Today is called Trinity Sunday! It says so right on our Hymns Board! And on our Lectionaries! I will not claim to be an expert on this topic of the Trinity, one of the toughest items to explain about our Christian faith. There has been so much written about this by “experts”, that I’ll be using some of their thoughts in this sermon. I hope this talk will be helpful in thinking about what the Trinity and today’s readings mean to us.
In the readings leading up to last Sunday we heard all about the Spirit of God. Sarah told us about the Wild Goose as a comparison to how the Spirit moves in our loves. Then, we heard from the Book of Acts just before the risen Christ ascended to Heaven, Jesus tells his apostles: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And, last week we experienced Pentecost Sunday. We displayed Red everywhere! We read together the fantastic event from Acts chapter 2 of the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles and many other people assembled in Jerusalem, a reading from 1 Corinthians chapter 12 about spiritual gifts, and the Gospel from John chapter 20 about the risen Christ appearing to his disciples in the upper room and breathing the Holy Spirit into them. It was all about the Holy Spirit!
This Sunday we include all three parts of the nature of God—God the Father, Jesus Christ His Son, AND the Holy Spirit, into what the Episcopal Church calendar calls Trinity Sunday. In the BCP, p. 380, it says the Trinity is: "the one and equal glory" of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, "in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being". Trinity Sunday is celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. It is one of the seven principal feasts of the church year, and I’ve read that it is the only one that is a doctrinal feast—neither celebrating a person (like a saint) or an event (like the transfiguration).
The celebration of Trinity Sunday was approved for the Roman Catholic Church by Pope John XXII way back in 1334. But this feast is actually earlier associated with Thomas Becket about 170 years earlier, who was consecrated bishop in 1162 on what he called Trinity Sunday. His being martyred may have influenced the popularity of the feast in England and the custom of naming the remaining Sundays of the church year "Sundays after Trinity”, as editions of the Anglican and later Episcopal Prayer Books through the 1928 BCP named these Sundays this way. The 1979 BCP changed this naming method, identifying this portion of the church year as the season after Pentecost to focus on the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, and names these Sundays the Sundays after Pentecost.
It turns out that Christian theology did not always have a clear belief in the Trinity, even though the New Testament writers talked a lot about the various parts of the Trinity. One example is with today’s reading, Paul’s letter from 2nd Corinthians 13: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” This gives us Paul’s complete view of the nature of the God we worship each Sunday, pray to “daily” (at least that is a goal!), and who we believe is present in our everyday lives.
In the New Testament John describes an equal relationship of God to the Word of God who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Remember this passage from John chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”
The Spirit of God was also described by Paul this way in 1st Corinthians chapter 2: “These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.”
The Christian church took over three centuries to work out a reasonably acceptable way to express this complex relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit described earlier by John and Paul, and even by Jesus Christ himself! The nearly complete doctrine of the Trinity announced at Constantinople in 381 held that “God is one Being in three equal and consubstantial (whatever that means) persons: the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated but begotten, and the Spirit proceeding from the Father (and the Son)”.
From our national Episcopal Church website, it says: “The Trinity is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The term is from the Latin tri, "three," and unitas, "unity." The term was devised by Tertullian to express the mystery of the unity-in-diversity of God. Trinity means "threefold unity."
I found another source that referred to the Trinity as one God comprising three distinct, eternally co-existing persons; the Father, the Son (incarnate in Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. Together, these three persons are sometimes called the Godhead, although there is no single term in use in Scripture to denote the unified Godhead. They are distinct from each other: the Father has no source, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Though distinct, the three persons cannot be divided from one another in being or in operation.
The BCP has a Trinity statement of praise to be said by all at the end of each Psalm reading (although we do not do this at St. Mark’s)—“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”
When we say The Nicene Creed each Sunday, we express our belief in the three parts of the Trinity:
· “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…
· We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father…
· We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son…”
What we’re saying is that we believe in a three-part God, not three Gods. I have said this Creed in similar wording ever since I was a child at St. Mark’s in Plainfield, Indiana, back in the 1960s, and I admit I still struggle with how this can actually be—one entity with 3 different ways to exist in our world! But I’ve come to the belief, what the Nicene Creed is about, a statement of faith--that it is God, and with God all things are possible, even if we cannot necessarily understand it well.
I found a story kind of similar to one told by Corby last week about a child saying Jesus was God with “skin on”. It is by a David Beck (not Glenn Beck!), writing in The Christian Century, 1999, at Religion Online. He stated the best help he ever received to understand how the idea of the Trinity can come from our Christian development, rather than just being imposed as an abstract formula, came from two four-year-olds (one of them his own). He spent a winter's afternoon18 years ago with them while their mothers were shopping. Somehow they decided that they were going to explain to him what they knew of God. They did it with such sincerity and enthusiasm that he still remembered a long time later what they said. This is his summary of what they said:
“First, there was God and God loves. Long, long ago God made everything. God is everywhere and sees everything but you can't see God. On the other hand, they said, you can see Jesus or at least pictures of Jesus are because he was down here where we are. Jesus is simply wonderful and loves us very much, children as much as grown-ups. If you can't see Jesus right now, it is because he is in heaven, but he stays in touch with us so well he might as well still be here. A lot of the time it seems as if he is.
As they talked, however, they did not talk about God alone or Jesus alone, but of "God and Jesus." Together "God and Jesus" were a wonderful divine partnership who made the world a wonderful and beautiful place to be.” [Note: From my reading of this story, I think the children without knowing it also were describing who the Holy Spirit is, too!]
David Beck went on to say that from the childrens’ perspective, nothing was missing. They had digested what was taught about God in the creation story and what was taught about Jesus in the Gospels. Had he shared with them the two parts of Paul's benediction, the blessing or prayer with which he ended 2 Corinthians, they would have understood it. After saying "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ," he would need to explain the word grace as "a wonderful gift from Jesus that leaves you very happy," and they would have been able to connect with that. He would not have to say a thing about "the love of God" because they already believed that God loved them; that part of the prayer simply repeats something they already knew and believed.
Finally, Beck stated that he believes the understanding of the Holy Spirit comes from the experience of an adult--living and trying to believe but knowing doubt, trying to do the right thing but knowing failure, trying to be confident but sensing despair—but also knowing that there is a part of God that helps us through those obstacles, a part which is different from God's love or Christ's gift of salvation.
I cannot end the sermon without a little bit of discussion about today’s Gospel reading. It has a specific focus on what Jesus wants from those who will be his followers, as well as it brings all aspects of the Trinity into the mission of the church. From Matthew’s Gospel chapter 28, what has become known as the Great Commission is written: “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”.”
Retired Bishop Steven Charleston, who is a native Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma, and was formerly the Bishop of Alaska and the Dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, where Sarah our seminarian is attending, looks at that Great Commission told by Jesus to those disciples (and us) who believe. He says, “The question on this Trinity Sunday, when we stand at the moment of understanding the great mystery of our faith in the triune God--what is our attitude about whether or not we believe Christianity should continue to be a missionary church? Do we have to go to one extreme or the other? Do we have to deny any missionary activity on our part, or do we have to just simply bow our necks and go forward, forgetting, forgetting, all that has happened before?” (He is speaking about all sorts of negative things that have occurred in the past AND present in the name of mission Christianity.)
Continuing, Bishop Charleston says: “My message today is very simple: No, we don't have to be extremists when it comes to being missionaries. All we have to do is remember those words that set all of that in motion. And remember all of those words -- not just "Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations" -- but what comes immediately before it in that 18th verse, where Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." Before Jesus sends us out, he reminds us of that, that singular, critical fact--"All authority has been given to me," he said. Not to us. The great mistake of our missionary activity is forgetting that the authority lies with Jesus, and that our role in being proclaimers of his good news is exactly what he said to us about baptizing others into his name. This simply means welcoming them to make the same discovery that you and I have made in our faith journey, the discovery of the God of light and of goodness, of mercy and of compassion, of justice and of reconciliation -- and not imposing our own cultural values or traditions in the process. It is allowing others to make that discovery freely and joyfully. Authority has been given to Christ.”
Bishop Charleston finishes his sermon this way: “The mission to go forth and share good news has been given to us. And as long as we never get confused about this, being a missionary church will mean being a church of grace and of peace and of hope. Let us pray together that it shall always be so.”
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.