A Sermon for Trinity Sunday
The Holy Trinity
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen. ___________________________________________________________________________
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be, with you all” (II Cor. 13: 14).
Trinity Sunday became an established Church Festival in 1334. It was seen as a fitting end to the first half of the Christian Year, in which, through the season of Advent to Pentecost, the Church remembers the main events of our Lord’s life, to the founding of the Church and the ideal introduction to the second half of the year, in which our thoughts are directed more toward what Jesus said than what he did. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, therefore, sums up, what the early Church called the Kerygma (the proclamation) and points to what is called the didache (the teaching). Therefore, as well as being a major festival in its own right, Trinity Sunday is a bridge festival linking the two halves of the Christian Year.
Many preachers say that today’s is the most difficult sermon of the year. Perhaps they think that other mysteries are less mysterious, although ranking mysteries is impossible. Part of the problem is that we discuss mystery in metaphorical language, the meaning of which changes through time. Theology is the search for the meaning, expressed metaphorically, of sacred mysteries. This basic search for meaning frequently descends from that sublime enterprise into attempts to describe mechanics. This leads to a number of questions. What is the Trinity? Why is it necessary to Christianity? How far can we penetrate its mystery?
Central to Christian theology is the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine that, the one God exists in three Persons and one substance, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is one, yet self-differentiated; the God who reveals Himself to us is one God equally in three distinct modes of existence, yet remains one through all eternity.
THE TRINITY 15th cent.
Though the word ‘Trinity’, first used in its Greek form by Theophilus of Antioch (c. AD 180), is not found in Scripture, Christian theologians have seen faint indications of the doctrine in the biblical narratives. In the OT, for example, the appearance of the three men to Abraham (Gen. 18) was held by the Fathers of the Church to foreshadow the revelation of the threefold nature of God. In the NT the most influential text was the reference to the three Persons in the baptismal formula at the end of Matthew (28: 19). There are, however, other passages held to have Trinitarian overtones, such as the Pauline benediction of II Cor. 13: 14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be, with you all”. From the biblical language concerning the Father, the Son or Logos (Word) and the Spirit, Trinitarian doctrine developed, as the Church’s expansion led to the need for reflection, confession and dialogue.
Finding the appropriate concepts proved difficult and led many 2nd and 3rd century Christians to adopt opinions that were later considered unorthodox. At the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) the doctrine was defined in its simplest outlines, by negative rather than positive pronouncements, affirming the real distinction of the divine Persons and their equality and co-eternity. The Persons differ only in origin, in that the Father is un-generated, the Son is generated by the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.
There are numerous occasions for discussing the “Persons” of the Trinity individually, so our concern here is their relationship or, to use the technical term, their “economy”. Each Person exists eternally in the other Two; this is called the Perichoresis or Circumincessio. The relation of each Person to the Divine action is distinct; the Father is Creator, the Son is Redeemer, the Holy Spirit is Sanctifier; yet all Three work indivisibly in all things.
In terms of the Creator we can ask: What happened before the big bang? One philosophical answer is that there must have been a creative force. As Christians we believe that this is a divine entity who we call the Creator or God the Father, with whom we have a personal relationship and, in this case, we have the physical evidence of creation. The doctrine of the Incarnation accounts for the Redeemer or the Son and, again, we have physical evidence. Nonetheless, to overcome the severe stresses on the mind imposed by this concept, the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) describe Jesus, as having a divine and a human nature in one person. Accounting for the Sanctifier or the Holy Spirit is somewhat more difficult because, in a sense, we have to take the word of Jesus for the phenomenon or recursively we invoke the presence of the Spirit to account for the Spirit. The presence of a Sanctifier who comprises the love between the Father and the Son can, then, be inferred, if we believe in a personal Creator and an incarnated Redeemer.
The necessity of the Incarnation to reconstitute our relationship with the Creator through the Redeemer and, in turn, the necessity that we should do so in the light of that Incarnation, generated the Sanctifier. Thus, Trinitarian unity is a direct consequence of the unique event of the Incarnation, always remembering that the economy is outside time.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity declares that we should understand God’s inner being, His Godhead, as being Unity rather than One. This is in accord with the revelation of God in the NT, which reveals Him to be a God who is to be loved and addressed as our Father, who has come amongst us as the Son and who lives within us and between us as Holy Spirit and yet He is one, whose essential unity is revealed most surely in His nature of perfect love. “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love”, St. John tells us (I John 4: 8) or, to put it another way, quoting St. Augustine: Ubi amor ibi Trinitas”, where love is, there is the Trinity (De Trinitate). We are, therefore, to believe that within the Godhead there is and ever has been and ever will be, from and to all eternity, loving fellowship between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. We are not to conceive of a God who ever existed in His ‘Divine Majesty’ in a state of divine loneliness.
How to describe God in words that do justice to the mystery and the glory of His life and being, that can be accepted by all as a sufficient sign of orthodoxy and that can be used as a central part of worship, is clearly a matter of the greatest importance. The Creeds, of which the most important is called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (Nicene Creed) of AD 381 and used in the Eucharist, in both the Eastern and the WesternChurch, were composed to fulfil this purpose.
It is necessary that we should hold precisely this belief, firstly, because God is love; love belongs to His essential being. He could not be love unless He had within His being an object for His love. Secondly, because God is fundamentally a Society as well as a Being, the fact that man is a social animal is only a reflexion of the Divine life. Thirdly, the fundamental doctrine of the Incarnation and the Atonement depend on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. We believe that the Word became flesh (Jn. 1: 14) and that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5: 8); but neither belief has any value unless we also believe that He who became flesh and died for us is really God. True doctrine is a real protection against great dangers. Wrong beliefs about God have the power to separate us from Him. Salvation and truth are inextricably linked. “He, therefore, that would be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity” (Athanasian Creed). Right belief is not a peripheral concern. First among these saving truths is the truth of God as Holy Trinity.
What, then, should be said about the “economic Trinity”, the Trinity in relation to us? God the Son entered into time when He became man that He might redeem us; God the Holy Spirit entered into time when He descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost. So we say that the Father, in relation to us, is the Creator, the Son the Redeemer, the Holy Spirit the Sanctifier. However, this difference of function in relation to us represents a certain difference in eternal being of the Three Divine Persons. The economic Trinity represents the essential Trinity.
We are considering in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity a truth that is not only to be acknowledged and confessed but also to be worshiped. This insight reminds us of the phrase in the Athanasian Creed, “that we worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity”. Such language stresses the fact that, when we are considering theological truth, we are not considering the kind of truth which we loosely call scientific truth that can be proved by reason and understood solely in the mind. We are considering the higher kind of truth that can only be truly apprehended by the spirit. To grasp it our reason must work with our deeper insights, for such truth must be worshiped in the spirit, as well as acknowledged in the mind, if it is to be recognised as true and so able to be sincerely confessed. Our consideration should not depict the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as a theory that throws light on a puzzling problem but as a truth that leads us to worship God in all His glory and all His power.
As we worship the Triune God, we in turn are the recipients of His Trinitarian benediction. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be, with you all” (II Cor. 13: 14). The act is itself a sermon. It is full of instructive lessons. It tells us, above all, that the revelation of the Trinity is a revelation not of an object of speculation but of a living truth.
“It recalls us, Edwin Hatch said: from metaphysics to life. It reminds us that in our world of effort and failure we need the varied help of God. It reveals to us that God, Who in His Trinity of Persons is very near to us, is near to us with a Trinity of blessings. He reveals Himself to us as a Trinity of Persons: the Eternal Father, of Whom we are the children; the Eternal Son, Who brings back to us our lost sonship; the Eternal Spirit, by Whom we and all things live, are severally close to us. Yet there are not three Gods but one God. It is a Trinity of benedictions. The love of the Father, the grace of the Son, the fellowship of the Spirit, came each of them round us and enfold us in the wings of blessing. Yet they are not three benedictions but one. The love and the grace and the fellowship are not different and apart but one and the same” (The Revd. Edwin Hatch: 1835-1889, Priest & Vice-Principal of St. Mary Hall, Oxford).
To God the Father, who first loved us and made us accepted in the Beloved; to God the Son, who loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood; to God the Holy Spirit, who sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts; to the one true God be all love and all glory, for time and for eternity. Amen. (Bishop Thomas Ken)
Canon Geoffrey E. Andow