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Trinity Sunday

01 June 2017

Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-end; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13.11-end; Matthew 28.16-end


Almighty and everlasting God, you have given us your servants grace, 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: keep us steadfast in this faith, that we may evermore be defended from all adversities; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


IN A little book on the writing of his novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), Umberto Eco acknowledged that the title did not give any clues as to the content. Rather than apologising for this, he pointed to what he considered one of the best titles ever devised — The Three Musketeers. It was a master-stroke, he said, because it was really about the fourth musketeer (Reflections on the Name of the Rose, Secker & Warburg, 1985).

I am reminded of this by the almost-paradox of the readings for Trinity Sunday in Year A. Why, on the day when the Church devotes a festival to the doctrine of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, should the lectionary point human beings so firmly to themselves? 

Isaiah, proclaiming consolation and redemption to people with exile in their recent history, pauses to ask why God should care about humanity at all. The infinite wisdom that gave shape to the world cannot be weighed or measured by human intellect, nor did God need any instruction in knowledge or justice. In short, “the nations”, whether or not the term includes Israel, don’t appear to matter much to God (Isaiah 40.12-17).

That would be a bleak answer if it were the last word, but it is a necessary prelude to the promise that follows.

Israel needs to understand that it has no particular claim to significance before it can begin to grasp the wonder of God’s determination to confer significance on it. It needs to marvel at the fact that a God who could have treated humanity quite impersonally chooses to be absolutely attentive to the detail of their lives, watching over the people who thought that they had been forgotten, and giving the weary strength to get home (Isaiah 40.27-end).

Psalm 8 asks the same question in more general terms: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” The psalmist doesn’t attempt to answer this, because there is no obvious answer. He can but point to the evidence of the dignity given to humanity as the custodians of the natural world (Psalm 8.4-8). The only appropriate response to this is to participate in the continuing cycle of praise and acclamation that the shape of the psalm itself describes (Psalm 8.1, 9).

It takes the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus to open up the question in a specific and immediate way. The glory of God comes to live in the midst of a human community which matters enough to be summoned into close relationship — healed, instructed about the way of life that will make it ready to live the life of God (Matthew 4.18-5-12), and taught to address God in a new voice (Matthew 6.9-13).

That is not an end in itself, but preparation to extend that work to the whole world in the authority given by Jesus. His followers are to call new disciples, admit them symbolically into the life glimpsed at Jesus’s own baptism (Matthew 3.13-end), and teach the new believers as Jesus taught them (Matthew 28.16-end).

That vision continues to drive the Churches’ commitment to mission and evangelism. Its practical implementation, as Paul seems to have discovered in his dealings with the Christians at Corinth, may not always tidy.

The stern words that end the Second Letter to the Corinthians express his dissatisfaction with progress in local efforts to live Christlike lives. He exhorts them to test themselves, to realise that “Jesus Christ is in [them]” and to live accordingly (2 Corinthians 13.5). Only then can “the God of love and peace come to live with them” (2 Corinthians 13.11).

Paul’s final blessing returns us to the problem of names and what they refer to. “The reference to the Lord Jesus Christ, God and the Holy Spirit should not be understood as a presentation of the formal doctrine of the Trinity,” John Barclay (“2 Corinthians” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman OUP, 2001) warns.

And yet, these words, and the baptismal formula at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 28.19), are inevitably present in our efforts to grasp what it means to describe God as Trinity.

In a chapter that discusses the work of major theologians who have written on the Trinity, Lord Williams does not disguise the complexity of the arguments or the discipline needed to wrestle with them. At the same time, he positions his readers — even the most nervous — in the right place to begin exploring this great mystery for themselves.

It starts with “the narrative of God with us”, he writes. “We do not begin with the trinitarian God and ask how he can be such, but with the world of particulars, cross, empty tomb, forgiven and believing apostles, asking, ‘How can this be?’” (“Trinity and Ontology” in On Christian Theology, Blackwell, 2000).

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