Today is Trinity Sunday, the day when I am supposed to explain to you the mystery of how God can be three and one at the same time, probably using dodgy analogies of ice, water and steam or images of shamrocks or long theological words like perichoresis. You’ll probably be quite glad to hear that I’m not going to do any of that.
But that doesn’t mean that I think the idea of the Trinity doesn’t matter. It’s just that it seems to me it is something to explore, not explain, to wonder at, not to dissect. The idea of the Trinity started with the experience of the early Christians, and it’s when we let it speak to our experience that it really starts to make a difference to us.
In particular, it grew out of their experience of the truth of the words Jesus spoke to them at the end of his ministry, the words we heard in our Gospel reading just now. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” says Jesus. So if we want to start exploring the Trinity, this is a good place to begin. To do so, though, we need to take a step back and think more generally about the Gospels.
We have four Gospels in the New Testament. They all tell the story of Jesus in different ways. The authors choose to shape their stories in different ways, pulling together memories of those who had been with Jesus and stories that circulated around the early Church. They were written a generation after Jesus, between the 60’s and 90’s AD, soon enough to capture those first hand memories, but as far as we know, none of the Gospel writers had been with Jesus in his ministry. They were written for different audiences too, who needed to hear messages for their own context, messages that would help them to deal with the challenges that they faced and the questions they were asking.
So, although the Gospels have a common core, each one tells the story in a slightly different way. You may know that only two have stories of Jesus’ birth, and that we can’t really mash them together without doing violence to one or the other, not that that stops us trying in our Nativity plays. The same is true of the Easter stories, the stories of Jesus’ resurrection, and, especially the stories which come after that, of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples. If I were to ask you how Jesus’ earthly ministry ends, my guess is that most of you would say, “With the Ascension, that story of Jesus rising up into heaven through the clouds, from the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem ”. It’s there in the creed that we’ll say in a minute. But in fact that story only comes in the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles, which was written by the same author. The other three Gospels end quite differently. Mark ends with the women who have come to the tomb finding it empty and running away terrified. John ends it with a lakeside breakfast and some words addressed to Peter giving him the task of leading the church. And Matthew, as we have seen today, ends it on a mountain in Galilee, with what is called the Great Commission, and those reassuring words “I am with you always”. After that, nothing. Matthew doesn’t say a word about what happened to Jesus’ physical body after that. There is no going up, no “exit stage left”. Matthew doesn’t seem to be at all bothered that he hasn’t explained where or how Jesus went, or why he stopped appearing to his followers.
Why is this? It could be that Matthew doesn’t know the story Luke tells – their Gospels were written around the same time. But I think it’s more likely that Matthew is simply making a different point. Luke emphasizes that Jesus is going away at this point. The disciples stand gawping up into space until angels appear to tell them go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. But Matthew wants to emphasize the fact that though they may no longer see Jesus, he has not, in a sense, gone anywhere at all. “Remember, I am with you always”. His story isn’t about absence; it is about presence.
And it has been so right from the beginning of his Gospel. He is the one who describes an angel appearing to Joseph telling him that Mary will bear a child who will be called Emmanuel – he is quoting from the prophet Isaiah. And what does Emmanuel mean? It means “God is with us”. Matthew is the one, also, who tells us that when we do anything to help the least and last in the world, we do it for Christ; he is present in the hungry and thirsty and homeless. If we ignore them, we miss seeing him too. He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast, hidden in the dough, indistinguishable from it, and yet transforming it from a solid lump to good bread.
“The kingdom of Heaven has come near” says Matthew again and again. (Mt. 3.2, 4.17, 10.7)
And that brings me back to the Trinity. I haven’t forgotten about the Trinity!
The early Christians were convinced that God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit because that was their experience. It wasn’t a dry and complicated doctrine, but a living reality for them. They knew of God as creator and loving parent from their Scriptures. That was foundational to Jewish belief. When they met Jesus they had the sense that they were meeting someone who showed them what God was like, who bore God’s likeness, the family likeness. And when Jesus was no longer physically present, they sensed him through the Holy Spirit, who came to them in prayer, and in the new communities they formed, and in the people they reached out to, people who they might once have shunned as unclean outsiders, different from themselves.
“Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” said Paul to the Romans (Romans 8.39). They realised that God wasn’t – and had never been – hiding in a distant heaven in untouchable perfection. He was all around them and within them.
That doesn’t meant that they thought there was no heavenly realm beyond their earthly experience. They knew that they hadn’t seen heaven in all its fullness yet, but they discovered that it all started here and now. There was no separation between humanity and God. In Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, God was where they were, going through what they went through. And that changed them utterly.
Just imagine what a difference it would make if we fully understood this ourselves, if we truly realised that God was present in us, and in each other. How would that change the way we treated each other, and ourselves?
Just imagine what a difference it would make if we fully understood that God was present in our homes and workplaces. Save him a desk in the office, or a seat at the dinner table, and see how that affects the decisions we make at work and at home.
Just imagine what a difference it would make if we truly believed that God was present in every part of his creation. Wouldn’t we care for the world rather better than we do now?
It was the sense of God’s presence with them, first in Jesus, then in his Holy Spirit, known in prayer, known in the communities they formed, known in the people they reached out to, which transformed those early Christians and made them so excited that their message spread to the ends of the earth.
But it took practice to learn this – it didn’t happen by magic, and that’s something we need to take note of if we want to know the presence of God. It’s obvious from our second reading, in which Paul tells the Corinthians to “put things in order” and “live in peace with one another” that they weren’t doing that. It is only as they do that they will become aware of the “God of love and peace” being with them, says Paul.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus doesn’t just say “I am with you always”. He says “remember, I am with you always” or, to translate it more accurately, “behold, I am with you always”. The Greek word is “idou” and it means “look”. If we want to see God’s presence, we have to look for it, and doing that will shape the way we live.
If we never pray, how can we know the one we never pray to? If we never come together how can we know the one who dwells in our brothers and sisters? If we never reach out beyond ourselves, how can we discover the God who is out there on the margins ?
Until I was in my twenties I knew nothing about gardening, and I wasn’t very interested. Gardens were full of green things, indistinguishable to me from any other green things. A leaf was a leaf was a leaf. It was only when I started gardening myself, that I started really to look. I needed to differentiate the seedling I wanted to nurture from the weed I needed to pull out. It’s the same with God. He doesn’t usually shout at us. He doesn’t write in golden letters in the sky. He doesn’t force himself on us if we don’t want him, but if we open our eyes to him, we learn to find him. And eventually, if we keep our eyes open, we discover that he is at work in all people and places, in all times and seasons, in sorrow as well as in joy. And that discovery changes us, as it changed those first disciples, like that yeast that leavens the dough.
“Remember – behold – look - I am with you always,” says Jesus. The good news that Matthew proclaims from beginning to end in his Gospel is that God has never abandoned us and will never abandon us. He is Emmanuel, God with us; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a trinity of love, woven inextricably through the life of the world. He calls us to see him and know him, to trust him and work with him. Let’s pray for the grace to open our eyes to his presence.