Sermon for St. Mary’s Anglican – by Henry Friesen, May 30, 2021
Scriptures for Trinity Sunday: Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17
Entering Into the Mystery
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
When Claude asked me to preach this morning he suggested that this Sunday is Trinity Sunday and that it is therefore a preacher’s favourite Sunday. He was laughing when he said this knowing full well that preaching about or at least trying to explain the Trinity is filled with theological land mines; a preacher is sure to say something that many theologians and students of the Bible would take issue with.
Claude assured me though that our liturgy and in particular our affirmation of faith via the Nicene Creed would make clear the correct doctrine in regard to the Trinity so that even if I wandered a little, we would be OK!
Recently I read an article in Christianity Today which gave a hearty defence of the Trinity as it is proclaimed in the Nicene Creed. The writer, Matthew Barrett took issue with some of the more contemporary descriptions of the Trinity which suggest God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are separate agents and that each has a role to play such as three different persons might have a role to play in a company or an organization. This is what he describes as a “social trinitarianism,” one which emphasizes the individuality of the persons of the Trinity and describes their functions at the expense of their very nature.
Like Barrett in the article I read, the Christian leaders who crafted the original Nicene Creed in 325 AD did so in the context of a view that they also considered to be less than Orthodox, less that what they were convinced the New Testament and Jesus described. At the time of the Church Council in Nicaea a church leader by the name of Arius proclaimed God as unique and transcendent which was not wrong except that he then argued that Jesus was somehow less than God, that because God was indivisible, Jesus could not be of the same “essence” or “substance” as God, and therefore not fully God.
You may have noticed that the Nicene Creed is so very strong on the divinity of Jesus and almost seems to overstate this when it says: “We believe in… one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all worlds; God, of God; Light, of Light; Very God, of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; Through whom all things were made…” Well the reason for this emphatic statement, this seemingly repetitive affirmation of Jesus as God, is that those who formulated the Creed had the view of Arius in their minds. It was the issue of the day and the faithful Church leaders were convinced there was a falseness to it, an emphasis that would lead to other incorrect views about Jesus. They felt it would seriously undermine the Gospel of salvation and the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They wanted to make it as clear as they could that Jesus was God, that He was and is God the Son: very God of very God.
I am going to stop there in my discussion of the Creed and its theological importance before I start getting myself entangled in a discussion that is beyond my expertise and Claude has to step in and correct what I have said.
What I want to do this morning is take us through our Lessons and highlight what they tells us about the members of the Trinity, what they say about God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit; the three persons of the trinity whose existence and presence we affirm in the Creed at each service. Having done that, I want to suggest to you this morning that we need to live with these ideas, these truths and allow them to be present in our hearts and our minds. We do not have to fully understand them or be able to completely plumb their depths in order for us to worship and adore the Trinity. Of course there is a place and a time to try to understand the doctrines of the Church more fully and in fact it can be a rich experience but this morning my goal is more modest. So let’s look at our Old Testament Lesson first.
Isaiah 6: 1-8 record the “calling of Isaiah”, the story of how it was that he came to understand what God was asking him to do. He received his calling and his commission to speak the word of God to his people through a vision in which he saw God the Lord was on a high and lofty throne and yet it was clear to Isaiah that His presence filled the whole temple. Holy beings called seraphs – angelic beings with 3 pairs of wings were singing God’s praises: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” The place was shaking. Smoke filled the house.
This to me is one picture of God the Father, the first person of the Trinity. He is holy – which means he is completely pure, separate from anything impure and he is terrifying in his power and glory. These attributes are difficult for our minds to comprehend because for one, we have seen so much through television and videos and dramas that has reduced the truly terrifying things to pictures on the screen or tricks of photography. So little seems to terrify us or make us shake in our boots because we have found explanations for them and have become highly skilled at minimizing anything that might be truly frightening.
I have a grandson who is six whose parents have not introduced him to dramatic or violent or frightening movies. He is nervous about watching anything scary on television or in a movie. He has heard of Star Wars and some of the characters who are in it but one day I played the introductory music and images that precede the actual movie and he said: “Turn it off Grandpa; I don’t want to watch that.” At the same time my daughter says that children in his age that she meets at the school have seen much more vivid and even violent movies than this and think nothing of it: their minds and hearts are quite used to some very horrific stuff that is portrayed in movies and TV shows.
Isaiah appears to be more like my grandson in that he is blown away, frightened and we could say even terrified at the presence of God in his vision. He was trembling and stuttering out his response as it were. He immediately claims his inadequacy and unworthiness and, to use a religious word, his sinfulness. This is the proper response to a holy, holy God. God then removes the guilt of Isaiah and in his words “blots out his sin.” Who can do that? Who can blot out our sin except the one whose holy commands we have broken and who has the power to forgive? This is not some counsellor who has us lying on a couch talking about our past; this is not some police officer who stands beside our car, this is not a boss who is checking up on our work. No, this is the Lord God Almighty, the creator of the universe, the Holy One at whose word the whole world can be shaken and made to tremble. This is an aspect of God that is worth reflecting on in a most serious and humble way.
The Psalmist has a similar view of God and speaks of God as one who is worthy of praise; three times he says “ascribe to the Lord” and then 6x he uses the phrase “the voice of the Lord” to describe some aspect of God’s power and glory; He is there in the thunderous movement of water and the massive forests such as are in Lebanon. He says: God “shakes the wilderness of Kadesh, he causes the oaks to whirl and strips the forest bare.”
Every now and then we have what we call a “natural disaster” or a powerful storm so that our houses tremble and our trees branches snap like twigs. Just this week we heard about a cyclone that battered the coast of West Bengal in India: homes were flattened or flooded by the torrential rains, infrastructures were battered and there was nothing anyone can do about that kind of catastrophic storm. And we think we are powerful but we aren’t. This is only a small taste of God’s power; we would do well to reflect on this too in a most serious way.
These first two lessons from this morning’s readings are from the Old Testament in which God is referred to as the creator, the sustainer, the giver of the Mosaic Law and the King over all the world. These Old Testament writers speak of God and only on occasion speak of God the Son or God the Holy Spirit which is not to say that they are not part of these actions at all, it is just the way these prophets speak about God and His essential nature. But the New Testament is very different in that there are many, many references to God the Holy Spirit and of course God the Son.
Our Epistle lesson this morning speaks about the Holy Spirit and refers to Him as the Spirit of God. The Apostle Paul writes this “all those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” He goes on to say that “when we cry ‘Abba Father!’ it is the very Spirit – that is the Holy Spirit – that bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
It is easy to slide over these familiar verses without recognizing that it is both a wonderful and incredible thing that is described here. What we have going on in our lives, in our inner person is not a bunch of feelings that jumble up at moments and then just as quickly are gone. No, Paul declares that it is possible – no it is more than possible, it is the reality that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God leads us, speaks to us and puts evidence into our very being – heart, soul and mind – that we are God’s children. Of course this activity is invisible and impossible to make a video of and share on Tik Tok or take a picture of and put on Instagram but it is no less a reality because of that. We are confronted with a foundational and yet mysterious truth; it is the Spirit of the awesome and holy God who works in us, gives us assurance that we are God’s children. This is God the Holy Spirit.
This too is a truth that we would do well to reflect on in a most serious, humble and thoughtful way.
Then in the Gospel lesson we have all three members of the Trinity. Nicodemus it seems has a sense of God the Father but not the Trinity – he recognizes that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God and that His miraculous actions prove this. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born again he basically says, “I don’t get that – obviously I can’t be born again as a human being so what are you talking about?”What Nicodemus does not understand I think comes because he has no concept of the trinity, no understanding that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are also present and active in the life of human beings.
“You need to be ‘born of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit that is,’” Jesus says to him. And in order to help Nicodemus he says “Yes this Spirit is invisible but it is like wind – you can tell there is wind because of the sound it makes as it passes through trees and around buildings even though can’t see it. This invisible Spirit is active in the life of a person and pulls them toward an understanding and a profound, spiritual encounter with God. There is a spiritual reality, a spiritual kingdom,” he tells Nicodemus “and you can only enter it if you are “born again.”
Jesus then continues and describes his own life in terms of being a necessary part of God’s work in the world and for the world. “I am God’s only Son, I am one who will be lifted up, I am the one the one whom God sent into the world and I am the one in whom everyone needs to believe in order to have eternal life.” Nicodemus is encountering ideas and concepts that are difficult to put into precise words or easily grasped by human minds.
It is true for us too as we read these words of Jesus this morning. We are up against mysteries that defy easy explanation and this is not surprising because we are not dealing with something that human beings created. These truths are of a different order as it were – the real world of God’s Holy Spirit which is understood and received and experienced via our human spirits but will always, by definition be beyond our complete understanding.
There are limits as to our understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit just as there are limits to understanding spiritual rebirth. There are limits to the explanations that learned theologians and ministers of the gospel give to the trinity after all we are not dealing with a small god or an insignificant force that we can control or manipulate or describe in a short paragraph. We are dealing with mysteries and truths about a Holy and awesome God.
At the same time it is important for us to make some kind of effort to understand these basic truths about God – our reflections, our readings, our meditations, our discussions – all these are important and helpful as it is through these that we begin to understand more about God as present in our lives as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is imperative that we be open and willing to hear and sense the Holy Spirit speaking to us; this is what will take us further into the mystery and the holiness that is the Trinity.
May God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, grant us His grace as we contemplate and reflect on His greatness and His love, Amen.