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Three cheers for the Trinity

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By the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity . . .

WHAT can it mean? Even the book of Revelation doesn’t know and so it resorts to wild imagery: talking trumpets, a sea of glass, four beasts with six wings apiece and so on. In the Gospel, Nicodemus, the wisest Pharisee in Israel, doesn’t know either. And Jesus doesn’t even try to tell him. There’s a lovely scene in Alan Bennett’s play Forty Years On in which the old-fashioned housemaster is preparing a boy for Confirmation. The boy asks, ‘But what about the Trinity, sir?’ The teacher replies, ‘Oh don’t worry your head. Three in one and one in three and all that: go and see your maths master!’

David Prior, the Rector of St Michael’s Church, Chester Square, once said, ‘Last Sunday, I dragged myself away from watching the end of the Test Match at Lord’s in order to preach at our evening service on the doctrine of the Trinity. The last three balls I watched being bowled were delivered by England’s exciting new spin bowler. The first was a leg-spinner, the second a top-spinner and the third a googly.

‘I had been ferreting around for a helpful illustration of the Trinity – and there it was: one person expressing himself in three different but very similar ways. The leg-spinner’s stock ball represents God the Father, who created us “to feel after him”. The top-spinner which goes straight through represents the direct activity of God the Son. The googly represents the mysterious activity of God the Holy Spirit.’

There are many who share the view of Alan Bennett’s housemaster, that the Trinity is too obscure to worry about. Why not just get on with being a nice down-to-earth Christian instead and do as you would be done by? In fact, the modern world has no time for doctrine or dogma and prefers for its religion, if it has any, a sentimental, touchy-feely approach, a sense of niceness. But the truth is that you cannot have right action without right thinking. It’s common sense and it operates in every other area of human life you can think of. 

Well, I’ve been thinking about the sermon for today, Trinity Sunday, all week. I like to go back to first principles. So I said to myself, what do you need to get into a sermon? I concluded that you need some landscape, some music and a joke or two. Then I thought, what have I said? I’ve listed three things: landscape, music and a joke. And it occurred to me to reflect just how many times and in so many different areas of life, things come in threes. Think of the three dimensions of the natural world we inhabit. The three wishes in every fairy tale. One, two, three – go. If you’re so inclined, you could even think of the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Or not, as the case may be. Past, present and future. Wine, women and song, then. How many ears has Davy Crockett got? Three: a left ear, a right ear and a wild frontier.

Now let me give you this lovely poem by George Herbert on the subject of the Trinity. Look how this great spiritual master and country parson-poet teaches us about the Holy Trinity in words so simple that even a modern educationist could understand them. And he does it in threes:

          Lord, who hast formed me out of mud – that’s God the Father

          And hast redeemed me through thy blood – that’s God the Son

          And sanctified me to do good – that’s God the Holy Ghost

He emphasises the message in a three-line last verse in this three-verse poem – and the verse is full of threes: heart, mouth, hands; faith, hope, charity; run, rise and rest.

The encouraging truth about dogma, especially the dogma of the Trinity, is that it is not only true intellectually, but it feels true. As Eliot says, you are walking along with someone: ‘Here are the two, but who is the third?’ Or Plato in the Timaeus: ‘Two things alone cannot be united without a third; for there must be some bond, drawing them together.’

The Trinity is true, but it is not merely a theorem. It is a felt truth which comes as a profound blessing to anyone who will reflect on it, even someone with a sceptical turn of mind. As the psychologist Carl Jung said, ‘I have ventured to submit old dogmas, now grown stale, to psychological scrutiny. I have certainly not done so in the priggish conceit that I knew better, but in the sincere conviction that a dogma which has been a bone of contention for so many centuries cannot possibly be an empty fantasy.’

You remember, right at the beginning of the Bible, God says before the creation of Eve, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’God knows this because he first knew that it is not good for God to be alone. And therefore within the Godhead there is eternally relationship and love, and the Trinity is the origin of this love. God is love. And God the Father loves the Son; God the Son loves the Father; and the Holy Ghost is the means by which God loves himself. 

Pray to God the Holy Trinity and he will come near you and comfort you. And you will know the reality of the Trinity without knowing how you know. You will know it through the love that takes possession of your soul and will never let you go.

Who art one God, one Lord; not one only Person, but three Persons in one substance. For that which we believe of the glory of the Father, the same we believe of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, without any difference or inequality. Amen.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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