A SERMON FOR TRINITY SUNDAY
We are celebrating Trinity Sunday, the Feast of the Most Holy and undivided Trinity of God: Father, Son and Spirit. It is a concept which is notoriously difficult to grasp, let alone teach. In our gospel today there is reference to baptism ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. The development from this of a doctrine of the Trinity was the fruit of a long process of learning and understanding as the revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit was received by human minds and put into human words. But our best efforts at understanding this mystery will always be inadequate because, in its fullness, it is way beyond our understanding.
Central to the idea of the Trinitarian nature of God is the idea that, in spite of being One, God is not lonely but encompasses a community of love mysteriously contained within his nature. That unfathomable mystery is something which we cannot hope to understand fully because it is altogether beyond the limits of what we have experienced or can imagine, but we can I think, usefully use these terms which we take from life as we know it: fatherhood, motherhood, friendship, community, love and generosity, to get some glimpse of the sort of being whose creative goodness lies behind all physical and discernable matter in our universe – some glimpse of God.
The catechetical instruction of children has traditionally been more concerned to emphasize that it did not mean that there were three gods than to suggest that this fundamental doctrine of our faith is actually both helpful and enlightening. Now I look upon the Trinitarian, or loving and creative nature of God as so central to my understanding of his being that I believe that without this inner life God would be essentially diminished and hence not God at all.
The fact is that the idea expressed by the word Trinity is remarkably sophisticated for the early date at which it emerged. There remains always the veil of mystery and yet we can now see a little way through the mist towards a hint at what we really mean by God, a hint which suggests to us an actual positive reason for creation, for our own existence.
God, we are being told, is from all eternity overflowing with love and yet none of us can be impressed by the idea of a solitary person loving himself. By using images familiar to us all: parent, offspring and bond of love in the family, the idea of the Trinity points to the community within God, distinctly lovable persons, and a generous nature which overflowed into the creation of the universe and of you and of me.
The symbolism of this feast is enhanced by its occurring between last Sunday’s feast of Pentecost and next Sunday’s feast of Corpus Christi. At Pentecost we celebrated the gift of God’s Spirit to the Apostles and to the Church; and at Corpus Christi we recall how Jesus at the last supper made us the gift of himself by perpetuating his presence among us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. For today too is a celebration of giving, because today we recall the essentially generous or giving nature of what we analogously call God the Father: that being from whom flows both the Sonship of Christ and the life giving Spirit which is generated by the love between them.
Today we seldom discuss or argue about the nature of the Trinity – perhaps because it is not a matter of dispute with our anglican and non-conformist friends – but in the fourth century it was disputed so violently that it is said that in Alexandria you couldn’t buy a loaf of bread without first satisfying the shopkeeper of your belief regarding the Son being generated by the Father or proceeding from him consubstantially.
To many of us the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, represents one of the more obscure aspects of that Trinity; but to the first Christians the abiding presence and activity of the Spirit in their midst was one of the most reassuring and exciting fruits of the redemption. Each Sunday the Church has celebrated not only the redemptive act of Christ but also the gift of the Spirit, the gift of life which animates us: spirit, breath, life: it is all the same word.
But besides all this we should remember that Christian faith starts with faith in the goodness of God, and the Trinity illustrates the nature of that goodness. Christian sanctification (that is, our growth towards God) is not incidentally but essentially Trinitarian in that we go to the Father as Sons because we have received his Spirit. The Father has adopted us and promised us a wonderful inheritance: eternal life.