Trinity Sunday


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »


Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace,…
For the Epistle
Revelation 4:1-11
John 3:1-15

Many preachers say that today’s is the most difficult sermon of the year. Perhaps they think that other mysteries are less mysterious, although ranking mysteries is an impossibility. Part of the problem is that we discuss mystery in metaphorical language whose meaning changes through time (cf The Ascension Day).

Unfortunately, today’s Readings do not help much. Although Revelation is stirringly encouraging and metaphorically rich it is illustrative rather than foundational; it adds nothing to the Gospels in general and John in particular about the nature of the Trinity; The Gospel, too, is only marginally helpful when Jesus poses some impossible riddles to Nicodemus about re-birth in water and the Spirit and the descending from and ascending to heaven (in his own person) but this also is much less clear in its Trinitarianism than many other passages in John.

Rather than trying to make plausible links out of unhelpful material, let us face the central questions head on: what is the Trinity? Why is it necessary to Christianity? How far can we penetrate its mystery? And how can we describe these ideas in contemporary language?

There are numerous occasions for discussing the ‘persons’ of the Trinity individually and so our concern here is their relationship or, to use the technical term, their ‘economy’. Both of these terms have now completely changed their meaning from the time they were used by 4th and 5th Century theologians and so we might today think of the Godhead as a set of symbiotic attributes. Two illustrations involving light might help: first, we might say that the white light of the unity of God needs to be split into component colours to facilitate better human understanding of the divine mystery; secondly, we might describe the combination of red, blue and green to make up every image that we see.

In terms of the Creator we can ask: why is there something? How do we account for matter if physics says it cannot be created nor destroyed? What happened before the big bang? One philosophical answer is that there must have been a creative force; as Christians we believe that this is a divine entity whom we call the Creator (or God the Father) with whom we have a personal relationship; in this case we have physical evidence of creation. The doctrine of the incarnation accounts for the Redeemer (or The Son) and, again, we have physical evidence. Nonetheless, the concept is mind-blowing. To overcome the severe stresses imposed by it the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) described Jesus as having a divine and a human nature in one person. Today we might think of the fusing of ideas of the physical and the virtual: a letter on a screen or emerging from a paper printer; 3-dimensional haptic objects created out of thin air; ‘real environments’ like aircraft cockpits simulated. Accounting for the Sanctifier (or the Holy Spirit) is somewhat more difficult because, in a sense, we have to take the word of Jesus for the phenomenon or, recursively, we invoke the presence of the Spirit to account for the Spirit. We might, however, turn to science for illustrations: in the late 19th Century scientists were able to predict the existence of certain elements in the Periodic Table before they were found; scientists, looking at ‘shifted’ light, can locate planets that they cannot see; and we are now familiar with the idea of anti matter. If, then, we believe in a personal Creator and an incarnated Redeemer we can readily infer the presence of a Sanctifier who ‘comprises’ the love between Father and Son.

The ‘necessity’ (words are in single quotes to emphasise metaphor) of the incarnation to re-constitute our relationship with the Creator through the Redeemer and, in turn, the ‘necessity’ that we should do so in the light of that incarnation, ‘generated’ the Sanctifier. Thus Trinitarian unity is a direct ‘consequence’ of the unique event of the incarnation, always remembering that the economy is outside time. In rejecting this ‘model’, other religions confine themselves to an abstract relationship with God which, it can be seen from the Old Testament, places demands upon the believer far in excess of those placed on us. We have been told by Jesus that nothing will be asked of us for which we are not given the resources; but this places a massive obligation on us to share our good news. This is not to say that it is easy to be Christian but our theological imagination does not have to wrestle with an unmediated, abstract God.

Thinking back to the idea of colour, it is important to recognise that we all broadly agree about such ideas as blue and red but they do not mean precisely the same thing to each of us; doctrine is what we have in common but it does not make us identically Christian. There is the difference between agreeing a standard and forcing people to standardise belief or behaviour. Science has also shown us that the Newtonian model of solid objects is conveniently practical but the world is much more fluid than that. Quantum mechanics might help us to ask if God in Trinity should be a noun or a verb.

Theology and preaching can benefit greatly from contemporary science, not least from Richard Dawkins in his more expansive and less angry work (Weaving The Rainbow). We should not be frightened by the Trinity; we have the tools to make exploring this mystery enlightening and enlivening.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. How do the Readings relate to the Trinity?
  2. How have the meanings of the words ‘person’ and ‘economy’ changed since they were used by early Councils of the Church?
  3. Think of contemporary illustrations which would help us better to understand the mystery of the Trinity
  4. How would you face the charge that Christianity is not monotheistic?
  5. Explore the links between physics and theology.

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)