A Sermon for Trinity Sunday
Anthony G. Cirilla
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I was raised hearing that the Trinity was a mystery that Christians had to believe in. I was also taught that it was a biblical doctrine. I never really had much trouble believing that aspects of God would be mysterious to us. I mean, just think about how much we don’t know. Even when it comes to the total of what humans do know, we have still ourselves each only encountered a small fraction of the vast quantity of information available out there. In our short lives we will only know a small part of all of the human-gathered knowledge. And all available knowledge is itself limited. Think of how much science has progressed only recently! There is so much mystery out there in realms of this physical world that we haven’t reached. All of that mysterious world, of which we have grasped so little, was made by God. So God, who authored the entire matrix of all things that puzzle and confuse us about this world, had better be mysterious. If you are worshiping a God you can fully understand, I would argue you’re not worshiping God. Anselm said God was the greatest good that can be conceived – and that his goodness is greater than can be conceived. The Bible tells us this too. In Isaiah 55:8-9, the Lord declares, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” So take it as a comfort: if you are troubled by the fact that the Trinity is mysterious, I would argue that this is actually a profound piece of evidence that you’re actually seeking God. He has to be as mysterious as the world he created, and he has to be more mysterious than that because he has the powers of creation. It just follows logically that any account of the Creator will be surprising, and the Trinity is quite a surprise. It was a surprise even for the Jews, who were God’s chosen people.
For a long time, though, I struggled with the Trinity. That was partly because I didn’t understand the concept, but it was also because I couldn’t see the evidence in Scripture. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the Bible verses related to the Trinity, but hadn’t been given a persuasive explanation of how the verses taught the Trinity. When I was younger, I encountered an argument against the Trinity which claimed to be based in Scripture, and those who promoted this teaching denied the full divinity of Christ and they also denied the Personhood of the Holy Spirit. And they had explanations as well for any Bible verse you could think of that the verse in question was not in fact teaching the Trinity. Because I was confused by the Trinity and had not been given a sound foundation in how to answer these arguments, for a time I was lost, confused, and without a church home as a result. Ironically, when the grace of God brought me back to historical faith, the name of the church he brought me to was Holy Trinity Anglican Church. But before that, when a false teacher came with a skewed interpretation of Scripture, I wasn’t prepared to give an answer for my faith, and it harmed me spiritually. So as Christians we need to know the Bible deeply, because we need to be on guard against those who may know the Bible well but may have an interpretation which distorts the full presentation of Scripture.
Of course, Scripture is complicated and some guidance in reliable interpretation of it is profoundly helpful. This is why the Church has developed the Creeds – particularly the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. As Anglicans, we use the Creeds, the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles, and the Book of Homilies to summarize the best, traditional, most universal interpretations of Scripture that have been tested by the generations of the best readers of the Bible throughout the centuries. In fact, that is what the word catholic means in a Christian context – the word catholic means universal, and as Christians we strive to take the most universally received interpretation of Scripture found among those writers who established the process of reading Scripture. We don’t accept every idea that comes out of tradition because tradition is imperfect and only Scripture is the perfect revealed word of God, but we do have humility in our effort to interpret Scripture because it is so important to Christian life to consider the wisdom which the Church has provided when approaching Holy Writ. And so through these documents, the Creeds and the Articles, we express our assent to the best informed explanations of the Bible that can be found in the early church. In that sense, one of the most universal, Catholic, essential teachings of Scripture is that God is One God, and Three Persons. God is a perfect unity of three – a tri-unity, which is where we get the word Trinity. So what I am going to do today is present from the Bible this truth: that God is One, that the Father is God, that the Son is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God, and knowing this perfects our intimacy with our Creator.
God is One: Deuteronomy 6:4 reads, “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” Christ reiterates this truth in Mark 12:29: ” ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord.” The fact that God is One is a truth of incredible benefit both psychologically and morally. From a psychological point of view, to live in a polytheistic world is distressing because we don’t know what standards to live by. As Plato pointed out long ago, to live in a world of many gods is to live in a world of confused standards, because those so-called Gods do not agree with themselves. One god says to kill, another says to be peaceful. One god says to be faithful to your spouse and another celebrates promiscuity. What’s the truth in that system? Now, today the danger of literal polytheism is less than it used to be. But Christ made it clear that the problem of idolatry as a sin in the human heart doesn’t just go away when he warned us that we can’t serve both God and Mammon. The fact is, idolatry shows up in our hearts when we have loves in our lives which compete with the first and greatest love, the love we owe to God with our whole heart, soul and mind. When love of money, or reputation, or influence, or any of the gifts of this life which come from God become a rival to our love for God, we become divided in our souls. Our minds become confused, agitated, and stressed, because we don’t keep our eyes trained on the singular, unified light that is God’s love. We don’t love our neighbors properly when we don’t love God more than other goods because we start to see other people as an obstacle to the things we want instead of fellow bearers of the image of the oneness of God. Listen to the words of Paul in Ephesians 4, who brings home the incredible benefit to not only us as individuals but to the Christian community when we center our hearts around the Oneness of God: “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Now, in His complete oneness, the three persons of the Triune God also have what the illuminating theologian Augustine called missions, or purposes in respect to Creation. So we should see first the Scriptural basis for the divinity of each Person of the Trinity, and how they, in total unity with one another, work to lead us into God’s love.
The Father is God: We see a picture of the divinity of the Father in today’s epistle lesson. “a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.” From Revelation 5:6-7 we have an indication that this may be a representation of the Father specifically, because it reads, “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain… And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.” The Lamb is of course Christ, and so here we have an image of the Father and the Son interacting in their missions as distinct persons of the Trinity. What is interesting is what is written on that Scroll, which reads this way in Revelation 5:9-10: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Sometimes as Christians we tend to think of Christ as simply rescuing us from the wrath of the Father, and it is true that Christ’s sacrifice removes the penalty of wrath for sin. But that sacrifice, as it is depicted in this scene from the heavenly court, points out an important truth: the Father authorized, signed, and sealed the salvation which Christ provides. This moment in Revelation takes us deeper into John 3:16 which you know says, “For God so loved the world, that He sent his only begotten son, that whosoever shall believe in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.” The Father desired our salvation! Listen to the beautiful love the Father has for us which Paul explains in Ephesians 1: 3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” Think of a good father who goes out and works and prepares the way for his children’s needs to be met, who ensures that there is a home for his children to come back to, who takes care to nourish his children and devotes his time and his thoughts to their well being, and you have there a glimpse, an image of what love God the Father has towards us as his children. God the Father loves us and elects us for our destiny as joint-heirs with Christ.
The Son is God: In today’s Gospel Christ makes a fascinating connection between himself and the snake in the wilderness. He says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” This references an event in Numbers 21 where the Jews wandering in the desert were being killed by the venomous bites of serpents. As an act of compassion, God commanded Moses to bronze a serpent and lift it up on his staff, so that when anyone was bitten they could look at it and be healed. The bronzed serpent had been endowed with God’s power, so that gazing upon it was a conduit of bodily salvation in response to the serpent venom. Christ compares this to how the Father sent Him to be sacrificed for our sins, and when we gaze upon the work he did for us there and believe in our hearts that because of that our sins are redeemed, like the Israelites spared from serpent venom we are spared from the damnation which comes from the venom of our own sin. But the comparison also invites an important contrast. With the bronzed serpent what happened, instead of giving glory to God for using this means of grace to heal them, they began to worship it. And so it was taken away. So consider something. If Jesus is less than God, then what God has done is commanded us to continually be grateful for the sacrifice Christ made for not only our bodies but also our souls!…. Without worshiping him? Out of gratitude for their physical life being saved, the Israelites struggled not to worship a dead snake on a stick. Christ, on the other hand, is alive in his human body at the right hand of the Father, and he prepared a way for us as our high priest, and is the propitiation for our sins. Are we to not respond to Christ by worshiping him? As the snake was taken away, would Christ be taken away from us if we worship him? The answer to this question is answered by the author of the Hebrews, who tells us that God the Father has said of Christ, “But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.’” Remember the throne in heaven we mentioned when discussing God as Father? In Revelation 7:17 it says, “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters.” The Lamb is in the midst of the throne because he shares in the full authority of the Godhead. God the Father has, through God the Son, revealed His own character so that drawing nearer to Christ draws us nearer to the father. Growing up I remember hearing this phrase about a father’s son: he’s his father’s spitting image. Well, Hebrews 1:3 says something along the same lines but in more beautiful language: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” That Christ is God in the flesh, Son of God and God the Son, not only makes possible the cleansing of our sins in him but also provides in human flesh a body we can relate to. See, Scripture says that God is Spirit (John 4:24), and because we are physical beings it can be hard to relate to a Spirit. So the Second Person of the Trinity manifested God to us in the Incarnation so that, in Christ, we can fulfill both the first and second greatest commandments at once by loving God with our whole strength, heart, soul, and mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. If we are joint-heirs with Christ, then Christ is our neighbor, and if Christ is God in the flesh, then God is our neighbor. This is the beautiful intimacy with God that is made possible by the truth that Jesus Christ, Son of God, is God the Son in whom our Father is pleased and by whom can be pleased in us.
The Holy Spirit is God: In my sermon on Ascension Day, I mentioned that we can see the divinity of the Holy Spirit in Hebrews 3, where the Holy Spirit identifies Himself with God by saying, “That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.” The Holy Spirit claims the just ways of the fulfillment of the Law with His own will. We see how the Holy Spirit is associated with the Throne of God in today’s epistle reading, where it says, “there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.” One commentator explains that ‘The Spirit of God in His manifold powers is thus described under emblems of fire,” so the seven lamps represent seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, possibly those enumerated in Isaiah 11:2: “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord. And his delight will be in the fear of the Lord.” Wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of the Lord and delight in Him are here seven spiritual blessings of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist said Christ would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and as we saw with Pentecost the Holy Spirit manifested in the image of fire as well. The Holy Spirit’s fire of wisdom burns away our folly, his understanding burns away our confusion, his counsel burns away our concerns, his might burns away our weakness, his knowledge burns away our ignorance. The Holy Spirit’s fire uses fear of the Lord to burn away fear of men and to light a fire of delight and joy in desiring God. Our Gospel lesson today teaches that the Holy Spirit is the means by which we are born into the Kingdom of God, and the lamps of fire symbolize that it is by the Holy Spirit that we can live out and grow in the godliness which the Father wants for us. God the Holy Spirit works in us the regeneration from our sins by means of the sacrifice of God the Son, to put into action the plan of God the Father which from before all worlds he designed to bring us to salvation.
Today we have seen that God is One, that the Father is God, that the Son is God, that the Holy Spirit is God, and that through Scripture these three distinct persons can be proved to be one God. But though it is assuredly biblical, the doctrine of the Trinity still perplexes us because it is a spiritual truth and we still see the world through a glass darkly, our vision clouded by the world, the flesh, and the devil. But if we seek God, relying on the redeeming blood of Christ and the sanctifying fire of the Holy Ghost in order to delight in the throne of the Father, then one day we will stand before the throne that flashes lightning and the light will break out before us and we will see the full unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost manifested there, and seeing the fullness of that glory we will laugh at the thought that once we could not understand. In this life, to reference something CS Lewis said of Christ himself, the mystery of the Trinity is somewhat like the sun – it’s hard to look at it directly, but because it’s there it keeps us in the light, keeps us warm, keeps our whole world going. In the light, warmth, and strength of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we can say now as we will more perfectly say then, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure we are, and were created.” Amen.