THE TRINITY - THE SIGN OF GOD’S CONTINUING TRANSFORMING GRACE
Sermon delivered on Trinity Sunday the 31st May 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Isaiah 6: 1-8 Romans 8: 12-17 S. John 3: 1-17
S. John 3: 11 Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony.”
An internet friend of mine, now deceased, Fr Roy Bowler used to say he would judge that belief in the Trinity was the fundamental belief-basis of the Christian Faith. This, by the way, seems not to be a fashionable thing to say. People are more likely to say that when something is difficult to understand or visualise, or when it all seems rather abstract, it can’t matter that much. And yet, those who do say such things are being inconsistent. Nuclear physicists and mathematicians are expected to know how important it is to get the reaction equations right, even when these are entirely invisible and abstract. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a nuclear reactor designed by someone who didn’t think these things were important. That is partly why independent scientists find it so hard to get adequate attention paid to their proposals; the scientific community cannot bear to think they haven’t already got everything just about right. So although not every Christian is a theologian, every Christian should regard the importance of getting and keeping things right theologically very highly indeed. The life of a disciple of the Lord might be very seriously affected by theological error; like a nuclear reactor, one’s Christian life could even explode, or deteriorate dangerously and die. We should never fall into the trap of assuming that theological issues that may be difficult to resolve, are not important anyway.
I have no doubt that Trinity Sunday was placed where it is in the Church’s Calendar, on the Sunday after Whit Sunday, to provide a sort of summary statement of the truths that the Church has been proclaiming from the beginning of the Church’s year in Advent. Indeed the statement of these truths can be said to have started about eight months before the beginning of Advent, with the Feast of the Annunciation. Throughout the period of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany the Church has proclaimed in various ways the truths of the Father who created mankind and sends His Son into the world. Through Lent, culminating in Holy Week and Easter and Ascensiontide, the Church has been proclaiming the truths of the Father’s Son, who came into the world to rescue and atone for it, indeed to take into the Godhead our very manhood, so that we might be reconciled to the Father. At the same time and culminating in Whit Sunday, the Church has been proclaiming the truths of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to send his followers to strengthen and defend them after Jesus Himself had ascended to the Father. Jesus promised to send this Counsellor from the Father, even the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father. The New Testament writers know the Father to be God, and they know the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, to be God, and they know the Holy Spirit, too, to be God. They could not possibly have written of them in the way they did, if they had not believed this. And as it is said in the Athanasian Creed (starting on p. 65 in our Prayer Books) “the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; not dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.” The doctrine of the Holy Trinity summarises the truths, both that the Persons of the Godhead are distinct (Jesus for instance prays to God His Father, and promises to send the Holy Spirit after He departs from His disciples), and that they are a Unity of one Godhead (Jesus for instance speaks of Himself as I AM, an Old Testament name of God). There are still very active in our time religious groups claiming to be Christian, who teach either that Jesus was not God or that He was “a God”. These groups would fail the test of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
There is nothing like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in modern Judaism or Islam, which along with Christianity are the great monotheistic world religions. Islam is everywhere found to proclaim that there is one God, Allah, and that Allah has no son. The teaching of the Holy Trinity could have no place in religious systems such as Hinduism, which speak of many gods. The teaching of the Holy Trinity is a sign of what is altogether new because of the facts of God’s grace in Christ and because of the teaching of Jesus. Its existence is indeed a great sign that when Jesus came, the world has never been the same since, and humans have begun to think in an entirely new way. Without the Incarnation, if God had never been made Man, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity could never have arisen. It could not have occurred also, without the Passion of Christ culminating in His death, His rising again, and the sending of the Holy Spirit from the throne of grace.
Our Old Testament lesson today, as occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament, implicitly seems to recognise the differentiation in the Godhead when Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for US?” So the Old Testament too hints here and elsewhere that either in or with the Godhead there is a company of Persons. We need also to note that God’s influence in this vision upon the waiting prophet, the young Isaiah, was one of transforming grace. Isaiah’s first reaction to the vision was one of despair that as a person morally compromised in word and thought, his eyes had even seen the Lord of Hosts. Then in the vision, the fire of the burning coal, that he might have expected to destroy his compromised lips in judgment, rather cleansed not just the lips but the mind. From God’s altar his guilt was taken away and his sin forgiven. The English Standard Version translates the Seraph’s words as “Your sin (is) atoned for.” And in our Gospel today, it is declared that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. For those who are given the grace of Christ, He fulfils Isaiah's sign of the coal from the altar, and their guilt is taken away and their sin atoned for, and they also are charged to be sent to the people of their time. We like Jesus Himself are to “speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen”, as He said to Nicodemus, and like Jesus Himself and like Isaiah too, our testimony may not always be received. Yet our duty to bear that testimony is the same in essence, to take one example, though the circumstances will be different, as the obligation that HM the Queen has publicly carried for over 60 years, of being Defender of the Faith. The theology to which we are called to witness may be belittled, laughed at and derided, just as has the testimony of the great servants of the past such as St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius and St. Anselm, been derided and belittled. But such truths as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are part of the essential and ageless testimony of the Church, the arsenal of the Holy Spirit. Our charge is to make sure that these teachings live on in our minds and hearts and those of succeeding generations, that these teachings may continue the Spirit’s role of renewing in divine grace the human thought even of our own time, so gravely injured and disfigured though that may be, and of the times to come, so that man may not perish, but may have eternal life.