A sermon for Eucharist on Trinity Sunday, preached on 30 May 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.
(Isaiah 6: 1 – 8; John 3: 1 – 17)
Trinity Sunday. My task: to speak for seven minutes on the doctrine of the Trinity without repetition, deviation, hesitation, or – I hope – interruption.
To the casual observer the three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, are apparently interchangeable and work in any combination. And indeed that may be so. The intriguing thing is that, although numerically it sounds a nonsense – three cannot be one, nor one three – it seems to work out in practice, that is, in life. Perhaps a passably meaningful picture of it is to remind ourselves that this Abbey has length, breadth and height – three dimensions, one Abbey, which would be incomplete, indeed impossible, without any one of its dimensions.
I have, appropriately, three things to say to you about the Trinity. The first is that it is not a vague speculation about an implausible theory, like, for instance the Da Vinci Code. It is based on the actual experience of Christians down the ages, beginning with the apostles and first disciples, who knew the historical Jesus.
After his ascension, they experienced the Holy Spirit’s overwhelming outpouring into them, as we remembered last week. As for their experience of God the Father, as Jews they had always known Him – Jahweh. Ever since then, Christians have been able to come close to Jesus – even though they never knew him in person – in prayer and at the Eucharist. And they – we – have often felt called and led by the Spirit. St John, in our Gospel, explains how these three separate aspects of God are intertwined. The Spirit, like the wind, is a powerful, but to us unpredictable, force. (John 3: 8) We recognise the Spirit’s capacity to guide, strengthen and change us, even though we may find it difficult to pin down. What is clearer is the love of God, made evident in Jesus, the Son. As John puts it, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3: 16)
The second point about the Trinity, related to that, is made by the Early Church Father Irenaeus. The idea of the Trinity, he says, saves God from being ultimately unknowable, entirely “other”, because the Son and the Spirit are His hands. If God can sometimes feel remote and detached, especially in times of pain or sorrow, yet there lies hope and salve in the person of Jesus. He has shared our experiences, even the worst; he is alongside us. And the Spirit is God–within-us – maybe the voice of our conscience, maybe our means of communicating with the Father, maybe our guide in important decisions.
The third thing to say is that the Trinity is all about a dynamic relationship. If we let our imagination fly, we may catch a glimpse of the eternal celestial dance of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – not indeed locked into an everlasting figure of eight with each other, but dancing something much more like the Dashing White Sergeant. The choreography in that, you may recall, demands that the trio of dancers face outwards, meeting, greeting and joining the dance with each successive trio on the ballroom floor. It is the idea – and the fact – of the Trinity that gives God His dynamic force, the sort of combination and tension which you hear in a string trio. It is exciting, not entirely predictable, creative.
The dancers and the players have their own internal dynamic, each approaching the others from a different point, yet weaving their counterpoint into a mysterious wholeness and unity. But the relationship is not simply internal; it looks outwards towards others – dancers, players, listeners, onlookers. All are involved; all are drawn in. And that is the magic of the Trinity: it is how God draws us in. As Father, He reveals to us the divine, the numinous. As Son, we find a historical person with whom we can identify, and who identifies with us. As Spirit, He enables us to engage in prayer, to be in communion with him, and to be fired to do this work. As Isaiah, in our first reading, felt impelled to respond, “Here I am, send me.” (Isaiah 6: 8)
Relationships give meaning to life, which otherwise might be a matter of random encounters and chance. This Trinitarian relationship is the supreme and universal one, the paradigm of the best in all relationships. It tells us that God is not monolithic or static, but dynamic – a dancer, not a statue – and that our relationship with Him should evolve and develop. He may be over and beyond us, but in Jesus He is beside us and, as Holy Spirit, within us. We are in full communion with Him and He with us.
So, as we affirm that communion in this Eucharist, let us echo in our hearts that ceaseless song of the seraphim: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” (Isaiah 6: 3)