St Bride's: Sermons

Trinity Sunday

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Welcome to the mid-point of the Christian year!  I don't know if the thought has ever occurred to you before, but the Church's calendar divides roughly into two halves, and we are now at the transition point between the first part and the second.

In the first six months, all the major events of the Christian story unfold for us: we start with the season of Advent, when we reflect upon the darkness of our world and our need of Christ, as we prepare for his coming among us at Christmas.  Epiphany follows Christmas, marking the revelation of that glorious truth to the world.  The season of Lent takes us into the spiritual desert as we share the experience of Christ's forty days in the wilderness, in preparation for the events of Holy Week and Easter, and his journey from death to resurrection.  Then, after forty days, the Risen Christ returns to his heavenly Father at the feast of the Ascension, followed by Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, which empowered the apostles to make disciples of all nations.  And this action-packed first half to the Christian year is neatly rounded off today, on Trinity Sunday - the ultimate celebration of the full revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (more on this in a moment).

And today we also launch the second half of the Christian year, in which we are invited to ponder the fullness of that Gospel message, and reflect upon its significance in our own lives, as we hear stories from the earthly life of Jesus, and draw upon them to feed us on our own spiritual journeys.  That is why all the Sundays between now and the countdown to next Advent are named in relation to today's festival: next Sunday will be the First Sunday after Trinity; the 3rd September will be the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity; the 22nd October will be the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, and so on.  And it is also very significant that from next Sunday onwards, our liturgical colour will be green - which is the colour of growth.

So today, Trinity Sunday, really is a pivotal moment within the Christian year.  But what of the Trinity itself?

Most people (including, I'm afraid to say, a lot of clergy) make the mistake of assuming that the Trinity is complicated.  It isn't.  It is astonishingly simple.  What it does is to hold together for us with beautiful clarity three important truths about God:  firstly, that we know and experience God as our heavenly Father, the Creator of heaven and earth: the one who is all-seeing and all-knowing.  But a God who is like that might seem very austere and remote from us.  So we also know and experience God in Jesus Christ, who really did share our human life, with all its frailty and pain and doubt and suffering, and yet brought new life and new hope into the world through embracing despair and death and conquering them. 

And God is also actively at work around us, and among us, in the here and now - so, in addition, we know and experience God as Holy Spirit: a spirit of peace, but also a spirit of fire, inspiring us, and encouraging us, and sustaining us, and driving us out of our complacency.  In other words, there is no simple way of describing God that does any kind of justice to the whole truth of what God is, and how we experience God - until we come to the doctrine of the Trinity, which does it all for us with glorious clarity, but also in a very dynamic way.  Because far from being some kind of abstract philosophical conundrum, the Trinity brings us in touch with the life-giving and life-changing power of God - the love of God flowing constantly between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and spilling over to flood the world.

And the Threeness of the Trinity is also highly significant.  A rope woven from three cords is the strongest rope of all; a three legged stool is far more stable on an uneven surface than one of four legs.  In the light of current political events I am understandably reluctant to reach for the phrase 'strong and stable' - but ours is a God who truly is rock-like, even during times of greatest uncertainty.

Now, it is commonly believed that St Bride's, our church here, was in origin a Celtic foundation, probably established by Irish religious in the sixth century, before the arrival in these Isles of the Catholic tradition brought by St Augustine of Canterbury.

And the Celtic Christian tradition was profoundly Trinitarian - which had implications for the nature of its spirituality.  Celtic tradition recognised and embraced the intricate interrelationship between the human, and the divine, and the natural world.  So the Celts had a wonderful capacity to hallow even the most mundane of daily tasks with prayer - which is why there are ancient Celtic prayers for lighting the fire, and doing the washing up, and milking the cow.  Everything was woven together into a harmonious unity, which you can see reflected in Celtic art, particularly the glorious complexity and intricate patterns of what is called Celtic knot-work.

And for a culture that recognised that everything was interwoven, the idea of God as Trinity made perfect sense.  In her book The Celtic Way of Prayer, Esther de Waal cites countless Celtic prayers addressing God in Trinitarian form:

This being at ease with the Trinity, with whom Celtic people talk and walk daily, speaks of a God who is constantly reaching out in love towards the whole created order in all its diversity.  It is co-operating with the Father, who makes and maintains; the Son who encourages all the human works of compassion and reconciliation; and with the Spirit from whom comes all wisdom, inspiration, and imagination.  This is an ever-present Trinity to whom they naturally turn in time of need, danger or uncertainty.

And this is, of course, classically expressed in the words of the hymn that we shall be singing together in a few minutes time - a hymn whose words may also date back to around the 6th Century - about the time that St Bride's was itself founded.  In essence it is a prayer seeking protection in the name of the Trinitarian God, but which also weaves together the human, the divine, and the natural world:

I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity
By invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three
Of whom all nature hath creation, eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the God of my salvation, salvation is of Christ the Lord.

This prayer for protection enabled our Celtic forbears to step forth bravely into a dangerous and uncertain world, confident that God was with them.

And alongside this, Esther de Waal makes a fascinating observation about the Celtic understanding of penance.  Hearing the word 'penitential' most of us automatically associate it with some kind of punishment.  But the Celtic view was very different.  For Celtic Christians, penance was a path to liberation and healing; it was to do with restoration and reconciliation, because it is through an examination of our conscience and an awareness of what is in us that needs to be healed, that we feel the need for repentance.  And it is repentance that brings God's healing.

So on this Trinity Sunday, as we start our journey into the second half of the Church's year, we can rejoice in the Celtic roots of our church of St Bride - mindful of the wonderful interconnectedness of the divine, the human, and the natural world and encouraged by a God who is all-powerful, but also all-loving, and ever-present with us.  And so, during this time of anxiety and uncertainty in our own times, we can step bravely into the world, surrounded and protected by that healing love.  To close with some other ancient Celtic words from our offertory hymn, St Patrick's Breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Amen.

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