On the Trinity

The Revd Canon Dr William Lamb
Trinity Sunday


Choral Eucharist

Isaiah 6.1-8       John 3.1-17

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the curious things about Trinity Sunday is that it is distinguished by the fact that on this day we do not mark and celebrate a particular event in the life of Christ or the story of salvation. This is not like Christmas or Easter or Pentecost. Today we celebrate a doctrine, the Christian doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

The origins of this feast are perhaps appropriately rather obscure. In the eighth century, Alcuin of York devised a votive Mass with special elements in honour of the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  This was something that could be celebrated at any time, but gradually a feast on the first Sunday after Pentecost was devised in the Benedictine tradition, and of course one of the great houses of the Order of St Benedict was at Canterbury. So when Thomas Becket became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, he decreed (partly because he was ordained on this day) that the Church of England should celebrate this Feast on the first Sunday after Pentecost. It was later in the fourteenth century that Pope John XXII issued a decree, and this observance extended to all Churches.

So we have Alcuin of York and Thomas Becket to thank for this feast, which perhaps speaks of the particular patrimony of the Church of England. This pattern was adopted by Thomas Cranmer in the Book of Common Prayer. Sundays after Trinity were incorporated in our calendar, and this is perhaps one of the distinctive things about our observance of the liturgical year.  The Roman Catholic Church has Sundays in Ordinary Time, which has always struck me as rather bland by comparison.

But the fact that we have Sundays after Trinity is also an ever-present reminder that the doctrine of the Trinity is not simply something that we talk about on Trinity Sunday, as if we have the whole story of creation and salvation as it unfolds from Advent, through Christmas, to Holy Week and Easter, and then Pentecost – and we then tag Trinity Sunday on at the end. The Christian doctrine of God is at the heart of this unfolding story just as it pervades our celebration week by week after Trinity Sunday.

Of course, the Book of Common Prayer suggests that we should say the Quicunque Vult on Trinity Sunday. Also known as the Athanasian Creed, it goes like this: ‘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, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.’ And so it goes on.

Faced with such incomprehensibility, you may be grateful for the liturgical innovations of recent decades. The Athanasian Creed is not on the menu this morning. But of course, the density of this Trinitarian language might lead you to conclude that Trinity Sunday is a rather more challenging day to preach on in comparison with other days. But the truth is that it should not be different from any other Sunday. Because if the preacher has not been provoking reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity week by week through the Christian year, then to what extent is their theological outlook animated and shaped by the Christian doctrine of God?

The readings that we have heard today perhaps help to illuminate the Christian doctrine of God by putting two clear markers down. We began with that extraordinary vision from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah sees God sitting on a throne in heaven, surrounded by seraphim, crying out ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory’. We echo these words every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Isaiah invites us to contemplate the holiness of God, the sheer otherness of God, the difference of God, the strangeness of God. It is a vision which reminds us that we can never ‘master’ God. God is infinitely different from us in quality and nature.

When we say that God is ‘Three-in-One’, we bear witness to the sheer plenitude and mystery of God. God is always more than our minds can grasp, and the language of the Trinity constantly disrupts our attempts at dogmatic certainty. It trips us up whenever we try to make our religion neat and tidy. When we say that God is ‘Three-in-One’, that is not a way of tying God down. It is a way of reminding us that our language about God hardly begins to do justice to the mystery at the heart of the universe. As one contemporary theologian puts it, this language does not ‘help us to put God in a box. In fact, it’s meant to help us not to put God in a box. It’s meant to point us to ways in which there is more to God than we might have thought – more to God’s life, more to God’s love, more to the way God shares God’s life with us’ (Mike Higton).

So Isaiah reminds us of the importance of acknowledging the otherness of God, the holiness of God, the difference of God. But if Isaiah speaks of difference, the first marker, John speaks of identity. This is the second marker. John uses the familiar language of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit – and there is in this passage a play on the word pneuma – which can be translated either as Spirit or Wind. The language of the gospel is unapologetically Trinitarian.

But as John draws out this language, we begin to see the ways in which God relates to us. God draws us to himself, God reaches out to us, and then as John puts it so memorably: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ God so loved the world. Here we begin to see the mystery at the heart of God, the character of God, the identity of God. We discover a love which constantly reaches out to us, which seeks to embrace us, which seeks to relate to us. And this is possibly one of the reasons why the Trinitarian language about God is always relational. It only makes sense when we consider the reality of love.

Ancient commentators, such as Augustine of Hippo, reflected on the triune life in terms of the Lover, the Father, the Beloved, the Son, and Love, the Holy Spirit. God loves us so utterly and completely that he gives himself for us – but more than that, as we are drawn into the mystery of love, we respond with that same love. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. As John puts it in one of his epistles, we love because God loved us first. As we respond in love to our first love, we discover our true identity, that we are made in the image of God, that we are made for love. We are invited to participate in God’s life, to share in God’s life, to be conformed into the likeness of Christ, to share in the gift of his spirit, to discover again and again the love burning in that blessed society of equal persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: to whom, as is most justly due, be ascribed all might, dominion, majesty and power, now and for ever. Amen.