Trinity Sunday Sermon

By The Rt Revd Graham James - 15 June 2017
A picture of a service at Norwich Cathedral
When the title of our cathedral church is written in full, such as on legal documents, it is always “The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Norwich”. It does rather seem as if Norwich has taken ownership of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Our Trinitarian possessiveness deserves reflection today.  

For Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday in the Christian year devoted to a doctrine. At a time when our country is haunted by terrorist threats and political uncertainty after the General Election, to focus on a complex doctrine may appear off the pace. But seeking to know God has been the way human beings have often responded to uncertain times. If there’s a time to focus on God’s nature, it is now.

Today the preacher must speak of the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is one and indivisible. Yet we believe in God the Father, who made the world; in God the Son, who redeemed us on the Cross; in God the Holy Spirit who lives within us and sanctifies us. They are not three gods but one God. But it’s not hard to understand why Christians have been frequently accused by other great monotheistic faiths of undermining the unity of God by this very doctrine we honour today.  

In my teenage years I attended Evensong on many Sundays. I recall some lengthy and not very engaging sermons. But the Book of Common Prayer came to my rescue. It has all sorts of tables at the front where you can work out the Golden Number and assess the date of Easter. I thumbed my way through it, looking devout. I discovered the Athanasian Creed. We never actually said it in church even then. It should be recited in place of the Apostles’ Creed at Morning Prayer on various feasts, including Trinity Sunday. It says: 

“The Catholic faith is this:  that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.”

Later it goes on to say:

“The Father is incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible; and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. And yet there are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible…”

You may think I was a strange teenager but I found it all this rather fascinating. There was more chance of me being converted by browsing through the prayer book than listening to the sermon. The Athanasian Creed attempts to say something about the extraordinary mystery of God. The creator of the world, the redeemer of the world, and the sustainer of the world are not separate but one. Each is truly God, completely and fully God. There is nothing lacking. And yet somehow that’s not the whole story. The problem with a human being attempting to understand the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is that we can only be in one place at one time, usually only do one thing at one time especially if you’re male, and only think one thought at one time. And yet the single thing we do, the single thought we have, do not exhaust the possibilities of our humanity. We are fully human when we think or do them. But there is more to be said about our humanity.

The problem with analogies from human life is that they are inexact. Analogies are at best a path to understanding. But they can help us on the way.  

The New Testament does not explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Yet over the first two centuries of Christianity reflection on the experience of faith in Christ led the Church to develop this doctrine. You see glimpses of it in the very earliest ways Christians prayed. Think how often Christian meetings all over the world are brought to a conclusion by saying the Grace, those words which come straight from St Paul – “the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.”

This isn’t the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, of course, but it indicates how God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit proves inseparable from the way Christians have always lived their life in Christ. “The grace”, as we call it, developed within the first fifteen years after the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s still used regularly by millions, perhaps billions, of Christians across the world today.   

Perhaps the most unlikely author of a book about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was Dorothy L Sayers, the crime writer and the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey. In her book The Mind of the Maker she developed an analogy of the Holy Trinity by identifying the Trinitarian pattern of all human activities. She saw God the Holy Trinity in the way a picture was painted or a book was written.  
If someone is going to write a novel they must have an idea. The author has got to have some conception of what the book will be about. No-one can sit down and write a jumble of words and call that a novel, even if I’ve read some which do seem composed that way.  

Then the book has to be physically written. The author has got to compose the chapters. The creative idea isn’t enough on its own. There’s a lot of activity which brings the book into being. And once the book is written and published, others can read it. It has an effect upon them. It has a power all its own. Authors even become readers of their own books.  

Idea, activity and power. There you have the bare bones of Dorothy Sayers’ analogy of the Holy Trinity. Each is the whole book in itself, but each is so related to the other as to be necessary to the whole. According to Dorothy Sayers, idea, activity and power are reflected in God as Father – he is the creative idea; God the Son is the creative activity; and God the Holy Spirit the creative power. Each is necessary to the other.  

Dorothy Sayers pressed home the analogy by relating it to distorted forms of human activity. Some people are full of grand ideas but never put any of them into action. “Oh, he’s full of bright ideas” we say of them. Then there are people who rush around doing all sorts of things but have no idea or plan which guides them. They don’t have any lasting impact. Activity on its own isn’t enough.  

There are also those who rely simply on effect. They haven’t got an idea and haven’t engaged in much activity but hope it will turn out all right in the end. So a weak comedian builds his act simply on the audience’s willingness to be amused. The preacher with nothing to say adds a lilt to his voice to cover the lack of content. I will forbear to explore this analogy in relation to the recent general election campaign, but you can apply it anywhere.  
But, said Dorothy Sayers, if you bring the creative idea, the creative activity and the creative power together in undivided relationship, you begin to glimpse the nature of our Trinitarian God. If we are made in the image and likeness of God ourselves there should be a reflection of the Trinitarian pattern of God’s life within us.    

But all this takes us only so far. There is something too static about any analogy. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity doesn’t exist to make God intelligible. Remember the Athanasian Creed says that God is incomprehensible. We cannot get our minds around God. Yet that creed reminds us that God is more perfectly one and united than we can possibly be. In God there is a mutual relationship of love which is more outgoing, perfect and complete than the love found in any of us.  

I remember someone once saying that the New Testament isn’t the report of a committee after some notable events. It is more like a crater after an explosion. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is our reflection on the source of the explosion of love and salvation which is at the heart of the Christian faith. We handle the glorious debris. We ponder what the fall out means. We stretch our minds to understand the continued flow of divine love. We are not really content with God being incomprehensible because God has given us minds. He has given us even more. He has given us Jesus Christ, his Son. And he has given us the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts. So here in this cathedral church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Norwich our minds and hearts and souls still feel the heat which comes from that Trinitarian furnace which is the love of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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