A Sermon by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Today is Trinity Sunday – the day the church across the world celebrates the discovery that God is three persons in one God. In the UK it is also Father’s Day… so I want to use our time this morning to look at what these two have to say to each other. Trying not to overemphasise the word Father in relation to the Trinity as there is more to God than merely a Father Son dynamic with a bird hovering above them.
How can our understanding of God as Trinity be not but information, but transformation for our fears of the past, the present and the future.
I’d like to tell you a story is about a young man called Jack. Jack had a mostly happy childhood. The parts that were not happy were largely due to the fact that his father had a temper and was occasionally violent. But the good times outweighed the bad and Jack grew up relatively unscarred. He met a young woman, fell in love and they got married. She fell pregnant and it was only when Jack went to the first scan that the challenges of his own relationship with his father began to niggle. How could a basically good man hit his wife and children? Eventually Jack found an opportune moment to ask his mother how it all started.
He wasn’t quite ready for the answer.
The first time Jack’s father had been violent to his mother was when she was pregnant with Jack. The baby had seemed ok, Jack’s father was full of remorse and promised never to do it again. Gradually life got back to normal. Until a year or so later it he exploaded at Jack’s mother again and the cycle continued.
“You have to understand” Jack’s mother began “he had a difficult childhood too”. She told Jack about how his grandfather had been a disciplinarian headmaster, controlling Jack’s father’s every move. He wasn’t permitted to have a normal childhood, certainly not a normal teenage-hood. No opinions were welcomed so Jack’s father had lived in fear of being himself, lived in fear of expressing his thoughts so things erupted once in a while. Jack’s father had been a better father than his father had been.
This story wasn’t enough for Jack.
The anger at his father grew, and with it, the fear that he could become like him began to eat away at his soul.
How could he bring a vulnerable child into the world, how could he father it, when his own experience of this had been marked by violence from before he was born?
He began to withdraw from his wife, spend more time at work. Focussing on anything other than his growing family. Ice started to form over his heart.
One night, after a few drinks at the office party, he opens up to you, his work colleague. He’s heard that you’re a christian and felt he could trust you with his story. “You seem to have a peace about life.” he tells you. You smile thinking that your life is anything but peaceful but this isn’t the time for that. He wants to know what your faith has to say to him.
What can we say to Jack? What can the christian faith offer to someone in his predicament? What can if offer to Jack as he grasps for resources to navigate the violence of his father? What can it offer him as he navigates how to be a good dad to his own child – should he just withdraw so he doesn’t break this little person in the way his father has broken him? What can it offer to someone in the situation of Jack’s father – so controlled that he was unable to let people see what he really thought without it erupting in anger?
Mostly you just listen and sympathise with how hard it sounds for Jack. You suggest that he might want to talk to a professional, a counsellor, to unpack some of what he is talking about. This seems important but he is insistent, as people who hide desperation can be. Nothing in the way this is going will take him anywhere good but he can’t see a way out. He needs a ray of light to come down and bring a new perspective on his story. He needs information that is so powerful it can bring a transformation. “Tell me” he slurs “what does your believes about God and stuff have to say about my life?”
Well, if you are ever in that situation, if you relate to Jack or Jack’s father in any of the parts of this story, I’d like to offer you three thoughts about the trinity that might help.
The first one is that the doctrine of the trinity gives us a new story of where we came from. Jack’s past and his experience of his father isn’t the only story to tell about his life.
Just as there are different ways to tell the story about your origins…
– the biological story – egg meets sperm
– a relational story about parents, who wanted a child, or something more complicated
– Perhaps we could also tell a story of how humanity was born through evolution and survival of the fittest… “You are the genes that survived” say inspirational speakers on Ted Talks “believe in yourself!”
The TV Show “Who do you think you are?” (which I’m addicted to) peddles this kind of hope “Don’t worry if your family of doctors and lawyers have never understood your dreams of becoming an actor, 4 generations ago there was a travelling showman in your ancestors, so you were destined to do this.”
But there is another story about your life. And because this story is also about Almighty God – the most significant being in the universe… all of the other stories are footnotes – details – in the greater story of God …and you.
So the story of your life opens with the lines that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit loving each other, and wanted a people to share that love with.
God the Creator formed humanity (you and me) from dust,
God the Redeemer was with humanity (foreshadowing the incarnation, suffering and resurrection)
and God the Sustainer was the breath of the Spirit of Life that enlivened your molecules.
Chapter two says that God created humanity, you and me, in community – difference in gender and personality and then God walked with us, in a garden, as a friend.
This is where you come from. This is, most fundamentally, why you were made.
It takes the pressure off our human experiences, our other stories… whatever else has happened to you, because of the Trinity, you started with LOVE.
Secondly, What does our understanding of God as Trinity have to say about the present, the here and now?… The question of the moment, how can Jack have a relationship with his soon to be born child when he feels he is on such shaky ground? How can he be close to this precious little person when he isn’t even sure where he is himself.
The Christian understanding of God is that humanity is never at arm’s length to God.
I have a terrible sense of direction. If you put me in a park, a city or (even worse) a forest within five minutes I have no idea where I am. The one thing I do have in my favour is that I gravitate towards those maps they have on signs dotted around. The best ones have a big arrow saying “You are here” so you know where you are in relation to everything else.
If God had a map there would be a big arrow pointing to Jesus saying to us “You are here.”
You and I and the whole of humanity is held within God the Son and thus within the tightly knit community of the Trinity.
When I was young one of my sisters made friends with someone who lived on our street who had a difficult family situation. She would often (most days) eat with us, do her homework with us and hang out at our house. My parents treated her as one of the family. She was included because she was with my sister. We are included in the community of the Godhead, because we are in the Son.
Jack’s present location is not a wobbly foothold of inherited rage but to be held in the very heart of God through God the Son.
An arrow on the map of God points to God the Son and says to you and me “You are Here”.
Finally the doctrine of the Trinity promises that this story of humanity, the story of you and I and Jack will not end with us being absorbed, lost, consumed into God.
At the point of your conversation, Jack and his father are in some senses at war. But they are also perversely united in their fear.
Jack’s father’s experience of being in the all pervasive force of a father figure who left no space for anyone else, and Jack’s own experience of a volatile father who also invades the space of his family leaving him trapped in a cycle they can’t escape of inherited destruction that seems to run down the male side of his family. They are both afraid of a future where they will cease to exist so are clinging on to their sense of self.
It’s not uncommon to worry that discovering God will lead to this. We worry that the more we open ourselves up to God, the more religious we become, the less ourselves we will be.
However the Christian story ends, not with the consumption of individuals but with eternal space for them fuelled not by our sacrifice of ourselves but by the consumption of the eternally abundant God.
We can be confident of this because even after all this time, God the Father has never become God the Son and God the Son has never become God the Spirit, we can be confident that, however perfect we become, however much love we have, the differences between us, the thing that makes you you and me me, will still be there.
This is the picture, the icon, we are aiming to represent here in the church, to be a community of committed love to one another and of liberation within that love.
In the Trinity, Jack’s story is not reduced or minimised in it’s importance but is drawn into a larger narrative.
A narrative tells the bigger story of
God the creator who formed Jack in love
God is the redeemer who holds Jack (with all his pain and challenges) within the very heart of the Godhead.
God is the sustainer who promises to hold space for Jack to be his most loving and most creative self… and by God’s grace he can become himself.