Trinity Sunday 2012: a sermon by Catherine Rowett

   Trinity Sunday 2012

'The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said "Woe is me. I am lost."' (Isaiah)

1        Do we like Trinity Sunday? Well maybe, but there are plenty of reasons for thinking it ought not to be included, here or anywhere, in our calendar. It's a late intrusion, which wasn't approved by Rome until 1334, and it doesn't exist at all in the Eastern Churches (who celebrate All Holy Martyrs on the Sunday in the Octave of Pentecost). It has a slightly longer history in England than in some churches, since Thomas à Becket adopted it from the year of his consecration in 1162, and furthermore the Church of England was one of the Churches that followed and still follows a strange habit of counting Sundays after Trinity instead of Sundays after Pentecost—a habit it learned from the Sarum Rite—which has encouraged the English to think that Trinity Sunday is an important feast, despite the fact that we all sort of know that nothing beats the three great unmissable festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. Trinity is <em>not</em> one of those. (In fact it's probably here because there was always a default Trinitarian preface for the Eucharistic prayer, to which we revert on this Sunday after a whole sequence of special prefaces for Lent, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension and Holy Spirit. So for want of anything better, so to speak, we fall back upon mentioning the Trinity. Something of a non-event really…  This theory I acquired from conversing with a learned friend in Cambridge on Thursday).

2        But enough of history. My problem with this day is not its inauspicious novelty—of course the Holy Spirit is perfectly entitled to work new work in any bit of the church it likes at any time it likes. What worries me is its doctrinal content. Here's my thought: we are a story-telling people. We are a people who don't just tell stories: we do stories. We are a doing people. But Trinity Sunday is not a story Sunday nor a doing Sunday.

3        Our year is made up of three stories: one is the story of the incarnation from the Annunciation, through the Nativity to Passiontide and beyond. The second is the story of Christ's ministry during his earthly life, which occupies the Sundays between Pentecost and Advent. And the third is the weekday schedule of the feasts of the saints and martyrs: the story of the church since Christ left us and the Spirit arrived. We don't just tell these stories year after year: we <em>do</em> them year after year. We make the deeds of long ago into the deeds of God's people now so that their story is our story. Believing is becoming part of that story, on Sundays and weekdays: it's not just a matter of what we say or think.

4        But Trinity Sunday doesn't seem to be part of that. It's not a story and it's not something we become part of by doing it over again. It's a doctrine. It's cerebral, theoretical, philosophical. It's left brain stuff. What's it doing here in a church where we do our story in deed and sacrament, not in words and ideas?

5        <em>Sed contra</em> (as Thomas Aquinas would say), there are three quick points to make in defence of Trinity Sunday: first, there is a story here too, because Christian doctrine didn't spring fully fledged from the pen of St Paul, but it took three centuries to reach the formulae agreed at Nicaea. Which was not the end… Second, because Christian theology is not abstract and philosophical but takes its evidence from the stories that we and all Christians hear and repeat, and from the deeds that we do and the prayers that we say. Today, we heard in St John's Gospel that Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again of water and the Spirit, and that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, In St Paul's letter to the Romans we heard of a Spirit that makes people not slaves but sons, so that Jesus's father is our father too. These were the very stories and texts from which the early church drew its evidence, for there was no other way of finding out what was true about the relation between the persons of the Trinity and their roles in the history of the creation and redemption of mankind. These stories, and also the practices of prayer and liturgy in the early church—the things we still do as we have always done—these are where theology finds its data.

6        And third, because there's a way of using icons and images, as well as stories, to blow away the smoke that fills the house, and find our way: when abstract talk of three persons and one substance gets incomprehensible, we picture it in terms of something more down to earth.

7        In the creed, for instance, we say "god of god, light of light" to try to explicate how the begotten Son is a son of God and yet is still equal to the Father. "Light of light" is there as an analogy: as I understand it, there is one Olympic torch that is regarded as the original and which is kept permanently alive. From that one, they light another, which is also called "the Olympic flame" even though it is a second or a third. When they light the second one, it seems to take its identity from the first, but the first doesn't go out, is not diminished by the lighting of a second, and the second is not less bright or less real or less powerful. Yet one is begotten of the other. It is not like the reigning monarch (to choose another topical example) where one must die before the next is King. No: it is like light from light:—That image was put into the Nicene creed because it helps to explain how the begotten son has no less Godhead than the Father, but does not take anything away from the Father's glory: it was an image that someone from the Arian group would reject.

8        We can imagine God partly because we are imagined by God, and made in his image. Augustine was inspired by that resemblance between us and our creator to think that one could find images of the Trinity in the human mind, in its consciousness of itself, its love of itself and so on. Let's not go there… But let's stick with the idea that we (at our best) are created in the image of a Trinitarian God. When do we best realise that image, I ask you?

9        Well, here's my answer. I said before that we are a doing people, and I would like to see if we can find the image of the Trinity in Christ's people when we do what he told us to do. For is it not then that he restores the image of God in us, that was so marred by sin.

10       So let us look to see if we can find an icon of the Trinity in what we do in the Eucharist. Here, in the partaking of Christ's body and blood we have not two but three elements: bread, wine and the people of God, which are both three and one. "This is my body", said Jesus. "We are one body" said St Paul. Thus Christ becomes incarnate in the bread, and in the wine, and in the people who, in sharing this feast of love, become Christ's body in many members, the Eucharistic Church. By the time the sacrifice is complete, are they still three things, or are they now just one? This question we can't answer because it is not right to say they are the same and it's not right to say that they are different.

11       Does this icon help? It perhaps reminds us of this truth, which we already knew, I think: that we understand more fully what God is, and what love is, not when we read a theology book, but when we do what we have been called to do for love of him, and when we tell again that great story of love, about what he did on the night that he was betrayed. Then, as we restore the image of God in us, we may perchance find ourselves bound in such a unity that transcends diversity, not just because our minds are like the triune god, as Augustine supposed, but because our bodies too are now commissioned to serve as his very body too.

12       So this is what we must now do. We are a doing people, so let us do. But first, I suppose, we shall be required to pause for a moment to recite some words approved at the council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to keep out the heretics. I will therefore close now with a prayer of which you heard an approximate English translation in the Collect for today: Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui dedisti famulis tuis, in confessione verae fidei, aeternae Trinitatis gloriam agnoscere, et in potentia majestatis adorare unitatem: quaesumus, ut eiusdem fidei firmitate, ab omnibus semper muniamur adversis.[1] Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God throughout all ages, Amen.

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[1] Another time we can have a sermon on the correct translation of these words?