faithful and unchanging:
enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth,
and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love,
that we may truly worship you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Reading: John 3:1-17 (NLT)
3 There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. 2 After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”
3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again,[a] you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
4 “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”
5 Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.[b] 6 Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.[c] 7 So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You[d] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”
9 “How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked.
10 Jesus replied, “You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don’t understand these things? 11 I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. 12 But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man[e] has come down from heaven. 14 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.[f]
16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave[g] his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
Sermon by Rev’d Jo Joyce
Today is Trinity Sunday. A day where training incumbents the world over like to give the sermon to their curates to see if they stumble over any of the ancient heresies of the Trinity! Because of course trying to describe the Trinity without slipping down one of these holes is nigh on impossible, as soon as we start to use an analogy or metaphor, we are almost certainly going to end up doing this. The problem is that God is by nature mysterious, Holy and indescribable.
In Rabbinic Judaism there are seven names of God that are so holy that once written they shouldn’t be erased or spoken. I am not going to list them here as I would not like to offend any of our Jewish brothers or sisters, but in English they are translated variously to God, the Almighty, the Lord of Hosts and so on, the holy name of God that may never be spoken is translated in our bibles as LORD, in capitals. After these names there are other names that describe attributes of God, but all refer to just one God, and that of course was the distinction between ancient Judaism and the religions of all the surrounding peoples, which had many different gods for different things – think of the myths and gods of ancient Babylon, Greece, Rome, Egypt. Having one God was what made the Israelites stand out.
Christianity is no different, we believe in one God – the Lord almighty, but we understand God as three distinct persons Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Something which has been the case ever since the ancient church councils set it out in writing, and which is evident from the beliefs of the first Christians as they worshipped Jesus and were filled with the Holy Spirit.
The problem is, this is where the heresy comes in, because as soon as we start to try and describe or explain it, we can easily slip into describing something wrong. So, let’s first look at a few heresies – what the Trinity isn’t!
Modalism – this is the idea that the Trinity is not three distinct persons but three modes by which God reveals himself. Modalism teaches that God changes form over the course of time, a bit like a transformer, that God is one thing or the next. But we know from scripture that God is all three simultaneously – think of the transfiguration at Jesus’s baptism where the Spirit descends like a dove from heaven and the voice of the Almighty says ‘this is my Son.’
Arianism – is another ancient heresy. This teaches that Jesus was created by God the Father – in other words there was a time when Jesus did not exist. Yet we know from the start of John’s Gospel that in the beginning was the word (Jesus) and that the word was with God and the word was God. Jehovah’s witnesses today follow Arius in their understanding of God, Jesus is not divine and God is not known as Trinity.
Tritheism – this suggests that there are three God’s rather than one. We can slip into this if we start to see each person as distinct rather than united. This is rarely taught but easily implied, we can see it in the way we pray or act or worship if we over emphasise one of the persons of the Trinity and forget the others.
There are then, a whole load of others about the Person of Jesus Christ and how we understand his humanity and divine nature. It is to be fair a bit of a mine field!
So back to the Trinity. There are lots of analogies – God as Trinity is like a triangle or a clover leaf – all three parts are identical and linked and without the others are no longer the whole – so a triangle with two corners is just a line! But the problem is for me this is too static, none describes what we essentially know of God to be relational. Or perhaps we can think of water which can be also ice and steam, but this for me come too close to modalism, as it is rarely all three together distinctly and all of the time.
So, what are we left with? Well, we understand God as relational, so perhaps Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity is something that can help. A famous icon, it’s also known as ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’ you may remember the story where Abraham greets three mysterious strangers, taken to be angels, but often understood in the Christian context as a manifestation of the Trinity. The important thing in the picture is the relationship between the figures. The central figure has his hand in blessing, the other two point their feet to each other their gaze looks from one to the other, they are seated to create a circle, and missing from this ancient piece of religious art is the mirror originally in the centre of the piece drawing us into this relationship. Rublev was trying to draw a depiction of the Trinity that captures the dynamism and relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, three distinct yet united as one God. Both mysterious and Holy.
But what is the point of tying ourselves in knots? Does how we understand God as Trinity really matter? Well yes it does and I think relationship is the best way to describe why…
If we understand and relate to God mainly or wholly as God the Father – almighty God – the creator, awesome and unknowable – as the hymn would put it immortal, invisible, what is that relationship really like? Is it about God as an angry old man with a long white beard – irrelevant, angry, unapproachable, or a benevolent Father, a kind of Santa like figure for whom judgement and justice are frankly impossible, or a creator so awesome and remote that we cannot possibly relate to God or he to us? If we see God in this light, we deny the other persons of God and loose out a great deal on our understanding both of Jesus and of the work of God in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Ok so how about we relate to God as Jesus, surely as Christians that’s good? But again, if we relate purely to the humanity of Christ, we begin to deny his divinity, and that’s important, not just to understand, as we have heard, that he was there at creation, but that his death and resurrection transcends death, he is both God, and yet was indeed fully human – and here we have to be careful of all the heresies around how we understand Jesus – which are many! But, if my prayer life and understanding of God focusses purely on Jesus then I have of course missed so much of what the Christian understanding of who God is, and indeed how Jesus relates to God the Father during his life on earth, and the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I live in the danger of making God only human and relatable, and of forgetting the transcendence of God.
What then about the Holy Spirit? What if this is the person of the Trinity I most relate to. Well, there is danger here too. Perhaps we become too focussed on how things feel, we fail to recognise that God is present not just in the moments we find holy or spiritual, such as receiving communion or in prayer or worship, but that God is present at all times, including those moments when we least feel the presence of God. When we only relate to God in the Holy moments, we deny God with us at other times, and we heap burdens on those faithful who never feel a sense of God near and as a result wonder if they are faithful enough.
The Christian understanding of God as Trinity is heavily rooted in the bible, and in the experience of God’s faithful people throughout time. With a balanced understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit we have a balanced faith that is relatable, that sees the power of God the creator, the compassion and humanity of God the Son and the beauty and power of God the Holy Spirit at work in the world. We are relational as a Christian community and as human beings because God first was relational.
The Trinity is one of those concepts we don’t think about very much but is something that has been wrestled with by Christians down the ages as they tried to work out and explain what God was like. The creeds that we read each service are the result of that wrangling. Sometimes I think its easier that rather than talk about the Trinity, to say do you believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Because that of course is how we know, understand and experience God.
We come boldly to the throne of grace,
praying to the almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
for mercy and grace.
We plead before your throne in heaven.
Father of heaven, whose love profound
a ransom for our souls has found:
We pray for the world, created by your love,
for its nations and governments …
Extend to them your peace, pardoning love, mercy and grace.
We plead before your throne in heaven.
Almighty Son, incarnate Word,
our Prophet, Priest, Redeemer, Lord:
We pray for the Church, created for your glory,
for its ministry to reflect those works of yours …
Extend to us your salvation, growth, mercy and grace.
We plead before your throne in heaven.
Eternal Spirit, by whose breath
the soul is raised from sin and death:
We pray for families and individuals, created in your image,
for the lonely, the bereaved, the sick and the dying …
Breathe on them the breath of life
and bring them to your mercy and grace.
We plead before your throne in heaven.
Thrice holy! Father, Spirit, Son,
Mysterious Godhead, Three in One:
We pray for ourselves,
for your Church, for all whom we remember before you …
Bring us all to bow before your throne in heaven,
to receive life and pardon, mercy and grace for all eternity,
as we worship you, saying,
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest. Amen.