Sermon preached at Eucharist on Trinity Sunday (27 May 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached at Eucharist on Trinity Sunday (27 May 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

On Trinity Sunday, the Precentor reflects on the challenges of understanding the Trinity and how we might fruitfully use this doctrine to go out into the world and tell people of God. 

Have you ever sat at a table in a restaurant or cafe and tried all sorts of ingenious devices to stop your table wobbling? A folded beer mat perhaps, or a rolled up paper napkin, or a carefully placed elbow to counterbalance. 

I remember the physics master at my old school pointing out what Basil Fawlty might describe as the ‘bleeding obvious’ when he said that, if tables only had three legs, they would never wobble. 

Why else would you take the perfect photograph with a tripod rather than with a tetrapod?

So the big question for us on this Trinity Sunday is why tables have four legs instead of three?

And quite apart from alleviating the annoying business of table wobbling, three is a rather pleasing number and perfects many of our rhythms of speech – a subject about which I could, if I wanted, go ‘on and on and on’. 

Dante relies on terza rima in his Divine Comedy and, in multiples of three, Homer’s Iliad wouldn’t have got very far without iambic hexameter. The depths of Macbeth’s agony are emphasised by his ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.’ A good story – and indeed a good college essay – has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Before decimalisation, most of our units of measurement were divisible by three. The triad in music is the base building block of functional harmony. And, and, and – as our former Registrar used to say.

And the Holy Trinity divinely blesses this felicitous celebration of the number three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. ‘And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other; and this is the image of the Trinity.’

Now most clergy don’t like preaching on Trinity Sunday because the doctrine of the Trinity is serious stuff and preaching about it sometimes feels a bit like sitting a Finals exam. And, if the clergy worry about it, think what the person in the street must feel about it. Look at the Nicene Creed that we’ll all say in a few moments. How many of us know what it means?

And yet here we are, with varying degrees of faith, faithfully worshipping God, but doing so in a world that is increasingly abandoning God or, conversely, in a fight to maintain God’s credibility, is increasingly advertising God as a pretty mean opponent of sinners. 

So, if Trinity Sunday is a bit like a Finals exam, how might the examination paper be answered by the very large number of people who don’t come to church – on Trinity Sunday or on most other occasions in the year?:

Q: What does the Church think of God the Father?

A: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on men and women conditions impossible of fulfilment; he is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgments and miracles, distributed with a good deal of favouritism. He likes to be pandered to and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a Dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

Q: What does the Church think of God the Son?

A: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault that the world was made like this, and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to men and women and did his best to reconcile us to God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it is best to apply to him.

Q: What does the Church think of God the Holy Spirit?

A: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of until Pentecost. There is a sin against the Holy Spirit which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.

Q: What is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?

A: ‘The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.’ Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult – nothing to do with daily life or ethics.

Now that was actually written by Dorothy L Sayers in an essay of 1939 called ‘Strong Meat’ and, once the humour of it has worn off, one is left with the depressing realisation that, if people thought any of that eighty years ago, they probably think it even more so now – that is – more depressingly – if they actually have any notion left about who the God of the Christian Church is that they no longer believe in or feel inclined to worship in the context of church.

So, perhaps Trinity Sunday is not so much an opportunity to say clever things about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity but, rather, an opportunity to challenge the Church’s presentation of this divine trinity in its pleasing triadic harmony. 

If three is beautiful and God is beautiful, what are we saying and doing about God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – that makes God either a crutch for neurotic conservatives or an arcane deity that belongs to the pages of history.

So, here’s your examination paper for today: think of three things that church people say about God that you wish they wouldn’t say and think of three things about God that you think people out there ought to hear more about – and then go and tell them.

For, indeed, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’