On 11 June, Trinity Sunday, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 8, Isaiah 40:12-17, 27-end, Matthew 28:16-20.
I wonder how often you have said or heard: ‘in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ or ‘one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ or ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ or ‘Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever.’ In a liturgical church such as the Anglican church, these set phrases trip off the tongue almost without thought. They are a formula we just learn off by heart from early in our faith journey as we hear them repeated week after week, or if you say the Daily Office as we do in the chapel here, day after day.
Today is Trinity Sunday. The church has celebrated this day since it was fixed as the Sunday after Pentecost by Pope John XXII in 1334. It is not a day like many others in the church year when we focus on a particular part of the story of Jesus or his disciples. There are no special rituals for the day. It is a day to remember who God is – his being not his doings. It’s a time to actually think about what we believe about God, what our experience has shown us, what the learning and writings of others have helped us to understand. It’s a day when the ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ formula should not trip off our tongues without thought but should cause us to pause and think, even if only for a moment.
As we can see from the gospel reading in Matthew Jesus, in his commissioning of his disciples, mentioned Father, Son and Holy Spirit as being the name in which new converts were to be baptised. He didn’t use the word Trinity; in fact, the Bible doesn’t use the word, but Jesus does mention a name with three aspects in some way. In obedience to Jesus’ command, new disciples were baptised in this way from the beginning of the church. Experience pointed to the truth of the Trinity – the disciples knew about God the creator from their Jewish faith; they had walked and talked with Jesus whom they had declared was also Lord and God; they had been filled with the Spirit at Pentecost and seen others filled after that. As time went on, the thinking about this puzzling idea began. Those from the eastern, Greek speaking church began with the fact that Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist and asked how three could be one God. Those from the western, Latin speaking church started from the fact that we worship one God and asked how he could then also be three, a Trinity. In the process, these great theologians had to invent language in order to explain what they were thinking.
It might have been easier to have stuck with the same idea as the Jews, having just one God, pure and simple. This would certainly make it easier to understand. Like the Jews we could echo the praise of God the creator as given in Psalm 8, he who created the world, the heavens, the moon and the stars. However, even thinking of God as creator in the very beginning there are hints of the Trinity. ‘In the beginning God’ but we are also told that the Spirit was hovering over the waters. The early Christians added Jesus the Son to this as the Word through whom all things were created.
In the process of trying to work out how there could be a God who is three but one, it was necessary to think how Jesus and the Holy Spirit fitted in to the concept of God. There were many ideas which came to be classed as heresies as the Church tried to move towards what the truth really is. Most sources accepted that Jesus was the Messiah but the Jewish hope for a Messiah didn’t expect him to be other than a man. As Jesus was the ultimate messenger, some considered him to be an angel. Later some denied that Jesus was in any way human – he just appeared that way to human beings but was wholly God. He did not suffer in the same way that humans do and so could not truly understand the human condition. Others decided Jesus was totally human and was simply adopted by God and given divine powers but that keeps God very much at arm’s length from human beings. In that case, the Spirit was really just the action of God in Jesus. Yet others preferred to think of God as presenting himself in different modes. First there was God the Father, then he became the Son at the incarnation and then the Holy Spirit at the ascension. The problems with this included the puzzle of whom Jesus prayed to; whose voice was heard at his baptism or transfiguration; how could the Word be with God in the beginning?
Eventually the idea dawned that actually God is one but also three persons, where that means being in relationship rather than being three individuals. We can see in ourselves that we have different relationships yet we are the same one individual. To some people we may be a friend, to others an expert in some area, to others a boss, or an employee. Within a family, we can be father, son, nephew, uncle, grandfather, husband and so on. Though we are the same individual each time, we show different aspects of ourselves in different relationships.
Early theologians described the living, loving, active relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit as perichoresis which means ‘dancing around’. God is like a never-ending dance of love, involving three equals, giving to one another. There is a mutual indwelling as Jesus indicated when he said that he was in the Father and the Father was in him, something I talked about a few weeks ago when we had that Gospel passage from John.
We may not understand the doctrine: God is eternally three persons, each person is fully God, God is one. From a human point of view, it makes no sense at all. God is a mystery as Isaiah says: ‘his understanding is unsearchable’. It is not necessary to understand all there is to know about God; in fact, that is beyond human capacity. God is bigger than all our explanations; if he wasn’t he wouldn’t be God. We know all that we need to know: that God is love and that he wants to involve us in the dance of love. We are invited to work alongside him to care for his creation. As the psalm says, God has given us, who are little lower than the angels, dominion over the works of his hands. Jesus’ final conversation confirmed his authority and commissioned us to share the good news of salvation and God’s love with others. He has promised to be with us always. He empowers us through the Spirit to speak the words we need as we invite others to join the wonderful community of God.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor