Sermon: Sunday 15 June 2014
The Revd Canon Barry Naylor, Urban Canon and Sub-Dean
Trinity Hospital was founded in 1331, after letters patent signed by King Edward III and a Bull issued by Pope John XXII the previous year. The Hospital was, originally, dedicated in honour of God and the Virgin Mary. It was then intended to have accommodation for a warden, four chaplains, twenty poor and infirm people (with a further responsibility for 30 others who were none resident) and five women to care for them. By the seventeenth century the hospital had expanded to house 110 residents – they had to bring their own bedding and clothing but were each given a gown to wear. By this time, from the reign of King James I, the Hospital had, because of Reformation sensitivities, changed its dedication to ‘The Hospital of the Holy Trinity in the Newarke’. There seems to have been only one chaplain by then whose main duty was to read the daily prayers in the chapel. The Duchy arranged for the preaching responsibility to be undertaken by the Deputy Master who was to preach once a week at a salary of £10 per annum. Clearly responsibilities have changed since then!
Why the Holy Trinity? It is one of the most distinctive Christian understandings of God, which distinguishes the Christian faith from other faiths, including the other two great monotheistic faiths – Judaism and Islam. I say the “other two” because we also claim to be a monotheistic faith – like them, we only believe in one God.
How can this be, because we say the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God? Surely that adds up to three Gods?
It is a difficult doctrine to understand and even the great 4th century Doctor of the Church, Hilary of Poitiers, wrote:
‘I have received the faith but am still ignorant; and yet I have a firm hold on something I do not understand.’
More recently, the theologian and liturgist, Msgr Francis Mannion wrote of the Trinity:
‘The Trinity is indeed a mystery, but not in the sense of being a giant theological puzzle, but – according to the theological meaning of the word “mystery” – a reality so rich, bright, multifaceted, and all-encompassing that we can never fully take in.’
This understanding of God is, indeed, at the very heart of our faith. When we meet to worship at the Holy Altar the Eucharist begins with the words ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, to which the people affirm their assent by saying ‘Amen’. The Eucharist concludes with the priest blessing the people, once again, invoking God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Just how do we begin to understand it, to make sense of it and to see it as having any relevance to how we live our lives day by day?
Jesus witnessed in his life and teaching to the supremacy of love. He told us the whole of the teaching of the Scriptures is summed up in the commandments to love God above all else and to love our neighbours as ourselves. In the First Letter of St John, the writer even defines God in one word – ‘God is Love’. Just to say that sounds so much easier than trying to understand the Holy Trinity, but it is precisely this statement that helps us understand this teaching of the Church.
Love is to be shared; love turned in on itself ends up as something destructive. If God is love, there must be a sharing within the Godhead, there must be relationship. God loves his creation – but if there was no creation God would still exist, God would still be love. This is what led the Church to develop the doctrine of the Trinity – we believe in one God, but in God there is a relationship of persons, traditionally labelled the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father and the love that indwells them, flows from them and between them, so to speak, is the Holy Spirit.
The Quicunque Vult, commonly known as the ‘The Creed of St Athanasius’, affirms that:
‘In this Trinity none is afore or after other; none is greater or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal
So that in all things…
the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.’
This has real implications for us.
Fr Alan Ecclestone, a renowned vicar of Holy Trinity Darnall in the Diocese of Sheffield, put this notice in the church porch:
‘And in this Trinity none is afore or after other, none is greater or less than another. As in the Holy Trinity, so in this church and parish.’
If, in the Godhead, we see the perfection of relationship, we are called to reflect this in our own daily lives both as individuals and also in the different communities to which we belong – our immediate families and personal relationships, our membership of this community of Leicester Cathedral / Trinity Hospital / St Nicholas’ and communities beyond, reaching right out to relationships both within and between nation states of the world.
If we wish to be godly people, to reflect the divine nature, to reflect Gospel values and to ensure these are enshrined in whatever we mean by “British values”, then we see that this core doctrine of Christian Orthodoxy is not just a complicated theological formula (it is certainly that!); it has important consequences for the way we think about the world and the kind of communities we wish to create and develop and the ways we relate to each other.
Fr Conrad Noel, an Anglican visionary from the early years of the last century, wrote of ‘the Blessed Trinity as the basis of a new world order… It cannot be said of the world as presently constituted that it contains no differences or inequalities, or that within it ‘none is afore or after other; none is greater or less than another’. We look forward to a world of infinite variety in harmony, of living unity, not of dead uniformity… it is the will of the Triune God to inspire men (sic) to renew the world in such a way as to make it the perfect expression of his own Being.’
That was written nearly a hundred years ago – what progress have we made? Are similar questions being raised today, when we reflect on the diversity of our society and of relationships between different groups within it? In the recent European elections, were we not reflecting on unity and independence, the limits and styles of cooperation between different nations within a greater body? There are, obviously, a variety of responses and positions that people adopt but, as Christians seeking to build a godly society, a godly world, we should seek, prayerfully, to ensure our responses reflect nature of God and the concerns this nature communicate.
Preaching in 1892, Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott affirmed ‘that the world is for us, that life is for us, as we see it, as we make it, either an ever-widening vision of God’s glory, or a narrow and pitiful spectacle of the conflicts of man’s selfishness.’
The vision of God’s glory – the glory of the Most Blessed and Holy Trinity, the God of perfect relationship. In the Scriptures, there is a clear demand, on behalf of God, for justice and righteousness. ‘To know God is to seek justice and correct oppression’, as Fr Ken Leech wrote – the pursuit of justice and our knowledge of God are inseparable in sound theology and true Christian living. Justice and righteousness are practical ways towards the building of decent, cooperative and dignified relationships in society, to help make society more godly – ensuring none are oppressed, none are treated in ways that affront their human dignity, ensuring a just distribution of the blessings God has given to the world so that none are forced to live in degrading poverty or servitude.
Bishop Colin Winter, an Anglican Bishop exiled from apartheid Namibia, summed it up like this:
‘He storms through the pages of history as the enemy of tyrants, the condemner of the exploiter, the one who bears and implacable hostility to the perpetrators of violence against the weak and helpless. He is renowned as the one who takes up the cause of the widow, the orphan, the stranger. He does not overlook the iniquities of the mighty against the powerless.’
We are called, above all, to seek the honour and glory of God, this is our first priority. We do this be offering him our worship and adoration; as we encounter him at the Altar and in prayer, we are summoned, by Him to step out into his world and to live in such a way, to build a world, that reflects the perfection of relationship that we behold and encounter in his very being.
‘Grant me pure adoration that my life may be for the ministry of others and the transformation of many.’
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity may be difficult to understand, to fully comprehend, to define precisely, but our experience of, and understanding of, the divine, as “Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity” does have very real implications for us, his disciples as we seek to order our lives and pray, day by day:
‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’
‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.’
To the One God, the Most Holy, Blessed and Glorious Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be ascribed all might, honour and majesty this day and for all eternity.
© The Revd Canon Barry Naylor