“DOES THE TRINITY MATTER?”:
Mk 9:24 “Lord I believe - help thou my unbelief”
In Alan Bennett’s play “Forty Years On”
there is a scene in which the School Headmaster
is interviewing a boy before his confirmation.
“Now you’re sure you’ve got the catechism all buttoned up, Foster?”
asks the headmaster.
“I’m still a bit hazy on the Trinity” replies Foster.
“Three in one and one in three, perfectly straightforward”
declares the head - “Any doubts about that, see your maths master”.
“Yes sir” says Foster, rather unconvincingly.
I am reminded of John Robinson,
who recalled a question and answer session
in the wake of the publication of his “Honest to God”.
“I was asked a question”, he said,
“How would you teach a child the doctrine of the Trinity?’
It was one of the easiest questions I have ever received.
The answer was: ‘I wouldn’t’”
Thank you to John Wiseman who led our All Age Ministry today -
In discussing today’s service, John and I agreed
that even though this is Trinity Sunday,
we would not attempt an explanation of the Trinity for 5 year olds.
But what about the rest of us?
Does the Trinity matter??
Actually Trinity Sunday was not observed
for the first 1000 years of the Church’s life -
and only became widespread when
it became an official part of the Western Christian Calendar
in the 14th century.
Trinity Sunday is the only major festival
which celebrates not an event but a doctrine -
the belief (in a nutshell) that within the Godhead
there are three distinct yet united and inseparable persons -
God the Father (creator of the world and ground of our being)
God the Son (Jesus Christ who came to live die and rise again with and for us)
and the Holy Spirit, God’s presence within us.
The doctrine of the Trinity is hugely paradoxical -
but is there because it seems necessary
to explain our very different experiences of the one God.
Mere Christianity) puts it like this -
“An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers.
He is trying to get into touch with God.
But if he is a Christian he knows
what is prompting him to pray is also God:
God, so to speak, inside him.
But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God
comes through Christ, the Man who was God-
that Christ is standing right beside him,
helping him to pray, praying for him.
You see what is happening.
God is the thing to which he is praying -
the goal he is trying to reach.
God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on -
the motive power.
God is also the road or bridge along which
he is being pushed to that goal.
So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being
is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom
where an ordinary man is saying his prayers.
The word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible
though in a few places (such as today’s reading from Matthew)
the designations Father, Son and Spirit are brought together.
But the early Christians knelt in
to say their prayers and they felt the need to try to explain and understand
these different ways of knowing the one God.
It wasn’t a simple process.
The Doctrine of the Trinity didn’t drop from heaven o tablets of stone.
It was argued about - and some of the arguments
had as much to do with Church politics as they did theological vision.
Incidentally, it is instructive to see this week
how the Archbishop of Canterbury has dealt
with those groups which refuse to accept
the Church’s decisions on Episcopal ordination -
telling them that they may find themselves excluded
from key doctrinal committees of the Anglican Communion.
This difficult and often fraught mix
of complex theological debate and ecclesiastical power politics
gives us a pretty good idea of the sort of thing
going on in the 4th and 5th centuries
when the early Church has similar soul searching and tension
over how to describe and understand
the figure of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
It reminds us how difficult theology is,
and how difficult it is to get everything right.
Don’t try to tidy God up into a neat box.
On Trinity Sunday we are doing the theological equivalent
of staring into the sun with the naked eye -
however much we squint and shade our eyes,
we are dazzled and can only glimpse a part of the reality.
We use human language and metaphor to describe God,
but our language can’t do justice to what is being described.
Describing God is an on-going process of trial and error -
As Maurice Wiles puts it
“All statements of doctrine are necessarily provisional -
however unchanging the truth about God they are attempting to express.”
(Maurice Wiles, Reason to Believe)
Many years ago I remember a Private Eye cartoon -
A preacher is proclaiming from the pulpit that
“God is not an old man in the sky with a long beard”.
Way up above the pulpit in the sky
is a man with a long white beard looking down and saying
“How does he know?”
The answer of course is we don’t in any absolute way -
we can but use metaphor and human earthly language
to describe the indescribable as best we can -
to look at the un-see-able glory of God.
A few years ago some Methodist theological students
and their tutors in Birmingham set themselves the task
of writing their own creed in language
which was meaningful to them.
They struggled with the exercise -
as one of them said,
“While the Holy Spirit may well be cool,
we weren’t sure that “God is wicked”
quite summed up what we were trying to say!”
(Jenny Spoug, Worship Live No 29, Summer 2004)
Those of you who like to pick up on my occasional suggestions
for follow-up spiritual homework after the sermon
might like to have a go at writing your own creed.
But make sure it doesn’t just say what creeds are meant to say -
make sure it encapsulates your experience of God.
Never expect to get God or the Trinity buttoned up -
at least not in this life whilst we see but in a mirror dimly.
It will always be a matter of “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief”.
I was doing a jigsaw recently -
amazing what you do in a holiday cottage on a rainy day -
it was a coastal scene looking out to sea,
and I’d done the easy bit round the edge with the straight edges,
and I’d done all the big bold multicoloured bits:
On the one side there was a yacht with the billowing sail,
and on the other side the little island
caught in a shaft of sunlight with a flock of seabirds
and you could just see children playing on the beach.
And then in the foreground was the fisherman
sitting on the lobsterpots on the quayside.
I’d done all that -
but in the box I’d still got a huge pile
of miscellaneous bits of blue -
a mix of sea and sky - loads of it -
Could I figure out how the bits of blue
joined the other things together?
Not a chance.
It would have been good to finish the puzzle -
but in the end that was as far as I got.
But the guy fishing was good,
and the island was good,
and the yacht catching the breeze was good -
it was, as they say, a work in progress -
and if incomplete, it was much more coherent than when I began….
So in conclusion, let me offer that jigsaw,
especially to those of you in need and trouble today.
Because I know there are those of our number struggling right now -
wrestling in the depths with fears and worries for the future.
Maybe you are saying - I could have done with something today
a bit more relevant and comforting than a discourse on Trinitarian theology.
Well here is my message -
worry you haven’t completed the picture -
Mystery is OK, mystery is normal,
mystery about God is actually inevitable -
so don’t beat yourself up because you haven’t got the full picture.
(2) But piece together what you can, & know the Gospel message:
· See the sun on the island and the
birds and the children
and remember that this world is not random or pointless -
it is part of God’s plan -
every sparrow that falls is seen by God’s loving eye,
& every child of God held in his loving and creative hand.
· See the yacht catching the breeze,
and remember the wind of the Spirit breathing life into us,
empowering & directing us
where alone we would have neither power nor vision to go.
· See the fisherman and remember
and know that as we walk our ordinary lives
and as we tread in the mud and muck
of our sometimes heartbreaking existence,
there is God in Christ waiting for us, standing by us,
walking alongside us even unto death & new life.
How does it all fit together?
Well (trusting as always in God’s ultimate love and care for us all)
Ask me when we get to heaven and the jigsaw is complete!
Praise God from whom all blessings flow -
Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost!
Order of Service
Sunday 30th May 2010 Trinity Sunday
10.30 a.m. Morning Worship led by Rev Andrew Sails
(NB Full copies of
the Service Sheet are available from the Door Stewards
for those who prefer to follow the whole service from the printed sheet
and for those who wish to take the full text home after the service)
Hymn “Praise to you, our great Creator” (see screen)
[Tune HAP 13 © June Boyce-Tillman CCLI Licence No 58752]
All Age Ministry – John Wiseman
Hymn “Father we love you” (see screen)
[SOF 102 Donna Adkins - © Maranatha! Music CCLI Licence No 58752]
Leader: Let us share the peace
Adults: The peace of the Lord be with you
Young Church: And also with you
Leader: Go in peace
[Young people leave for their own sessions]
Readings: Romans 5:1-5 (p.1132)
Mt 28:16-20 (p.1001)
Hymn “Sing of a God in Majestic Divinity” (see screen)
[Tune HAP 505 © Herbert O'Driscoll CCLI Licence No 58752]
Sermon “Does the Trinity Matter?”
Hymn 791 “Father Son and Holy Ghost”
Prayers and Lord’s Prayer
Hymn 29 “Thou whose Almighty Word”