• Isaiah 40:12-17, 27-end (page 582)
• 2 Corinthians 13:11-end (page 944)
• Matthew 28:16-end (page 812)
For the past six months, we have been celebrating the major festivals of the Church. These mainly focus on what God has done for us in the life of our Lord and, in the case of Advent with which we began the Church’s year, on what he will do for us when Jesus comes again. Last week at Pentecost, we celebrated his giving of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given to us to empower us to tell people the good news about Jesus. As the Father sent him, so now he sends us.
Today’s festival, then, can seem like something of an after-thought, and it is not immediately obvious where it fits in. Today is Trinity Sunday, and, unusually, instead of thinking about what God has done or will do, we are thinking about who God is. It is not a popular festival. I can’t imagine that many came to Church this morning excited that we were going to be thinking about the Holy Trinity!
Part of the problem is that we simply don’t understand what is meant by the Holy Trinity. The language used to explain this doctrine of our faith is often obscure and alien to us. The concepts are hard to grasp. Its relevance to our lives is not immediately obvious. Why not, then, just concentrate on what we can understand and on those things that are useful to us in living our lives. After all, this is hard enough, but at least with the festivals we have been celebrating, we know what it is we are talking about. But the Trinity?
The Church, however, didn’t come up with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity because it loved obscure philosophical reflection. The Church, as it reflected on the life of our Lord and endeavoured to serve him in their own, found itself forced to ask questions, and it was these questions that lead the Church to its understanding of the Holy Trinity whom we celebrate and worship today.
So what were the questions?
Well, let’s try to put ourselves in the place of the first disciples. They were, remember, devout Jews who believed absolutely in the oneness of God. The words, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one,’ were part of what they prayed every day. Then when Jesus appeared, they became his disciples because they believed he was the Messiah, sent by God, whom they had been waiting for. Although Jesus turned out to be a different kind of Messiah to what they had been expecting, nevertheless after the events of Easter, they were sure that this was indeed who he was. So sure, in fact, that what began as a title, became his name. He was the Christ, whom we know now as Jesus Christ.
They had been expecting a Messiah who would deliver them from their enemies, which was precisely what Jesus did, except it turned out that the enemies he delivered them from were not the Romans and pagan oppressors, but sin, the devil, and all their works. This was the good news that Jesus gave his disciples the task of telling people.
Knowing they wouldn’t be able to do this on their own, Jesus told them he would ask the Father, and the Father would send them the Holy Spirit. The ‘Promise of the Father’ would give them the power and ability they needed; he would not only be with them, but in them, as they sought to testify to Christ. The Holy Spirit for the first believers wasn’t simply an item of faith, but an everyday experience in their lives.
As people responded to the good news of Jesus, the disciples baptized them ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, as we still do today. In their prayers, those who were baptized prayed to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as St Paul does in the prayer in our second reading, which we know as the ‘Grace’.
In teaching people about God, the Church taught that it was God who had created the world and everything in it. Jesus taught his disciples to call God, ‘Father’. The Church explained that Jesus was God’s Son, who revealed who God is and what he is like. Jesus didn’t just do this by what he taught, but in who he was. It was the Holy Spirit, who was by sent by the Father and the Son, who enabled the Church to understand all this. The Holy Spirit made it possible for believers to worship God as he should be worshipped: ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24).
The language the Church used of God and what it taught about God made it inevitable that it would at some point have to explain the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But there was another reason the Church had to try to explain their relationship, and that was because people began to come up with explanations of their own. These explanations served only to undermine what the Church taught and thought about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The biggest challenge came from what some people were saying about Jesus himself. Ironically, they weren’t saying that Jesus was just an ordinary human being like us, which is what tends to be said today, but that he only appeared to be an ordinary human being like us. Faced with this sort of teaching, the Church, firstly, asserted that Jesus indeed showed us what God was like, so that whoever had seen him had seen had seen the Father, as Jesus himself puts it in St John’s Gospel. But, secondly, he was, nevertheless, also completely and truly human just like us, only without sin.
They based much of their thinking on the words that St John famously begins his Gospel with:
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ (John 1:1-3)
He goes on to tell his readers:
‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us …’ (John 1:14)
St John is writing this, remember, about Jesus. The man from Nazareth.
The questions the leaders of the Church faced, then, and which they were forced to answer, were all to do with Jesus and just who they thought he was. The moment they said he was more than just a human Messiah, the debates, discussions, and disagreements, which resulted in their formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, became inevitable.
Was Jesus a man and just a man? Or was he a man, but not just a man? Was he something more? And if something more, then what did that something more mean for how they thought about the God whom they believed was One?
The early church fathers, the leaders of the Church who gave us our understanding of the Holy Trinity, weren’t engaging in abstract thought and argument for the fun of it. They were trying to answer very real questions that affected what they believed and how they lived. For what you believe about God doesn’t just affect how you pray and worship, it affects how you see your own life in this world.
There is always a great danger when trying to explain the Church’s faith in the Holy Trinity of getting it wrong out of a desire to make it understandable. I don’t think it is simplifying too much, however, to say that the argument eventually came down to an argument between those, on the one hand, who thought that the Son was God and had always been God and those, on the other, who thought that while Jesus could now be thought of as God, there was a time when not simply was he not God, but rather when he was not.
Some in the Church believed that like the Father, the Son had always existed, and there was never when he did not exist. Others in the Church, however, while regarding Jesus with the utmost seriousness and devotion, did not believe he was God in the way the Father was God. Indeed, some believed, the Son had only come into being because the Father had created him and brought him into being. He was thus a creature. The greatest of God’s creations, but a creation, nevertheless.
The first thing I would say about this is that it is very different to the sort of arguments that take place in the Church today. All sides in the argument in the early Church were agreed on the greatness and divinity of our Lord. There was no question about the facts of his earthly life or in what he had done for us in dying for us and rising again.
Our arguments today don’t so much concern the way in which Jesus is God, but whether he is God. We might not put it as plainly as that, but what we want most of all is not a Saviour who is divine and like God, but one who is human and like us. And we are quite happy to sacrifice his divinity to get it. It is to the credit of the early church fathers that they were not.
Secondly, those in the early Church who thought the Son of God was not fully God and that there had been a time when he was not, nearly won the day. The phrase ‘contra mundum’, against the world, was used to describe one of the fathers of the Church, Saint Athanasius. St Athanasius held out against any suggestion that there was a time when the Son did not exist. This was at great personal cost.
Eventually, however, the Church came to see that St Athanasius was right and that the only way of thinking about God that did justice to God’s own revelation of himself and of Jesus’ own teaching about himself was the doctrine that we now know as the Holy Trinity. The belief that God is three and God is one; three persons in one God, one God in three persons.
As I have suggested, many church members today can’t be bothered with all this, and they think of this belief as something of no practical use and of interest only to the theologians of the Church. This attitude, I am sorry to say, is typical of many clergy too. It contrasts greatly with how we view the work of scientists. Very few of us understand, for example, the theory of relativity or even how the devices work that we spend so much of our time using. We would never suggest, however, that understanding them is unimportant or that we shouldn’t at least try to understand how the world around us works.
Scientists reflect on the nature of the world and the physical universe in which we live. Their work and their conclusions are important. It is their understanding and the application of their discoveries that is behind most of the technology and inventions that we rely on in our daily lives.
Although the work of scientists is important, it is incomplete and inadequate because of the limitations they set themselves. Scientists deliberately limit themselves to the physical universe. As St Paul pointed out in his speech at Athens, however, it is God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Fundamental to our faith is the belief that God made us, and not just us, but everything in the physical world around us. And yet while we think it vitally important that we should study the physical world, we take the attitude that it doesn’t really matter when it comes to how we think about God.
What fools we are! What is more important, the One who created the world or the world he created? For many, including, sadly, Christians, the answer is the world he created. And that is exactly what idolatry is and why we, despite all our sophistication, are so prone to it.
If the Bible is right that God did create all that there is; that Jesus is not only the one who reveals God, but is God himself; and that our eternal well-being depends on our relationship with him, then getting right what we believe about him becomes not an exercise of philosophical reflection, but of survival. And you don’t get more practical than that.
Jesus said, when tested in the wilderness, that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; that we should not put the Lord our God to the test; and that we should worship the Lord our God and serve only him (Matthew 4:1-11). In other words that our response to God should be not one of apathy and indifference, but of dependence and worship.
The writer to the Hebrews wrote:
‘ … let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’ (Hebrews 12:28-29)
As I stand here today, beneath the Cross of Christ and in front of the altar where we will remember and proclaim his death and receive his body and his blood, my first thought is not whether I am going to catch a virus from you. I hope I don’t, and I certainly hope you don’t catch one from me. And we have various precautions in place to make sure no-one catches anything from anyone. But the purpose of all these precautions is to enable us to worship God together. And it should be worship that is uppermost in our mind.
The health crisis we are still living through has been described as unprecedented. It isn’t, of course. The world has had plagues since the world began. Before penicillin, the world lived with disease and infection as a constant reality. What is unprecedented is that in previous plagues the last thing to be cancelled were church services. The belief being that there was no more essential service than our service of God. This time, church services were often amongst the first gatherings to be cancelled.
As I have said in the introduction to each Broadcast Service during the past weeks, worship is about ‘participation not performance’. We are not called to watch worship, but to engage in it.
But here’s the thing: we have graciously turned up here this morning to worship God together, and it is good that we have. We have turned up, but has God? Why do we just assume that God will be here waiting for us to turn up when we feel like it? When St Peter saw that Jesus was no ordinary person, he said to Jesus:
‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ (Luke 5:8)
Well, what if he has departed from us? What if our Lord has got fed up with how casual we are in our attitude towards him? What if he is tired of waiting for us to take an interest in him?
The good news is that God is ‘always more ready to hear than we to pray’, but if we want our prayers to be heard, we need to start taking God seriously. And for those of us who take God seriously and want to know more about him, the Holy Trinity tells us who the God is who invites us to come to know him and whom to know is eternal life.
The last thing that Jesus spoke with his disciples about before his arrest and crucifixion was the most Holy Trinity. He told his disciples that he and the Father would come and make their home in the believer by the Holy Spirit whom he would send from the Father. Our experience of God is unambiguously Trinitarian, and if it isn’t, it isn’t an experience of God.
A frequent criticism is that all this seems a long way from the simple teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. ‘We want the teaching of Jesus without all this complicated theology,’ is something often heard and said in and out of the Church.
What those who say this mean is that we should focus on what Jesus said about being nice to one another. But Jesus said a lot else besides telling people they should be nice to one another.
The Holy Trinity may not be a simple concept to grasp, but it is part of the teaching of Jesus, and it is because it is that the Church spent so much time trying to understand it and to put it in words.
Rather, then, than criticizing them for the language they used and the way they did it, we should thank God for them and for his revelation of himself to us through them. We should pray that we may understand more so that we can worship more, and by worshipping the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, experience them more in our lives.
Today we come to the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit.
In the words of the Collect for today:
‘by the confession of a true faith,’
we ‘acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity’
‘and in the power of the divine majesty’ we ‘worship the Unity’.