Romans 5. 1 – 5

John 16. 12 – 15

The Revd Isobel Rathbone.


So, it’s Trinity Sunday.

There’s a certain fear factor to preaching on the Trinity.

People have been known to tie themselves into all sorts of knots.

I can honestly say that I love it.

It offers the chance to think creatively about the nature of God, and therefore about our own human nature as well. It also defines the nature of our faith.

I’m going to start with something that was written as a statement of faith. It’s not an orthodox one, and it’s not a substitute for the creed, but it does demonstrate why the Trinity – God in three persons – is such a good and creative thing.

We believe that horizons of hope are never fixed; they always move beyond, in the creativity of God.

We believe that the power of evil cannot kill God.

God walks on free, and leaps off our crosses in the risen Jesus Christ.

We believe that the Spirit can never be confined.

He dances forth in the world, and is found in surprising places,

Leading us on until the end of time.

So there you have it - God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit dancing on ahead of us into the future.

The Holy Spirit is the most recent arrival, of course, as we have just celebrated Pentecost.

And I actually altered the wording there because the original says “she” – she dances forth in the world, and so on.

At on stage in my ministry I decided that the Holy Spirit might be a good candidate for a feminine aspect of God. Then I met a Rabbi with a twinkle in his eye, who said “Ah yes, the Holy Spirit – a bit flighty and unpredictable, you never know where you have her, very feminine” – so I gave up on that one thereupon.

But there is serious teaching there I think, about the Holy Spirit leading us on into the future;

And that is, that the Spirit is present and alive within each of us

Insofar – and only insofar - as we are able to reach out to other people

And communicate with them;

To share some of our own life with them,

To enliven them;

And it is by enlivening others and being enlivened by them

That our future is formed, is transformed, there is transformation,

and the Holy Spirit is there,

Found in surprising places,

Leading us on till the end of time.

I quote that wonderful Jesuit teacher, Gerard Hughes, on that one,

On following the lead of the Spirit and not holding onto false securities:

We are constantly tempted to make God in our own image, to make our own narrowness and self-importance into the will of God. God is a mystery, a beckoning word, and he calls us out beyond our narrowness. Our one security is that God is, not how he is.

The Triune God is important then

Because it represents God calling us out beyond ourselves,

But also because it represents God as a community of three persons,

A community of love;

As Christians, we find own identity in our God,

And, as Julian of Norwich said,

Love was his meaning.


There is that wonderful icon of course,

Painted by Andrei Rubliev somewhere around 1425.

More later, but at this stage let’s note

That according to Rubliev

it’s not actually a picture of the Holy Trinity,

It’s a picture of a story in Genesis called “The Hospitality of Abraham”

about the three visitors to Abraham at the oak of Mamre

visitors who were first called “men” and then, later, “angels”,

agents through whom God carried out his work for Abraham and Sarah,

by telling them that it was O K, they really would have a son,

Through whom the prophecy would be carried out –

The prophecy that the seed of Abraham would become as numerous as the stars in the sky, or the grains of sand in the desert.

This is God intervening in person, in other words,

In the bible story.

It’s very interesting that Rublev has used this scene

As a vehicle for portraying the Trinity.

Because it’s one of various ways in which God appears in the Hebrew scriptures –

One is the kavod,

the glory of God appearing in the temple;

The glory is a real thing which takes up space.

The glory of the Lord appearing in the temple –

When the ark of the covenant was brought into Solomon’s temple,

The priests could not stand to carry out their work because of the cloud of glory

Which filled the house of the Lord.


Then there’s the Word;

the Word of the Lord is real too;

In the prophecy of Isaiah,

“So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;

It will not return to me fruitless ….”

And in the book called “The Wisdom of Solomon”,

The Word of the Lord leaped down from heaven,

To intervene in the affairs of men.

Then there’s the angel of the Lord who appeared with a sword to bar the way

When Joshua was leading the people into the Promised Land.

And of course there are human agents of God too,

the prophets, inspired to proclaim God’s word,

that strange figure, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant,

the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,

who represents God suffering with and for his people.

All these characters belong to the shekinah,

 The shekinah which has been called “God’s settlement with his people.”

The settlement which goes all the way through, from the beginning,

The exodus from Egypt, the promised Land,

Through the kings, David and Solomon,

Through the exile in Babylon and the return,

And on down to the time of the birth of Christ.

You will be my people,

And I will be your God.

The point is though

That all of the above are aspects of the divine,

And not all that different from Father, Son and Holy Spirit, later.


All this – and much more – was summed up, ultimately,

In the coming of Christ,

God incarnate born,

the culmination of all this,

The power of God, the Word of God,

And the suffering servant,

All summed up in the metaphor of sonship

And I think that what Rubliev grasped,

A thousand years after the cannon of the bible was finalised,

Was that we can really relate much more productively to the Trinity – the triune God - in this way

Than we can through the tortured logical convolutions of the Athanasian creed.

There is a line of recent theology which would agree with him.[1]


So let’s just now take another look at that icon.

And see what it tells us about the way we see God;

And the way we see ourselves also,

Because the way a community sees its God

Reflects also the way it sees itself

And the way it aspires to be.

The three are angels – you can see their wings. And yet not just angels,

They are also the Father (at the back), the Son (on his right),

And the Holy Spirit (in green, on his left).

The object in the centre of the table

Is a bit different in different versions of the picture;

A cup, but containing either a calf’s head (part of the sacrifice of Abraham),

Or the consecrated host (part of the sacrifice of Christ).

In the background in some versions (but not this one),

A tree, (the oak of Mamre), a house (Abraham’s house), and a mountain (the holy mountain).

In the picture, shapes reflect each other;

The figures on the right and on the left

Make a shape which reflects the shape of the cup on the centre.

The central angel – God the Father –

is leaning his head towards the Son

In a gesture of compassion, in solidarity with the sufferings of the world.

And at this moment it seems  about as ironic as it possibly could be

That this wonderful portrayal of compassion comes out of Russia – out of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The circular shape demonstrates the unity of the figures;

See John 17:21: “that they may be one, even as I and the Father are one.”

Importantly, the circle of the figures is not closed.

There is space for us, for fallen humanity,

To creep in there, possibly under the table,

To join in the communion,

And be healed.


Here are some interesting words from the mystical orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky:

 “Wherever we look, we see echoes of the main circular melody; correspondences of outline, forms arising from other forms or reflecting them as in a mirror, lines sweeping beyond the outlines of the circle or interwoven in its centre in a rich symphony of forms, dimensions, lines and colours.”

And one great thing about that

Is that he can’t hold off from using musical language to describe the Trinity;

It happens twice;

The main circular melody, and the symphony of forms.


Whenever I have preached on the Trinity before,

I have used the analogy of music,

Of three melodies which intertwine, come together and part again.

Another way of sharing the same ideas:

And so I’m going to end by quoting that wonderful poet, George Herbert – Andrea Rayner brought this little poem to my attention:

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song

Pleasant and long:

Or, since all musick is but three parts vied   

And multiplied,

O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,

And make up our defects with his sweet art.


So, I have talked about the Trinity as image and as music

And as a social model for an inclusive community,

A community based on relationships of love.

And don’t forget the Spirit,

Who dances forth in the world and is found in surprising places,

Leading us on until the end of time.

All of which we might be thinking about

when we speak the formula which trips off the tongue so easily

as often as we say it in church

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,










[1] Robert W Jenson, article in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought,  eds. Hastings, Mason and Pyper, Oxford 2000.