, leading us on and not letting us go. Amen!

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2016 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] Assembly Reports 2016 Ministries Council  1.2.2.3, p14/5

[2] cf Romans 5.4: ‘endurance brings God’s approval, and his approval creates hope’ in GNB, but ‘and endurance produces character, and character produces hope’ in NRSV. Cf CK Barrett: ‘We exult in afflictions “because we know that affliction produces endurance, and endurance tried character, and tried character hope”… It is not simply the ability to support affliction and distress, but the attitude that looks through affliction and distress to find their meaning in God’ The Epistle to the Romans Second Edition 1991 p97