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Trinity Sunday

THE TRINITY

Ser­mon preached Trin­ity Sunday 2018

Read­ings: Psalm 29; Isai­ah 6.1–8; Romans 8.12–17; John 3.1–17

As we cel­eb­rate the Trin­ity today, we reflect on a sub­ject that’s been a focus of intense theo­lo­gic­al reflec­tion from the days of the early church to the present, but also a spir­itu­al mys­tery on which the faith­ful have med­it­ated for just as long.

We may well accept the Trin­ity as the cent­ral doc­trine of Chris­ti­an theo­logy, the teach­ing that there is one God in three co-etern­al Per­sons, the Fath­er, the Son, and the Holy Spir­it. But when we start to exam­ine what this teach­ing means, we may struggle to explain a pro­found divine mys­tery in the lan­guage of human reas­on­ing.

The Lat­in­ate term ‘Trin­ity’ in its Greek equi­val­ent ‘Tri­ad’, refer­ring to the God­head, is first found in the work of Bish­op Theo­philus of Anti­och, from around 180 AD. The actu­al term isn’t to be found in the Bible itself, but the idea of threefold diversity with­in the unity of the one true God is eas­ily inferred from a num­ber of pas­sages. The pas­sages that have been most influ­en­tial in this regard have been Jesus’ com­mand to the dis­ciples at the end of Matthew’s Gos­pel to bap­tise the world in the name of the Fath­er, the Son, and the Holy Spir­it, and, to a less­er extent, Paul’s bene­dic­tion at the end of 2 Cor­inthi­ans, which we call ‘the grace’: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the com­mu­nion (or fel­low­ship) of the Holy Spir­it be with all of you’.

The doc­trine of the Trin­ity as first clearly artic­u­lated in the fourth cen­tury, by the Coun­cils of Nicaea, in 325, and Con­stantinople, in 381, gives us what we know as the Nicene Creed in our Holy Com­mu­nion ser­vice. The Apostles’ Creed is older, and it reflects just the basic idea of one God in three per­sons, without attempt­ing to explain the con­nec­tions.

The doc­trine of the Trin­ity emerged from struggles to under­stand the nature of the Son and his rela­tion­ship with the Fath­er and the rela­tion­ship of the Holy Spir­it with both, mainly as Chris­ti­an lead­ers felt a grow­ing need to dis­tin­guish their deity from the deity under­ly­ing most Graeco-Roman philo­sophy. Devel­op­ment of the West­ern tra­di­tion of the Trin­ity was also influ­enced by a sig­ni­fic­ant treat­ise writ­ten by Augustine of Hippo in the years fol­low­ing the Coun­cil of Nicaea, and a fur­ther import­ant expos­i­tion provided by Thomas Aqui­nas in the twelfth cen­tury became main­line theo­logy on the sub­ject.

The essen­tial dif­fer­ence between the East­ern and West­ern tra­di­tions is one of approach: East­ern schol­ars star­ted from the dif­fer­ence between the three Per­sons and strove to explain their unity, where­as West­ern schol­ars star­ted with their unity and worked on explain­ing the dis­tinct­ives of each of the three Per­sons.

This East-West dif­fer­ence is evid­ent in the visu­al arts. East­ern art tends to depict the three per­sons of the Trin­ity as male fig­ures identic­al in appear­ance, while West­ern art depicts them as quite dis­tinct from each oth­er, such as an older male fig­ure enthroned and a young­er male fig­ure limp from cru­ci­fix­ion and held up by the older fig­ure, with a dove nearby.

The Trin­ity has remained a sub­ject of ongo­ing dis­cus­sion but, as Anglic­ans in Sydney, some of us may be par­tic­u­larly aware of a cur­rent debate con­cern­ing author­ity with­in the Trin­ity, around the pro­pos­i­tion that the Son will­ingly sub­mits to the Fath­er. I’m going to speak about this only very briefly, to acknow­ledge its pres­ence with us, and then move on to what I hope may lead to more fruit­ful reflec­tion.

From sev­er­al pas­sages in the Gos­pels it’s clear that the Son of Man, the incarn­ate Son of God, regarded him­self as act­ing upon the dir­ec­tion of the Fath­er in his earthly min­istry. In John 6, for example, Jesus says, ‘I have come down from heav­en, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me’, and in Luke 22, ‘Fath­er, if you are will­ing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’

The debate, how­ever, is con­cerned with a com­plex of ques­tions around the rela­tion­ship of God the Fath­er and God the Son in the etern­al realm. There’s a range of argu­ments around what’s called the ‘etern­al func­tion­al sub­mis­sion’ of the Son to the Fath­er, ‘etern­al’ mean­ing both before the bib­lic­al record of cre­ation and forever after the ascen­sion of the Son, accom­pan­ied by appeals to vari­ous verses of Scrip­ture that are open to inter­pret­a­tion in some­times con­tra­dict­ory ways. (The expres­sion even has its own acronym now, EFS.)

Unfor­tu­nately, the Trin­it­ari­an debate has also been caught up into anoth­er debate, about wheth­er women should neces­sar­ily sub­mit to male head­ship in ordin­ary life and espe­cially in the church, with the argu­ment for women’s neces­sary sub­mis­sion being sup­por­ted by the pro­posed mod­el of the Son’s sub­mis­sion to the Fath­er.

Today, how­ever, I’m going to leave aside the ques­tion of how worth­while, or not, the cur­rent Trin­it­ari­an debate might be in itself, and turn to cel­eb­rat­ing the Trin­ity as the great object of our wor­ship and the sub­ject that inspires us to that wor­ship. And so we turn to the read­ings for today and the guid­ance we find in them, begin­ning with the two Old Test­a­ment read­ings.

But first a short pre­face.

In the Old Test­a­ment as a whole, there’s no expli­cit ref­er­ence to the Son, although, from a later Chris­ti­an point of view, many things that are said of the Mes­si­ah are seen to come to ful­fil­ment in Jesus of Naz­areth, who is iden­ti­fied as the Son of God. There are sev­er­al ref­er­ences to the Spir­it of God as com­ing upon cer­tain people for cer­tain pur­poses, and the New Test­a­ment account of the Spir­it com­ing upon the dis­ciples at Pente­cost, to dwell forever with­in the hearts of those who con­fess Christ as Lord and Saviour, so that they can com­mu­nic­ate and be in com­mu­nion with each oth­er in wit­ness to Christ, is often under­stood to ush­er in a spe­cif­ic reversal of the frag­ment­a­tion of com­munity with the col­lapse of the Tower of Babel in Gen­es­is.

The Old Test­a­ment pas­sage most often asso­ci­ated with the pres­ence of Trin­ity as such is Gen­es­is 1. Here, a wind from God cov­ers the face of the deep and God speaks the world into cre­ation. The word for ‘wind’ can also be trans­lated ‘spir­it’, and this is often con­sidered a ref­er­ence to the life-giv­ing Holy Spir­it, pro­ceed­ing, as it were, from the Fath­er. John’s Gos­pel expli­citly recog­nizes the Son as present in the Gen­es­is account of cre­ation. In the open­ing of his Gos­pel, he echoes the open­ing of Gen­es­is — ‘In the begin­ning’ — but goes on to inter­pret God’s cre­at­ive speak­ing as Logos, the very Word or Reas­on of God, who became incarn­ate in the world to bring it enlight­en­ment and give those who would believe in him the power to become chil­dren of God.

Again, the word for ‘God’ in Gen­es­is 1 is the plur­al Elo­him, and in verse 26 God says, ‘Let us make man­kind in our image, accord­ing to our like­ness’. It’s uncer­tain wheth­er this is merely the lin­guist­ic phe­nomen­on known as the roy­al plur­al or a hint of the three-Per­son God­head, but it does leave the way open for such a doc­trine to be developed.

Today’s Old Test­a­ment read­ings both depict the Lord as seated on his throne in glory. In Psalm 29, the Lord’s voice is the con­trolling force in the cre­ated world, and the Psalm­ist prays that his power would mean the bless­ing of peace for his people. In Isai­ah 6, the Lord speaks to call for a human per­son to be a mes­sen­ger to his people, and the proph­et responds that he’ll take on the task. In both places the Lord is Yah­weh, the cov­en­ant Lord of his chosen ones. For us as read­ers today, the majesty of the Lord is asso­ci­ated, respect­ively, with the com­ing of peace, mean­ing recon­cili­ation with God through Christ, and with the receiv­ing of a com­mis­sion to bear wit­ness before the world to his glory, empowered by the Holy Spir­it.

While there’s no expli­cit ref­er­ence to the Son or the Spir­it in these pas­sages, the very ref­er­ence to the Lord invites the ques­tion: If the Lord is indeed one, as taught in the books of the Law, doesn’t any men­tion of the Lord imply either the pres­ence of the Son and the Spir­it along with the Fath­er, or at least their shared will in respect of what’s going on? This prob­lem is, of course, far bey­ond our under­stand­ing — the Lord is indeed the pivotal mys­tery of the Scrip­tures!

But we can say this: Both the Psalm, with its poet­ic lan­guage, and the proph­et­ic writ­ing of Isai­ah, with its vis­ion­ary lan­guage, use humanly com­pre­hens­ible words and con­crete images to present mat­ters bey­ond the scope of human lan­guage, to engage the God-giv­en ima­gin­a­tion of the audi­ence in moments of won­der and wor­ship, and thank­ful­ness for his accept­ance of us. Even the depic­tion of the Lord as an enthroned king is a fig­ur­at­ive instance of anthro­po­morph­ism, present­ing the non-human, or super­hu­man, in human terms. We are called out of our earth-bound selves to wor­ship the Lord in all his power and glory.

In the New Test­a­ment, as well as the words at the end of Matthew’s Gos­pel and the end of 2 Cor­inthi­ans, there are sev­er­al pas­sages that asso­ci­ate the Fath­er, Son, and Holy Spir­it with each oth­er in a way that’s at least sug­gest­ive of a Trin­it­ari­an for­mu­la­tion.

Today’s Epistle read­ing from Romans 8 is one such pas­sage. The guar­an­tee that we are chil­dren of God lies in the fact that we are being led by the indwell­ing Spir­it of God to address him in faith as our Fath­er, our ‘Abba’. We are only able to do so pre­cisely because the Holy Spir­it leads us to do so. And as chil­dren of God, not merely cre­ated by him but in rela­tion­ship with him, we are co-heirs to the heav­enly king­dom with Christ, the Son of God, hav­ing been adop­ted to son­hood or daugh­ter­hood through him, because we’ve believed in him and his prom­ises.

This pas­sage goes to our every­day pray­er life. Des­pite, or per­haps because of, my own spir­itu­al weak­ness and inad­equacy, the very Spir­it of God, the Holy Spir­it, the third Per­son of the Trin­ity, is right here with me, sup­port­ing and encour­aging me, lead­ing me on towards being what God wants me to be and enter­ing his etern­al pres­ence, made fit to be there because the grace of God in Christ has covered over my sin­ful nature.

And so we come to the Gos­pel read­ing in John 3.

The dis­cus­sion with Nicodemus comes early in Jesus’ earthly min­istry, very soon after he receives bap­tism from his cous­in John at the dir­ec­tion of God the Fath­er, when the Holy Spir­it comes to be with him through his earthy min­istry. This is anoth­er epis­ode that invites a Trin­it­ari­an under­stand­ing. Some three years before Jesus will speak at length to his inner circle about the com­ing of the Holy Spir­it to be with them all, on the night of is arrest ahead of his cru­ci­fix­ion, Jesus speaks here of the need to enter into a new life under the lead­ing of the Spir­it, a life that will be forever. He also looks ahead to some­thing that will be hard for Nicodemus and his oth­er friends to grasp, the fact of his own early death, to allow them to exper­i­ence that ever­last­ing new life.

Each Per­son of the Trin­ity is seen to have a role in provid­ing etern­al sal­va­tion for those who believe in the Son.

What great­er deed could be done? What great­er good could I ever hope for? Here it is, an unearned gift that is the sure prom­ise of the Son of God.

In today’s read­ings we’re led, first, to see ourselves, as in a vis­ion, stand­ing before the great God in whose pres­ence we hope one day to stand in real­ity, as chil­dren before their lov­ing Fath­er. Until that day comes, the Spir­it of God is with us, to sup­port and encour­age us along the way. And then we’ll exper­i­ence the gift of etern­al life prom­ised and won for us by the Son, accord­ing to the plan to which the whole Trin­ity has been party.

In the end, all we can do and all we need to do is to praise our great God in Trin­ity for who he is and thank him whole­heartedly for the immeas­ur­able good he provides for us whom he has called to him­self and equipped for the jour­ney.

AMEN

Pro­fess­or Diane Speed

Dean of the Sydney Col­lege of Divin­ity