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.
Professor Diane Speed
Dean of the Sydney College of Divinity