Trinity 2015 Colwall
Some church people – mainly bishops, other clergy and theologians – think that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is very, very, very – three times very – important. But, to my mind, it isn’t. Strictly speaking, to suggest that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not essential, that we could manage without it, is heresy. But I’m not really worried about that: heretics are no longer burnt at the stake. The doctrine says that God exists in Three Persons and One Substance – three Persons and One Substance. And ordinary Christians, like you and me, together with people of other faiths, ask: How can this be? How can God be one and also three? The standard answer is that it’s part of the mystery of God. But that could be called a cop-out: it doesn’t explain anything. Though of course it is a fact that God is mysterious – the word means hidden. If we could understand everything about him, well, he wouldn’t then really be God. He passes all understanding.
Actually, the notion of God having three modes – the Father, over us; the Son, for us; and the Holy Spirit, in us – does help us in our vision and our understanding of God. It was from people’s experience of God that the notion came to be. It’s just the dogma of the Three Persons and One Substance that for many is a stumbling block. That formula was established in the 4th century and is embodied in the Nicene Creed of 325 AD, which is the first creed in our service booklets and which we occasionally say at this service. You can imagine just how much discussion and at times heated argument went into all this .The Holy Trinity – why is God portrayed in this way and what does it mean? We’ll come back to it later.
It just so happens that 54 years ago today, Trinity Sunday, I was ordained in the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Bristol. That’s its dedication, but of course it’s usually just known as Bristol Cathedral. And so I became curate of Hartcliffe in South Bristol. It was a parish of 18,000 people, who had been moved there, sometimes under protest, from some of Bristol’s poorer areas. Four years earlier there had been nothing there but fields, and all the houses and flats, including some eleven-storey blocks, belonged to the council. There wasn’t a private house in the place, and with little variety in the housing, most of the roads looked very much the same.
One day a young woman arrived at the Vicarage in tears. She’d moved in a couple of days before and couldn’t remember her address and was utterly lost. So Derek, our vicar, drove her all round the parish in his Morris Traveller until she recognized her curtains.
The modern and attractive church, like the houses, was also only four years old, and in the sense of church family, it was an exciting church to belong to. It was a matter of all things new, and in fact Derek wrote a book about what we were doing, with that title, All Things New. Many of those things are commonplace now, but back then they were really innovative. We weren’t bound by tradition or too much troubled by existing church rules.
After four good and happy years there, I became vicar of a very similar parish in Swindon – 14,000 people and all council houses and again just four years old. So once more it was all things new. The main difference was that almost all the people had came from London under a scheme set up between the Greater London Council and Swindon Corporation, and they’d all left the support of their extended families behind, support which many of them had relied upon.
The point about making these personal reminiscences, which for me, of course, always come to mind on Trinity Sunday, is to say that these weren’t the sort of places where the correctness and niceties of doctrine were at all important. They would have been the least of people’s worries. For instance, at our church in Swindon we ran a food bank – all those years ago. So perhaps you can see why I’m not really worried about a bit of heresy.
Well, back to Holy Trinity. I think I’m right in saying that it’s only the Anglican Church that keeps Trinity Sunday. After Pentecost the catholic and orthodox churches go on to ordinary Sundays, but in the Church of England in the middle ages the idea of Trinity Sunday was introduced and became established by being popularized by Thomas Becket. Having been martyred as Archbishop of Canterbury, he of course became a sainted celebrity, and anything associated with him flourished.
And I’m really glad we do have Trinity Sunday, because it makes a fitting conclusion to our annual liturgical calendar. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – all summed up by thinking of God in all his fullness. Holy, holy, holy – Holy Trinity – thrice holy.
In 1498 when Christopher Columbus was sailing westwards for the third time, he saw on the horizon three peaks rising out of the sea, but as he drew nearer he realized they were part of just one island. And he called the island Trinidad.
Even on Trinity Sunday I think what we should be stressing is the oneness of God. There is one God, one alone. And I don’t really want to use the words unity or united, because they suggest that there’s more than one that have been brought together. Some scholars say that you need the three persons of God so that God’s love can be there within himself, but I don’t buy that one. There is one God, and essentially an unchanging God, and since his coming in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit people have experienced him in three distinct and personal ways.
The public opinion polls tell us that most people believe in God, some sort of God. There must be something, somebody, somewhere in the universe who set everything going – a creator. But left just like that, such a God is far too remote to worry about. Yet this remote creator God has not abandoned us completely to our own devices. Many people would want to say that they have at times felt that he’s met with them, and they with him.
I’m using he and him for convenience’ sake: it could just as well be she and her, as I’d want to claim that our God possesses all the attributes of femininity as well as of masculinity. The pronoun you can’t use is “it”. You’d use “it” for a force or a power, and those who have met with God would want to say that he’s much more than that: he is personal.
The Old Testament is full of people’s wonderful encounters with this living and personal God, but then it would seem that God wanted an even more personal and direct involvement with men and women. And so he came and lived a human life in the life of Jesus, and people came to see that in that life, and that death, and that rising again, they had been shown the nature and the character of God himself.
Christ, wrote St Paul, is the image of God. And the Greek word for image is icon. He also wrote that the face of Christ gives us the light of the revelation of God. And the Greek word for light is photismos. Jesus’ brief life of love and sacrifice gives us an icon of God and a photo of God.
In Jesus we are shown that God is love. He came and lovingly gave his life for us. But there is yet more. Not only is he God over us – the Father, our creator, and God for us – Jesus Christ, the Son, he is also God in us, the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, reminded us of how dramatically the disciples of Jesus were made aware of God being with them, as invisible as and yet as powerful as a gale, and at the same time firing them with a determination to show to others that icon, that photograph of God.
That was a particular gift of the Holy Spirit – the call and the courage and the inspiration to proclaim the Good News, the Gospel. It’s a gift that still comes to Jesus’ disciples today. But there is a more general gift too. The Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom, leading us to sound judgement. He is the Spirit of inspiration, opening our eyes and our ears to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation and of human creativity in art and word and music and science and technology. It is he who inspires creativity, and that, I believe, is true for believers and non-believers alike. But it is only those who have met God, who have seen him in the face of Jesus, who appreciate and give thanks for this all-embracing God of life, and life of God.
So on Trinity Sunday we think of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – one God who has shown himself and acted and been encountered in three distinct and personal modes.
Never in this life can we fathom everything about God. In spite of his intimacy with us, he remains utterly beyond us and mysterious – holy, holy, holy. But fortunately, we’re not called to understand, but simply to worship and adore him, God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, worship and adore him forever and ever. Amen.