Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17
It’s virtually a cliché in Anglicanism that Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday in the Church calendar named after a doctrine. But that doctrine, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, is central to the Christian faith, so central that, according to the Athanasian Creed that we will recite after this sermon, those whose do not accept this doctrine “will perish eternally.” The Creed actually ends with these words: “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” That alone should motivate you to listen carefully this morning!
At the very same time we acknowledge this to be among the most inscrutable doctrines of the Church, one that certainly ranks alongside the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist and the doctrine of the two natures of Christ as being beyond our full comprehension. Countless analogies have been put forward to help us understand the Holy Trinity, and all of them fall short in one way or another. Not even St. Patrick’s three-leaf clover works for everyone.
To what does it come down in the end? It comes down to faith. It was a doctrine that set the early Church into a great turmoil that was not really resolved until the emergence of what we call the Athanasian Creed, probably formulated early in the 5th century a.d. and, not by Athanasius himself but by a far less well-known cleric named St. Vincent of Lérins, who lived on a Mediterranean island off the southern coast of France. You may not have heard of him, but his importance in Church history cannot be overestimated. It was he who wrote that the catholic faith is solely that which “has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” That’s a rather good definition of orthodoxy, even if we struggle to define precisely what is included or excluded by it.
This morning I would like to present to you a clear and irrefutable statement as to what the Holy Trinity is, what it means, how it functions, how we relate to each of the three Person in one Being, and how we can believe firmly in monotheism and, at the same time, believe in a God Who manifests Himself in three distinct Persons. But I sincerely hope that you’re not holding your breath or harboring unrealistic expectations. As self-confident as I may occasionally appear to be, I’m no more capable than any of you at explaining the Holy Trinity. Here, we are dealing with God Himself and how He has chosen to manifest Himself to us, His finite creatures. I will not resort to any of the usual analogies, all of which have been shot down by persons of greater perspicacity than any of us.
So what can I say to you this morning about the Holy Trinity that will have meaning, value, theological veracity and practical significance? Not much, really. Should I just say the Trinitarian concluding formula and leave you to say “amen” or “thanks be to God?” Perhaps, but there are some things I would like to add that are drawn from two great sources: first and foremost from the Word of God and secondarily from our Anglican liturgy.
If as Anglicans we believe in the absolute authority of Scripture, then that’s where we must start. Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures may not have gotten all of your Trinitarian wheels turning, but it should have! What did the seraphim gathered around the throne of God sing over and over? They sang, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I will add that according to Revelation 4:8 it will continue to be their song day and night for all eternity. Why didn’t they sing just one “Holy?” Why didn’t they sing four “Holies?”
Simple: it’s because they were singing to a Triune God who has manifested Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That requires three “Holies.” And have you noticed that this is precisely what we preserve in every celebration of the Holy Eucharist? We could get by with singing “Holy” an arbitrary number of times. But instead we, too, sing “Holy,” “Sanctus,” three times in every Eucharist. There may be a few settings of the Sanctus that are not tripartite, but you may be certain that they never will appear in our liturgy.
Today’s Psalm, Psalm 29, does not contain an explicit reference to God in three Persons; but we concluded our reading, as we do with every psalm and canticle without exception, with the Trinitarian doxology, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” And we further affirm that this is just as it was in the beginning, as it is now, and as it will be forever and ever, world without end! This is not some liturgical formula that we mindlessly append to every psalm and canticle; rather, it’s a statement of what we believe about our Three-in-One God. We affirm that He is and will be blessed and glorified in that Tripartite form for all eternity: “forever and ever, world without end.”
Why are we so bold as to affirm something as a pillar of our faith when, at the very same time, we must admit that the very concept of God in three Persons is beyond our comprehension? That’s precisely what Paul addresses head-on in our epistle reading for this morning. Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”
Paul sees the entire Trinity at work in this process. The Holy Spirit initiates it by fulfilling the promise of Jesus to His disciples in the Upper Room, the promise that the Holy Spirit would come to lead them into all TRUTH. Paul says that this Holy Spirit is communicating directly with our own spirits to assure us that we are God’s own children. As Isaiah wrote, we are those who are called by God’s Own Name (Isaiah 43:1-5). And further, the Holy Spirit assures us that we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. There is the beautiful if mysterious symbiotic operation of the Trinity on our behalves, with all three Persons at work to make a reality out of our relationship with a Triune God.
What do we find in today’s Gospel reading for Trinity Sunday? We find Jesus in conversation with an extremely well-educated leader of the Jewish people, a Pharisee and a member of their governing council, the Sanhedrin, who comes under cover of darkness as a serious and earnest seeker after Jesus Christ. He’s bold enough to address Jesus directly as a teacher sent from God, One with Whom God is clearly present. We know from later references in John’s Gospel that Nicodemus ultimately set aside his inhibitions and became a more forthright believer in Jesus, even assisting Joseph of Arimathea in placing Jesus’ body in the tomb.
How does this relate to the Holy Trinity? John tells us, by quoting the very words of Jesus Himself. Jesus first says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Then He adds that “unless one is born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Finally Jesus says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”
There again we have the operation of the entire Trinity: God Who draws people into His eternal Kingdom, the Spirit Who is instrumental in our rebirth, and the Son of Man, Jesus Himself, Who is to be the object of our faith. Understandably, Nicodemus has trouble unpacking these truths that were not part of his previous understanding. And it’s no less surprising that we still have trouble with them today. But as believers who have come into the Kingdom of God through faith in His Son and through the rebirth of the Holy Spirit, we know these things to be true, to be the truth of the Gospel that we wish above all to share with others.
This is what the Scriptures confirm. These are the bedrock truths on which our personal faith is founded. This is not a matter of coming to Church and reciting a creed, as we will do in a moment. There’s a formula in Anglicanism that is well-known to all clergy and to many lay-persons. It’s this in Latin: “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” translated as “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith,” or, in even simpler terms, “what we pray is what we believe,” or “praying shapes believing.” The reference is to our use of a particular liturgy drawn from a particular Prayer Book tradition, which is why we cling so fiercely to maintaining that tradition with faithfulness and purity.
Liturgy is not an abstraction. It’s not some formulaic muttering that gets us through our Eucharists and other services. It’s indeed first and foremost the foundation of our faith. Nearly every word of our liturgy is drawn directly from the pages of Holy Scripture, which is why our bulletins contain so many Scripture references and, frankly, could contain several more.
Those of you who have faithfully attended our Adult Education and catechism classes know that our entire liturgy is bathed in Trinitarian faith. The very first words I say are either “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” or “Blessed be God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” When we sing the Kyrie, we sing three times, “Lord, have mercy;” three times, “Christ, have mercy,” and three more times, “Lord, have mercy.” When we sing the Gloria, we affirm that “You alone are the Holy One, You alone are the Lord, You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father.”
When we sing the Gospel acclamation, you and I will each sing “alleluia” three times. Before the Gospel is read, we make the sign of the cross three times. When we recite together the Nicene Creed we begin with “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty;” then we add that “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God;” and finally we add that “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” We conclude the Prayers of the People saying, “Heavenly Father, grant these our prayers for Jesus Christ’s sake… Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”
When we come to our thanksgiving feast at the table of our Lord, we sing together, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,” the tripartite praise of a God Who manifests Himself in three Persons. When we offer the prayer of consecration to God the Father, it’s in thanks for the sacrificial gift of His only Son as we sanctify the bread, the wine and ourselves in the power of the Holy Spirit. We conclude by praying, “All this we ask through Your Son Jesus Christ. By Him and with Him and in Him in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is Yours, Almighty Father, now and forever.” And you respond with what we call the Great Amen.
Later we sing the Agnus Dei, repeating three times, “Jesus, Lamb of God.” In our Post-Communion Prayer we thank Almighty God for feeding us with the Body and Blood of His Son and ask that He will send us out in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when I offer the concluding blessing, I ask that “the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.” Our entire liturgy from the first words to the last is bathed in our belief in God as Three-in-One, the cornerstone of our faith, whether or not we fully understand it.
Because today is Trinity Sunday, we will recite what we call the Athanasian Creed for the only time that we do it in the entire Church year. It’s longer than the other creeds. It’s more complicated and densely theological than the others. As with all the creeds, it sprang out of a concern to refute heresies that had threatened the faith of the Early Church. But it expresses more clearly and thoroughly the basis for our belief in a Triune God, and it does so in language that, when pondered thoughtfully, is entirely accessible.
When we recite it this morning, think about what you’re reading. Think about it in relation to the Holy Scriptures we’ve read today. Think about it in terms of the majesty of a God Who has chosen to reveal Himself to us in all His incomparable fullness.
We will say the Creed in a slightly different form from what we have used in the past, one that was compiled by Lisa Sung with some slight emendations from me. I would like to encourage you to take it home with you, read Lisa’s footnotes, study the diagram that I’ve appended, and try to engage yourselves more fully with the vitally important truths that are contained in the creed itself. The recitation of this creed may occur only once a year, yet its truths are absolutely fundamental to our faith and practice. It’s what we believe. It’s how we worship. It’s “Lex orandi, lex credendi” in practice, how what we pray is what we believe. If you begin to do this today, you will be transported into what we call the season of Trinity, from now until the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, October 28, with a special blessing and understanding of why, as you are about to say, “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen