Before I say anything else this morning, I want you to try and clear your minds of everything that is going through them at the moment (what you had for breakfast, what you’re going to have for lunch, why the new priest has put an icon of the Trinity in the sanctuary, whether you would rather still be in bed…) I want you to try and clear your minds of all those things and focus instead on one question. This is the question: when have you experienced a moment of grace in the last week — a moment when something really good has happened, when you have felt especially close to God?
I am going to give you a moment to think about that, but do not worry I am not going to come around and ask you what it is, but just try to pinpoint a moment of grace, when you have experienced God’s presence in your life in the last seven days. It might be helpful for you to close your eyes whilst you do it.
For some of us, our experiences of God are rather like one of those thunder bolts in the storm last night, crashing down to earth. One minute we were happily living in a God-free world, and then in the next moment we found ourselves (through a powerful experience, whatever it was), coming face to face with God, and our lives were changed. For others of us, our experience of God has been rather less dramatic, but no less significant, our experience has been one of God’s quiet faithfulness to us over many years, nothing dramatic but always re-assuring.
Those two different routes to God, or rather routes from God to us, are as powerful and significant as each other. They lead us to be transformed (changed) into people who can speak of an experience of God at work in our lives. By asking that simple question regularly, we are able to pinpoint some actual experiences which we have had of God in our lives over the last few days: and experiences of God (however small)have the power to change lives.
At the heart of our faith is the deep reality of the possibility of experiencing God at work in our lives. Christian history is punctuated by such testimonies. Jesus promises in our Gospel reading this morning that he will be with us always, to the end of the age. That is not an academic statement: the Christian hope is that we will truly experience God, and living in the experience of God is at the heart of what it means for us to live as individual Christians, and for us to live as a Christian community based here in Greenwood.
Last week we were thinking during the Great Festival of Pentecost about communicating the good news of Jesus to others. We can say something about that good news, because we have experienced God in our lives, in the lives of those who have touched us, and in our world. We move from saying something about our experience to inviting others to share that experience, in the knowledge that it is only in. experiencing God at work,(rather than just learning things about God)that we and others will truly be transformed. We are not called simply to teach others the faith, we are called to invite others to experience God in their own lives.
I am saying this today because we are celebrating together the Festival of the Most Holy Trinity. When I was growing up in Sunday School we were taught on Trinity Sunday that although one plus one plus one is three; one multiplied by one, multiplied by one, is still one. I have never forgotten that as one of the most unhelpful explanations I have ever heard about the Trinity. Even then as a young boy, it simply baffled me to think that the Trinity, the Christian understanding that God is both three and one, can be explained away as nothing more than just a mathematical game. I suppose it did not help that I was an ardent opponent of maths and numbers in all their forms!
This morning on this Festival of the Trinity, I want to do something more than give you a slick mathematical solution to the nature of God. I want instead to suggest to us that we should focus on our experience of God, rather than on the doctrine of God which we have been told by others. This is what the first disciples of Christ had to do. Whilst we can build the idea of the Trinity from the texts which we find in the Bible, the New Testament does not provide a clear and consistent Trinitarian understanding of God.
The early Christians (who of course were actually Jews) had to rethink the understanding of God which they had received from the Jewish tradition. They knew above all, that God must be one. The Jewish scriptures were clear about it, and Jesus had reminded them of it on many occasions. The words of the Ten Commandments were not up for negotiation: remember the words? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, you shall have no other gods before me.” But this created for those first Christians a serious problem.
Their belief in one God seemed to deny the experience which they lived in Jesus; that Jesus contained for them all those things which pointed to the divine life. They had encountered God in the actions and words of the human Jesus and they found God revealed and active in this Son, who welcomed outcasts into the Kingdom of God and spoke the word of forgiveness on God’s behalf. So the question for them was, “if God was one, then who was Jesus, and why did they experience through him such an incredible and tangible sign of God’s presence?”
There was also the experience which followed Jesus’ rising from the dead. After Pentecost they found God in a new explosion of energy which sustained and guided them, they called this experience the “Holy Spirit of God,” and likened it in some way to the presence or spirit of Jesus in their midst.
So the early followers of Jesus, reflecting after his death, resurrection and ascension, had to rethink their understanding of the being of God, because of their experience of God’s acts among them. They could no longer hold to the same strict idea of monotheism -(of one God I which they had inherited, because they knew that there was more to their experience of living in the presence of God, than could be adequately described in the ancient formulary of there being just one God. But they knew too, and were adamant about the fact, that there could not be many gods. The alternatives which they saw in the many religions of the culture around them neither rang true for them, nor seemed in any way to correspond to the experience which they had in Christ.
As they expressed their three different experiences of God, they found them to be linked in a way which had not been described before: they experienced the God who created them and the whole world, and who loved them and sent God’s son e’ experienced the Son who loved them and sent his spirit. And so they came to understand these three experiences, these three persons, as in some way one, and yet also three: creating, redeeming and sustaining life.
Saint John Chrysostom, one of the early Christian preachers, likened this Trinity to the sun. Imagine in your minds, a sunrise over the ocean, the heat of the midday sun, and a sunset: each with particular beauty and necessity, each emanating from the one gaseous, fiery globe of light which keeps all of us alive, and yet three very different experiences.
Saint Patrick talked about the Clover Leaf, the great Irish leaf with three distinct parts and yet one whole. Much more recently we have come to speak about water, which we drink as liquid, or use to cool us as a solid in ice, or see coming off our morning cup of coffee as the vapour of steam.
These and other images can help us to express what we mean when we talk about the Trinity, they may be helpful for us to express the inexpressible, but we must not forget that the doctrine of the Trinity was formed through the experiences of people like us, who encountered God in their lives.
John Wesley the Anglican priest, whose life and teachings became the foundation for the Methodist Church, challenged the people of his day with the rule in his methodical study classes, that no one was allowed to speak about an experience of God which was more than one week old.
The first disciples knew that what they had said about God before encountering Jesus, did not express what they needed to say after being with Jesus. There old words and ideas lacked some kind of depth or fullness, because of their experience of God at work in their lives. The best way they could explain it was to talk about the love of God the Creator, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of God’s Holy Spirit.
Wesley’s challenge is for us to to seek a meaningful experience of God in our whole lives. Brother Andrew calls that “practicising the presence of God.” On this Trinity Sunday, I want to make a suggestion to us all, that we follow in the footsteps of those first disciples, by reflecting deeply this week on the experience of God in our own lives.
The suggestion is this: why don’t we all try this week, to spend five minutes at the end of each day, or at the beginning of the next, pinpointing one moment of grace, (of God’s presence with us), each day for the next seven days: just one instance each day for the next week when we have experienced God at work in our lives.
It was through the first disciples’ experience of God that they came to formulate the idea of the Trinity, which we celebrate today. It is through reflection on the experience of God in our own lives, that the knowledge of God will become clearer and more alive to each one of us as well.
We can read as many books as we like, but it will ultimately be the deep experience of God in our own lives which will transform us into people who are confident to share the good news of God’s love with others.
That is how it was for the disciples and that is how it will be for us.