Sunday, 4 June 2023
Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!
Trinity Sunday offers us an opportunity to reflect on our understanding of the nature of God – and simultaneously on the mystery that is the God whom we worship as one in three and three in one. The doctrine of the Trinity has filled many theological tomes; is the subject of lectures and seminars and undergraduate essays. And there’s something quite compelling about that intellectual exercise. I don’t know about you, but I quite like to grapple with something that I know I will never really understand. But we’re not here this morning to give our brains a workout – we’re here to gather as a worshipping community and this slot in the liturgy is the moment to reflect on what the Trinity means for us. Because if it doesn’t mean anything for us, if spending our morning reading a liturgy that is peppered with references to a Trinitarian God doesn’t speak to us, then why are we using that language? The ways that we think and speak about God are fundamental to our understanding of who we are; how we are called to live our lives; who and how we hope to be.
Language matters, and how we name things matters. Our choice of language tells us something about how we make sense of the world and ourselves; the language we hear from others tells us something about them.
Think about a favourite place. You will, of course, know its geographical name but it is likely that in your mind, or in the vocabulary of your family, it has an alternative name. The place with the bluebells or expensive parking or ice cream van. You get the idea.
We are named at birth, often after much thought and consideration of the options. Perhaps named after someone or given a favourite name. And those names – and their spelling matter to us. If you have a name that can easily be shortened, you may or may not choose to use that diminutive form. And it may be that you only allow certain people to use a shortened version of your given name. When someone outside that circle uses what might feel like a more intimate form of your name, you may feel that they have crossed a line. What is important is that how we are named by others resonates – or not – with our sense of our own identity.
And our sense of our identity changes depending on where we are and the role we are playing. When I’m looking after my granddaughters and I’m being Granny, my priorities are different from when I’m in a team meeting. My responsibilities are different and so my focus changes. I don’t stop being those other parts of myself, but they are not prominent. And one of the ways that I automatically know which role I’m in is that I’m addressed in different ways.
We know that the way that language is used within society changes over time. Language that was acceptable at one stage in history, may be completely unacceptable now.
Words that were commonly understood to mean one thing when some of us were children may well be in common usage in a totally different way. You may remember that David Cameron was caught out by the change in meaning for LOL as a sign off for an online message.
Over the years, and perhaps especially in the last century, our language for God has changed. Those changes have come about not because God has changed but because our understanding of who and how God is has changed. And that in turn has an impact on how we engage with God.
Let’s think about the language of Trinity. Father Son and Holy Ghost. Father Son and Holy Spirit. Source of all being, eternal word and Holy Spirit. Creator Redeemer and Sustainer. And so on. It can sometimes feel, perhaps, that these changes are made in an attempt to be more relevant to a secular society; or to resonate better with the everyday language that we are immersed in. Maybe we look for language that rolls off the tongue more readily, or that is more comprehensible.
I want to suggest that we actually have little choice; our language for God has to change as our understanding of the nature of God changes. Our understanding of the nature of God changes as a direct result of the involvement with our Trinitarian God in our lives and our world. We don’t just read about God, we experience God. We experience God in the Resurrected Christ whom we encounter in the people around us. We experience God in the movement and prompts of the Holy Spirit that lead to change – in our individual lives and in the life of the church. We experience God in the wonders and glory of creation, in the mystery of prayer, in the gift of love. At its best, we experience God in the liturgy of the church.
We’ve already seen that words matter and I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the words of the liturgy matter. They matter on lots of levels and for lots of reasons, but today I want to remind us that they matter because they confirm and challenge our understanding of the nature of God. In so doing, they shape the ways that we come into the presence of God.
If God is comforter and transformer; if God is the eternal word and our redeemer; if God is the source of all that is and was and is to come… if we use that language, there has to be an impact on how we respond to the one to whom that language is addressed.
As we hear ourselves and others speak those words, we translate them for ourselves, we seek to make sense of them. It may often be the case that we make partial sense of what we say and hear. That we get a glimpse of what we are talking about. But that glimpse is enough. That glimpse is a moment with the potential for change. Change in our relationship with God. Change in the way that we think about God. Change in the way that we think about ourselves.
The more language we have for God, the more opportunities we give ourselves to feel connected with our God. And as we make those connections, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, so we deepen and embed our experience of the God who we describe as three persons, three integrities, three opportunities to engage.
Experimenting with language is an outward expression of our ongoing journey towards understanding God better and in so doing towards understanding ourselves better. That’s not an intellectual exercise, it’s an experiential one, bringing us into closer relationship with the mystery and joy that is God.