Psalm 8, Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31, Romans 5: 1-5, John 16: 12-15
The Trinity is a famously difficult piece of Christian doctrine to explain – and Trinity Sunday a famously difficult Sunday to preach on. It’s a tricky concept to wrap our heads around. According to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, there is one God in whom there are three “persons” who share one “substance”. These three “persons” are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each of these are believed to be God yet they are distinct.
The Bible doesn’t help us much – as there is no explanation that explicitly links together the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it is the early church who came up with the doctrine, which was arrived at slowly and painfully over a 400 year period. It is really a sort of political settlement – attempting to bind up differing arguments and paradoxes in order to, as Martyn Percy puts it ‘capture the essence of mystery – something that was glimpsed in a mirror, but only dimly.”
There are passages however, like our gospel from John, which hint at the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Spirit of Truth or Holy Spirit. But it is important to remember that John is not talking about the nature of the three persons of the Godhead – which is what a lot of theology which looks at the Trinity focuses on. John is looking at something called the ‘economonic trinity’ which is how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to creation, and to the world. There is a specific focus in our gospel from John on the Holy Spirit and how it empowers the disciples to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ to the world. In this way, the Spirit continues the work of Jesus within the world after he “has gone to the Father.” John is trying to express in relational terms the experience of the Divine he and his community have shared. For John the Trinity is clearly about experience, relationship and community.
What the text wants most to do is encourage within the community an openness to fresh encounters with the revelation of Jesus. John imagines that the message of Jesus will require ongoing interpretation – through the Holy Spirit. He imagines a Christian community that is not locked into the past but understands what Jesus means for its own time – and this is a matter of continuing interpretation and re-experiencing.
Like I’ve said in recent sermons on the gospel of John, we can struggle over words but sometimes John is telling us that the things of God are much better felt through experience.
Thirty years ago, two theologians, Daniel Hardy and David Ford, suggested that it might be better to think of the Trinity as music – and most especially as jazz.
Likening the Trinity to jazz is not as strange as it first sounds. Their analogy offers an insight into the trinitarian nature of God : the composer-performer-listener/interpreter idea can resonate with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As any Jazz fans in the congregation will know, Jazz in a genre of music that is normally associated with both freedom of expression and formality, where improvisation and composition meet. It is both transforming yet traditional, never predictable and yet reliable. Order and freedom coexist, with passive listening turned into participation and communion. From an apparently tense synthesis of composition and improvisation, inspiration and dance can issue. To worship the Trinity is not to understand each note and sequence, nor is it to deconstruct the score: it is to listen, learn and participate. Neither is it predictable, rather it is constantly changing and re-interpreted.
Music changes us by wooing us into participation. It is ‘a harmonic language’ that is attentive to mood: sadness, celebration, reflection and dynamism are ‘caught’ in music. Moreover, music is a gift, and as we learn to understand and use it, we learn more about the God who has given it. Gifts express the giver.
In thinking of the trinity as jazz music, we become mindful of its combinations: its formal dimensions married to its innovative nature, and its capacity to cover a spectrum of needs from celebration to commiseration. Moreover, there are the many different sounds that make up one sound.
Ultimately the trinity is trying to show us something of the abundance of God, and this concept fits with the abundance that is jazz music.
Yet, as much as we might grapple with what the Trinity actually means about God by reading books, listening to hymns, listening to jazz, or staring in wonder at beautiful icons, we do well to remember that these are simply aids to reflection. Experiences that help us look deep inside and way beyond ourselves for the truth of the Trinity. And it is, in the end, not about theology, but worship, and about embracing mystery - God known to us in mystery.
The day is gone when the person preaching was expected to have all the truth in a neat package to offer on a Sunday (thank goodness!). We are all involved in the search for truth and we have a dependable guide in the Holy Spirit along with the word of God; but full comprehension is beyond us – As St Paul puts it - For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So today, for Trinity Sunday, I encourage you to go home and listen to some jazz (or other music if you don’t like it), close your eyes and immerse yourself imagining the sounds of God – father, son, holy spirit / composer, performer, interpreter. The abundance of God in all its mystery and complexity, transforming yet traditional, never predictable and yet reliable. Imagine it resonating in our lives and world, with the Spirit of truth with Christ drawing all things to the Father.
Amen Rev Melanie Harrington
Cover image by Philip Barrington from Pixabay