Sunday 7 June 2020
As I mentioned at the beginning of the Service, today we celebrate Trinity Sunday. It is a little curious when you think about it. We generally celebrate events or weeks after events (Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Day and so on), or seasons (Lent and Advent), or individuals (St Matthew, our patron saint, or Christ the King). But today, we celebrate a dogma, a teaching of the Church – the defined nature of God.
It is not just any old dogma either. It is probably the most difficult (along with the Incarnation) to explain. It is traditionally regarded by priests as the toughest Sunday of the year on which to preach.
And it has to be said, in terms of explanation of the dogma itself, the readings set by the Lectionary in this Year A of the Church’s cycle are not particularly helpful. But I will return to them later.
Many of the sermons I have heard on the trinitarian nature of God have the form of a highly technical theological explanation of Trinity (just to show the parishioners that the priest took notes during theological formation) followed by the concluding comment that, in the end, we can’t really understand it fully and that it is what is referred to in theological terms as ‘mystery’.
I think the template for this sort of approach owes much to a legendary story from the life of St Augustine. It was said that, at the time he was writing his major work on the Trinity, De Trinitate, Augustine was at the seashore cogitating on the matter when he saw a young child who had dug a hole in the sand. The child was going backwards and forwards between the sea and the hole, filling a bucket with water and then pouring it into the hole.
Out of curiosity, Augustine asked the child what he was doing. The child replied that he was emptying the sea into the hole. Augustine laughed and told the child that what he was trying to do was impossible. The child retorted that wasn’t what Augustine was trying to do, put the enormity of God into the confines of a human brain, equally impossible.
The child was of course right. Our effort to understand the nature of the Trinity is essentially an impossible task. It is indeed mystery.
So rather than giving a long and detailed theological explanation, and then saying, but of course it is mystery, I am going to give a short explanation and concentrate on what we can do with mystery.
The problem facing the Church was fairly clear. The Bible refers to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the faith of Jews and Christians was emphatically in one God, not a multiplicity of Gods. How was the three to be explained in terms of the one. In the early centuries of the Church, recourse was made to the prevailing language of Greek philosophy and we ended up with technical words around persons and substance.
Various efforts have been made throughout history to express the reality in terms more relevant to the times. In recent times, the image of relationship has been commonly drawn upon. God in Godself is essentially relational. Another image that is used is that of dance. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are engaged in this relational life by way of an eternal dance swirling in and around the Godhead.
While these approaches are helpful, we are still left with the Mystery.
How do we engage with mystery?
Well, there are those in our world who see all things as having logical explanation, most commonly in scientific and/or mathematical terms. In the absence of logical explanation, there can be no reality to which you refer. This view is a little simplistic even in scientific terms because science itself (if we can assume such a reality that has a voice) does not claim all knowledge and all explanation. Renowned Swiss theologian Hans Kung notes: “Today, it is welcome to see that many scientists acknowledge that they cannot offer any final, definitive truths. They appear more than ever ready to revise a standpoint once gained, indeed, in some cases to take it back again completely – by trial and error. (“The Beginning of All Things”, P38)
If we accept the notion of Mystery, especially in relation to our understanding of God in Godself, then we are brought to the realm of doxology, the realm of praise of the glory of God. We stand before, with, and in God giving glory and praise as the only meaningful response. And this right relation with God in Godself, draws us out into right relation with each other and the world around us.
The relationship of doxology is expressed in our use of trinitarian formulas in our prayers, such as the Grace that we heard in today’s second reading: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. And as the baptismal blessing in the gospel reading: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ And in our baptismal rite where the congregation responds to the priest’s statement that “This is the faith of the Church”: This is our faith: We believe in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And the praise is expressed as I make the sign of the cross. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen