A sermon given at Choral Evensong on Trinity Sunday by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Honorary Assistant Priest


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today is Trinity Sunday and so, as we have heard the news of the passing of Professor Trevor Wilson, father of our sister Canon Jenny Wilson, we pray for him now that he is in the presence of God the Father and of God the Son, praying for his family as they grieve that they may feel upheld by God’s ever-present Holy Spirit.

The whole Bible speaks to us, some verses in ways that are so clear that we can spend perhaps too much time on them and thus bias our theology by ignoring other important verses. Indeed, those other verses may be ignored by us because they confuse or maybe even confront. Then there are some verses which are just so full of mystery that they beguile us. So it is that we come to our reading from Ephesians tonight – Ephesians 3: 14-21 – in particular, just one verse:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. [v.20]

In particular, the phrase:

Able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

This is a verse which has for a long time, not only beguiled me but wonderfully nourished me. It has beguiled me because it touches on that place of mystery where God’s infinite eternity meets the time-bound finity of our existence. By its own declaration, it goes beyond anything I may be capable of comprehending, yet it also conveys a deep and comforting sense of profundity even though I cannot fathom its depths.

It reminds me somewhat of that verse in the Third Canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

I was in that Heaven which receives more of His light. He who comes down from there can neither know nor tell what he has seen, for, drawing near to its desire, so deeply is our intellect immersed that memory cannot follow after it.[1]

Every time I read that piece, it resonates with me, for there have been occasions when, in timeless yet fleeting moments, I absolutely get it – when everything about the universe and all that is in it makes enormous sense. Those moments when we say with Robert Browning:

God’s in His heaven— All’s right with the world![2]

But, as Dante noted, those moments don’t last, and we can make no memory of them that might be a continuing balm to us as we come back to the broken present, to salve the temporal dismays and despairs we encounter on our individual and collective journeys through life. We can ecstasy at that moment when the fingers of God and Adam so nearly touch as depicted in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; but then the moment evaporates when the fingers seem to separate.

Thus, it is with tonight’s verse from Ephesians, the suggestion that we may both be able to understand yet not ever be capable of fully comprehending that which is beyond our ken – God in all his glory.

Able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

Our reading had said those very words, referring to that mysterious meeting point where God’s infinity touches our finity. That particular mystery may be a key to understanding yet another divine mystery – the Trinity. Indeed, it may be why those who compiled our lectionary chose the reading from Ephesians for Trinity Sunday. This morning, in his sermon +Chris said about the Trinity:

There is a unity that is beyond our making. It is a gift given to us by God.

Yet, for two millenia the Church has struggled, sometimes violently, to understand this unity. A short while ago we said together the Creed which came from the Council of Nicaea as a result of an intense struggle between the followers of Bishop Athanasius and those of the heretic Bishop Arius; and don’t get me started about the deep division caused by dispute on a related trinitarian topic at the Council of Chalcedon. How may we find the unity of which +Chris spoke? Let me quote again from his sermon this morning:

The danger is always in trying to say too much, and then we get ourselves in a bit of a muddle … however, what is important is that God is ‘person in relationship.’

In other words, in struggling to understand the eternal concept of the Trinity from our limited capacity in this life, we can easily overcomplicate that which should be kept as simple as possible – a simple as those words in John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In this context, it would be useful to look at an earlier verse from tonight’s reading from Ephesians:

I pray that God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith …

These encouraging words about the Triune God strengthen us, through the power of His Holy Spirit which dwells within us. It is not simply the fact that Paul said these words; for, through this power of the Spirit of which Paul wrote, there have been Christians over two millennia, living in all manner of contexts and having gone through experiences of every sort and yet who have maintained their faith to the end.

There have been sceptics who have claimed the Trinity was a confection of Paul, basing their scepticism on the fact that Jesus apparently never referenced the concept. Yet listen to these verses from Chapter 16 of John’s Gospel:

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth, he will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine, for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. [16:12-15]

Here, in three verses, each element of the Trinity is named by Jesus and the relationship of each to the other described.

In our recitation of the Creed earlier this evening, on this Trinity Sunday, we said:

I believe in God the Father Almighty … And in Jesus Christ, his only Son … (and) I believe in the Holy Ghost.

In what God, in what Jesus and in what Holy Spirit do we believe? Do we accept the infinite power implicit in Paul’s phrase that this triune God is:

Able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

Or do we create a circumscribed God, a finite God reduced by the limits of our asking and imagining?

If that is what we have done, we certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. After God had enabled Moses, by unimaginable means, to lead His people out of enslavement in Egypt,   what did His people do? Having just been witnesses to miraculous events, they went into mental shutdown, effectively saying: ‘This cannot have been possible’. To fill the void of the absence left by turning their back on the real God, they created a god they were capable of imagining and hence one of which they could ask things – a golden calf to which they said:

These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt. [Exodus 32:4]

You will recall that the book of Exodus revealed how Moses, with God’s support, dealt with that golden calf using the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Then, many centuries later, a byzantine web of commandments would be woven out of those original ten, supposedly on God’s instructions, leading by the third century BC to 613 such laws. So, by the time of Jesus, God’s people had become ensnared by these hundreds of commands; the combined weight of which meant that the people were too burdened down to look up and see the living God. Thus it was that God, in the form of His Son, came to them, reached his hand out and lifted up their downcast faces and said that there were only two commandments that mattered – not 613, nor even ten, but two:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Matthew: 22:37-40]

Very simply said, but the problem, for every Christian since Jesus spoke those words, has been how to approach these two simple commandments, let alone follow them.

This God, whom Jesus said we should love with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind, we so often find awkward when our life seems to be going well without Him.  Not needing him in our good times, we might find that we have changed him into a Helpline God, whom we love with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds, not 24/7, but just in times when crisis strikes us.

Similarly, the neighbour whom Jesus defined as pretty much everyone else apart from ourselves, becomes way too much for us to get our heads around. So, we very quickly set up finite limits to the limitless idea of neighbour. As human beings, we are expert at categorising and thus limiting, separating those within and those without. That much we are capable of asking and imagining; thereby redefining the neighbour to suit the limits of our capacity to ask and imagine. By implication, therefore, we have changed not only the words of the Son of God but indeed the very Son of God himself, making him a ventriloquist’s doll who feeds back to us the words we have put into his mouth.

When we do this, we turn our back on the God of infinity. Yet God has never turned His back on us.

In a few moments we will sing the hymn Firmly I believe and truly, starting with these words:

Firmly I believe and truly God is Three and God is One

We will finish with the final verse:

Adoration ay be given, with and through the angelic host, to the God of earth and heaven, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

But not until we have sung these words in the middle:

Simply to His grace and wholly Light and life and strength belong, and I love supremely, solely, Him the holy, Him the strong.

So, staying away from complex arguments of interpretation, let us simply accept that the Creator of all that is and ever has been, God the Father, manifested himself to us through his incarnate Son, Jesus, and after his resurrection, became present amongst us through what we know as his ever-present Holy Spirit. It may be beyond us to ask or imagine capacity of this triune God, of his power and of his love, yet that simply does not matter if we but let Him, through His Holy Spirit, ‘accomplish abundantly’ within us.

[1] Dante Aligheri, Divine Comedy I lines 1-4, translated by Jean & Robert Hollander, Anchor Books, 2007, p3

[2] Browning R, Pippa’s Song.