Today is Trinity Sunday. It is one of those days when preachers tie themselves up in knots trying to define God and use all sorts of inadequate images of threefold states to try to explain how the Trinity is possible. While our Gospel reading does give us God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it also offers us a different way of looking at that, one that is not bogged down in doctrine and definition so much, as and invitation to reflect on what it means to participate in the life of the Trinity, in the life of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (John 16:12-15), and that opens up a rich seam to explore. So, I want to spend a few moments, this morning reflecting on that by picking up on just one word from that Gospel reading, which I think can help us do this.
John has Jesus saying “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (v12). That seems a strange thing to say. Jesus is saying there is more, but I don’t think you are able to hear it, or hold it, or carry it. That word ‘bear’, “you cannot bear them now”, is rich in meaning. In John this word ‘bear’ will be used later to refer to Jesus bearing the cross (19:17), and the context of this passage is Jesus’ long discourse at the Last Supper after Judas has gone out to betray him. Jesus warns the remaining disciples of what is to come. He will be glorified, through the cross, they will have to make a choice and Peter will deny him three times. The Holy Spirit is promised, but there’s quite a bit to get through first. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus uses this word bear to refer to the disciples directly on this, if they want to be his disciples they have to bear their own cross (Luke 14:27). They have to be prepared to carry it.
They cannot bear what Jesus has to say to them, they cannot carry it or cope with it, because they have to go through a dark moment for the space to be opened up in them for the Spirit of God. Only then can they bear it, carry it, cope with it, participate in it. This is about so much more than just head knowledge. ‘Bearing’ comes with a cost, the cost of discipleship and that may well involve pain and suffering. He tells them, ‘You cannot bear it yet because you’ve got some stuff to go through to open you up to be able to receive it’, not just know it. This was reflected in our Epistle reading, where Paul referred to suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:1-15).
I’ve said before that the four-fold actions of the Eucharist are how we are to live, to be. We are called (taken as the bread and wine are taken); we are blessed (as the elements are blessed in the Eucharistic Prayer); we are broken (as the bread is) before it is shared, sent out. That being broken is literal in the case of the bread with the crack of the wafer. It may be literal for us too but in the light of this notion of ‘bearing’, being able to bear it, cope with it, it is a metaphor of being opened up, having a space where God in God’s fullness and Trinitarian mystery can get to work on us, because the Trinity is the whole life and love of God. Bearing comes with the cost of breaking, which makes space for God, and the redemption that comes through his cross and resurrection.
The word ‘bear’ has many allusions in the Bible, that take us to other places. Again, in Luke’s gospel, the word is used for the mother of Jesus bearing him – the women cry out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you” (Luke 11:27). It’s the same Greek word that is used. You cannot bear it yet, is that you are not yet able to carry Christ, to bring him to birth in your hearts and lives, to participate in him, and therefore not able to bring him to birth in the hearts and lives of others, until you have the space for God to grow inside, until the Spirit works on you. They can’t give what they don’t have. And that comes from the full mystery of God dawning and growing, birthing in them and the fruits of the Spirit that brings: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). We understand better when the space for God has been opened and filled with the life and love of God, when we are drawn to participate mystically in the life and love of God.
I saw a video this week of Rowan Williams quoting a Greek theologian, Christos Yannaras, saying Christianity is not a religion, but it is life and that means it is to do with the life of God. Morality is therefore not so much about good versus evil, as life verses death. The church, then, becomes the place where we can grow in life, grow in the life of God and that by definition is to grow in the life of the Trinity: God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is so much more than mere institutional religion, which is really rather dull.
When thinking about this life, how it manifests itself, bearing has another connotation in the New Testament. It is also used for carrying and sharing one another’s burdens – putting up with one another’s failings, with our weaknesses which can burst forth in spectacular fashion: ‘bear with one another’ (Romans 15:1), or put up with one another. You might call it cutting one another a bit of slack, looking a bit deeper to see what might really be going on. And churches as communities are places where we need this as much as anywhere else, and in my experience can be very forgiving places.
I had one of these moments when thinking about the Tory MPs voting by a fairly narrow majority to back the Prime Minister on Monday in the confidence vote in Westminster. It’s easy to call out moral bankruptcy, elitism at work and contempt in that vote – how can they back him after all that has gone on and been revealed? Some of that mud may well stick. But there is such a thing as ‘wilful blindness’, where the consequences of facing something can be so great that we ignore it – our brains hit the escape button because it’s too big to deal with what it means. This happens in so many institutions and personal morality and behaviour. Many companies who have been through a crisis later say that they knew the problem was there but it was too big to face so they had a blind spot to it. Those involved in safeguarding and protecting know that a parent can have a blind spot when the other parent is abusing because facing it means their world collapses and that’s too big to deal with. We are complex and have our blind spots, some of them wilful. I think there was quite a bit of that going on too. Which doesn’t let them off the hook but it does say the kind of things that can get in the way of facing up to truth, to all truth, which God through the Holy Spirit offers to open up to us, if we have that openness within. So we look for where life is growing, rather than death destroying, where we need to be opened up to be able to bear what we know deep down to be true. May be, as with all of us, they have some journey to make yet.
When we think about the nature of God, the Trinity, we find God making God-self known and wanting us to be filled with God’s life and love in the mystery, majesty and magnificence of the Trinity. God wants us to grow in the life of the Trinity – this is of the nature of God which the Trinity expresses. We are to bear that in our lives, in our encounters, but we can only do so when the space has been opened up inside and the Holy Spirit come to fill us. It’s a daily challenge, because birthing, bearing fruit, letting life grow, is also linked with the weaknesses and failings we all have, with how we choose death rather than life in so many ways. Cutting one another a bit of slack over this is not about excusing and ignoring what we do, but giving space for the redeeming power of God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer of all things, whose love enables us to bear all things, believe, hope and endure (from 1 Corinthians 13).
Trinity Sunday is not so much a day for dry doctrine, as one of invitation to grow and live in the life and love of God, to bear what Jesus has to say to us, to participate in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 12th June 2022