Preached Trinity Sunday, June 19, 2011
St. John 3:1–15
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Just as I always begin my sermons, I have begun today by invoking the Most Holy Trinity with the words, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Perhaps we ought to pay a bit more attention to these words this morning, more than on a typical Sunday morning. Today is the feast day of the Most Holy Trinity, commonly known as Trinity Sunday. On this day we mark one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith.
If we look back into the history of the Middle East before the arrival of the Hebrews, every tribe in the area had its own multiplicity of gods. There were particularly gods for fertility and gods for victory in war. The whole area was subject to numerous pagan gods. Polytheism was the standard.
When the Hebrews arrived, they brought with them the idea of a single God, the God of Abraham. This was truly something radical and new, the very idea that a single God could be over all of creation. As Christians, we know this to be true, and the God of Abraham is also our God. Like the Jews, we too are monotheists.
As we look back over the first half of the Church year, looking back to Advent, Christmass, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Ascension, we see Jesus Christ, the true Son of God, emerging, being manifested to the world, preaching, teaching, dying and rising for the salvation of the whole world. This already sets Christianity far apart from Judaism because for the Jews, for any man to claim to be the Son of God was blasphemy.
Then yet another idea is introduced by Jesus Himself in His post resurrection appearances when He begins to speak of His going away but sending a Comforter, John 14:16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; This is the first indication of the coming of the Holy Ghost to mankind, but it is not the first mention of His presence. Recall, for example, Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. The point is that we have heard at several points of the third person of the Holy Trinity, but only with the coming of the Holy Ghost to the Church at Pentecost was this third person widely appreciated.
So now we have the have the seemingly contradictory situation of having God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, Three Persons but one God. It needs to be emphasized that there is no difference of in equality among these three Persons; none is more God than the other two, and yet Each is God. Many people recoil at this and say, “How can this be? It does not make sense!” And so it does not to our finite minds, but we must remember our limitations. It it truly a mystery, and to understand this mystery would require that we be as God, which we most certainly are not. On the other hand, a god that we could fully understand would be no god at all because he would be nothing more than a man.
Despite this complete and total equality among the Three Persons of the Godhead, there is also a sense of order within the Godhead. As we have just confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed, The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten. This implies a filial relation between the Son and the Father in which the Son takes direction from the Father. We see this time and again in Holy Scripture, when Jesus says things such as John 5:30 I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me. The Son acts as the agent of the Father while He is in His human form on earth as the Messiah, sent to bring the message of salvation to mankind. And yet we know that the Son of God does not exist only to come to earth in the Incarnation; He has existed since before time, and was active in creation, John 1:3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
Then we come to the Holy Ghost, whom the Creed tells us is of the Father and the Son, not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. You will notice that the origins of the Holy Ghost are different from that of the Son, first in that the Holy Ghost arises from both the Father and the Son (the Eastern Orthodox dispute this matter, saying the Father only), but also He proceeds, rather than being begotten. It is rather hard to say with great precision what these distinctions are, but there is some difference intended here. The most significant thing, I think, is that, in terms of Holy Order, the Holy Ghost takes direction from both the Father and the Son in order to continue the work of the Son here on earth until the Second Coming of the Son.
Our Scripture lessons for the day are both the attempts of St. John to describe God as revealed to the Apostle. The first reading is drawn from the Book of Revelation in which St. John is caught up into Heaven itself and shown a vision of Heaven itself and God Himself on His throne in Heaven. It begins with the dramatic words, Revelation 4:1-2 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 hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. 2 And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. St. John then continues on with a detailed description of what he saw in his vision, many highly symbolic images of great majesty. The exact interpretation of all of these is not an easy task, although there have been many interpreters who have put much effort into the problem. The result is an image of an incomprehensibly holy, righteous, powerful, and all knowing God in a Heaven that is peace, beauty, worship and serenity for all eternity.
The other image of God that St. John provides us is that of God in this world in the form of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. In contrast to the vision given in the Epistle lesson, this lesson in the Gospel of John is a record of an encounter between Nicodemus and the very tangible Jesus Christ Himself. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a learned man of the Jews, and he is seeking more learning, but he is seeking earthly knowledge. He balks at Jesus message that a man must be born again. He is seeking a message that he can accept logically, not a messenger that he can accept.
Earthly teachers are simply students that are more advanced than their students. Jesus is a teacher of an entirely different sort in that He comes from Heaven itself, and He is the Truth. John 3:11-12 11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. 12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? It is only when we come to recognize that Jesus is truly the Christ, the true Son of God, the Truth Incarnate, that we can begin to understand His message. He does not teach as ordinary earthly teachers do, but rather with an authority that comes straight from Heaven. This is utterly different from anything that man has experienced before or since.
We stand at this point at the middle of the Church year, looking back at the events that have shown us the major events in the life of Jesus Christ. As we look forward to the Trinity season we will be focused on the teachings of the Church for living the Christian life under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. We need to try to keep the whole Church year in perspective as we move through it, to see the interrelations between the parts.
The Most Holy Trinity is a strange doctrine in that it is not mentioned directly even once in Holy Scripture, even though there are numerous allusions to it. It is one of those ideas that the Church Fathers had to simply define because it became apparent it was hidden in Scripture, even though it was not stated. It is clearly a blessing to have this doctrine clearly stated for us as it presents a great truth about the nature of our God.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.