Preached by the Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano, Priest Vicar and Interim College Chaplain, on Trinity Sunday, 26th May.

(Image: The dome of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, surrounded by four 6-winged seraphim)

Have you ever been thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool? Or, tossed into a lake? Or, maybe, allowed to slip down the side of a boat into the deep salt sea? This was a common way of teaching children how to swim when I was growing up in America in the 1980s. The thought was that the body of the child would naturally respond to the water’s resistance and, having a desire to continue breathing, would find their way to the surface. Or, at least, they would begin to make some path through the water. Usually, they were accompanied by a responsible adult as their guide. But occasionally, that guide was a well-meaning, if mischievous older sibling who overlooked some of the spluttering and bobbing in the thought that a little struggle was a good way to build character.  

Now, if you’ve come to church today – perhaps for the first time – you’ve just experienced something similar. Only today, the abyss into which the Church has gleefully hurled you isn’t material water, but the profound depths of God’s being.  

The God whom we worship is one, holy, almighty, and eternal; one in power, one in glory, one in majesty; ‘without body, parts, or passions’; uncreated, incomprehensible, surpassing our highest thoughts and aspirations, existing beyond being itself and yet suffusing every being, without time and yet pervading its every moment, ‘the maker and preserver of all things’. And we confess that in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, among whom there is no inequality. None is greater or less than another. There are ‘of one substance, power, and eternity.’  

This is a holy mystery, and the substance of our faith. It is, in one sense, a doctrine, a teaching about God’s nature, which may be confessed briefly and memorised in a few short lines. But in the deeper sense, this teaching reminds us of how totally the being of God eludes our grasp, how impossible it is to use our words to hem in the Almighty, and how God is known most truly by faith and love, through revelation, through the grace that opens the inner eyes to behold something of God’s glory. 

We see this today in our readings in so many ways: each in its own way a teaching about God, as well as a path into the mystery, a pool into which we may be plunged, a spring of healing water welling up from the incomprehensible depths.  

Each of us might have experienced this truth as we heard our first lesson. A vision comes to the prophet Isaiah, unbidden, so far as we know, unsought. He was living in a time of turmoil, ‘the year that King Uzziah died’. Uzziah had reigned for 52 years. He was a conqueror, a builder, an administrator, a contemporary of the great Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III, living in the eighth century before Christ. In the early years of his reign, he was reckoned to be a righteous ruler, guided by the prophets, and this reputation survived despite the missteps and illness that plagued his final years. ‘His name had spread abroad’, as the Second Book of Chronicles says. But he died, and the throne passed to his son, Jotham. 

What does Isaiah see in this time of transition? Not the future reign of Judah’s kings, but ‘the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple’. The prophet is granted a vision of God as king. God is served by heavenly beings of great power: as they praise the Lord of hosts, their voices shake the temple in which Isaiah is serving. The House fills with smoke; they cry out a threefold ‘Holy, holy, holy’. Yet notice: even these seraphs veil their faces. ‘Each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew’. They fly about the throne of God, moving with a freedom no mortal has ever known; they serve in the heavenly courts, never leaving God’s presence; yet they do not look directly upon the divine glory. Instead, this vision is granted to the prophet. The seraphs look away; the prophet is made to see what angels dare not look upon. No wonder Isaiah cries out, ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.’ 

God grants a purifying vision, one fateful glimpse of the truth, a look behind the curtain that normally veils our sight, even in holy places. The experience is overwhelming, disturbing; for Isaiah it acts almost like a mirror, so that he sees God and the holy angels, but also himself and his people. To know God, to know the Trinity is to be purged of all falsehoods, all fantasies in our heads, suddenly to see what is real, to know who is present with us at all times. To reach through and beyond the pretty hymns and the organ, the stained glass symphonies and stone, and instead to find the one for whom they exist, for whom we exist, to find God there in utter simplicity, if only for a moment, as the voices rings out: ‘Holy, holy, holy.’ 

You may not have come here today for this. We all have many reasons for coming to Oxford, many reasons for sitting in a cathedral church. But then, the real reason you are here may be opaque to you. I don’t think Isaiah knew he would receive his vision of God.  

And, similarly, when in our Gospel reading, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and flattered him, calling him teacher, it’s pretty clear he wasn’t expecting to meet the Son of God. Nevertheless, he did. He came by night, hidden, unaware, ignorant even, as most of us are at some point. But to him these words of revelation came:  

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.

Nicodemus came to meet a man, and instead came to know Christ as the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, sent by God the Father to save us all. The Lord, God in the flesh, spoke to him face to face, as one speaks with a friend.  

The prophet Isaiah beheld a glory that angels could not look upon; Nicodemus meets God himself in person, speaking his own language. 

Blessed be the Lord who gives such grace to his servants: that by the confession of faith, they may not only know and acknowledge the divine glory, but also be preserved by that faith forevermore. God gives such grace. It is grace enough to open our eyes, however long they have been closed to the truth. It is grace enough to cause faith to rise within our hearts, however long we have doubted. It is grace enough to assure us that we are indeed the children of God, loved and held fast forever.  

It is grace enough to fill oceans, and never to be exhausted. One may fall into it, not to drown, not even to bob along its surface like a child held by floaties, but by faith to go into the depths and never to find an end to God’s love and mercy. Instead, to discover our glorious liberty. 

I wish you a happy and holy Trinity Sunday. May you find in God today a sure ground for faith, a firm support for hope and the assurance of sins forgiven. Amen.