Summary: Sermon for Trinity Sunday on the Holy Trinity and the unity of the Church.
During the time of Oliver Cromwell, thousands of stained glass windows in English churches were destroyed, because the English puritans objected to objects of veneration, which they called ’abused images’. Of those stained glass windows that did survive, few were undamaged, and there was an irreplaceable loss of priceless English church heritage.
Amongst the windows that were damaged but survived is a unique medieval roundel that may be found above the north door of Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford, Suffolk.
That it required repair is sadly obvious, yet one visitor, Peter Sebbage, considered that its repair actually enhanced the inspirational value of the window. “In its repair”, he said, “it illustrates God’s unfailing love in reconciling a fallen world to Him through the sacrifice of Jesus”.
This roundel depicts three hares chasing each other in a circle. The three hares motif has been found in Europe, the Sinai Peninsula, Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and China, but it is most commonly found in churches in Devon, England, where it is often called the tinners’ rabbits.
If you look closely, you will see that the three hares only have three ears between them instead of the six you would expect. In a clever optical illusion, each hare shares an ear with each of the other hares. The hares are distinct and cannot be confused with each other, yet together they comprise a unity that cannot be divided. It should therefore come as no surprise that the three hares motif has come to represent the Trinity.
Today is Trinity Sunday, one of our principal feast days, a day when we celebrate the doctrine of God as the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Although the word Trinity occurs nowhere in the Bible, there are places where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are present together. They are distinct and unable be confused with each other, yet they present a unity that can not be divided.
Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s accounts of the baptism of Jesus all state that when He had just been baptised, He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on Him and that a voice came from heaven saying:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. (Mark 1:11b).
Jesus is later quoted in Matthew’s gospel as instructing His disciples to:
“… make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. (Matthew 28:19b).
The Church literally took centuries to conceptualise its understanding of the Trinity, and the key contributor to this was Tertullian, a second and third century Church leader who coined the Latin word ‘trinitas’ from which we derive ‘Trinity’. Tertullian proposed that the Trinity comprised three separate ‘personae’ of the same substance. By ‘personae’, he did not mean persons, but something closer to the masks or roles of an actor, and by substance he meant that which they have in common.
Ultimately, the doctrine of the Trinity was formally expressed in the creeds, and it used to be a Trinity Sunday tradition to read the Athanasian Creed. This is rarely said these days because it is so incredibly long, but I will read a short extract from a modern translation: