Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trinity Sunday

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with us all evermore. 

Today, Trinity Sunday is our feast of title. It is also serves as the crown of the church year, in that the whole sweep of the church year, from Christmas, to Good Friday, to Easter, and finally to Pentecost, is taken up and proclaimed by this special feast of the Trinity. It is the only feast of the church year of which I am aware that commemorates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person, and yet that point is misleading. In a sense, Trinity Sunday is meant to summarize the events that have been commemorated in the past six months, and this leads to the important point, that the doctrine of the Trinity is not something new that philosophers or theologians discovered in some remote labortory of speculative science. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity is what God has revealed about himself in the advent of Jesus Christ and his saving work and in the coming of the Holy Spirit to be his representative.

Now on Trinity Sunday there will be many sermons trying to explain the Trinity. Many of the preachers will unintentionally promote heretical ideas in order to explain the Trinity. For example, many of you will have heard of the analogy that the Trinity is like water that can appear as ice, liquid, and vapour. However, ice, liquid, vapor are three states, and so this analogy suggests the ancient heresey of modalism which teaches that God has three different modes. It is like God has three different masks that he can wear, the Father mask, the Son mask, or the Holy Spirit mask. In a simillar way you may have heard of the analogy—attributed to St. Patrick—of a three-leaf clover: one clover but three leaves. The problem with that analogy is that the leaves form three parts of the one clover, and the doctrine of the Trinity is not that God has three parts. When I teach the confirmation classes with the youth, I like to tell them that God is not the peace symbol, a pie that is cut into three pieces. A common error about the Trinity in our own day is that the persons of the Trinity are three functions of God. This is implied by the popular gender-neutral substitute for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. The doctrine of the Trinity states that the Son and the Holy Spirit cooperate with the Father in the work of Creation, and this point is no less true of redemption and sustaining. If we want an image of the Trinity, St. Augustine of Hippo suggests that we look at man who, we are told by Scripture, is the image of God. According to St. Augustine, this image must be the highest part our human nature in our intellect. He goes on to argue that there is an image of the one in three in the way that the mind exists and understands itself and loves this existence. So there is mind, understanding which is the word of the mind, and love. Mind, understanding, and love, and these three are one. If that is difficult to grasp, it is only an image, says Augustine, not even the fullness of the Trinity.

One of the most helpful phrases on the doctrine of the Trinity comes from the lengthy Athanasian Creed. It states in part, “the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons : nor dividing the Substance.” To confound the persons is to blur the distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity and their role in salvation history, like the example of modalism. The persons of the Trinity are really distinct in their relations: the Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. On the other hand, to divide the substance, is to emphasize the differences of the persons to such an extent that the result is a belief in three gods, like the image of God as three parts. The Tri-une God is one Lord, one Almighty, one Being that is not created, one Being that is eternal. This one phrase uproots most of the images of the Trinity that will be heard from pulpits today: “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.”

Now, someone will ask, why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? Isn't belief in one God sufficient? It is an adage of religious studies that you become like that which you worship. If your god is remote and distant and loves in a purely abstract way, that will shape your character and thinking about the world: empathy may not be a distinguishing aspect of your personality. In many false religions, of course, one worships simply a self-image, a god of our own tastes, opinions and prejudices. That is why the idea of God's self-revelation is so important. Rather than creating our own image of God, we allow God to speak for himself. The doctrine of the Trinity is so important because we believe it is who God has revealed himself to be in the person and mission of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the Tri-une God is an eternal community of love. Love and self-offering is not a learned behavior of God or one of God's modes of acting. Love belongs to the very substance of God in the intercommunion of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father begets and loves the Son. He gives his divine life to him. The Son loves the Father and gives himself completely in love and obedience. The Holy Spirit is the bond of love proceeding from the Father and the Son. That we worship this Trinity and believe that we are made in his image means that we are created for love and community. As individuals, families, and a community, we want to become like the God we worship, a communion of love with God and fellowman. It is not good for man to be alone, and so we are given families, friends and communities to love freely and unreservedly. Occasionally we get to witness or be part of such communities of love, but even so, the loving communion is still only partial and imperfect. It belongs to the hope of eternal life, to see the perfection and fulfillment of this communion of love in God. The most profound image for heaven in the Bible is a city without church or temple because the city itself is the temple. The society of man is joined to the society of God—the Trinity—and it is joined in and by love. The Anglican theologian Austin Farrer wrote a meditation on this feast of the Holy Trinity. He had these moving words to say, “Belief in the Trinity is not a distant speculation; the Trinity is that blessed family into which we are adopted. God has asked us into his house, he has spread his table before us, he has set out bread and wine. We are made one body with the Son of God, and in him converse with the Eternal Father, through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost” (Crown of the Year 37).