Trinity Sunday

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.”

Sermon preached by the Rev Dr Zachary Guiliano

God grant us the grace to think worthily of him, to love him with purity and passion of heart, and may I speak In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I can’t be the only person in this building who sometimes wonders what Trinity Sunday is for. Is it an opportunity to explain Christian doctrine (three persons, one God)? Is it an invitation to a more contemplative engagement with the Church’s pattern of prayer — all of which is done in the name of the Trinity? Is it a celebration of the character of God or of the nature of salvation? Perhaps it is an opportunity to pursue more just relationships on earth, more like that “flawless union” in heaven, where there is “nothing wanting” (St Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity). Who knows? I have heard Trinity Sunday sermons on all of these topics and more; I’m sure you have as well.

This obscurity is not something merely contemporary, but historical as well. We’re not the first people to have these thoughts. When the Bishop of Liège attempted to introduce Trinity Sunday in his diocese around the year 900, various people objected that there was no point. This sentiment was common from the 10th to 14th centuries. As Pope Alexander II put in 1073: “It is not the custom in Rome to set aside a special day for honoring the Most Holy Trinity, since … it is honored daily in psalmody by the singing of Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” We honor God all year round here, too, with a constant hymn of praise ascending day by day in this parish church. So why have this special feast?

We might try to answer this question by looking at what the Church has attempted to do and teach on Trinity Sunday since it was founded, but the answer there is in some ways unclear. If you survey Trinity Sunday sermons from the Middle Ages, for instance, they are a mixed bag: with preachers attempting a great hodge-podge of different things (teaching doctrine, outlining history, exhorting to worship, cracking jokes, just occasionally confusing everyone).

Turning to the Church of England since the Reformation, things are little clearer. The feast has been celebrated in English at least since the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, but Trinity Sunday is among the least explained feasts, at least in official texts.

For example, in the two books of Homilies written and authorized in the Tudor period for reading in English churches, there are homilies on justification and on good works, on prayer and the sacraments, on Christmas, on Good Friday, on Easter, on Pentecost, on a great variety of topics — even on cleaning and restoring churches (a relevant topic in this building, given our new exposed brick hipster aesthetic) — but no homily for Trinity Sunday.

Even the C of E’s catechism makes relatively few demands upon the conscience of those baptized and confirmed, merely requiring faithful Anglicans to be able to recite the Creeds publicly in good conscience and understand, often in quite simple terms, what they mean.

Some of you should have been asked this question about the Apostles’ Creed when you were young:

Q: What dost thou chiefly learn in these Articles of thy Belief?

And you were meant to respond in this way:

A: First, I learn to believe in God the Father, who hath made me, and all the world. Secondly, in God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind. Thirdly, in God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth me, and all the elect people of God.

Creation, redemption, sanctification, wrought by God the Trinity. Like many catechetical texts, these answers are, strictly speaking, true, if not entirely satisfactory expositions of the fulness of Christian creedal teaching (perhaps even misleading outside of the right context). The Nicene Creed, which we shall recite in a few minutes, says rather more than this, while the Athanasian Creed or Quicunque vult piles it on (I’d commend the latter for your meditation later today).

But maybe here we have an important emphasis or recognition. Did you notice the personal emphasis in the responses from the catechism? “I learn to believe in God the Father, who hath made me and all the world.” God the Son “redeemed meand all mankind.” God the Holy Ghost “sanctifieth meand all the elect people of God.” There is a personal character to this response, which is important. Let me explain why.

Ever since the fourth-century debates that refined the Church’s teaching about God, and solidified the language of our Creeds, discussion about God the Trinity has often been marked by three things:

  • First, a scepticism regarding the ability of the human mind to comprehend the nature of God (Sometimes summed up in the aphorism If you understood something, it was not God, since God is infinite, while our minds are finite);
  • Second, the comparatively modest and limited use of a particular set of quasi-technical terms (e.g. substance, essence, persons), meant to clarify certain ambiguities or incomplete intimations in the biblical witness and fend off critical errors, while leaving room for mystery and reverence;
  • Third, in public teaching, a focus on grounding the articulation of doctrine in the lived experience of the Christian life.

And this last point is particularly important. For it is in Christian living and in prayer that Trinitarian doctrine comes into its own.

We know that we pray to the Father in the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ. We say that here every week before our time of intercession. We know that, in Jesus Christ, we meet the same God who spoke to Israel “through the prophets” by his Spirit (Nicene Creed; 1 Pet 1:10-12), and that it is this same God to whom our hearts cry out, Abba, Father (Rom. 8:15). And we know that we ascribe to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, equal glory, honor, power, might, majesty, and dominion.

“By the confession of a true faith,” we “acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the divine majesty,” we “worship the Unity,” to borrow the words of our collect.

St Paul puts it this way, in more tangible terms: God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us (Rom. 5:5).

We know God firsthand through his love, which we feel within:

  • Like a great torrent rushing down a mountainside, warmed by the spring and summer heat (see Ps. 133:3);
  • Like a river overflowing its banks and drenching the furrows of a field, making it fruitful (Ps. 46:4, 65:9-13; Ezek. 47:8-12);
  • Or like “night dews on still waters,” softly, almost silently falling, as a “sweet music” that moves the heart inside (Lord Tennyson, “Song of the Lotos-Eaters”).

This God we know. The Trinity, the God whose goodness lies behind and in every good created thing — “invisible every where, and in every creature, and fulfilleth both heaven and earth with his presence: in the fire, to give heat, in the water to give moisture, in the earth to give fruit” — oh, he is also “in the heart to give…strength” (John Jewel, Second Book of Homilies, “Homily on Rogation Day”).

God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; his life sustains our life. We know this God. And we have, in a sense, seen his love too.

For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

Think about that for a moment.

Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

This knowledge of God in our hearts, this vision of him, granted on the cross, gives us a hope that shall never disappoint. It holds us up through the sufferings of life, which we endure, which form us, which do not destroy us, for “nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). It shall bring us at last into God’s presence — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — into the place where he dwells surrounded by myriad upon myriad of “angels in festal garments” and countless “spirits of the just made perfect” (Heb. 12:22-23)

This is the hope in which “we boast” (Romans 5:2) — or in the expansive words of the Authorized Version, the hope in which “we glory.” “Such is the confidence we have through Christ toward God” (2 Cor. 3:4). We glory in our “hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2) For his love has been poured into our hearts. We cannot deny it.