It is not uncommon on Trinity Sunday to duck this most difficult area of Christian doctrine – but I will do my best to explore this mystery – of how three things, three persons, can be one – without in any way trying to remove its mysteriousness.
By way of preamble, I was taught in pre-ordination training, that all talk about God (i.e. all theology) is necessarily provisional, because it is in the nature of God that God can never be fully known or comprehended by the human imagination
But what can we say?
Well in terms of the bible especially in John’s Gospel and the writings of St Paul we have a linear depiction of the Trinity
God sends Jesus who sends the Holy Spirit
“As the father has sent me so I am sending you. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Jn 20:21)
At the meeting with Nicodemos described in our Gospel reading, Jesus tells how we too can become involved in this story of special relationship with God – Jesus says:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
‘Water and spirit’ – Ie through Baptism – through following in the footsteps of Christ
Notice how at Baptism we have all three persons of the Trinity present – Jesus, the Holy Spirit like a dove and the voice of God
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:16-17)
How is this possible? Three in one – simultaneously
There are several models which can help to explain this
First, the three states of matter – water is still water when it is Water, when it is Ice and when it is water vapour (steam).
Surely this is a good model of how the Trinity works?
In fact this is a heresy (Modalism). It misses out the important point that God is not the same as Man nor yet the same as the Spirit
Moreover, it is important that Jesus has not just the appearance of a man – that God actually was Man.
So, if it is important that there is difference between God and Man and Spirit how about three different things united in one thing.
Like in a Mars Bar – the exterior chocolate and the interior nougat and caramel
Alas, this is also heretical as it suggests that the three are in some way separate – it separates God from Christ and from the spirit – this is the heresy of Tritheism
But it is important that it was not just the human part of God that suffered with us – lifted up like the snake in the desert
That God did die on the cross and man did rise from the dead
All models of the trinity end up being heretical because they don’t quite express the truth as described in Christian Doctrine which places the Trinity in a paradox. And that is a good sign as we find that God operates at the level of paradox and so ‘passeth all understanding’.
There is another model in this vein which I think takes us in interesting direction.
That actually we take God and Jesus and the Holy spirit into ourselves and they are mixed in us at the Eucharist
The Eucharistic elements mirror the Trinity
Bread – wine – water
Father – son – holy spirit
These three come together when mixed in us in holy communion.
So we can say that the Trinity is brought together and made especially present in both of the key sacraments – in Baptism and in Holy Communion.
What about the other major sacraments – absolution, anointing, marriage ?
There is another model which helps with these as they are marked by making the sign of the cross
The cross itself is a model of the Trinity.
It begins with a vertical line from Heaven to Earth
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
There is a great irony here of a man being lifted up to die who himself came down from heaven.
At the last, on the cross, the elements of the Trinity – body, blood and spirit are combined:
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28-30)
There is even the addition of sour wine to complete the Eucharistic parallel
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3:16-17)
The father the Son and the Holy Spirit are joined together on the cross – in suffering
And that is the message that all three writers give us in our readings
The coal of Isaiah burns us – the way of the Spirit is not a way of bliss but of suffering service
Paul teaches us that the inheritance that we have with Christ through following on the way is the way of the cross is to be children of God
And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Rm 8:15-16)
So we meet God on the cross
In our suffering
And in particular in our self-sacrificial, redemptive suffering for the sake of others
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
And so when we make the sign of the cross – in blessing –in sanctifying, in simply living sacrificially – we unite all these things in our lives
And there is great power in this – when God and Man and Spirit unite
God the Father – the creator of all – the power of the rushing wind of creation (up)
Who came down to earth and became human in God the son, our Lord Jesus Christ (down) and
Who is with us always, uniting us in the power of his holy spirit which brings life and love to all (across and side to side)
Sermon given by Christopher Hancock at St Andrew’s, Box Hill on Trinity Sunday, 2018