Today is Trinity Sunday. This is the Sunday in the Christian year most dreaded by preachers. As one preacher, not known normally for being lacking in words, said to me this week, ‘What do you say?’ It has been said that if you speak for more than five minutes on the subject of the Trinity, you end up saying something heretical. As a result, many preachers shy away from talking about the Holy Trinity at all. While this is understandable if those who are given the responsibility of preaching do this, what hope is there for congregations? So, conscious of the dangers, this morning’s sermon is about the Holy Trinity.
First, though, a word about the Christian year and the Church’s calendar. It is, at first sight, a bit strange. Everything seems to happen in the first six months: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Ascension, and Pentecost. All these seasons and festivals centre on Christ and what God has done in and through him. This makes the Festival of the Holy Trinity the odd-one out. It focuses, or so it seems, not on an event, but on a doctrine.
It is perhaps no surprise then that the Festival has had something of a chequered history. It was only officially adopted as a Festival of the Church relatively late in the 14th century, although it was celebrated by churches locally before this. It was often celebrated on the Sunday before Advent, the Sunday we now know as the Feast of Christ the King when we celebrate the founding of Christ Church.
The Church of England, when it adopted its prayer book in the 16th century, numbered the Sundays in the second half of the Church’s year after Trinity Sunday. This was because it had previously been the practice to do so in the Liturgy used in a part of England. (This Liturgy is known as the Sarum Rite.) In the 1970s and 1980s, the Church of England undertook a major revision its Prayer Book and Liturgy, and the ‘Sundays after Trinity’ were dropped in favour of ‘Sundays after Pentecost’.
In the latest revision of its services, known as Common Worship, Sundays after Trinity have returned in the Church of England, although other churches, including Anglican, continue to refer to seasons at this time of year as the Sundays of Pentecost or simply, Sundays in Ordinary Time. The materials we use for our Sunday School, for example, describe Sundays this way. Here at Christ Church, however, we keep the old traditional ‘Sundays after Trinity’, even though most churches, both globally and locally in Hong Kong, do not.
So, the question I want to ask this Trinity Sunday is this: is the dropping of Trinity as a season in the Church’s calendar of symbolic significance? To put it in another, more direct way: do we still as Christians believe in the Holy Trinity?
In answer to this question, I would suggest that not only have we abandoned the season of Trinity, we have also abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity, and if not in theory, then at least in practice. Not only do we find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity hard to understand, we are also either not sure whether we believe in it anymore or we are sure and don’t believe in it. Even if we do still believe in it, we either go easy on it or do not see it as central to our faith. It may be an interesting theological formulation, but it is not something fundamental to our Christian life.
The reasons for all this are many, but one important reason for this abandonment of the Trinity as the central doctrine of our faith is that it goes against the grain of present day Christianity. I realize that this is a big subject and that much more needs to be said than can be said this morning, but I would single out three characteristics of the sort of Christianity we want today:
1. We do not want difficult ideas
The first characteristic is best expressed negatively by what we don’t want! Life is both complex and challenging. Most of us feel under a great deal of pressure as we seek to make a living and raise our families. There is much in the world around us that clamours for our time and attention. When we come to Church, the last thing we need is more complications.
Preachers, then, are under tremendous pressure to keep it simple: to present the Christian faith in an engaging and even entertaining way. Social media has only served to reinforce this demand. But whatever the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is, it is not easy. It doesn’t lend itself to heart-warming quotes on Facebook.
We don’t like doctrines at the best of times. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is difficult and complex. A difficult doctrine is at a double disadvantage.
2. We want a faith that is relevant to us
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is first and foremost about God. Yes, it does have much to say about the Church and about us as individuals, but first and foremost, it is about God and who He is in and of himself. The focus of the Holy Trinity is on God.
But we are the ‘me’ generation. You may have seen the posters: it is all about me. I saw a fantastic birthday card the other day. On the front it had: ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Today is all about you.’ Then when you opened it up it had: ‘No change there then!’
We are not too concerned with who God is in and of himself. If we are concerned with God at all – and it’s a big ‘if’ - it is about the relevance of God to me.
3. We want a human Christ
The Holy Trinity focuses on the relationship between Christ and the Father and the Spirit. It asks questions about our Lord’s divinity and seeks to give an answer. Our concern now though is with his humanity and how that affects his relationship with us.
This is, in part, a reaction against too great a stress on our Lord’s divinity in the past. The Church very early on came to the conclusion that our Lord was not only human, but also divine. The doctrine of the Trinity was, amongst other things, an attempt to work out in what way he was divine. Over the years, however, the emphasis often fell on his divinity rather than his humanity. In Christian art, for example, he was often pictured with a gold halo (just in case you forgot and to avoid any misunderstanding).
However, to say that there has been a reaction against this is something of an understatement. We don’t want someone who is, as St John’s Gospel puts it, ‘one with the Father’. We want someone who is ‘one with us’. Not someone distant and mysterious, but someone close and relevant. This is reflected in our worship and the hymns that we sing. Whereas we used to sing:
‘Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes …’
We now prefer hymns and songs that stress how he is near and can be known and seen. Hymns such as ‘Shine Jesus shine …’, for example!
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity then, like the season, has been quietly dropped or, at least, made something of an optional extra. But, I would suggest, the Holy Trinity having been removed as an obstacle, we are - perhaps without even realizing it – witnesses to a reinterpretation of Christianity itself. Christianity is being changed from a Trinitarian faith into a humanitarian philosophy.
This is to be seen in the way the other Festivals of the Church’s year are being subtly reinterpreted. Taking the three characteristics of Christianity briefly outlined above, these give the criteria with which we now approach our faith and any aspect of it:
1. It must be easy to understand
2. It must be about us
3. It must focus on humanity and not divinity
So, very briefly, for example, Advent is about us getting ready for Christmas; Christmas is about the reaffirmation of the essential goodness of humanity; Easter is about what can be achieved by human self-giving; Ascension about humanity being affirmed and raised up; Pentecost about celebrating life. You don’t even need God to celebrate the Festivals, though as we are the Church, we generally think it is perhaps a good idea to include him in the festivities.
Yes, I am parodying, but with this sort of emphasis on celebrating our humanity, there is little room at the party for the Holy Trinity. We now have a very acceptable religion for today even if it is not quite clear where God fits in.
But we need to step back and see what has happened and, even more seriously, where it is all going:
First, we abandoned the Holy Trinity. Secondly, we reinterpreted the central features of Christianity. And now, a third stage in the reinvention of Christianity is underway. Having reinterpreted Christianity as a religion focusing on humanity and human need, the way has now been opened for Christianity to take its place as one religion amongst many. For some, it’s the best example, for others, even some in the Church, it is not even that.
Religion, in general, expresses humanity’s search for meaning and guidance as to how to live. As Christians, we centre on Christ as our teacher, even as God’s messenger, but now that Christianity is also focused on humanity, our faith in Christ does not mean that we shouldn’t also acknowledge other teachers and messengers: Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, and Krishna, for example.
And what if we do organize services of ‘inter-faith worship’, who but the intolerant and bigoted could possibly object to that?
There is more that could be said, and more that should be said, but then you may feel that I have already said far too much. So, let me bring this sermon to a close by asking this question:
What is our purpose as a Church? (And, I ask myself, what is my purpose as a clergyman?)
It is, I suggest, not to manage, to fund-raise, or to maintain. It is not even to pastor and to counsel. It is, keeping it simple, to make God known and to lead his worship. But to do that we need to know who God is: who it is that we are worshipping and serving. The Church, historically, despite all its many failures and failings, has believed that the God we worship has revealed himself in the life and person of Christ. We have for the past six months been thinking of what he has done and celebrating it in our Festivals.
Today, however, on Trinity Sunday, we are celebrating what we have discovered in all this about who God is; who it is who has done all this for us.
The Holy Trinity tells us that God is 1 and 3, 3 and 1. A simple enough formulation, but one with huge implications. One that tells us that the baby whose birth we celebrated at Christmas was the one who brought creation itself to birth; that the one who died on the Cross at Easter was himself the Lord of life; that the one we proclaim in our message isn’t just a prophet, one messenger amongst others, but the eternally-begotten, divine Son of God in whom, uniquely, we see God himself: the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And this God is worthy of our worship solely for who He is. Not because of what he has done for us in the past, not because of his usefulness to us in the present, but simply because he is God and beside him there is no other.
This is Christianity as the Church has traditionally understood it.
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic in paragraph 234 has this:
‘The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the "hierarchy of the truths of faith". The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men "and reconciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin".’
St Elizabeth of the Trinity prayed this prayer:
‘O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth f from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.’
The Anglican Bishop and hymn-writer, Bishop Ken, wrote what has become known as the Doxology:
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,
praise him, all creatures here below,
praise him above, ye heavenly host,
praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
May we, this Trinity Sunday and throughout the season of Trinity, begin to rediscover the God we are called to worship and serve.
The God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.