Preached May 30th, 2010
St. John 3:1–15
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We stand today at Trinity Sunday, the midpoint of the Church year, the year that began with the First Sunday of Advent late last calendar year, and will continue on until the Sunday next before Advent in late November this year. Trinitytide is a long season, some years having as many as twenty–six Sundays, usually only twenty–four, and this year there are twenty–five. I often refer to it as “the long season of green” because of the liturgical color after today.
It is appropriate that we consider from whence we have come, and toward what end we are going liturgically. Much of the structure of the Kalendar is found in the Lectionary, the sequence of readings that guide our study of the Holy Scriptures throughout the year. Thus consideration of the our path involves, at least in part, a consideration of the logic of the Lectionary.
The Lectionary that we follow has its roots in the fifth century, the period of the undivided Church. It is a comprehensive Lectionary in the sense that it provides lessons for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer for every day of the week as well as Mass lessons for all Sundays and Holy Days. This is a completely adequate set of lessons, avoiding the need for the three year lectionary cycle and enabling us to get back to the major points of doctrine every year.
During the first half of the Church year, the Lectionary has tracked closely with the events of the Kalendar. If you pause to think about it for a moment, it is evident that the first half of the Church year recounts the principal dogmas of the Church: The Incarnation at Christmass, Christ’s Sacrifice and Resurrection at Easter, the Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. The amount of time devoted to each of these is different, from a few weeks for Advent before Christmass itself, to seven weeks of Lent before Easter, down to only a single week following Pentecost. Nevertheless, these are the major points of Christian belief that have all been presented through the first half of the Church year.
But now we look ahead to the remainder of the year, beginning with today, Trinity Sunday. We are all saved people, justified and made righteous by the blood of Christ. We are going to heaven. But are we ready to appear before God, are we holy people? Do our lives reflect holiness? The Trinity season is devoted to learning to live holy lives, to preparing ourselves to meet God.
This preparation is a three part process: (1) purging our lives of uncleanness, (2) being illuminated by the light of Christ, and (3) coming to union with Christ. All of these processes are present within each of us to some degree at all times. As we grow in sanctification, there should be less of the first and more of the latter. If this is not the case, then we are not growing in sanctification. The earlier Sundays during the Trinity season tend to focus more on the first process, removing causes of obvious sin from our lives. Toward the middle of the Trinity season, the focus shifts to freeing our minds from sin as our bodies have been previously been set free; this is what is meant by illumination. As we move later in the Trinity season, we will see the focus shift more toward the idea of union with Christ. Wedding imagery is used, and we are reminded that this is not a private union but rather a gathering of all the faithful at the marriage feast of the Lamb.
So that is a peek ahead at where we are going in the rest of the Church year. But what of today, Trinity Sunday?
As mentioned previously, our whole purpose throughout this season is to prepare ourselves to see God, to meet Him when our time comes. But what are we talking about? Do we have any idea what we are saying? St. John has given us a grand, if puzzling, vision of God and Heaven itself in our Epistle lesson for today taken from the 4th Chapter of the Book of Revelation. Let us attempt to decipher St. John’s vision.
Revelation 4:1 After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up here, and I will show you things which must be hereafter. John speaks of a door being opened into heaven through which he is invited to see the future. A voice speaks to him, even the voice of Christ, that invites him to come to see through the door into Heaven itself. The voice sounds like a trumpet which brings to mind both the warnings of the giving of the Law which led to the original Pentecost and again the victory over sin and death at the Resurrection that led to the new Pentecost. The first puts man in fear of God while the second expresses God’s great love for mankind. This is the fear and love of God that we live with as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. With the coming of the Holy Ghost, God’s love for man is made evident at Pentecost, and in the Sundays after Pentecost, beginning today, we are focused on living within the law of love.
Revelation 4:2 And immediately I was in the spirit; and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. When John says that he was “immediately in the spirit,” we should understand from that there has been some interruption from his previous visions, but that now the vision is returned as it had been before. He speaks of a throne, and one sitting upon the throne. We should understand the one on the throne is God the Father. This scene has been partially described previously in Scripture in Psalms 11:4 and 103:19, Isaiah 6, and also in Daniel 7:9–10. This is the Kingdom of the God Incarnate, the King of Glory, reigning in great triumph in Heaven above.
Then John attempts to do the impossible, to describe the appearance of God the Father. For this he draws on the imagery of precious stones, gemstones that in the case of jasper can have several different forms. Jasper is variously described as the white diamond, signifying the perfect purity of God. It can be described as the green gem, in which case it signifies God’s perfect mercy, and the hope that his mercy gives to the faithful. The sardine stone is blood red and is understood to represent God’s blazing justice and righteousness. But notice that no features are described in any detail, only the purity, brilliance, perfection, and brightness of God the Father. This is rather like the description given by the Prophet Ezekiel who said, “I saw … as it were the appearance of fire.”
The throne is the symbol of God’s power and authority, the fact that He is ruler over all things. The presence of God on the throne speaks of the coming Judgment, and this combined with His properties of justice and righteousness are a frightening prospect. But then immediately over the throne there is the rainbow of the covenant, the covenant God made with man long before, and the color of the rainbow is green representing mercy, in contrast to the fiery red that represent justice. We read also in Revelation 4:5b and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. These seven lamps are the image of the Holy Ghost, not to imply that there is more than one, but rather that the seven together represent the Holy Ghost. They are seven in number representing the Seven Gifts of the Spirit taken from Isaiah 11:2, to wit, Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Fortitude, Piety, and the Fear of the Lord.
But where is God the Son, the Christ, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity in this vision of the whole glory of God? We know He is present because John hears Him speak, but where is He? Recall the words of John 10:30 I and my Father are one. and again John 14:11a Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: Jesus is indeed seated at the right hand of the Father on the throne of glory, united with the Father.
Of the “four living creatures” as described by John, we can only say similar creatures have been described in the first chapter of Ezekiel. There is much debate about exactly who or what they are, but the key point for us lies in the fact that they are creatures, they are a part of the created order, and not a part of the Godhead at all. No doubt they play some significant role in Heaven, and there are many strongly expressed opinions available about what that role is, but they are a part of creation. Exactly the same things may be said about the twenty four elders with gold crowns who sit on lesser thrones, surrounding the throne of God. They fall down before the throne of God, casting their golden crowns before God’s throne in adoration suggesting that these are the redeemed of creation, the Church of both the Old and the New Testaments. In this they continue the work of Christ in glorifying the Father by virtue of having been saved through His blood and received the crowns of righteousness.
The words “Holy Trinity” or anything similar do not appear in Holy Scripture, and yet the idea of the Trinity is clearly evident to most folks when reading the Bible. On the other hand, it confuses people at times to think of One God in Three Persons; they want to think of that as being three gods, but that is not the case at all. The unity that is evident in the Holy Trinity makes it clear that there is only One God; if there were three gods, there would be some sort of conflict or competition between them. This cannot possibly occur within the Holy Trinity. Many words have been written attempting to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Rather than add to them, I ask that you join with me in reciting the classic explication of this mystery, the Athanasian Creed:
WHOSOEVER would be saved : needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholick Faith.
2 Which Faith except a man keep whole and undefiled : without doubt he will perish eternally.
3 Now the Catholick Faith is this : that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity;
4 Neither confusing the Persons : nor dividing the substance.
5 For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son : another of the Holy Ghost;
6 But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one : the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.
7 Such as the Father is, such is the Son : and such is the Holy Ghost.
8 The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated : the Holy Ghost uncreated;
9 The Father infinite, the Son infinite : the Holy Ghost infinite;
10 The Father eternal, the Son eternal : the Holy Ghost eternal.
11 And yet there are not three eternals : but one eternal
12 As also there are not three uncreated, nor three infinites : but one infinite, and one uncreated.
13 So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty : the Holy Ghost almighty;
14 And yet there are not three almighties : but one almighty.
15 So the Father is God, the Son God : the Holy Ghost God;
16 And yet there are not three Gods : but one God.
17 So the Father is Lord, the Son Lord : the Holy Ghost Lord;
18 And yet there are not three Lords : but one Lord.
19 For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity : to confess each Person by himself to be both God and Lord;
20 So are we forbidden by the Catholick religion : to speak of three Gods or three Lords.
21 The Father is made of none : nor created, nor begotten.
22 The Son is of the Father alone : not made, nor created, but begotten.
23 The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son : not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
24 There is therefore one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons : one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
25 And in this Trinity there is no before or after : no greater or less;
26 But all three Persons are co-eternal together : and co-equal.
27 So that in all ways, as is aforesaid : both the Trinity is to be worshipped in Unity, and the Unity in Trinity.
28 He therefore that would be saved let him thus think of the Trinity.
29 FURTHERMORE it is necessary to eternal salvation : that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
30 Now the right faith is that we believe and confess : that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and man.
31 He is God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds : and he is man, of the substance of his Mother, born in the world;
32 Perfect God : perfect man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting;
33 Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead : less than the Father as touching his manhood.
34 Who although he be God and man : yet he is not two, but is one Christ ;
35 One however, not by conversion of Godhead into flesh : but by taking manhood into God;
36 One altogether : not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
37 For as reasoning soul and flesh is one man : so God and man is one Christ;
38 Who suffered for our salvation : descended into hell, rose again from the dead;
39 Ascended into heaven, sat down at the right hand of the Father : from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
40 At whose coming all men must rise again with their bodies : : and shall give account for their own deeds.
41 And they that have done good will go into life eternal : they that have done evil into eternal fire.
42 THIS is the Catholick Faith : which except a man do faithfully and steadfastly believe, he cannot be saved.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end. Amen.