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Sermon for Sunday 22 May 2016

FIRST READING Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

1Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? 2On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; 3beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud: 4“To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man.
22“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. 23Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 24When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. 25Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, 26before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. 27When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, 31rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.”


PSALM Psalm 8

1O Lord our Lord, how exalted is your Name in all the world! 2Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens. 3You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries, to quell the enemy and the avenger. 4When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, 5What is man that you should be mindful of him? the son of man that you should seek him out? 6You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor; 7You give him mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet: 8All sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts of the field, 9The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea. 10O Lord our Lord, how exalted is your name in all the world!


SECOND READING Acts 2:14a, 22-36

14aBut Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them:
22“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — 23this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; 26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 27For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. 28You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. 34For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, 35until I make your enemies your footstool.” 36Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

GOSPEL John 8:48-59

48The Jews answered {Jesus}, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.


I’m not sure I know of a single pastor addressing these texts today, that likes preaching on Holy Trinity Sunday. Truth be told, it’s one of the hardest subjects to wrestle with; not because of any social, political or moral implications, but because of the theological difficulty of the subject. Our lectionary texts for this Sunday are inviting us to contemplate the Triune God. And as most folks trained in theology are aware, there isn’t a single place to turn in scripture for a solid teaching about the Trinity. We know where to go for what the Bible says about the gifts of the Spirit, about justification by faith, about marriage and divorce, and more. But it’s hard to cite chapter and verse for someone about why we believe what we do about the Trinity.
God, it seems, made no deliberate effort in the Bible to explain the mystery of the Trinity. Therefore, we continually wrestle with the questions of how are we monotheists without being Unitarian. How we’re Trinitarian without being polytheists. How do we adequately explain the two natures of Christ, questions of substance, or the filioque clause which explains how the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. Today we continue to struggle while also recognizing that these nuanced matters of theology were left to the early church councils to consider, who tried to discern what doctrinal expressions are an appropriate reflection of what’s in scripture.
Christians today look back at the Old Testament through the lens of the New, and we can see hints and shadows of what is more fully revealed later. But what’s revealed later is never really formally introduced; it’s just assumed. So we’re left to pull together a collection of stories, references, and imagery in an attempt to help us formulate our doctrine of the Trinity. And perhaps, that’s for the best.
Perhaps that’s as it should be. God intended for us to take the mysteries of God by faith. Jesus came teaching in parables, and the writer of Hebrews helps us understand how much God also taught through types and pictures. This is, it seems, God’s preferred way of communicating truth. And, not surprisingly, His approach is the wisest, for the truth is too broad and too deep to be confined by a finite number of words. The truth of the Triune God requires something more expansive and expressive, like stories and pictures, to carry it all.
And so, none of our readings this week are explicitly teachings about the Trinity. All they are, are hints: they simply lend insight into our understanding of “God in three persons.” Therefore, Holy Trinity Sunday focuses our attention on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the distinctive Christian teaching on God. And thankfully our faithful forefathers provided us with statements, creeds, that assist us in our understanding of Christian doctrine.
The Athanasian Creed, in which this doctrine was first set forth in detail, declares that no one can be saved unless they believe it. But we must still acknowledge that it places a severe burden on our understanding. It’s not easy to believe that God can be one and three at the same time. A contemporary theologian has said of the Trinity, “While one may be in danger of losing his soul by denying it, he is in danger of losing his wits in trying to understand it.” Simply put, we’re dealing with a paradox and a mystery, and the church has always rejected easy ways of trying to solve it.
I once heard a lecture on this subject along with a group of religious educators, and in the discussion that followed, one teacher said, “I have had no trouble explaining the Trinity to my class. I use this analogy. Water comes in three forms. It’s a liquid, but it may also be congealed matter, as in ice, or a vapor, as in steam. Still it’s still the same substance. So it is with the God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” To this the lecturer replied, “You mean well, but you’re guilty of what the early church called ‘the modalistic heresy,’ dealing with the three persons as mere modes or appearances behind which must be some unknown fourth reality of which they are modes.” The same applies to other analogies, such as the sun, sunlight, and sunshine.
The church teaches that each of the three persons of the Trinity is God himself, not just an appearance of God. God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, is the one and only true God. Jesus Christ, the Word, the Son of God, Redeemer of the world, is not just the greatest of men, prophet, and martyr, but “very God of very God.” The Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, is God himself dwelling in human hearts. Yet there are not three Gods but one God. But how can this be? Our ordinary arithmetic simply cannot figure it out. Saint Augustine, one of the greatest intellectual giants of all time, wrestled with this problem for days.
Finally, St. Augustine had a vision in which he saw a little boy filling a pail with water from the ocean, carrying it some distance, and then dumping it in another place. “What are you doing, little boy?” asked Augustine. “I am moving the ocean from this place to that place,” said the boy. “You foolish lad,” said Augustine, “you cannot empty the ocean with your little pail.” “You call me foolish,” replied the boy, “but what about you? Do you think that with your human mind you will succeed in encompassing the mind of God and emptying the depths of the Trinity?”
Augustine awoke and concluded: The only way to think of the Trinity is to think of the unfathomable love of God which unites creation and redemption and is made real to us through the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit has led us into the presence of the God who reveals Himself in Christ, then our only adequate response is the awe of worship and the commitment of faith. We say with the apostle, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
We join the worship of the church through the ages each time we sing the Sanctus during communion: “We laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabbath, heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” And we respond with our whole lives anytime we sing the hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross saying, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” However, anytime we, instead of worship and commitment, seek an intellectual interpretation of the meaning of this revelation of God, we’re on the road that leads inevitably to the doctrine of the Trinity.
That’s precisely what happened to the early church. The Bible has no such explicit doctrine and no such word. There is no basis for it in the Old Testament unless one reads Christian theology into it. The faith of Judaism as expressed in the Shema Yisrael was and continues to be simple monotheism: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God” (Deuteronomy 6:14). Yet against the background of this strict adherence to the one God and in full accord with it, rose the apostolic Christian community with its new living contact with God in Christ.
The first Christians confessed, “Jesus is Lord,” and they lived by the gifts of His Spirit. They constituted a fellowship of the Spirit which their Lord Jesus Christ had given them after returning to the Father who had sent Him. Thus they had implicit faith in the Trinity, although there was no need as yet to think it through or to coin a word for the conclusion. In this faith they would encourage one another, for example, to “be filled with the Spirit … always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father” (Ephesians 5:18-20).
The Trinitarian faith of the church of the New Testament finds its clearest expression in two places. First, in the “great commission,” often called the charter by which the church operates, the Lord gives His church the mandate to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in the order in which the church was later to formulate the doctrine, and it’s significant that baptism was to be in the name, not names, of the one God. Second, it’s also significant that in the apostolic benediction, which likewise refers to the three persons, the order is changed. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” is first. While these texts became important in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine itself does not rest on any specific isolated passages of scripture but on the content of the Christian revelation as a whole. It’s the entire gospel in a nutshell.
As such, it’s the specific Christian concept of God. Although the apostles didn’t raise the question of how God could be both one and three, once the question was raised, the church could be true to itself only by replying in terms of the Trinity. It’s the only answer which does justice both to the centrality of Christ and to the continuing reality of the presence of Christ. The Trinity is, first of all, an affirmation of the centrality of Christ in the faith of the church.
Worship of the one God whom Jesus worshiped and whom He revealed as “Father” is of course self-evident. But as the apostolic benediction implies, the key-member of the Trinity is the Second Person. The Father is “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the grace of God is “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and the Holy Spirit does not speak of Himself but of Christ. Had the church not felt constrained to assert emphatically that Christ is nothing less than “very God of very God,” there would have been no need for the doctrine of the Trinity.
Greek antiquity was familiar with various “sons of God,” men who were regarded as having achieved the rank of deity or at least of demi-god. A man such as the physician Aesculapius, for example, was thought to have actualized the divine potential in human nature and became the god of healing. But when this line of thinking was applied to Him whom the church worshiped as Lord, “in whom dwelt all the fullness of the godhead bodily,” (Colossians 2:9) it was annoyingly inadequate.
In 318 AD, church fathers assembled at Nicaea and declared Christ to be “very God of very God.” This doctrine couldn’t help but literally tear to pieces an Arian confession written in such vein. To the church, Christ was no demi-god or a deification of man, but the very incarnation of God, the Word become flesh. It was because the center of its faith, “God in Christ,” was challenged, that the church was led to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. Even today this doctrine is of fundamental importance only to a thoroughly Christ-centered theology.
The “great commission” makes clear that the divine sovereignty of Christ is the basis of the mission of the church. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,” (Matthew 28:18) says the risen Christ. He is the ruler of life, the determiner of destiny. His authority extends over everything in heaven and earth. It isn’t confined to the church, but encompasses the entire universe. It applies to every action and every decision we make. What we proclaim, said Paul, “was not done in a corner.” (Acts 26:26) The cross of Christ is planted in the center of all existence.
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). This redemptive act means that the world belongs to Christ. He will not give up anything that He has won. He will not be satisfied with ruling over only a segment of the world or a portion of your life. Christians are people who acknowledge the authority of Christ, who “crown him Lord of all,” who obey what He commands. And His last great command is: “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
We are called to make known His redemptive power to all people everywhere, bring every area of life under His sovereignty. This mission, empowered by Jesus’ own presence, goes on “to the close of the age.” When the curtain is lifted on the last scene of human history, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess: “Jesus is Lord.” (Romans 14:11) The doctrine of the Trinity gives expression not only to the centrality and sovereignty of Christ, but also to the continuing reality of His presence.
Had the manifestation of God in Christ been only an historical event, apprehended directly only by a few who were privileged to know Jesus during His life on earth, there would have been no need for a third Person of the Trinity. The true divinity of the Holy Spirit is the church’s witness to the living and abiding reality of the Christ-revealed God. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ fulfills His promise, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20) He continues to be present among His people and to afford them person-to-person experience of God and not mere knowledge about God. Giver of life and power, the Spirit reveals “God in Christ” at work in the hearts of men.
Thus the Holy Spirit makes possible a genuine and vital witnessing on the part of the church. The Spirit leads individual men and women into personal faith in Christ but He also binds believers together into “the fellowship of the Spirit.” The Trinity, then, is the church’s interpretation, in the language of an ancient day, of the living contact with God which Christ gives us. Therefore, instead of speaking about one substance and three persons, we could simply say: The Trinity is the revelation of God, given in Christ, and continuing to operate in the Holy Spirit.
God is one, not in the sense of barren arithmetic, but in a higher and richer threefold sense in which God remains the one true God even though He reveals Himself to us in Christ and continues to communicate Himself to us in the Holy Spirit. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, the Son of God is our Lord and Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit makes redemption real in our experience. This kind of logic can be grasped only from the center of the gospel: God is love.
Augustine was right, “You have an insight into Trinity, if you have an insight into love.” Just as love is the last word about God, so Trinity is the last word in the doctrine of God. The doctrine of the Trinity, as the Athanasian Creed holds, shows a Christian how He is to think about God. The church clings to this way of thinking because no acceptable substitute has been offered.
However, any thinking about God is a poor substitute for confronting God Himself. The Trinity becomes meaningful to us only when the Spirit, operating in the Christian fellowship, leads us to acknowledge in personal living faith: “Jesus is Lord.”

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