REFLECTIONS ON THE HOLY TRINITY
22/V/16 Trinity Sunday Fordingbridge Church, 9.30 (Yr C) – Canon Gary Philbrick
Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15
May I speak in the Name of the Son, in the Power of the Holy Spirit, and to the Glory of God the Father, one Holy Trinity. AMEN.
When we come on Trinity Sunday to consider the Holy Trinity we are thinking about the most difficult and the most beautiful of Christian doctrines. The most difficult, because it is impossible for our minds to grasp the full implications of the Trinity. The most beautiful, because of the effect the worship of the Trinity can have on our prayer and devotional life. Trinity Sunday is one of my favourite Sundays of the year, because it gives us the chance to ponder this great mystery, and also to sing some of the wonderful Trinity hymns.
A sign of how difficult it is to grasp this concept is a conversation I had with one of the children at Breamore Primary School recently. I can’t now remember how we got on to the subject, but he was asking about what Christians believe about Jesus. I got as far as explaining that Christians believe he is both fully God and fully human. ‘So, he’s 50% God and 50% human?’ ‘Well, no, that’s not quite right. He’s 100% God and 100% human’. ‘So, he’s 200% in total?’ ‘No, no, he’s just 100%, but 100% God and 100% human!’ Fortunately, we got interrupted at that point before moving on to the Trinity– so I’m not sure what he made of it all! This is where finite human language and finite human concepts are stretched when trying to use them to talk about the infinite majesty and mystery of God.
It is important, I think, to take some time to ponder the theology and meaning of the Holy Trinity, how it can be that God is One and God is Three. But it is even more important to see how the Holy Trinity fits into our worship and devotional life, how we can relate to the Trinity. I thought we might do that this morning with the aid of poetry and prayers from a variety of sources, and a variety of traditions, with a brief commentary.
Firstly, where did this doctrine come from? The Early Church came to realise that in Christ, it was not just revering a fellow human being, but worshipping God. And when the Holy Spirit came upon those first Christians at Pentecost, they discovered that the Holy Spirit was also God, and that the Spirit had to be worshipped as well. And so began a long process of thought, prayer and experience which led to the formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
We see the beginning of this process in the New Testament itself. One of the earliest mentions of the three Persons of the Trinity is at the end of II Corinthians, a passage which is now very familiar to everyone, ‘The grace our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’. And at the end of Matthew’s Gospel the Disciples are sent out to baptise ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.
But it is really in the first four hundred years of Church history that the arguments about the Holy Trinity raged. Early Christians had experienced the power of the Holy Trinity in their worship, they knew that God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but they were struggling to express this in a way which allowed God to be Three, but still be one, and which allowed Jesus to be fully human and fully God. Each time someone formulated a solution, which did not protect what they felt they knew about God, that person was branded a heretic, and thrown out of the Church – they felt it was that important.
So, by the end of the Fourth Century, having worked their way slowly to formulation of the Nicene Creed which we say most Sundays, the Church felt that it had a solution which guarded all the things they wanted to say about God as Trinity. That is one of the reasons why that particular Creed has been used in worship ever since.
And, especially recently, academic theologians have begun to explore the Trinity much more deeply. Trinitarian theology is very ‘in’ at the moment, as people try to state what it means for our lives, our prayer and worship, and our belief, to have a God who is Three in One and One in Three.
So much for the formal doctrine. What about the experience behind that doctrine? Some parts of the Church have had a much stronger feeling for the Trinity in worship than others. In particular, the Eastern Orthodox Churches have always had a very deep appreciation of the work of the Trinity in the life of the Church. For example, one of their Lenten Prayers runs:
I praise the Godhead, unity in three persons,
For the Father is light,
The Son is light,
And the Spirit is light.
But the light remains undivided,
Shining forth in oneness of nature,
Yet in the three rays of the persons.
(Orthodox Way, p.51)
Or a Prayer from Mattins:
O Trinity supreme in being,
O Unity without beginning,
The hosts of angels sing thy praises, trembling before thee.
Heaven and earth and the depths stand in awe of thee, all-holy Trinity:
People bless thee,
Fire is thy servant,
All things created obey thee in fear.
The Orthodox tradition of the East has a strong appreciation of the life of the Trinity in all parts of scripture and in all parts of life. And it is a high and lofty appreciation of the Trinity, really rather grand in its approach.
O Father, my hope,
O Son, my refuge,
O Holy Spirit, my protection.
Holy Trinity, glory to thee.
A different way of experiencing the Trinity is expressed in the prayers of the Celtic tradition, which was found in these islands during the early Christian centuries, and recently rediscovered. The Celtic saints also had a tremendous appreciation of the Trinity, but in a very different and much more homely way:
Father bless the lambs,
Jesus bless the lambs,
Spirit bless the lambs.
Father bless the farms,
Jesus bless the farms,
Spirit bless the farms.
Father bless the land,
Jesus bless the land,
Spirit bless the land.
Father bless our lives,
Jesus bless our lives,
Spirit bless our lives.
(Edge of Glory, p.77)
That is a Celtic prayer of blessing for Good Shepherd Sunday, just after Easter, when the lambs were brought into Church to be blessed – perhaps we could try that next year! This is a house blessing:
God give grace to this dwelling place,
Christ give grace to this dwelling place,
Spirit give grace to this dwelling place.
(Edge of Glory, p.53)
Or this prayer of St Patrick, one of the great Celtic saints:
I bind unto my self today
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
(Edge of Glory, p.98)
Around thee twine the Three
The One the Trinity
The Father bind his love
The Son tie his salvation
The Spirit wrap his power
Make you a new creation
Around thee twine the Three
The encircling of the Trinity.
(Edge of Glory, p.49)
People are rediscovering this Celtic spirituality in our day. Many people have written in the Trinitarian style of the ancient Christians. Ann Lewin has written a poem called ‘Answer’:
I will answer the phone this day
In the power of the sacred three.
The love of God
be ‘twixt me and each caller;
The welcome of Christ
in me and in my listening;
The Spirit’s wisdom
in me and my words;
The blessing of God
on each one who hears me.
I will answer the phone this day
In the name of the sacred three.
(A Spirituality for the 20thC.)
That’s a way of trying to bring the Trinity into every part of our lives. As we pray and worship, we pray to the Father, through the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. In all our lives and all our worship, the Holy Trinity is involved. We believe in a personal God, and he is not alone – within the Trinity there is always a constant flow of love from one person to the other. The love which we feel for each other and for God is reflected in the love in God himself. Within the One and the Three there is this constant loving, the ‘pattern of all relationships’, as Ann Lewin puts it in her poem ‘Trinity’:
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Mother, daughter, he and She,
Compassed in one mystery.
Pattern of all relationships,
Sustaining, not contained,
Outflowing into us
Drawn into you. O Holy God
We worship you.
(Candles and Kingfishers, p.64)
The most difficult and the most beautiful of Christian doctrines. The Holy Trinity is difficult to understand, but possible to experience, as we direct our prayer to the Father, through the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit who prays in us. We don’t have to understand it, we only have to try to live it, as the early Christians did.
I end with a prayer of Thomas Ken, the famous seventeenth century Bishop of Winchester, who also wrote ‘Glory to Thee my God this night’.
To God the Father who first loved us, and made us accepted in the beloved Son; to God the Son, who loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood; to God the Holy Spirit, who sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts; to the one true God be all love and all glory for time and for eternity. AMEN.
(ASB Prayers, Silk, 225)