Trinity Sunday, Year A
11 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Genesis 1:1–2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
✠ ✠ ✠
This is the day that preachers like to joke about– or grumble about: Oh no! I’ve got to preach on the Trinity this week! I have to try to teach something that nobody’s going to understand. Why don’t we just skip the sermon and have a little hymn-sing instead? One of my mentors used to say, “Oh Father, the Trinity’s the simplest thing in the world to explain, because God is utterly simple.” Then he would go to the pulpit to explain it, but it didn’t come off sounding all that simple. He’s a philosophy professor as well, which may explain some things. The thing is, as the theologians say, God is utterly simple, which makes him not that simple to understand.
Shortly after the Reformation the bishops of the Church of England formulated a document that’s best known as the Thirty-nine Articles as a way of teaching the Christian faith to ordinary people in the pews. It’s in our Prayer Book beginning on page 867. The very first thing it talks about is the Trinity. Article 1 says this:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (BCP 867)
Dead simple, isn’t it!?– just like Fr Mercer used to tell me. Let’s unpack it:
“There is but one living and true God, everlasting…” We all get that, right?– because we’re all devout monotheists. We believe that there can only be one God who, as St Paul says, “is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). Or to put it more simply, “He’s got the whole world in his hand.” We get him, because he’s got us. And he is eternal, everlasting. He has no beginning and no end. That’s because he is the creator of time itself, so naturally he must be outside of time, eternal. We humans like to build things way bigger than ourselves, sometimes to the point that we can’t contain or control them. But not so with God. Nothing in all creation is beyond his ability to contain or to control, including time. He’s outside of it all, yet he permeates all of it.
This one God is “without body, parts, or passions…” He has no physical body– he’s pure spirit. He has no parts, no divisions. If you can remember biology class, think about the cell, the basic life form– the egg is the one that’s most familiar to us. It has three main parts, the membrane, the cytoplasm and the nucleus– shell, white, yolk, and each part is made up of millions of even tinier parts. Well God is even simpler than that. He can’t be divided into parts. He just is. When Moses asked God to identify himself, God said, “I am” (Ex 3:14). It can’t get any simpler than that.
None of us can say that about ourselves. We can say, “I am this or that,” but none of us can say simply, “I am.” Jesus said it about himself several times, which made the Pharisees draw back in fear, because they knew that by saying such a thing, he could only be one of two things, either crazy or God. And they knew that God doesn’t have a body– not before Jesus anyway. Yet in saying, “I am,” Jesus identified himself as God. And we worship him as God. So what’s the deal with that? Hold that thought.
God is also without passions, the article says, meaning that he’s incapable of suffering, or of having emotional ups and downs like we have. Nothing can injure God or hurt his feelings, because nothing in all creation has any power over him. And there’s nothing in creation that he doesn’t know about from the beginning to the end of time. He created everything that exists, and from where he sits in eternity, he sees it all in one perfect view. So nothing can surprise him. Once in a while somebody will say, “How could God know this or that?” or “How could Jesus know what was about to happen to him, or know what was wrong with somebody before he even met them?” Well, as Jesus said to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “How foolish and slow you are not to believe everything the prophets have said!” To God all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from him no secrets are hid (BCP 323, 355). He’s God who created everything, so he knows everything.
God possesses “infinite power, wisdom, and goodness,” the article says. This stands in pretty stark contrast to the creation myths of the ancient world. Most of those stories describe the physical creation as a sort of corrupt byproduct of violent cosmic struggles among various gods, and therefore not a good thing. In contrast, the one true God inspired the writer of Genesis to describe a benevolent Creator who intentionally created a good world, which he populated with creatures that he loves and cares for. And not only the physical world, but the spiritual realm as well. He is, as the article says, the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. That’s what we read in the first lesson today. And as if to underscore the difference between the biblical creation story and the others, seven times the writer says, “And God saw that it was good.” Unlike the gods in those pagan myths, God’s power is infinite, it’s unlimited and absolute, as are his wisdom and goodness, which are quite clearly displayed in the biblical creation story.
That’s the hard lesson God’s Old Testament people had to learn, since early in their existence they had become enslaved by a pagan nation for several centuries. When he led them to freedom in the Sinai wilderness he began re-educating them (to use an old Soviet term). Over the next forty years he gave them a crash course in monotheism, teaching them to worship only him and to rely solely on him for everything, right down to what he gave them to eat every morning and evening. Then he drove out all the pagan nations that had occupied their promised homeland, where they settled and were surrounded by pagan cultures.
Because of all that, the first and great commandment God gave them was, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And to impress on his people how supremely important it is to believe that he is the one living and true God, and that they should love and worship him and no other, he followed that up by saying,
these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut 6:4-9)
In other words, wherever you go don’t ever forget that there is only one God. Worship him alone, and love him above all else because he loves you more than you’ll ever be able to imagine. From that came the practice of wearing phylacteries. Jewish men wrote the great commandment on pieces of parchment and put them in little leather boxes which they tied on their arms and foreheads. And they still put the commandment in a little container called a mezuzah and fasten it to the doorposts of their homes.
The oneness and the infinite power, wisdom and goodness of God was a vitally important lesson for his people to learn and to believe, because they were surrounded by pagans, and were in constant danger of syncretism, of worshipping pagan gods alongside the living God. Psalm 135 says, “The idols of the nations are… the work of human hands. They have mouths, but don’t speak; eyes, but don’t see, ears, but don’t hear, and there’s no breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them [i.e. dumb], and so do all who trust in them!” (vv 15-18). By contrast, the God who chose to reveal himself to Abraham and his descendants is real, and powerful, and actively cares for his creatures, which he demonstrated over and over throughout their history. And then, at a time when his people were fully convinced of the oneness of God, he chose to reveal his threeness to them, his tri-unity, his Trinity.
The last statement of Article 1 introduces the Trinity. This God of ours, who is described as the only God, living and true, without body, parts and passions, the Maker and Preserver of everything, he is one, he is utterly simple. And whereas every created thing exists in relation to something or someone else– she’s a daughter, a lawyer, an airman; he’s a son, a soldier, a brother– God just exists, he just is; I Am is his Name. “And in unity of this Godhead” [in the oneness of God], Article 1 says, “there are three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” That’s the really hard part for us to get our minds around.
The Trinity really is utterly simple but, as I said, not in a way that’s easily understood. There is only one living and true God– that’s the easy part. But then he goes and reveals this new dimension. And we have to be careful how we talk about it since that’s where the major heresies all stem from. That fact alone is proof that understanding the Trinity is not all that simple. We speak of Jesus as God’s only-begotten Son, “begotten, not made.” “Begotten” is a word that has to do with reproduction. Babies are begotten, conceived by their parents. And that has led some people to wonder whether the language of the Bible and the Creed is little more than imagery, that the Church is imposing a human image on God to help us understand him more easily. The argument that that gives rise to is that Jesus isn’t really a son in the way we understand sons and daughters. But that leads down a rabbit hole that’s full of biblical and theological problems.
The big problem with that train of thought is that it runs backwards, from us to God. The thing is that Jesus is God’s begotten Son in the most real way, and that we with our sons and daughters are the images of the real thing. It’s kind of like how marriage in the Christian understanding is an image of the heavenly marriage of Christ to his Bride the Church. So when you think of your relation to your children being like God the Father’s relation to God the Son, and of your faithfulness to your spouse as like the faithfulness Christ to his Church, instead of theirs being like yours, that puts it all in a different light, a brighter, clearer light. We are created in God’s image, as we read in today’s first lesson, not the other way round.
Then there’s God the Holy Spirit. He’s not another son of God. He proceeds from the Father and the Son, as Jesus said (Jn 14:16-17, 26), and as we say in the Creed. He is the Love that the Father and the Son have for each other, that fills the worship of God’s people, and that God pours out through the Church in order to draw people in to the community of divine love, which is what the Trinity is. St Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). He is the power of God that drives the Church out into the world to share God’s love with everybody, and that gives us patience and comfort on those occasions when that love is rejected.
Now the reason we read that long passage from Genesis today is because it’s the very first revelation of the Trinity in the Bible. And it comes right at the beginning of the Bible– in the first three verses, in fact. “In the beginning, God created,” it says. That’s “God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” In verse 2 it says that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. He’s on standby, waiting to bring everything to life as soon as God gives the Word. Then God spoke: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” The Word that he spoke and the Light that he called up are one and the same, his eternal Son. Remember what St John says at the beginning of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1″1). And a few verses on John identifies that Word as “the true Light, which enlightens everyone” (1:9). Then he says that this Word/Light “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14).
So the Trinity is all there, present and involved in creation. It’s plain for us to see because we look at it through the lens of the Gospel. Before Jesus, God’s people weren’t able to see it. The Father revealed it all when he revealed his Son by sending him into the world to die and rise again, and then sending the Holy Spirit into the Church at Pentecost to lead her into all truth, as Jesus promised (Jn 16:12-15).
Also through the events of Easter and Pentecost, God shows that the Trinity is present and active in the new creation, the redemption of the world. Each Person has his part to play. By sin we have alienated ourselves from God. So the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit is to reconcile us to the Father. Jesus atoned for our sin on the cross, and by joining us to himself in baptism he makes us the children of God, the prodigals who have returned cap in hand. And the Holy Spirit fills us with the divine life by drawing us into the community of divine love, where he enables us to reach out to God as Abba, our Father (Gal 4:6).
And that’s why we celebrate the Holy Trinity on this Sunday after Pentecost. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth. And the greatest revelation of truth is that the one living and true God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons all of one indivisible substance. And as the Creed of St Athanasius says (the one in the back of the Prayer Book that’s printed so small that we can’t read it in church, p864), the whole thing is incomprehensible. Yet this incomprehensible, loving God comes to us in majesty and mercy every time we meet at the altar, to take away our sin, and to renew the divine life in us by filling us with the life that was poured out on the cross for our redemption and reconciliation. It’s a great and strange mystery that, on the intellectual level, is inaccessible to us, but by faith it absorbs us into the life of God. O come, let us worship! In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+