Trinity Sunday: 30th May, 1999
Fr. Philip Gill, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
The Easter season culminates in the festival of Pentecost. The liturgical colours will change to the green that reminds us of our growth in life under the discipleship of Christ. We notice today that the sacred ministers and the sanctuary are still arrayed in white. Why? Today is not strictly speaking a feast of our Lord nor the celebration of a Holy man or woman. Today we keep Trinity Sunday- the only day in the calender that commemorates a doctrine rather than a person. I hope we will see today not as an imposed teaching designed to keep us on the theological straight and narrow, but as a great celebration of the relationship between God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, revealed to us in spiritual insights given to the people of God stretching back to the times of the Nomadic tribes of Israel. The greatest of those insights are recorded in scripture, but leaders of the Church in the first four centuries expressed in words the relationship between the Father Son and Holy Spirit.
The word Trinity according to some sources was coined by Tertullian who wrote in the late 2nd and early third centuries. He is said to have also coined 509 new nouns, 284 new adjectives and 161 new verbs. It is not surprising then that when he turned his attention to God, his inventiveness came to the fore, and though not many of his new words caught on three certainly have: Trinity, person and substance.
These words are now reasonably familiar in discussions about God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, but imagine the struggle to describe the experience of God in the Roman Empire, across cultures and language, across eastern and western politics, and across the egos of clever though frail men struggling to speak of God.
I was made to think again about the Trinity because Tertullians use of the term person. For us a person is an individual. Personality could be described as the essence of what distinguishes one person from another. Whole industries have sprung up around questionnaires like Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram that tell us what type of person we are. These have a value, but not for Tertullians description of the Trinity. Tertullian lifted the word persona from the theatre. A Persona was an identity adopted by an actor in role. In Tertullians day roles were distinguished by the use of masks. An actor would change roles by changing his mask.
There are difficulties in this illustration because we assume actors change masks with little reference to their own substance as human beings. So the image for us is of God having three masks that change his persona in a way that hides rather than reveals his substance.
I dont know a great deal about acting, though some would say that actors and clergy have a lot in common. As I thought about Tertullians choice of words and how over the centuries they had become central to Christian thinking about God I wondered if such a simplistic view of persona would do justice the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Take for example a contemporary film actor like Tom Hanks. Some would say that Hanks is paid very well for playing himself on screen. Something of the real Tom Hanks, a sort of all round American, always comes through. That sounds easy, roll the cameras and just be yourself. It may sound so until you think of the persona that he has been asked to play in recent times. For example: in Forrest Gump Hanks plays an intellectually simple young man who has such experiences as winning a congressional medal of honour in Vietnam, playing a role in Watergate and making a fortune from commercial fishing. In another role Hanks played Jim Lovell, the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. How one allows something of the self to show through while suspended weightlessly in a broken space craft is worthy of deeper thought. In Saving Private Ryan, Hanks plays Ranger Captain John Miller. Through the horror of a now famous opening scene of the allied landing on Omaha Beach, we can still see Tom Hanks in the person of John Miller. Hollywoods gadgetry used to create a distinct persona cannot mask totally what makes this actor who he is.
For Tertullian God plays three distinct roles in the great drama of human redemption. But in those roles the substance of God is not diminished or changed. It is God the Father who creates us and who reveals to Moses something of the divine substance:
... a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness...
The revelation to us of God the Son in the persona of Jesus also reveals something of the divine substance:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Imagine the world before Jesus of Nazareth when it was often thought sickness and suffering were the just desserts of those who displeased God. It was a world where the lame and sick were left to suffer under punishment assumed to be from God; where sinners stood in judgement on others. Into this world came Jesus offering release, wholeness and healing.
Yet even this is not the full story, or we would be on our own mountains of Ascension with the disciples who stared into heaven wondering what had happened to Jesus. In a world before Pentecost the Church could easily have focused too much on the loss of Jesus. God the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, completes the revelation of God. With St Paul we can say: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
There is no direct reference in Scripture to Trinity, but Paul sums up the experience of the people of God in what has come to be known as the grace. Our experience of God would be diminished if all three persons of the Trinity were not kept before us in the doctrine of the Trinity.
Rather than being a dry doctrine Trinity describes a life-giving relationship of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Its powerful and perplexing imagery has formed the Christian imagination for centuries. A good exercise is to reflect our prayers - to whom our prayers are directed and in what circumstances and language. Some direct their prayers to God the stern judge. Some pray to Jesus as if he were closer than a best friend. Others pray to the Spirit expecting signs and wonders to bolster faith But perhaps these extremes diminish the richness of our Trinitarian heritage. Praying to the Father through the son in the power of the Holy Spirit is a structure many are familiar with. In an age of informality this may seem too formal, but it does keep alive the fullness of the revelation of God in our prayer life.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.