Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday (15 June 2014) by the Reverend Prebendary Douglas Dettmer, Prebendary of Exeter Cathedral and Rector of the Netherexe Parishes

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Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday (15 June 2014) by the Reverend Prebendary Douglas Dettmer, Prebendary of Exeter Cathedral and Rector of the Netherexe Parishes

The Reverend Prebendary Douglas Dettmer askes: ‘How can we speak of the Trinity?’

To stand in a pulpit on Trinity Sunday is a necessary business for the preacher, but a dangerous one. St Augustine famously warned that ‘in no other subject is error more perilous, or enquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.’ Or, as one of the greatest deans of this cathedral church and of the English poets, John Donne, put those words into one of his own Trinity Sunday sermons four centuries ago: ‘As there is not so steepy a place to clamber up, nor so slippery a place to fall upon, as the doctrine of the Trinity; so there is not so fulfilling, so accomplishing, so abundant an Article as that of the Trinity: for it is all Christianity.’

St Augustine prays the dilemma: ‘God, what can one say when speaking of you? Yet woe betide those who are silent about you.’ Or as others have put it: ‘One cannot speak of the Trinity without speaking heresy; yet we can do no other than speak of the Trinity.’

When faced with God, why not simply keep silence? Well, answering that question is the easy bit. We can do no other. As elsewhere in our human lives, when we love deeply, we just can’t help thinking about the person we love, and eventually—especially among those whom we trust—we will want to talk about him or her too. As Donne the poet says in another place,

I am two fools, I know,
for loving, and for saying so
in whining Poetry.

It’s human; it’s almost as if we can’t help being fools for loving and for saying so. And if God is, and if God is Trinity, and if we are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, then we can hardly do other than to speak of the Trinity—even though we can’t seem to do so without getting it wrong most of the time. It seems that simply keeping silence is not enough.

—Which is the difficult bit, especially on this Sunday in the church’s year which celebrates that fulfilling, accomplishing, abundant doctrine of the Trinity. For what can one say when speaking of God?

Well, we could speak in words which are effectively praise. ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ Those are in many ways the best words of all, along with ‘Here am I, send me.’ But yet they aren’t quite enough; we cannot but say more.

So we could say a creed. The creeds are the church’s ground rules for speaking about God and the church. Some creeds tell a story, like the one we said here a few moments ago—the story of God almighty who created; of Christ who was conceived and born and suffered and died and rose and ascended and will come again; of the Spirit, and so of the church. ‘I believe in God’ said the early Christians at their baptism: ‘This is the story of the one I trust, the one on whom I choose to stake my life.’

Other creeds weave ideas into the story: ‘We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, of one being with the Father.’ Or another: ‘He that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity: the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.’

The old joke about that creed was, ‘The whole thing is incomprehensible.’ And like most good jokes, this one tells the truth. That is precisely the point. The whole thing is incomprehensible. To speak about the Trinity is to walk a tightrope of paradox. As we say the creeds together and confess our faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our balance is sure and it’s steady on. But the moment we go beyond confession and praise, the moment we try to comprehend the incomprehensible and resolve the tension, the tightrope sags and off we fall. Yet we can do no other than to speak of the Trinity.

And love may be so bold as to do so, because the church’s ancient common way of speaking of the Trinity holds open a space—space not so much for an idea as for a relationship: the relationship between God and humanity in Christ the human being, who is worshipped as eternal God. Like the surgeon’s retractor clamp, which holds open the wound in flesh and muscle so that the surgeon can get hands into the body and work, so the doctrine of the Trinity holds open in us the space of possibility for a God who has involved himself with us in flesh and blood, such that the stories we tell at Christmas and Easter, Ascension and Pentecost tell the truth about God and about Jesus Christ.

The doctrine of the Trinity holds open the space for a God who is absolutely free, self-sufficient, without parts or passions, yet in his eternal depths is overflowing, self-giving love. It holds open the space for a God who is spirit and is worshipped in spirit and truth, yet enters into human life and suffers and dies with us. It holds open the space for a God who transcends us utterly, yet is closer to us than the breath in our bodies. The space held open is the space in our minds and hearts which bristles with reason’s tank-traps, certain that these things cannot be.

‘When the Spirit of truth comes,’ Jesus promised, ‘he will guide you into all truth; he will glorify me; he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ That truth is not a creed or a concept, but Christ himself, who said ‘I am the truth.’ God saves us not by giving us correct ideas about him, but by getting into us and among us with his own living presence.

John Donne, poet and priest, ends the sermon from which I quoted earlier with the hope, not so much that his hearers will understand the Trinity rightly—though that doctrine be ‘all Christianity’—but that we might be God’s beloved children, crowned by the indwelling of his Spirit in holy living. For Donne as for all good Christian teachers, the doctrine of the Trinity matters incalculably; yet in the end, he is interested less in concepts about God than in a living relationship withGod. And the poem of his with which we end this afternoon leaves no doubt that in Donne’s eyes—regardless of any surgical retractor clamps—we human beings need God to breach the defenses and come to us, as our captive, sold-out selves cannot find our way to him.

In this poem, the speaker has gone beyond the desire for God to be a courteous visitor politely knocking at the heart’s door, a light gently glowing, a breath gently breathed. The poet needs God to come to him as an army’s battering ram. Through the captivity of his reason, the poet is as a city conquered by the enemy; through the captivity of his will, he is as one betrothed to sin and Satan. He longs to be as it were married to God, to have a totality and intensity of relationship with God which can only be expressed in terms of physical union, down to the astonishing and deeply shocking metaphor with which the poem ends.

Here, the desire for knowledge of the Trinity is a million miles from the desire to grasp an idea or to frame a concept. Desire to know the Trinity and to be known by him is the desire for relationship, a personal knowledge of the one who is unbegotten, begotten and proceeding, eternally transcendent and self-sufficient, but ready here and now to get involved, intimately involved, with one human life at a time—in that love by which the Father shares his all with the Son, and the Spirit gives glory to the Son, and the Spirit listens to the Son and tells of what the Spirit hears. And so John Donne prays thus to the Trinity:

Batter my heart, three-Person’d God; for you
as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.
that I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end;
reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
but is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lovèd fain,
but am betroth’d unto your enemy:
divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
take me to you, imprison me: for I,
except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.