I speak to you in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen
One of the first sermons I delivered here at Saint John’s, without realizing when I agreed to preach, was Trinity Sunday in 2011. I have to tell you, of all the Sundays in the year, this is the one that makes even the most seasoned priests quake in their shoes. This is probably the most difficult to preach on because the concept of the Trinity and the concept of ‘three-in-one’ is hard enough to understand for those trained in theology.
There is an inside joke among clergy:
Today is Trinity Sunday. Since Pope John XXII, the western church has set this Sunday aside for reflection on the tremendous mystery of the Trinity. When we sing the words of one of our best known hymns, Holy, Holy, Holy, we sing, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
Praising the Holy Trinity has been going on for almost 1690 years since Emperor Constantine called 317 bishops from all over the Christian world to settle the question of the divinity of Jesus Christ in 325 CE. They settled the question of whether Christ was simply another great prophet and teacher — even a high ranking angel from God — or was he the divine Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with God?
The church fathers had spent hundreds of years trying to reach agreement on the doctrine of the Trinity. And we, as preachers, are supposed to pull something ‘out of the hat’ that explains the Trinity as a matter of fact. I will say, since 2011, I have been studying and researching, bound and determined that I would purposely select this Sunday and give my best try at explaining the Trinity. . .
may I leave you with some understanding and no more confusion than you had before.
I have come to the conclusion, after almost four years of studying, that we CAN NOT fully explain the Trinity… we can only speak of things that we can understand that might suggest the Trinity.
Did you know that Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday in the entire Christian Calendar which celebrates a doctrine; and it is an unfinished doctrine, a mystery that is not completed or understood. And many would say that there is reason that only one doctrine is celebrated; because nobody wants to hear a sermon on a doctrine.
But today is Trinity Sunday — what on earth could I say about the Trinity that was new?! How do I even begin to explain the mystery? So it came to me — I CAN’T explain the mystery. No one can. No one has the ability to fathom the mystery, so we express it in symbols — and we look around the church and find Trinitarian symbols.
A doctrine by its nature is an abstraction – never referenced directly in scripture; others still, would state that the Trinity is the most unattainable doctrine of them all.
There are two concrete facts about the Trinity:
- There is no reference in the Bible to the “Trinity”
- There is no reference in the Bible to the “Triune God”.
The Trinity has been explained in many ways from very heavy philosophical ideas to picture metaphors like a three leaf clover. With any of these, it is important to remember that none of them describes God in his very being or essence. That cannot be done. The Trinity is a statement of how God relates, not how God is. When it comes to our relating to God, we can’t pin God down to one thing or one way. When we consider one way to view God there is always another way. But why three, as in the Trinity? Who knows? But we do know that just as we can’t pin God down to one of our simplistic ideas, we also can’t pin God down to three either, or any one of the three.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have striven to express this triune understanding of the oneness of God’s in various ways. The underlying belief is that God’s very being is reflected in his creation.
- Augustine spoke of the Lover (Father), Beloved (Son), and the Love shared between the two (Spirit)
- John of Damascus was one among many early church fathers who spoke of water that bubbled up from a spring, flowed into a river, and reached its source in the ocean. Water is one, yet spring, river, and ocean are distinctive expressions of it.
- Martin Luther spoke of the root, trunk, and fruit of a tree as the living God traceable in his creation.
- The Desert Fathers (the two Gregorys and Basil) compared the members of the Trinity to the source of light (Father), the light itself that illumines (Son), and the warmth when you feel the light (Spirit)
Can we be like God?
Remember, we are the image of God. In that image we also cannot be pinned down to one way of relating. We are all many things. What wonderful surprises we all are, just as God is always a wonderful surprise. God is everywhere; look at the beautiful sunset. God is there. Look at the home destroyed by a tornado. God is there. God is in the tears of joy and in the tears of sorrow.
St. Augustine, one of the most astute thinkers the Christian Church has ever produced, was walking along the seashore one day while pondering the doctrine of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He seemed to hear a voice saying, “Pick up one of the large sea shells there by the shore.” So he picked it up. Then the voice said, “Now pour the ocean into the shell.” And he said, “Lord, I can’t do that.” And the voice answered, “Of course not. In the same way, how can your small, finite mind ever hold and understand the mystery of the eternal, infinite, Triune God?”
The Holy Trinity is not a debatable doctrine: it is an icon, a window into God. It is a parable, a paradox that invites us to behold the mystery of the Divine. All these efforts to help us in our understanding of God do not explain him in completeness, they keep us mindful of a mystery – an essence that comes through to us in a tri-fold fashion. We have the Trinity, the Three in One.
God The Creator: called Father, not because God is a male – God is beyond all gender, male or female – nor because the first person of the Godhead is like a father. We call the first person Father because this is the Father of the Son and the source of the Spirit. We call the first person of the Godhead “Father” because that is what Jesus called him and taught us to call him. Through Jesus, the One Jesus called “Abba Father,” is also “Our Father” – who is the source of all that has ever been, is, or will ever be created.
God The Redeemer: we call the second person of the Godhead “Son” because he comes from the Father, was sent by God to us, to be God with us, to live out his life with us and for us, as one of us. He was not a hologram; he was flesh and blood. He was , the greatest gift from God who saved the world, all of creation, all of US, through His living, teaching, sacrifice and resurrection. We know Jesus as the Son not only because he was of the flesh, but as the Gospel of John confesses, because of his life lived out in obedience to his Father (John 4:34).
God The Sanctifier: When Jesus prepared to return to his Father, he promised another Advocate – the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit–the presence of God would be with us (John 15:26). The Holy Spirit brings new birth from above, to transform, renew, sustain, to make us children of God. It is the Spirit’s work to make the bread Jesus’ body, and the wine Jesus’ blood to draw us into Christ’s risen. The Holy Spirit is the wireless connection between us and the Son, and us and the Father, because they are “hard-wired” together in the one essence we call ‘God’.
The Father is not the Son or the Spirit, but the Father, creator of heaven and earth. The Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit, but God in human flesh, sent as the Savior to redeem the world through divine love. The Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but God’s presence with us today, the means by which you and I come to experience and know God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three distinct means of God being over us and above us, with us and for us, and in and among us, – three distinct relationships with one another, who are nonetheless one in essence. What one wills all three will, what one does all three do–they work in concert, the three playing their different parts–three voices emerging from the same string at the same time, forming a trio of melodies that harmonize into one glorious sound, in order to accomplish the same purpose–as indivisible in their work as they are in their being–One God in three co-equal persons.
The Trinity is even a statement of our faith: God created us, saved us, and sanctifies us. God invites us back to Him, back to the Creator, back to the Redeemer, back to the Sanctifier. God calls us home, for we are created in God’s image, and God’s image and Spirit are within us. God is the Trinity. God is Unity. God is One. And God wants to share that Oneness in love. Within God, and with each and all of us, God wants to be ONE….WITH US!
This is the mystery of God we celebrate today: God over and above us, God for and with us, God in and among us, One God, the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the God who in the waters of baptism makes us his own, the God who meets us at table to give us the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, the God who is in us and among us, using us to share the good news of his love and purpose for us all.
In the Nicaean Creed we will recite, we affirm that we believe in One God, the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
It would be appropriate for you to say, when trying to understand the Trinity:
“Why bother? I have enough problems with things that I understand, let alone things that I don’t understand.”
Surprisingly, there are THREE good reasons why we should attempt to understand the mystery of the Trinity.
The first reason is that Jesus revealed the Trinity to us. The existence of the Father, of himself, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, whom He and the Father sent forth upon the apostles. Jesus came and lived among us to teach us, to show us how to live and how to love, He worked miracles and died for our sins and rose from the dead to show us the way to eternal life. So whatever Jesus revealed to us, He revealed for a reason and it is important for us to pay attention to it and try to understand it as best we can.
Secondly, while we cannot grasp the idea of one God – three persons – each of them God, we can recognize that the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the perfect model of harmony and unity, a community of relationship, so perfectly intertwined that you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends.
The third and most important reason is that in the first chapter of Genesis, humankind, you and I, are created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, since Jesus has revealed to us the essence of God as perfect unity, harmony, community and relationship, then the very core of our creation is a call to perfect harmony, community and relationship. This is the real challenge living in a society where individualism is promoted. Nonetheless, we are called to expand our circle of relationship to include more and more people.
We are called to worship the One who created the world. We are called to worship the One who loved the world enough to come into the world and invite us into relationship. We are called to worship the One who comes as Holy Spirit, blowing where it will. This is the Holy Trinity: a mystery we catch glimpses of as we seek to know and love.
A Blessing for Trinity Sunday
In this new season may you know the presence of the God who dwells within your days,
the mystery of the Christ who drenches you in love,
the blessing of the Spirit who bears you into life anew.
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church on 31 May 2015