Songs of praise to the Trinity

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2017, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid. The metrical version of the Nicene Creed which we sang is appended below, and will be published this week in a separate post. We sang it to the hymn tune, Merton.

Some of you may have noticed last week that instead of our usual recitation of the Nicene Creed, we sang that long and ancient screed that comes in the centre of our service. With our bishop’s permission, I made a metrical and rhyming version of the prayerbook text, and Chase selected a familiar tune from our hymnal to which to set it. One of the reasons that we decided to do that was to reintroduce the idea that this Creed is a part of our praise and worship of God. It is not a stand-alone statement, or a contract to sign before Communion, and still less do we intend it as a litmus test of our beliefs and faith. It is, at its best and in its highest vocation, a song of praise to our God. Trinity Sunday seems like a pretty good time to explain why that might be.

I know that some of us have trouble with the Creed. We find that it makes us say things of which we are uncertain, or even with which we sometimes disagree. If that is your experience, I invite you to consider the disciples who received Christ’s great commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel account. They worshipped him, we are told, but some doubted. Some doubted, even as they worshipped in the presence in the Risen Christ! Jesus didn’t separate these goats from the sheep, though, but gave to them all the great commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

No summary of God, long, short, or sideways, nor even, it seems dropped directly from the lips of the living Lord Jesus will ever be adequate to erase all of our doubts, nor to engender our full understanding. Yet we have been given a glimpse, by this Trinitarian formula, into something important about who it is that we worship; and it is because we find it important to try to name who it is we worship that we have been using the Creed in our worship since the church’s infancy.

We say that God made us, and all that we inhabit; that it is only in God that we live and move and have our being. We say that Christ is both wholly human and wholly God – that God in absolute truth and sincerity came to dwell with us, out of God’s pure love for us. We say that the Holy Spirit is not some ghostly emanation from the heavens, but that the full force of God continues to move among us, so that in God we continue to live and move and have our being. The Trinity is our assurance of Emmanuel, God with us. We worship, we doubt, we worship anyway; and the God whom we worship receives us all, which is a pure blessing.

In fact, the other scriptural definition of Trinity that we hear this morning comes in the form of a blessing: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. (2 Corinthians 13:13)

This, writes Edwin Hatch, also tells us something about the nature of the God that we worship. Edwin Hatch was a nineteenth-century preacher and teacher who wrote the famous hymn, “Breathe on me, breath of God,” and who preached on Trinity Sunday, 1888, at Westminster Abbey, on “The Threefold Benediction.” He began,[i]

It is remarkable that one of the two most explicit recognitions of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in the New Testament should be in the form of a benediction. The fact is itself a sermon. It is full of instructive lessons. It tells us, above all, that the revelation of the Trinity is a revelation not of an object of speculation, but of a living truth. It recalls us from metaphysics to life. It reminds us that in our world of effort and failure we need the varied help of God. It reveals to us that God, who in His trinity of Persons is very near to us, is near to us with a trinity of blessings.

I will not read to you his entire explication of the argument, but it is all bent towards that assurance of God with us. He says,

[God] comes close to us with the awful revelation of His infinity. And then, in close communion with us, He whispers to us with tenderness, as of a mother to her son, “I, God, am yours; I, your God, am your Father and love you; I, your God, am your Saviour and have redeemed you; I, your God, am your Helper and can sustain you.”

And so our ancient creeds and our struggles to articulate what it means to say that God is God lead always, if they are faithful, back to worship: wonder, love, and praise that God, our God, should be so gracious as to bless us with God’s very being.

And when we share that blessing, well then we share in that nature of God which is to bless, which is not turned inward not satisfied with itself, but which reaches out to nurture, to love, and to bless. What kind of God we say that we worship matters to what kind of Christians we will claim to be, and how we will see the work of the church called out into the world.

And when we come together as the church; when we sing or say the Creed, with our worship and our doubts, our dilemmas and our divine inspiration, we do so not to try to define an indefinable God, nor to prove our proud orthodoxy, but to render grateful praise to the one in whom we live and move and have our being: our God. And while our worship here on earth will always be but a faint echo, it is amplified by the voices of the church triumphant, already gathered around the throne of heaven, who have seen the mysteries of God face to face; that God who is always One, and who multiplies through God’s very self blessings upon us. This One is a God who hears us, receives us, embraces us in all of our folly and faith and our doubt, forever faithful to God’s own nature, which is forever turned towards us in love.

Amen.

____________________

[i] Both quotes are from “The Threefold Benediction,” Westminster Abbey, Trinity Sunday, 1888, by Edwin Hatch. Memorials of Edwin Hatch, Edited by his brother, London, 1890, quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Angican Quest for Holiness, complied by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams (Oxford, 2001), 488-493

____________________

The Nicene Creed (8787)

We believe in God Almighty,
Father of Creation, who
made all things in earth and heaven
that are seen, and unseen, too.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus,
only Son of God, unmade;
of his Father’s love begotten,
through him all that is was made,

God from God, true God from true God,
Light from Light, who’s always been,
before time from time eternal;
with his Father one true Being.

Now for us and our salvation
he came down to earth from heaven;
by the Holy Ghost and Virgin
Mary he became a man.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
crucified for us, entombed.
Three days later he is risen –
Scriptures told of his return.

He ascended into heaven,
sits at God’s right hand on high.
He will come again to judge us,
king whose kingdom never dies.

We believe the Holy Spirit
gave us life; will always be
with the Son and Father worshipped,
Three in One and One in Three.

Spirit speaking by the prophets;
we believe the Church is one
holy, catholic, apostolic.
By one baptism guilt’s undone.

We believe in resurrection,
hope of a new life to come.
We believe in God, Christ Jesus,
and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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