St Catherine’s Church, Burbage
Sunday 7 June 2020
Enable us, our Father, to respond to the grace of your word with humility of heart and in the spirit of love; that our lives may be conformed more and more to the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And so may I speak in the name of the Living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Trinity Sunday, a feast in the church’s calendar which almost instantly throws up problems for the poor individual who finds himself on the preaching rota! In fact, the whole idea of celebrating the Holy Trinity on a Sunday is one that emerged slowly. In the days of the early church, a collection of prayers, or an ‘office’ to mark the Holy Trinity, was compiled and said on different days in the year, sometimes even during Advent. Thomas Becket was consecrated in 1162 as archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost, and it was Thomas who declared that it should remain a day to celebrate the Trinity. This caught on in other parts of Europe.
But why does the preacher’s heart sink at those three words: ‘The Holy Trinity’. Shouldn’t the preacher be elated, joyful, and raring to go? Here is a paradox. At one level the Trinity is an easy thing to talk about, the Trinity being composed of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then again, how can you easily speak of three individual persons, if I can put it like that, and as one? Even my language then falls short and the whole matter of ‘three as one’ blows the mind apart. To speak of the Trinity is a really difficult business.
And it is an issue that sits quite heavily on my mind. In May 2017 I travelled to Woking to participate in a meeting of the Bishops’ Advisory Panel, or BAP, which consisted of three days of interviews, presentations, discussions and prayer. It is a process which those called to ordained ministry have to experience; the church then decides whether you should go forward to that type of ministry. Fortunately, I was recommended for training and that is why you have had me here for the last three years. Yes, you can blame it all on Woking! I still remember my final interview, which I think happened on my final day. My interviewer was to probe my ‘liveliness of mind’, as the Church of England puts it, and it turned out, in the end, to be a rather pleasant discussion and I quite enjoyed it. (We finished ten minutes early because he had run out of questions!) However, when I sat down, the interviewer’s opening shot was: “so Nick, how would you define the Holy Trinity?” Thank you very much, said I! My heart sunk.
Theologians throughout the ages have wrestled with the subject of the Holy Trinity, and, let’s face it, Holy Scripture is not actually all that helpful on the matter. You get hints of a ‘trinity’ in the Old Testament: God dominates the scene, and there are also ‘spirit like’ references to the breath or wind of God passing over the waters in Genesis; even in the Book of Ezekiel you have wind or breath that revives dry bones in a valley. (There are one or two other suspect instances which some theologians have interpreted as allusions to Christ.) When we reach the New Testament, however, we meet the incarnate God as Jesus, who is proclaimed as the ‘beloved son’ at his baptism, and the Spirit of God like a dove descending upon him. Later in Acts, you get the great description of the arrival, and immense power of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Father, Son and Spirit, then, are three very different persons in Scripture and are yet all part of the same. It is a huge thought. A film came out many years ago called Nuns on the Run starring Robbie Coltrane and Eric Idle, who are criminals. They disguise themselves as nuns and hide in a convent. Eric Idle finds out that he has to teach the novices about the Trinity. Robbie Coltrane, as the Roman Catholic, tries to explain the Trinity to Eric: three in one, the Son is God, and God is the Father and so forth. Eric Idle is so confused. Robbie Coltrane then says, “it makes no sense to anyone and that is why you have to have faith!”
However, there are some who have tried to articulate the reality of the Trinity over the centuries, often using visual aids to assist them, even before the age of the white board and power-point. Most famously, I guess, is St Patrick, a saint we know quite a bit about, who tried to explain the Trinity to the pagans of Ireland by means of a the shamrock: three separate leaves and yet part of a single whole. This explanation itself has problems because it suggests that all the components are exactly the same, which they are, but also are not: Son, Father and Holy Spirit. You could be getting close to heresy, here! I remember John Sentamu who, strangely enough is preaching his last sermon today before retiring tomorrow, speaking on the Trinity. He used one of those barbeque fork things. You know the sort of thing I mean, it has a couple of prongs at the top to act as a fork, the side to do the actions of a knife, and the rest shaped as a spoon. Three in one. Simples! The Trinity is like a piece of cutlery.
We can do the mental gymnastics for hours and days to come, and I don’t want to make things more complicated than they already are. I would like to suggest another way of looking at the Holy Trinity; I cannot claim originality here but it is a view I particularly like. And that is that we are aware, we know, about the Trinity because of the relationship between each and every part of it. It is the Trinity because each person of it is ‘related’ and that is the way we can understand it. In other words, we understand God as Father because of His relationship with Jesus, the Son, who comes from the Father; and we understand the Spirit because it flows from the Son. Though united, we understand the special nature of each person of the Trinity because of the relationship between each other. And it is a relationship that is not static, it is not preserved in aspic, rather it is moving, energising and powerful. It is dynamic! Early Greek monks spoke of the Trinity in terms of a ‘dance’ between each person of Trinity, almost like three people holding hands in a circle and gliding across a floor.
These concepts of relationship and dynamism are, I believe, stressed in today’s gospel reading from Matthew, that of the so-called ‘Great Commission’, which Mary Tynan explored in much more depth a week or so ago. In this final resurrection scene noted by Matthew, Christ explicitly mentions the ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, something we have not really encountered previously in Scripture. Jesus makes clear his relationship with the Father, and their unity, by stating that the authority is placed in him. It is true that the position of the Spirit is not wholly clear here, but Jesus states it is integral to the work of Father and Son. (“Go baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”) More importantly, he links this very special relationship with a special relationship with the disciples, and that is to go and bring more to faith and to teach just as Jesus did. There is a dynamism here.
This ‘commission’ was not simply declared to those people there and then, but it is a commission to all of us too. Each and every one of us is also in relationship with the Holy Trinity, a relationship with the Father, through the Son and inspired and led by the Spirit. Just as the Father sent the Son to bring more to him, in the Spirit, so are we sent out as well to participate in that mission. And yet, just as the three persons of the Trinity are united, we as a church in Burbage and Aston Flamville, are also united; we are all individuals, with our own gifts and talent, but are related to each other in faith; united and in relationship with one another, and to Christians world-wide. It is another way of thinking about the Trinity. We can see the Trinity in our midst, in our every day lives and in our everyday faith.
As you are sent out to work in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, I too am being sent but in another direction, to do whatever it is that I am called to do in Wigston. And so I thank Father Andrew and everyone in Burbage and Aston Flamville for your friendship and support over these past three years, a time I shall look back with great fondness.
And to finish . . .
I have learned a great deal from my time at St Catherine’s. Fr Terry taught me that you can always end a sermon with a joke. Well, here it is, courtesy of Grove Books:
“A lorry load of tortoises crashed into a trainload of terrapins. It was a turtle disaster.”
Thank you again for three wonderful years.