Materials for Worship for Trinity Sunday 2023

Nerys writes: When you hear the word Holy Trinity, I wonder what first comes into your mind? Is it perhaps a church of that name, an image from a  stained glass window or something you’ve read or heard in a sermon? For me in recent weeks it would be this icon.

It was produced by Andrei Rublev early in the fifteenth century and it’s considered to be the highest achievement in Russian art.  You might have heard in the news that it was moved last month against the advice of its restorers,  from a state museum in Moscow to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a gift from President Putin to Patriarch Krill, one of the most vocal supporters of his invasion of Ukraine.  I was also reminded of it during the last session of our Living the Questions course when we were challenged to think how we live our faith and how we communicate it with others. As I explained to my table companions that evening,  this is the image I return to time and time again when I need to be reminded of what God is like and how I am called to be.

The icon was painted for the monastery of the Holy Trinity of St Sergius, the most important spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, which a decade earlier had been burnt to the ground in a military raid. The icon was to be for the monks not only a lovely decoration or a teaching tool, but a focus for peaceful contemplation in the midst  of political unrest and violence.

Icon writers usually stick to age-old ways of portraying a subject but with this work, Rublev broke new ground. He used the famous account  of  Abraham’s hospitality towards three mysterious travellers to depict the Holy Trinity. He stripped away the detail of  the story included in traditional icons, leaving only the tree, the house and the mountain which become rich symbols of the story of salvation. These  form a backdrop to the three winged figures sitting in silent conversation around the table. Each of the visitors is identical apart from their clothing and hand gestures which identify them as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Each looks to the other and as we follow their gaze, a circle is revealed is with a space at the front for the prayerful viewer to step in.

Most icons in Rublev’s day would have had the persons of the Trinity arranged in a triangular shape with God the Father forming the base, the Holy Spirit as a hovering dove  forming the apex, and the Christ-child in the centre. The emphasis here is very different. It’s not so much on expressing the inner workings of the doctrine of the Trinity  but on the way God relates to the world and to us, a mysterious movement of unity and love. Using the famous analogy of Bishop Spong, the emphasis is not on God as ‘a noun that demands to be defined’ but God as ‘a verb that invites us to live, to love, to be’.

And the same emphasis is found in the New Testament readings for today, 2 Corinthians 13.11-13 and Matthew 28.16-20. When Matthew and Paul end their writings with references to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, they are not just drawing on a convenient formula or paying lip-service to traditional teaching. In fact, it would be over a century before theologians began to use words like ‘trinity’ as a shorthand way of expressing what these two authors are articulating. Rather, in these passages, they are both witnessing to a personal understanding of God which motivates them and that they believe will energize and unify the congregations for whom they are writing.

Paul’s final prayer for the divided, bickering congregation in Corinth which we know as ‘The Grace’, sums up the central message of his most deeply personal and heartfelt letter. It is that they are to  love the world as God, the Creator, loves it. They are to have the grace that allowed Jesus to accept God’s will and which will enable them to follow his example. And they are to accept the invitation of the Holy Spirit to find their true identity in belonging together within the fellowship of God’s love.  Paul’s desire for his first readers who were struggling to live together in peace was the same as that of  Rublev for his fellow monks. His icon encourages the viewer to step into the mysterious circle of God’s unity and love which can’t be broken by the powers of the world. We are invited to take our place at the table and enjoy God’s hospitality which challenges hostility, which dissolves difference and breaks down borders and barriers.

The risen Christ of Matthew’s Gospel instructs his worshipping, doubting disciples to offer this hospitality to all the nations of the world. They are to enfold them in the mysterious circle of God’s love by baptising in the name of God the Father who loves us and the whole of Creation, God the Son  who will walk with us to the end of our lives and beyond, and God the Holy Spirit who will dwell within and among us equipping us with all we need to obey everything they we called to be and to do. When we enter into that community  of mutual love, we receive gifts of peace, healing and hope but we are also called to extend the table by becoming both host and guest to others.

In Ordinary Time,  the growing season in the Church Year, it is important for us to consider  how we  choose to live our faith and share it with others, and what will sustain us to do so in these troubled times.  For Rublev and his fellow monks, offering hospitality to others would have been at the centre of what it meant to be a Christian community. They knew that, in order to grow as followers of Christ and bring near the kingdom of God, we need to welcome the stranger, inviting them to join us at our table and also accepting their invitation to us. This kind of  hospitality  is not just about doing good but is an attitude of the heart. It involves being open to see God in others and to respond to their needs.

In your time of prayer this morning, I would encourage you to reflect on your own experience of receiving the hospitality of God. Can you think of ways that you, your family or our church community might offer hospitality to others? What one small thing can you do this week to help bring near the kingdom of God where you are?