Trinity Sunday – Year C
Traditionally people are rather scared to preach on Trinity Sunday – quite rightly!
They are concerned about getting involved in intractable metaphysical arguments, full of theological elephant traps.
This is not surprising because in the Doctrine of the Trinity we are seeking to reconcile One God in Three Persons – each distinct and yet united. The principal issue in this reconciliation is the person of Christ who must be at once human and yet divine. Not easy.
Mindful of the need to understand this better, I bought a book a few years ago, “Heresies and how to avoid them” Edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward which provides a good introduction to the field – rather alarmingly I found each heresy had an interesting perspective on this issue, some were really quite attractive but all of them added something to my understanding of God.
The principal heretical solution to the problem of Christ’s simultaneous humanity and divinity was Arianism. Arius was a Christian who lived at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th Century who asserted that Jesus was created by God and therefore not God. More radical formulations might say Jesus was a special man but not God. Reacting to Arius makes you think about what difference it makes that Jesus was not just a man but actually a part of God – that God was giving up a part of himself to suffer and die for us.
The reciprocal heresy is Docetism – the heresy that Jesus is God but only takes on human appearance, a pretend human. This heresy was widespread in early Christianity and finds its way even into famous hymns: on Christmas Day we sing “Hark the herald angels sing … Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity”. Strictly the Godhead is not “veiled in flesh”, it is in the flesh and of the flesh. Docetism demonstrates how important it is that God is one of us and one with us in Christ – not appearing to suffer but suffering for real.
And there are others which you can look up Nestorianism (Christ is part God, part man), Eutychianism (Christ is neither man nor God but something else, a “tertium quid”) Adoptionism (that Christ started as man and became God at his baptism) and so on.
Are you getting confused?
Then you are in good company with the Disciples: the reading from John’s Gospel which we have just heard ends “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” – perhaps Jesus would have included how to reconcile the one God with his three Persons had the disciples been able to bear it.
But instead the doctrine of the Trinity is not mentioned by Jesus, in fact it is not explicitly referred to in the bible at all. So where does this come from, this idea of the Trinity?
Well there are references in the Bible to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit acting in parallel, as if the same person, specially in St Paul.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” [1 Cor 12:4].
There is even the story depicted in Rublev’s “Trinity” icon which tells of three divine visitors coming to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18,1-15). Both the story and the icon have been seen as a representation of the Holy Trinity.
While reflection by early Christians on passages such as the Great Commission in Matthew:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”[Matt 28:19]
and Paul’s special form of blessing:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,”[2 Cor. 13:14]
led them to need to reconcile these three persons with the monotheistic inheritance of the Old Testament : “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”[Deuteronomy 6:4]
Arguments over these matters were documented in the various Creeds. The early “Apostles’ Creed”, which we shall use this morning, mentions “God the Father”, “Jesus Christ his only son our Lord” and “The Holy Ghost” but does not attempt to bring them together into one. That was not achieved until the council of Nicea in 325 AD which published the creed which we still use in our services of Holy Communion (albeit a slightly later version from the Council of Constantinople in 381.)
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father …
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. ”
These problems led John Donne (someone with whom I feel some affinity) to describe the doctrine of the Trinity as “Bones to philosophy, but milk to faith,” [J. Donne, A Litany IV]
What is that faith that the Trinity is milk to?
The heart of the trinity is that God is love, love in three persons.
In our reading from Romans we hear how God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
The “Spirit of Truth” (referred to repeatedly in the final discourse of John’s Gospel) tells us that we are loved by God, just as Jesus had told us we were loved by God.
God is love in three persons:
God the father – creator, maker, foundation, essence of all things – the loving power of creation
God the son – friend, companion, healer, sacrificing himself for others
God the holy spirit – inspirational, transcendent, our medium for the knowledge of God the Father and of his Son – the spirit of truth
At various times we may each have our own favourite or more accessible person of God. This morning I experienced an insight into what it is like to be God, to love in three ways
At 2 am I received a phone call. It was my son calling and as parents will know the only reason you get a call from a teenage boy at 2am in the morning is because he is in trouble.
My being his father put me in a relationship with him – of care and concern but also of discipline and authority – he was looking for guidance and forgiveness.
His being my son meant that I now shared his suffering – his worries were my worries
Finally, in some sense like the Holy Spirit – as a disembodied voice on the telephone, I believe I was able to offer him comfort, a message of love and support – to give him hope.
Knowledge that God is there for us and that God is love, is what gives us hope
Hope which comes to us from our experience of our relationship with God through the loving act of his creation
Hope which comes to us from the loving witness and self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our friend and fellow traveller in life
Hope which comes to us from the knowledge of God not by a mobile phone but through the special medium of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth
The Holy Spirit which proceeds from the Father and the Son, which speaks to us, strengthens us, emboldens us and inspires us
Bones to philosophy
But Milk to faith
Sermon given by Chris Hancock at St. Andrew’s Box Hill, 26th May, 2013