Well, I preached my Trinity Sunday sermon at 0930 Communion at All Saints, and again at 1115 at St Denys BCP Communion. It seemed to go well both times, with two very different congregations. See what you think….but be warned, it’s the longest sermon I have ever preached at about 16 mins….
May the words I speak glorify the name of God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Jesus said “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Jesus failed to explain (or perhaps someone failed to write down) what he meant by “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. And so every Trinity Sunday, preachers try to explain what Jesus meant, and what the Trinity means for us. However, there is no reference in the Gospels to shamrocks, to triangles, to three legged tables that don’t wobble, to three states of water, and as far as I can tell, nothing about clover either.
[But Jesus explained all sorts of his parables, and even if he didn’t, the Gospel writers added explanations within the first century AD. So why (oh why oh why) didn’t Jesus deliver a nice neat sermon explaining the Doctrine of the Trinity?]
As we live our lives, we need different things from God at different times. Sometimes we may want a great and powerful creator, to whom we can give thanks for the wonderful world in which we live. Sometimes we may need a God who knows what physical pain is like, a God who heals us. Sometimes we may need a God who guides us through the perplexity of our lives. These different wants and needs lead us to talk to God in very different ways, and also to think about God differently.
When we think about a creative God, we of necessity think of a “big” God, a God outside time and space, a God who transcends everything. This God may be found for example in the Psalms – in Psalm 135 we hear
“The Lord does whatever he pleases
in heaven and earth,
in the seas and in all the deeps.
He brings up the clouds from the ends of the earth;
he makes lightning with the rain
and brings to winds out of his treasuries.”
This God is huge beyond imagining, big enough to be the creative force in our world. This is a God we approach with wonder and awe.
But when we are in pain, we need to know that God understands how we feel, that God knows what hurting feels like. This may be where we turn to a God who knows what it is to be human, who has felt physical and emotional pain, a God who has cried at the death of a friend. We hear in Luke the story of the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and just wanted to touch Jesus so she would be healed. We want a God who notices when we reach out, who will stop and turn round and be with us in our time of need. It may be that in pain we call on Jesus.
And then there are those times when we have to do something, and we are not sure that we can. We might have to give a big speech – or speak a word of care to a friend in trouble. We might be invited to pray with someone unexpectedly, or to teach a child a new skill. We might know we need certain qualities – perhaps “love joy, peace, patience, gentleness or self control”. These qualities are listed as fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 – we might well ask the Holy Spirit for guidance, as a present, active presence.
So these different ways of thinking about God are there to fulfill very human needs. But different ways of thinking about God have a long history of leading to trouble – to fighting, to schism, and at worst to martyrdom.
One way of trying to describe Christian belief and doctrine is in the words of the Creeds. These statements of faith were developed in the early centuries of Christianity, and have since had their language modernised. Some are in the form of questions and answers, like the form we use in our baptism services in the benefice – “Do you believe and trust in God the Father…? I believe and trust in him.”
At least one, the Nicene Creed, is very familiar to people at All Saints – it is the one used at Eucharist. At least two are familiar to people at St Denys – where the Nicene Creed is used at Eucharist, and the Apostles Creed is used at Matins and Evensong. One less familiar to just about all of us is the Athanasian Creed, which may be found in the Book of Common Prayer in the section “At Morning Prayer”, and which is supposed to be used at Christmas, Easter and certain other specified days.
The Athanasian Creed affirms not only faith in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, but also faith in “One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity”. And it adds “that they are not three Gods but one God” and also that “in this Trinity, none is afore or after other; none is greater or less than another.”
The language and phrasing of the Athansasian Creed may be quite difficult for the modern English speaker, and yet this particular Creed does address the question of how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are related. Not one of the Father, Son or Spirit is greater than the other. All are equal, all are eternal, all are one. And this equality and eternal nature mattered very much to the Christian church as it developed and grew.
There were those who subscribed to the Greek view of creation, that all the matter was already there, or as we might say, the atoms already existed, and that God didn’t create the atoms, God just built our world out of what was already existing. And yet the book of Genesis is clear in both creation accounts – God created the Heavens and the Earth. And Genesis was written in a world where sun, moon and stars were worshiped as being divine in their own right. The Jewish people were clear, God was divine, that which was created is not divine. There is one God, not many Gods. The early Christians, who of course began as a sect of the Jews, continued to affirm there is One God, one Divine being to be worshiped. So today our creed speaks of God the Father, “maker of Heaven and Earth. And emphasizes that everything is subordinate to God, who made all.
The arguments about who Jesus was raged even during the three years of his ministry on earth – in fact it was rows over his identity that led to his crucifixion – remember the assembly of chief priests asking Jesus “Are you the Son of God? And his reply “you say that I am” from Luke 22:70; or the slightly different account in Mark14:61-62, when the high priest asks, “Are you the Messiah” and Jesus replies “I am”; an answer which takes us straight back to God meeting Moses and telling him “I AM who I AM”.
The arguments continued on for some time – was Jesus divine? If so, could Jesus be considered to be human? And how could Father and Son both have existed for all time – surely a father exists before his son does?
The question of Jesus’ humanity and divinity was addressed by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. They were trying to resolve an issue in which Jesus had come to be regarded as neither human nor divine, but instead “half and half” – harking back to the Romano-Grecian gods who came to earth and had sons and daughters born of human mothers. The Council came up with a form of words which described Jesus as “of one substance with the Father as touching the Godhead, the same of one substance with us as touching the manhood, like us but without sin…” The bishops and theologians declared that Jesus was truly God and truly man.
You might wonder why it matters – you might feel it is all very academic and far away – but Jesus had to be fully human to suffer and to die. And he had to be fully divine to bear our sins and redeem us, to rise again. So it matters for each of us and for our salvation – and for the redemption of humankind. There’s nothing academic about that.
These Trinitarian aspects of God meet our very human needs. They are, of necessity, human ways of thinking about God – for we can only understand what God reveals to us of God in human terms – because we are only human. We don’t have language or the capacity to understand God’s full nature and substance, yet – but know that we will eventually see God face to face. In the meantime we can take our praise to God, we can take our sins to God and ask for redemption, we can offer ourselves and our actions to God and ask God to give us spiritual gifts. In doing so, we approach God in different ways. But God is God regardless of our imagining and regardless of the language we use. And we offer our praise, our thanks and our needs to the One True God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.