Firmly I believe and truly – Trinity Sunday 2011

Firmly I believe and truly God is Three, and God is One

Cardinal Newman’s hymn, reflecting the Apostles’ Creed, gives us a suitably robust opening line for a sermon on Trinity Sunday. But the fourth verse perhaps rings oddly in Protestant ears:

And I hold in veneration,

For the love of him alone,

Holy Church as his creation,

And her teachings as his own.

 

Given Newman’s own spiritual journey, “swimming the Tiber” as they say – in other words, becoming a Roman Catholic – we might feel this verse to suggest submission of conscience to a magisterial teaching authority, and “Because the Church says so” doesn’t sit very well with the Protestant mind. I don’t know what was in Newman’s mind when he wrote this, but surely it is possible to read these lines in a less controversial manner.

How do we come to know God, and to believe in God, and to love God? Through the Church, through the Christian community. We were taught in the first instance, probably, by our parents, and brought along to service, and to Sunday School, and to confirmation class. Or perhaps we came to know God through reading the Bible, the writings that came out of the early days of the Christian community. Maybe it was through a part of the church other than the one in which we were raised that we discovered the reality of faith. Whatever the case for each one of us, it was through the Church that we came to know God. Hopefully that handed-down acquaintance has been made our own personal acquaintance; that the faith of our fathers has become our personal faith, which we in turn can help to pass on to others.

In a certain sense the Christian faith is the creation of the Christian community. They remembered their foundation stories of what Jesus had said and done, and reflected on them, and wrote the books that became the New Testament. They met to pray and worship Sunday by Sunday and evolved the shape and forms of the traditional liturgies. They practiced the ceremonies, handed down by Jesus, which became the sacraments. They created short summaries of what they believed, which became the creeds. And they thought about their belief and their experience, and tried to make sense of it in terms of the thinking of their time, and so they developed the discipline of theology, and gave classic form to doctrine, the teachings of the Church, such as that which we celebrate today, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

I said that the faith is the creation of the Church. I don’t mean that some early group got together and said “Let’s make up a religion”. Much less do I mean that some sinister group of bishops got together and said, “Let’s make up a religion to scare people into obeying us and giving us all their money”. Undoubtedly the faith, like anything else, can be misused to serve selfish ends, and perhaps this happens from time to time. But I don’t believe that is a true account of how the faith emerged. All the creativity of the Church, in writings and prayers and hymns and rituals and creeds and theology, were an attempt to express what the Christians had experienced and believed to be true.

Coming from a Jewish background, they took for granted that the existence of the world and their own human life was best explained by the existence of the creator God, “in whom we live and move and have our being”. But they also understood this Creator God to have revealed himself and his nature and his will, indirectly through the inspired word of the prophets, and directly through the man Jesus Christ, whom they came to speak of in the same terms as the Father God. And while Jesus had died, and had been raised, and was gone into heaven, yet they understood that God was still with them as Holy Spirit, empowering them and guiding them. In order to do justice to their experience of God, they developed, over time, the idea of Holy Trinity, that the One God must be spoken of as Three Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit; and that this pointed to an essential truth about the mystery of God.

Despite the confident statements of the creeds, we know that all our theology only points to the truth about God. God remains beyond us and our minds and our words and our images. There’s a refreshing sense of that in today’s reading from Isaiah:

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

Isaiah points up the incomparable greatness of God:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?  Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counsellor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust. Lebanon would not provide fuel enough, nor are its animals enough for a burnt-offering. All the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

As the Muslims say, “Allah akbar”, God is greater: certainly greater than all our attempts to express or explain or understand. But he does not stand aloof from his creation, he reaches out to reveal himself and to draw us into the Divine life of love. The Father sends the Son to make himself known, and by his gift of Holy Spirit makes us his children. Conformed to the likeness of the Son, guided and empowered by the Spirit, we are being made to know and love the Father. We rejoice today in the adorable mystery of God the Holy Trinity, the God who made us and loves us and calls us to share his divine life. With Cardinal Newman, we gladly say

Adoration ay be given

With and through the angelic host,

To the God of earth and heaven,

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

 

 

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