Fr Tony Meek's Sermon
11th June 2006
25 years ago, I went on this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, to the church in Prestwood, near High Wycombe, which is dedicated to the Holy Trinity. As it was their feast of title, they had invited a distinguished visiting preacher, unlike yours! A tutor from one of the Oxford Theological Colleges, no less. On this day, he was clearly expected to expound the doctrine of the Trinity.
At the time, I was a student of theology, at his very college. I listened attentively. I feared he might ask questions at the end, as perhaps I will this morning…..
But then, as now, only two things stand out from that sermon. One was that it seemed very long. And the other was a lovely word he kept using, which I, not being a scholar of New Testament Greek, had not come across until then. It was ‘perichoresis’, which he explained as coming from the same root as ‘perimeter’, meaning ‘around’ and ‘choreography’, to mean dancing. It was apparently the technical jargon word to explain how the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are in a constant state of dancing in and around each other, in perfect equality and perfect unity.
I had been to the Flower Show in my wife’s Devon village, where we now live, many times, and his words conjured up for me some sort of heavenly maypole, with the three of them going ‘one, two, three, hop; one, two, three, hop’, to the strains of ‘The Floral Dance’ played by an angelic silver band!
Of the many things which have divided Christians from Moslems over the centuries, it is the doctrine of the Trinity which most offends Islamic thought. Their great exclamation is ‘Allah is one!’, and for them, the idea of God as three in one and one in three is the most profound blasphemy.
And it is not just Moslems who find this doctrine difficult. A serious Hindu scholar studied Christianity in an attempt to understand our faith, but was baffled by the Trinity. “I can understand your God as Father; I can understand your God as Son. But I do not understand your Holy Bird.”
A spirit, of its very nature, cannot be depicted visually. We were thinking last Sunday, Pentecost, of the Holy Spirit. It has been variously described in scripture as breath and wind and as tongues of fire. And the other favourite pictorial image is of a dove. But that image becomes a stumbling block when it becomes a Holy Bird.
Scripture gives us very little doctrine of the Trinity. Or indeed doctrine as such of anything. Our doctrine of the Trinity was defined in later centuries, largely indeed in the fourth century. Much of it appears in the Athanasian Creed, with which I surprised the Ipplepen Matins congregation on Whitsunday a couple of years ago! That was probably written in the year 428, some 50 years after the death of St Athanasius, and it is therefore not only not really a creed, but certainly not by St Athanasius!
That gap in time from the earthly ministry of Jesus to a definitive doctrine of the Trinity is nearly as great as that between now and the English Civil War. Like all Christian Doctrine, it was only laid down formally as and when it became necessary to expose and defeat various heresies. Endless chunks of doctrine make endless bad and boring sermons. The Bible gives us little or no explanation of the Trinity. And perhaps that is our first clue to a working understanding. Perhaps an endless delving into the entrails of the Holy Trinity is a bit like taking the back off your television set, despite the warning that there are no user-serviceable parts inside.
For the whole purpose of Trinitarian thought and expression is to help our awareness of God. I have mentioned reactions to the Trinity of Moslems and a Hindu. We live in a multi-faith world. Ours is becoming increasingly a multi-faith country. We are called upon to consider what can be the relationship of God, whom we Christians worship, to the other religions of the world.
Our understanding of God as Creator and Father comes from the Jewish faith. It is reflected also in most strands of Islam. In those religions, God is conceived as basically other than the world. He is acting upon it from without. But on the other hand, the animist religion and Eastern religions think about God (or gods) as at work within mankind and within the world. Hence the worship of the sacred cow in India, or of trees and plants in Japan, and the veneration given to holy men. The animist and Eastern religions find it difficult to conceive of God (or gods) acting upon the world from without. That view is very like the Christian teaching about God’s activity in Jesus and the activity of the Holy Spirit, God at work within mankind and within the world.
Only Christianity combines the view of God acting on the world from without (which it shares with Judaism and Islam) with a view of God as present in a particular individual (Jesus) and in mankind and in all things in the world. That view is shared with Eastern religions. Christianity is more comprehensive than the other religions in its concept of God. Their God is too small!
Other religions may have discovered parts of God’s presence and activity. Only Christianity, through its belief in God the Holy Trinity does justice to all these various ways of conceiving God’s presence and activity.
In our meetings and conversations with those of other faiths, this approach gives us a guide to avoid the two extremes. It leads us to avoid saying the other religions are completely untrue as opposed to Christianity. But it does not encourage a view that all religions give an equally full disclosure of God. It sees Christianity, with its threefold way in which God is revealed, as giving the fullest and most comprehensive disclosure of God.
God the Father over us, our Creator; God the Son with us, our Saviour and our Friend; God the Holy Spirit in us, our Guardian and our Guide. Over us, with us, in us. By whom and with whom and in whom.
It has been said that God cannot be expressed, only addressed. Our understanding of the Holy Trinity is not some academic end to be achieved for its own sake. We won’t be able to present our GCSE certificate in Trinitarian Doctrine to St Peter and claim one hundred years off purgatory, or a cooler cell in hell.
Our understanding of the Holy Trinity, like our understanding of every other aspect of our faith, should lead us to worship. Should lead us to want, should lead us to need to gather with other Christians Sunday by Sunday to share in the Holy Eucharist, to praise God’s name in earth and sky and sea.
And it should send us out, in the power of the spirit, to live and work to the praise and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
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