Today is that day in the church’s year where we are celebrating the idea that God is three persons, yet one God. That phrase, three persons, one God, is the traditional explanation for what we mean by Holy Trinity, but it is hardly a crystal clear explanation and it is hardly surprising that many people wonder what it is, exactly, that we are celebrating. And it is an extraordinary thing to claim about God – an idea that is completely unique to Christianity among the world’s religions.
So how can we maintain such a belief? Well, the idea that God consists of three persons is not an academic invention, but simply the way we have experienced God. We inherited the Jewish understanding of a single creator God who revealed himself to Abraham and who called Abraham’s descendants to be his chosen people. They, like us, call him Father. Then Jesus came along and we came to believe that he was God’s son. So he was God, but he still addressed his Father as a separate person, so we had two persons in God. Then Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit, who is also God, but is clearly described by Jesus as distinct from him and his Father, so we have three persons.
And it would be tempting therefore to claim that we, as Christians, in fact worship three Gods. But we don’t. We have always maintained belief in one God and therein lies the mystery at the heart of today’s celebration. How can we believe in both three and one?
Well, to describe God as three persons, one God requires us to re-think what we mean by the word God and what we mean by the word ‘person’. The remarkable revelation of the Holy Trinity is that God is not an all-powerful being, but an all-powerful relationship. The essence of God is in fact the relationship of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s why St John is able to say that God is love – not just that God is loving, but that God is love. It’s the perfect love shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit that makes them God. It is that love which is the creative force behind existence, that love which redeems us and that love which is the spark of life by which we are born again to eternal life.
And it is that quality of love that defines God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit live for each other, they long to serve one another and to supply all one another’s needs. You see, when we say that God lacks nothing, it is not because he is all-powerful, it’s that the relationship of love supplies every need. The Father has all he needs because the Son and the Holy Spirit supply his needs constantly. Likewise the Son is served and loved continually by the Father and the Holy Spirit and so on. The God we worship is in fact a dynamic relationship of love with the three of them constantly adoring one another, serving one another and delighting in one another. That, in fact, is what we mean by the word God.
And that in turn, defines who Father, Son and Holy Spirit are as persons. Their identity is entirely bound up in one another. They are so utterly bound to each other in love that they are one, much in the same way we talk about a marriage as making the two, one. Love binds us together as one – and God’s love being perfect binds Father, Son and Holy Spirit perfectly as one. They belong to one another and by belonging to each other they find their personal identity and their freedom. This is a very counterintuitive idea to modern minds. To belong to another person doesn’t sound very free to our ears.
We tend to think that we find our identity by separating ourselves from others. To find our true selves, we need ‘me’ time and space to look inwards. Just think about how we use the word ‘personal’ – my personal space, my personal effects, my personal bank account. To say ‘that’s personal’ means it’s private, no-one’s business but mine. We don’t think we belong to one another anymore. We believe we belong apart. Even within marriage, these days we prefer to see ourselves as individual free spirits, rather than souls that belong to one another.
But understanding God as Holy Trinity tells us that in fact, belonging to one another is precisely what it means to discover yourself as a person. We are created to relate to one another. Sin drives us apart, but God reconciles us back into the deepest possible relationship of love. And if we are to be who we truly are, if we are to be a ‘person’ in the true sense, then we need to turn from the path of individualism and seek a relationship of the deepest possible love with God and with one another.
Being a person, according to this God, is found not about being individuals set free from each other – that is just isolation and death – but in belonging to another being who loves us and values us above all things – even his own existence.
The whole story of the Bible is of God’s people being set free from slavery (in various forms) and finding freedom in God’s kingdom. But God’s kingship is expressed in love: a complete ravishing love that is expressed most supremely in Jesus giving his life for us. He gives his life for us on the Cross to save us from sin and death. But he also gives his life to us in pouring the Holy Spirit into our hearts, for in doing that, he pours his own self into us, so that he belongs to us and we to him.
To realise that God values us above his own existence is a truly mind blowing concept. From the dawn of time, human beings have considered the existence of God to be the most important question of all and very often our mission strategies have centred on proving God’s existence. Yet to God himself, his own existence is entirely secondary to his love of us. In submitting to the Cross, God showed himself quite willing to risk not existing, just in order to express his love for us. What can make us more valued than that – that God values us more than his own existence? What can set us more free than belonging to the being who gives us life and self-worth? Beside that vision, freedom really has no meaning. In the end it’s all about God himself and belonging to him. That’s what makes us the ‘person’ we are.
So to celebrate God as Holy Trinity means to celebrate love as the supreme force in existence, to celebrate our own value and one who is loved so much by God and to seek love and unity with that God and with one another.
That’s why there is no more important expression of our faith than love. It’s why Jesus, when charging us to convert the world, didn’t send us out with a mission strategy or training in preaching, or a set of cast-iron arguments with which to persuade the world. He told us to love one another – to be one so that the world may believe.
And this relates directly to what we have been praying for these last two weeks for “Thy Kingdom Come”. To pray for justice, peace and truth, it must begin with us and the way we relate to each other. It requires us to take very seriously the way we relate to each other. Do we still seek to define our identity against one another, thinking we’re better than each other, or even better off without each other? If so, that is not godly thinking. We belong to one another. God has united us and “what God has joined together, let no-one put asunder”. And what about our personal lives? In our marriages, do we still yearn to carve out personal space, or are we giving ourselves to each other? In our worship, do we still feel that God is an afterthought – someone we worship if we have time? Or do we belong to him, so that our relationship with him shapes everything we are and everything we do?
Now, here there lies something of a health warning, because when we look at the Holy Spirit, that unity comes because Father, Son and Holy Spirit can entirely trust one another. They know from experience that they are completely safe in each other’s care and therefore they can give themselves to each other. In the church, we know from experience that cannot give ourselves to each other with the same safety and at times that has been our undoing. We have sent wives back to abusive husbands, we have sent abusive priests back to their parishes and we have allowed spite and bullying to go unchecked within congregations – and even with Cathedral Chapters, Bishop’s staff teams and General Synod. The unity we see in the Holy Trinity is our destination. It is what we were made for, but through sin we fall far short of it. What we must do, however, is to see that unity as our top priority, our number one goal. And therefore we must pursue all that makes for peace, do everything we can to win one another over, to build up that trust. And that must be the case in our family lives, in our church life and in our outreach to our communities. We have to win their trust and show that we exist to love them and serve them and that we long to share their lives with them.
I hope you begin to see the difference it makes to worshipping God as Holy Trinity, as perfect loving relationship. We cannot love this God without also loving each other and longing to share that love with the whole world. And that is the context in which we pray “Thy Kingdom Come” in the hope that our friends and neighbours will come to know and love God personally. It is why we are a missionary faith, because love cannot but be shared. If we still see God as an all-powerful single being, then our outreach will always be oppressive – beating souls into submission and winning scalps for Jesus. It’s precisely what the Jehovah’s Witnesses do and that is because they don’t believe in the Holy Trinity. But we are not to be like them. We are to reach out in love and to show the world the same love Jesus showed us, by being totally fixed on them, wanting to serve them, help them and guide them to the creator who loves them more than his very existence. Because to God, his own existence is entirely secondary to his love of them.
So come, great God of love. Ravish our hearts with your prefect love, burn up in us all that seeks isolation and independence. Give us the courage to belong to one another, to be vulnerable with one another and give us the grace to be trustworthy, dependable and truly loving, so that we might love you, our God, with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and our neighbours as ourselves. Amen.