Friday, June 24, 2022

The Most Holy Trinity

This is the transcript of my podcast for the Festival of the Most Holy Trinity.

The Festival of the Most Holy Trinity 2022

Reading: John 16:12-15

This is our last reading from St John’s Gospel for a ‘little while’! Next week, we resume our reading of St Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel we are reading in church this year, Year C of the lectionary. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says to the disciples:

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.’ (John 16:12)

We may feel the same is true for us. I certainly feel that our Lord still has much to say to us through St John’s Gospel, and I hope we will come back before too long to hear Jesus speak to us again through this Gospel.

The Farewell Discourse, which our readings for the past few weeks have been from, is challenging for us as readers. When someone has something to communicate to us, we are used to a point-by-point presentation. ‘PowerPoint’ has reinforced this expectation, and we have got used to material being laid out in a logical outline that we can follow. The Farewell Discourse, and indeed the whole of St John’s Gospel, is not like this. It is more like a musical symphony in which various themes are woven together and keep repeating. The Gospel even begins with the literary equivalent an overture in chapter one, which introduces the themes that will keep recurring throughout the Gospel. We can single out the various themes in order to try to understand them, as musicologists do to analyse and understand a musical composition, but we need to remember that they are intended to be heard and understood together, not individually, isolated from their context.

So far on the fateful evening in the Upper Room, Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet and has spoken of betrayal and denial. He has told them that he is leaving them and that they must love one another. In chapter 14, Jesus seeks to comfort the disciples who understandably are troubled by all this. Jesus speaks of how he and the Father will come and make their home in the life of the believer in the person of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus will send to them from the Father.

In chapter 15, Jesus speaks of how he is the ‘True Vine’ (John 15:1) and of the importance of the believer abiding in him and keeping his commandments. Jesus repeats that they must love one another. Jesus continues to tell them how the world will hate them, making their love for one another and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives all the more essential.

In chapter 16, Jesus responds to the disciples’ obvious distress at what he is saying to them and at him saying he is leaving them. The disciples are deeply troubled, but Jesus says:

‘Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.’ (John 16:7)

This is quite a statement! There can’t be many today who, if given the choice between either Jesus’ physical presence or that of the Holy Spirit, would choose the Holy Spirit. I imagine that even if all we were offered were a YouTube playlist of video interviews with Jesus, we would choose the playlist over the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, however, is adamant that it is better for his disciples that he goes away, because if he doesn’t, the ‘Paraclete’ won’t come. As I said in the sermon for Pentecost 2022, we still don’t understand and appreciate just how important the Holy Spirit is.

No wonder, then, that Jesus says that he has many things to say to his disciples, but that they can’t bear them at this time. It is a lot for us to take in, and we have had a lot of time to do so! How much harder, then, for the disciples after a Meal in such an emotional environment. All, however, is not lost. Jesus says to them:

‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.’ (John 16:13)

The question is, of course, what has this to do with our celebration of the Festival of the Most Holy Trinity? Jesus continues in our reading to explain how the Holy Spirt will take what is his and declare it to them. All that the Father has is his, so what the Spirit will declare to the disciples is ultimately from the Father himself. As Jesus has emphasized, and will continue to emphasize in chapter 17, Jesus and the Father are one. What belongs to the Father also belongs to Jesus. What the Spirit declares to the disciples is from Jesus.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit belong to each other and belong together. They are inseparable. St John’s Gospel is thoroughly ‘Trinitarian’. But not just St John’s Gospel. The language of the New Testament is consistently ‘Trinitarian’. This can be seen, for example, from even a superficial reading of St Paul’s letters. St Paul, for example, closes what we know as his second letter to the Corinthians by writing:

‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ (2 Corinthians 13:13)

St Paul does this as if it is the most natural thing for him to do. We now use this greeting as a prayer, and it is known as ‘the Grace’. We will say it quite casually at the end of a meeting without giving it a moment’s thought, but it is really quite staggering. It was understanding and making sense of statements and language like this that was to pose a real challenge to the Church in the years after the death of the apostles and which was to cause much controversy and division.

The problem, to put it simply, was that the first believers were all good Jews and, as good Jews, they believed that the Lord their God was one. But if that was the case how could Jesus also be divine and where did the Holy Spirit fit in? Eventually the Church came up with an answer, but the answer the Church came up with took some 300 years to arrive at, and it was only arrived at after much argument and debate.

On Trinity Sunday each year, we celebrate the answer the Church came up with. That answer is that God is three persons in one God; one God in three persons. Most of us know the formula; not many of us understand it! So, what are we to say about the Holy Trinity on the festival that celebrates the Most Holy Trinity?

1. The Spirit of truth leads us into all the truth

Jesus said that the Spirit of truth would lead his disciples into all the truth, but, truth be told, we are not too concerned about truth, not at least when it comes to God. If we are honest, even as believers, not many of us particularly care about the sort of issues that have occupied believers in the past. We leave these to those who take an interest in such things. We don’t see the relevance of them to our own lives, and it is our own lives, above all else, that we are focused on.

It has, then, become common practice, even among theologians and clergy, to criticize the early Church Fathers, who wrestled so hard and for so long with this question of the nature of God. Instead of receiving our praise and gratitude for their labours, They now stand accused of complicating things unnecessarily and of importing alien concepts drawn from Greek philosophy into the Church’s theology.

The Fathers, for their part, would not have understood this accusation against them. As far as they were concerned, God is ‘the One in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). St John, in the book of Revelation, quotes Jesus as saying of himself that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). This makes the truth about God fundamental to all truth. Of course, it is not going to be easy for us mere mortals to understand the truth about God, even in a limited way, and, if we are merely to begin to do so, then we should use whatever intellectual tools are at our disposal. After all, all truth is God’s truth.

The way the early Church Fathers worked is not unlike the way scientists work today. Scientists study the data of the physical world to understand the physical universe in which we live. The data is all there; the challenge is to understand it and to make sense of it. We value the work of scientists even when we don’t understand it ourselves and when we can’t see the immediate relevance of it to our lives.

We all know, for example, Einstein’s famous theory of relativity, E=mc2. On the face of it, it is surprisingly simple, but I doubt if most of us could explain it, even in general terms. I remember one year, when I was working at a College in England, inviting Professor Russell Stannard, who was a Professor in Nuclear Physics, to speak at our College Christmas Carol Service. Afterwards, over a meal, Russell said to me how he thought that you could not teach the theory of relativity to adults. You needed, he said, to be a child to understand it. It was for this reason, he said, that he wrote children’s books, seeking to explain Einstein and his theory to young children while there was still hope. There was more to Jesus’ words about the need to become a little child if we are to enter the Kingdom of heaven than we sometimes imagine (Matthew 18:1-5)!

Interestingly, Einstein’s theory of relativity may have solved one scientific problem, it has, however, led to others. Physicists are now working on how Einstein’s theory of relativity fits with quantum theory. The problem has been stated simply as this:

‘Although both quantum theory and relativity theories work extremely well in explaining the universe at the quantum and cosmic level respectively, the theories themselves are fundamentally incompatible and hence the search for unification theories.’ (K Lee Lerner,

In other words, scientists are searching for a ‘grand unified theory of everything’, that is, a theory that will encompass the fundamental forces of nature and bring together two types of theory both of which seem to be true, but which are in apparent conflict with each other. There is perhaps an irony that their quest has distinct similarities with that of the early Church Fathers! It is highly specialized work requiring metaphysical as well as physical reasoning. It is beyond the mental ability of most of us, but I don’t know many who think that it is work not worth doing. We think that attempting to understand the universe is a noble and worthwhile task.

Theology, the study of God, also used to be thought of as a noble and worthwhile task. Theology has been described in the past as the ‘Queen of Sciences’. The first universities were places that had the study of God at the heart of the academic enterprise. We today may think that the early church theologians created unnecessary problems for themselves and that, rather than worrying about philosophical and doctrinal questions, they should have concentrated on the simple teaching of Jesus. They, however, believed they were being faithful to Jesus by seeking answers to these fundamental questions about God. What those who urge us to focus on the ‘simple teaching of Jesus’ actually mean when they talk about the ‘simple teaching of Jesus’ is the teaching of Jesus after they have removed all the parts they don’t like. In fact, it was Jesus’ teaching about himself and the work his Father had sent him to do that gave rise to the questions that the Fathers of the Church were so occupied with and which many in the Church today are so dismissive of.

If the nature of the physical universe is such that even the best brains in our world struggle to understand it, it is unlikely that the God who created the universe is going to be easy to understand! But we need to ask ourselves, what is more important: understanding the creation or the God who created it? Our fascination with the physical world and our rejection of the One who made it is just one more symptom of our idolatry.

The irony, as St Paul writes in the first chapter of his letter to the Church at Rome, is that from the beginning of creation God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature’ are clearly to be understood and seen through the things that God has made (Romans 1:20). The problem is that we as humans did not want to see God’s eternal power and divine nature, and refused to honour God or to give thanks to him for our existence. The consequence of humanity’s rejection of God, St Paul writes, is that:

‘… they [that is, humans] became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’ (Romans 1:21-22)

We like, as humans, to think we are so clever and advanced, but our rejection of God that we see as evidence of our insight and cleverness is, in fact, proof of our ignorance and stupidity. Our society believes in the myth of human progress, that is, that the human race is continually getting wiser and more advanced. St Paul rejects this idea seeing humanity as falling into ignorance not progressing in knowledge.

It is because our ‘senseless minds have been darkened’ and because we have become ‘futile in our thinking’, a futility which shows itself in our preoccupation with ourselves and the physical world, that God has to reveal himself to us if we are to come to know him. This he has done in Christ, the Word become flesh, but even this revelation of himself is not enough.

We cannot come to Christ unless the Father draws us (John 6:44) and when we come to Christ, who is the Truth (John 14:6), we can only understand what he has to say to us if the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, leads us into all the truth. God must reveal God, and this he does by the Holy Spirit working through those who are willing to respond in faith by opening their hearts and minds to him.

The Fathers got it right. There is nothing and no-one more important than God, and there is no higher study than the study of God.

2. Knowing God leads to wanting to know more about God

It took some of the world’s greatest intellects over 300 years to come up with what we now know as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The obvious question then is, What hope is there for us as we seek to know more about God?

We need to remember that knowing about God comes out of knowing God and understanding about God comes from a relationship with God. Our knowledge of God is not based on our own spiritual and mental effort, but on God’s revelation of himself. As I have said, God has to reveal himself to us if we are to know anything about him. When Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, says to Jesus that if Jesus shows them the Father they will be satisfied, Jesus replies:

‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.’ (John 14:9-10)

Jesus speaks of how he will reveal himself to those who love him and keep his commandments (John 14:21). He tells them how the Father and Son will come and live with the believer (John 14:23). He promises that the Holy Spirit will teach them everything they need to know and will remind them of all that Jesus has said to them (John 14:26).

The promise that the Spirit of truth will lead us into all the truth is a promise to each of us individually, as well as a promise to the Church corporately. I said in my sermon for Pentecost 2022 that our experience of the Holy Spirit should be ‘conscious, direct, and emotional’. It is, in other words, one that is real and one that leads to a relationship with God in Jesus. Having met God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit, we will want to know more about him. If we don’t, there is something wrong.

For example, when a couple fall in love, it is both an exciting and an emotional experience. But if it is more than a passing infatuation, then the couple will want to spend time with each other and get to know each other. As their relationship deepens, they will want to share their lives with each other and make their home with each other.

Our experience of God, which is an experience of love, for God is love, will lead to us wanting to know more about God. This will, in turn, lead to us loving God more. Too many know about God without knowing God. Too many, having come to know God, stop there, and don’t go on to know more about God. The New Testament writers urge us to grow in the knowledge and love of God (2 Peter 3:18; Philippians 1:9).

Believers tend to divide into those who emphasize the emotional and those who emphasize the intellectual dimensions of the spiritual life. It is unlikely that many would be more emotional in their relationship with God than St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). St Catherine unashamedly talks of God as her lover and of being married to Christ. Yet she longed to know more about the God she loved and experienced. In her great book, The Dialogue, she writes of the questions she asked God in order to get to know more about him and of the answers he gives. St Catherine is a doctor of the Church, the highest position a theologian and teacher of the faith can have in the Church.

A story is told about the thirteenth century saint, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). St Thomas wrote extensively of God and what can be known about him. St Thomas’ greatest work, the Summa Theologica is in several volumes, and has been massively influential. St Thomas is often regarded as the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and one of the greatest theologians of all time. He is himself a doctor of the Church.

One day a Dominican friar named Brother Dominic of Caserta, a sacristan, secretly observed St Thomas Aquinas in tears before the crucifix in the chapel where he was praying. The voice of Christ from the crucifix called out, ‘You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you receive from me for your labour?’

So, what did St Thomas ask?

Domine, non nisi Te—that is, ‘Lord, nothing except you.’

St Catherine and St Thomas both knew that if our experience of the Spirit is real, it will lead to an intense desire to find out all we can about the God we have encountered, not out of mere intellectual curiosity, but out of a longing to know him and love him more.

3. To know him is to worship him

Knowing God will lead us to want to know more about God, but, if genuine, knowing God will lead us above all else to worship him.

We are, however, very resistant to worshipping God. St Paul tells us that it was our rejection of God as humans that was the beginning of our downfall. But our rejection of God didn’t lead to us worshipping nothing, it led to us looking around for other things to worship that were more congenial to us. Not only do we all need someone to love, we also all need someone, or something, to worship.

At first, this was images of animals and even of other people, but of late we have asked ourselves whether the one we should be worshipping is ourself. We know that worshipping images of animals and humans is foolish, but instead of seeking to worship the one true God, we have turned in on ourselves. Even so, we can’t quite let go of the idea that we are not alone in this world. Surely, we ask, there is more to life than what can be experienced through the senses?

We are, however, only interested if the something benefits us directly. So, we talk about the Universe having a plan for our lives or we even look to astrology to see if our future lies in the stars. Anything, it seems, no matter how absurd, to avoid turning our attention from ourselves to worshipping the one true God.

God, however, is to be worshipped not for what he can give us or for what he can do for us, he is to be worshipped solely for who he is. This is why coming to know God for ourselves is so important. St Paul, when he was asked to address the people of Athens gathered on Mars Hill to hear him, said to them:

‘… as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:23)

Our worship of God as believers is not of an unknown, distant being, nor even of the one who can be known as our creator and sustainer, but of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who reveals himself to us in Christ and who is proclaimed in the Gospel by the power of the Spirit. He is not an unknown god that we worship from a distance, but the One we meet personally in Christ by the Spirit.

Those who talk about what they like and don’t like in worship and who evaluate worship on the basis of what they get out of it are totally missing the point. Those, for example, who long for the return to traditional forms of worship and those who want a more contemporary style are in fact arguing for the same thing, even though they don’t realize it. Both make worship about what appeals to them. Whether it’s listening to Anglican chant sung by a robed choir or joining in worship songs sung by a band, often what matters to us is whether it is what we want and enjoy.

Jesus, however, said to the woman at the well in Samaria:

‘But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (John 4:23-24)

True worship is about God from beginning to end, regardless of what we feel, think, or like. The most important question to ask about worship is whether it is centred on God. If it isn’t, then it isn’t the worship that God wants, whatever form it may or may not take.

Trinity Sunday challenges us to look beyond ourselves to the ‘one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all’ (Ephesians 4:6) and who makes himself known to those who have faith in Christ by his Spirit. St Catherine and St Thomas knew that there was nothing worth having more than Christ himself, for in Christ we meet the Father and by the Spirit become one with him and with the Father.

May we acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the divine majesty worship the Unity.

We worship one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


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