‘Jesus’ signifies the human being whose personhood is eternally caught up in relation with God and the Spirit. The name of the Trinity signifies the eternal bond of tripersonal love revealed in the man Jesus. Christians know, as deeply as they know anything, that God without Christ and the Spirit is remote and unavailing, that Christ without God and the Spirit is a martyred saint, that the Spirit without God and Christ is power bereft of form and direction. Faith lives from the interconnection of the three. — R Kendall Soulen, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity, Kindle ed., loc.198
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
That’s 2 Corinthians 13.13, the last verse of that letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…
That’s the second-last verse of the Gospel According to Matthew.
The New Testament is full of passages in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are spoken of in one breath. These passages are building blocks of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
It’s Trinity Sunday. So let’s make time for a little art appreciation.
Why art appreciation? Because a picture paints a thousand words; and even thousands upon thousands of words may still obscure the beauty of our God, the Holy Trinity of Love.
This is an icon of the Russian Orthodox Church, painted (or ‘written’) by a monk called Andrei Rublev about 600 years ago.
It’s based on the story of three angels who pop in on Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18. Abraham gives them a meal. Before we get very far into the story though, the angels are being spoken of together as one being: the Lord.
In other words, by the end of the story the three are one. You can see why that excited people’s imaginations with thoughts of the Holy Trinity.
Look at the icon. The Three are in wordless accord. All look the same; the Father is not old and bearded. The Spirit is not a dove. Each one carries an identical staff of authority. No Person is greater or lesser than the other.
They are sitting around the table, with the meal prepared for them, a lamb. The Father is on the left, and the Son and Spirit look to him.
The Son is in the middle, pointing to the lamb; he will be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
The Spirit points to a niche in the side of the table. This is the place where the relics of a saint are kept; it may be some of the saint’s bones or hair. This shows us that this is no ordinary table. It is the Altar, the Communion Table; and we are called as saints to enter the narrow way that leads into life through the way of the cross.
Finally, here we have three figures around a four-sided Communion Table. Who is the fourth side for? It is for us. You and I are invited to sit at the fourth side, the side where the niche is, which shows that the only way is the way of discipleship. In this way, we share the communion of self-giving that characterises the life of the Holy Trinity.
With this icon of the Holy Trinity in mind, let me invite you to do a thought experiment with me. Let’s think how it would be if we only had one of the Persons of the Trinity there in that icon.
Firstly, what if the Father were all there is to God, sitting all alone at this Table? ‘God’ can be a pretty remote figure sitting on high, judging decreeing the laws we should obey and slaying his enemies. A God who is only ‘high and lifted up’ may may leave us feeling helpless, exposed and insignificant. How could we even begin to call such a God ‘Father’? How could he share his Spirit with us?
How can we be sure he takes any notice of us at all?
How could we be absolutely sure he wasn’t more like the gods of some of our ancestors? He could be more like Thor, who valued men of war over all others, whose way was violence.
He may be a stern judge. Who would know? In tv or movie portrayals of religious people, they are often shown as being in fear of God as an implacable judge.
What then of the Son? What if Jesus were the only figure at that Table? We would have to see Jesus as just another human being, as so many do.
We could do that—after all, his teachings are sublime. He ‘went about doing good’. (Acts 10.38) He has inspired countless women and men to make the world a better place.
But if we separate Jesus Christ from God, there is no salvation in him. He becomes no more than an example to follow. He is that, certainly, but he is also Redeemer and Saviour and Lord. In his death he put things right between us and God, we are raised with him in his risen life—but only if he is the incarnate Son of the Father.
If he is not, then the best we can say is that Jesus died a martyr’s death 2000 years ago. And that was it. He is dead, so he cannot share his Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, with us. We can look back on him, remember him as a fine and indeed holy human being, teacher and healer—but no more than that.
What if the Holy Spirit were the only figure in Rublev’s icon? Would the Spirit be enough? Could the Spirit be all we need as God?
The Spirit blows where it wishes. Jesus said that. You feel it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.
Perhaps the Spirit-wind is directionless. Maybe it bows us about from one thing to another with no rhyme or reason. Could that be what God does?
If God were a totally unpredictable Spirit, we might find ourselves blown about, battered and bruised by the gusts of the Spirit-wind.
The Spirit-wind could be an impersonal force, acting upon us but by no means being the great Source of love that the universe is built upon. If that were the case, this icon would never have come into being.
Yet the Spirit-wind does have a direction. You can sense it if you stand still enough. Some of us don’t stand still for long these days, though. The waiter who serves you coffee apologises if you wait three minutes. It’s a gift to just sit and be for that long. How can we pray if we don’t make time to be still?
It’s not all up to us though. People who have come before us, people who have sat still long enough, they tell us this: this Spirit is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of God the Father who looks tenderly upon us with a love we might think is a mother’s love. The Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, who leads us to choose that narrow way, that way the icon points us to, the way of Jesus Christ.
God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Father is God-beyond-us, the source and goal of all creation.
The Son is God-with-us, healing and teaching us, walking beside us, taking our place on the cross.
The Spirit is God-within-us, turning our hearts towards that life-giving, death-defeating eternal dance of life which is the Holy Trinity.
Even now, we are taking our first faltering steps in that dance with God. We’re not good at it yet, we forget our moves and stand on the toes of the others in the dance. But the day will come when we are step perfect. And won’t that be a day?
I give thanks for Rublev’s icon of God the Holy Trinity. Someone once said that it is a proof of the Trinity. I do think they said that with their tongue in their cheek, but for me it comes close.
So surrender yourself today to God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose grace, love and counsel are ours now and forevermore.
Delivered at Trinity Wellington Point Uniting Church, 27 May 2018