St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Trinity Sunday

June 15                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Trinity Sunday

Texts:  Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Theme:  By far the safest option this week is to go for the title of the Feast, "Trinity Sunday", or some variation on that theme, such as "The Holy Trinity", "Unity in Trinity", or the slightly more sazzy "The Community of Love".  If you're tired of playing things straight, try something like "It's Just the Way it Is – Get Over It!"  The middle option might be "Speaking of the Unspeakable".  Or if you intend to follow the evasive approach I used when I had to preach on this Feast and use it to summarise the first half of the liturgical year, something fairly innocuous (that is, bland) like "The Story So Far".  A final suggestion worth considering might be "The Divinity of Christ", which is, after all, at the heart of the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Introduction.  We know we're entering difficult waters when The Lectionary struggles to find relevant readings.  The original "Grace" from the end of Paul's Corinthian correspondence, and the traditional baptismal formula from the end of Matthew's gospel, short and sweet though they are, fit the bill pretty well, particularly as it's hard to think of any alternatives.  But we start with the long and beautiful creation hymn from Genesis, which to me anyway is a bit of a stretch if we are claiming it as essentially Trinitarian.   The blunt truth surely is that no one had ever, or could ever have, thought of God as triune before the Incarnation; or, to put it another way, God did not fully reveal his Trinitarian nature before the Incarnation.

Background.  I try not to rush off to what other people have preached when I'm preparing a sermon.  I prefer to just sit with the readings and wait for something to stir within me.  But I must confess that over the years, faced with yet another Trinity Sunday looming on my horizon (does it really only come round once a year?), I have been known to seek someone else's inspiration – when there's nothing new on offer we might as well try Trade Me.  I do remember a wonderfully funny story by Adrian Plaas about a preacher resorting to the somewhat corny idea of ice, water, and steam, with a Monty Python-like outcome!  But visual aids (not to mention exploding test-tubes) are not really my thing – are they really any more able to convey spiritual truths than the spoken language, despite all its inadequacies?

I do remember reading in something a little more high-brow that the Western Church started with a complete conviction that God is One, and struggled with the intellectual problem of how then to explain the divinity of Christ, whereas the Eastern Church started with the experience of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and struggled with the intellectual problem of how to explain the oneness of God.  But I have three problems with that.  First, I have no idea whether or not other scholars agree with that view.  Secondly, even if it is widely accepted, I'm not sure where it gets us.  Thirdly, it reminds me of the only thing I remember learning in my first year of law studies in 1963.  The lecturer was introducing us to the danger of generalisations, which he described as "shameless hussies ever likely to lead unprepared lawyers into fatal error".  The only sure protection against such temptresses, he assured us, was always to remember this simple truth: "All generalisations are more untrue than they are true – (long dramatic pause) – including this one!"

Which in a strange sort of way gets me to a sermon I have read in the last few days by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Her book Home By Another Way is a collection of her sermons following the liturgical year; and in her sermon for Trinity Sunday she refers to the use of koans by Buddhist masters to teach their students how to break out of logical thinking.  One of the most famous, of course, is to ask "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"  (Incidentally, she closes her sermon with a variant of that question: "what is the sound of three hands clapping?")  She also has a lovely little story from her own days in parish ministry.  One Trinity Sunday after the service she went out to her car and found "a lumpy envelope" on the bonnet.  "Inside was a Three Musketeers candy bar with a note that read, 'All for one and one for three!  Happy Trinity!'"  It's hard to know what to say about that really, isn't it?

But I take from all this two key points.  First, we believe in the triune nature of God because of our human experience, not because of our human genius for philosophy.  Secondly, our attempts to "explain" the Trinity, or (more correctly) to explain our doctrine of the Trinity, suffer from the same difficulty we encounter with an attempt to explain or describe any experience.  Those of us who believe that the epitome of sophistication is to drink cider instead of beer love to laugh at wine connoisseurs with their strange descriptions of the taste of individual wines – "a cheeky little wine with just a hint of black-currant that lacks the strength to completely mask the undertone of silage".  But one of the few sermons on the Trinity that I remember hearing began: "I am small, round and bright orange, covered in peel with an inner lining of pith enclosing my evenly segmented flesh.  Yes, I am an orange, and I have just told you enough to recognise me when you see me.  But as to my taste, there are no words to describe it.  Only by tasting me can you know my taste, and then you will know how impossible it is to describe it to someone else.  That, my friends, is true of an orange, and is equally true of the Holy Trinity."  Or words to that effect.  And the strange thing is, 23 years later I can remember very clearly who preached that sermon and where, but I have never been able to recall anything the preacher said after that opening paragraph.  It may even be possible that she simply added "Amen" and left it at that.  What else was there to say?

Back to Barbara Brown Taylor.  In her sermon on the Trinity she talks of some of the various ways we experience God – as comforter, as encourager, as helper, as judge, and so on.  But that seems to me to raise more questions than it answers.  If we believe in God as Three Persons because of our experience of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, why don't we believe in God the Many More, including all those different "identities" just mentioned?

And what is the sound of three hands clapping?

Genesis.  I'm beginning to think that perhaps this passage was chosen for Trinity Sunday precisely to challenge us to abandon our obsession with rational analysis; because that approach trips up right away.  Just stick with the first two verses for a moment and try to analyse what they are telling us.  Does verse 2 describe how things were before God started to create, or did he start by creating things as they are described in that verse?  Secondly, what purpose was achieved by the Spirit/Wind of God sweeping over the face of the waters?  Thirdly, what was the origin of those waters?  Shall we give up now and accept that we are never going to get anywhere with a rational approach to this passage?  Now to the issue of whether or not this passage is Trinitarian – at least with the benefit of hindsight.  The key insight here, of course, is that God created all things by speaking them into existence.  While we might have a childhood vision of God in his shed knocking up wonderful creations, or shaping things on a potter's wheel, the Hebrew genius was to see creation as being brought into existence by language.  And, of course, that opened the door for Christian interpretation – Christ the Word is the medium through which all things were created.  However, as has so often been the case, the Holy Spirit has been left to hover around the edges.  Apart from sweeping over the face of the waters, what else did the Spirit contribute to the creation of the heavens and the earth?

Perhaps we should ponder the origin of this passage.  We are so used to this passage being at the beginning of the Scriptures that we might forget that the idea of God as the Creator of all thing came quite late to the people of Israel.  After all, monotheism came quite late to the people of Israel.  For centuries they worshipped the god of Israel, accepting that other nations worshipped their own gods.  Only when it dawned on them that there is only one God was it possible to recognise that all thing had their source in that one God.  And when they realised that they expressed that new belief, not in a scientific monograph, but in this glorious hymn of praise to God the Creator.  It is as a great piece of doxology that we should approach it, rather than a somewhat over-stretched basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Taking It Personally.

  • Notice the recurring "creative formula" beginning with the word "Let", as if creation is effected by granting permission.  See, for example, verse 24: "Let the earth bring forth..."  Could it be said that creation occurs by divine permission to fulfil inherent potential?  What do you make of that?
  • Contrast that with the creation of humankind in verse 26: God seems to grant permission to himself.  What do you think?
  • God created humankind in his own likeness/image.  What does that tell us about ourselves, given that God is triune?
  • In what sense might we see God's gradual self-revelation as a parallel to evolution?  Could we understand human beings as evolving from the purely physical, through the psycho-physical, towards the spiritual?  Is our triune nature best described as physical, psychological and spiritual?

Corinthians.  Paul brings his long and sometimes acrimonious correspondence with the church at Corinth to an end with a plea for unity: "agree with one another, live in peace".  He even seems to imply that only as they manage that will the God of love and peace be with them, which doesn't sound quite right, does it?  Perhaps we should put it down to tiredness.  What is most important for us is the very last verse.  It is sometimes argued that the Doctrine of the Trinity has no biblical basis.  On the contrary, this verse shows that the concept was already present in the early Church by the time of this letter.


Taking It Personally.


  • Remember that this correspondence is very much addressed to the local church, rather than to any individual believer.  What things need to be put in order (verse 11) in your local church?
  • To what extent do members of your local church agree with one another and live in peace?
  • Meditate on the Grace/Blessing in verse 13.
  • Pray for your local church using this lesson as a guide.


Matthew.  This is Matthew's version of the Ascension without any actual ascension.  But that's not the important thing about it.  Its real interest is threefold.  First, of the eleven disciples (the original 12 minus Judas) present, "some doubted" (verse 17).  Secondly, Jesus uses the words 9in verse 18) associated with the vision of the one like a Son of Man in Daniel 7:13-14.  And thirdly, and most importantly for present purposes, we have the baptismal formula already firmly in place by the date of this gospel, again showing that the Doctrine of the Trinity is already in gestation.


Taking It Personally.


  • Read slowly and prayerfully through the passage.  How do you feel about some of those disciples "still doubting"?
  • Notice that, despite that, all of them are commissioned for ministry to the world.  Certainty of conviction is not a pre-requisite for discipleship and mission.  How do you feel about that?
  • Reflect on your own baptism, recalling that the words used by the priest on that occasion have been used from the very beginning of the Christian Church.  How do you feel about that?
  • Remember that Christ is with us to the end of the age and give him thanks and praise today!

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