I have to say that this is one of the hardest sermons to write. When I put together a sermon I usually work closely with the scripture and unpick it in such a way that we can learn what it means. I then look to see how we can apply this to our lives and what changes we may need to make.
When it comes to preaching about the Trinity that all begins to unravel and there’s a very good reason for that. Scripture, in no way at any time, offers any direct teaching about it. What that means is that everything that we know about the Trinity is based on what we infer from scripture rather than from interpreting what is written in individual passages.
Now that has led many Christians to think that it’s maybe not that important, so the first thing we need to recognise is that the Trinity is important simply because the separate persons comprising the Trinity are mentioned throughout scripture, but the formula we use, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, only comes up occasionally in the later written parts of the new testament.
Those who came to the Well service a couple of weeks back will recall how we spent some of the service meditating on passages about the Holy Spirit. About half of those passages were from the old testament. Indeed the Spirit of God first appears in verse two of Genesis chapter one and is explicitly mentioned many times throughout the old testament. If you look at the online version of this sermon you will see just a handful of verses about the Holy Spirit to ponder.
What I am trying to say, therefore, is that the doctrine of the Trinity is something that we use to describe what we see in scripture. We haven’t made it up. The Trinity is not a human idea. It is what we use to describe as best as we can the way that God has revealed himself to be. Therefore it is not an optional add-on to Christianity: it is at its heart.
This means that what makes writing a sermon about the Trinity so hard is not that there is very little to work on; it is that instead of preaching from one passage I need to preach to you the message of the entire Bible!
So although there is no clearly stated doctrine of the Trinity, it is writ large across scripture as a whole and becomes explicit in one or two places such as our Gospel reading where Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit coming and teaching the disciples from what is his, and that what is his is also the Father’s. Whilst that may not teach us anything about the Trinity, it certainly makes its reality quite clear.
And you may remember this reading from a couple of weeks back where, in praying for all believers, Jesus says these words: ‘I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one’. John 17:22
So let me see if I can teach us something from the whole of scripture about the Holy Trinity. Whilst I do that, please bear in mind that this is humanity’s attempt to describe the indescribable, that God, who is one God, is actually three persons. We cannot understand it because we are each individuals who know that we are also one person.
Let me first say what the Trinity is not. Some people have tried to describe the Trinity by saying that God shows himself to be a Father in some instances, a Son in others and the Spirit in yet others. However that is not true, and in fact is described as heresy because it gives a false account of the Trinity. That would be to say that you have one God with only one person who just reveals himself in three different ways.
The reality is that God is one being who is three persons. God is a community of oneness. The reason it is so confusing for us is that we have no frame of reference for that because we are all individuals, each of whom is one person. All that we can comprehend is one person in one body.
However, although we may have no frame of reference, that doesn’t mean we can’t describe it, and I think we can get much closer to understanding the Trinity if we do so. I’ve recently rediscovered the book Theology for Beginners by F. J. Sheed and I highly recommend it in terms of understanding our theology. What I want to say now really draws on that book.
I believe that not only does the doctrine of the Holy Trinity find its basis in scripture; it also teaches us something very important about human nature being created in the image of God, and what we should therefore be like, so what I’m going to do is to describe what the Trinity is like and then see what that challenges us about.
Let me first outline the doctrine for us. God is one God, with one divine nature comprising of three persons. Each of these persons is distinct from the other. Each is also, as the name suggests, a person. This includes the Holy Spirit who I know many people think of as being a divine force.
The Holy Spirit has a personality too, and if you look through the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, this is abundantly clear, as you can also find from the scriptures I’ve attached to the on-line version of this sermon. The very first thing we discover about the Holy Spirit is to see her brooding over the unformed creation. Isaiah talks about the Holy Spirit being grieved by our behaviour. You cannot grieve an impersonal force, and a force cannot brood.
So the Holy Trinity is one God who has three persons, all of which are distinct and non-interchangeable. I suspect that we have difficulties with the Trinity because of our western logic that gets hung up on it as if it is some mathematical problem. Of course three cannot be one, we all know that, and that’s not what the doctrine is saying.
All that is being said is that one God has three persons, it is not three Gods. Each person of the Trinity has the same nature, but is a different person. What I mean by that is you could ask two questions of the different persons in the Trinity. Let’s say the first question is, ‘Who are you?’
The Father would say, ‘I am the Father.’ The Son would say, ‘I am the Son’ and the Spirit would say, ‘I am the Spirit.’ That is because they are distinct persons. But if I said to each, ‘What are you?’ then the Father would say, ‘I am God’, the Son would say, ‘I am God’ and the Spirit would say, ‘I am God’. Their personalities are distinct but their nature is the same.
Who am I? I am Paul. What am I? I am a man. It’s exactly the same two questions, but the difference is that although I am in nature a man I am only have one person whereas God is in nature God but has three persons and they are all distinct from each other. I have one nature and am one person; God has one nature and three persons.
It is actually quite simple, so long as we recognise that this is us humans trying to put into easy(ish) terms what God has revealed about Godself. God is one God who has three persons.
What does that mean for us in the real world? I think it is all to do with community. Sheed asks the very poignant question, what does God actually do? We might think that the obvious answer is that God runs the universe. For physicists of a particular persuasion we might go so far as to say that God runs the universes in the plural. But is that enough for God?
The answer is probably no. This is where we might have to think a little harder. Our visible universe extends away from us 13.7 billion light years. There are about a hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy and we can see about a hundred thousand million galaxies, each with about a hundred thousand million stars. There is also every reason to believe that there is more besides this.
Isn’t that enough for the Deity? Well actually, probably not, and it’s only when we begin to grasp that, that we can start to comprehend just how powerful God is. If God is all powerful and all loving, then running the universe isn’t going to take up all God’s time. It won’t be the main event. The main event for God is loving.
Who does God love? Well clearly God loves us, but would that be enough for an infinite all powerful God? The answer must also be no. God indeed loves us, but we are not worthy of that love and we can never dream of responding to God with a remote fraction of the love that he loves us with. So where is that love focussed?
Here is where the understanding of Trinity comes into its own. God is a community of three persons. God is one God with three persons and long before the universe was created God the Father was loving God the Son, and God the Son was loving God the Holy Spirit, and God the Holy Spirit was... well you get the picture.
It was out of that love that God was inspired to create. God didn’t need to create us. God is complete in Godself. It was out of that self-giving overflowing love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit that God decided to create so that others could benefit. We exist because of God’s self-giving love. In God’s selflessness God knew that the love the different persons of God felt for each other should overflow, and so created us.
You and I, we are all a product of God’s love and were created so that we could experience God’s love. And as an expression of love we are also created to be like God, and this is what I most want us to take from understanding the Trinity. Read again through Jesus’s prayers in John’s Gospel and you find over and again that he prays for us that we would be like God in that we would love each other just as God the Father loves the Son, loves the Spirit, loves the Father and so on.
We are meant to be a community of love reflecting the nature of the Trinity. If you think I have preached a lot recently about needing to be good to each other, to respect each other and to stop gossiping or pulling each other down it is because I have been leading up to this, the ultimate in Christian teaching:
God has revealed Godself to be a Trinity of three persons in one God; a community of love. We were created by the Father, saved by the Son, and empowered by the indwelling Spirit of God to become like God in whose image we are created. The church, the Body of Christ on earth, is meant to be a community of love and I believe that this is our calling. The church is modelled on the Trinity, so let us strive to live up to our calling by loving each other and letting that love overflow. Anything less is not Trinitarian. Amen.
F. J. Sheed, Theology for Beginners, Stagbooks, London, 2001
Biblical references to the Holy Spirit
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the waters. Genesis 1:2
The Spirit of the LORD began to stir him (Samuel)... Judges 13:25
...and the Spirit of the LORD rushed on him (Samuel)... Judges 15:14
(The words of David) ‘The Spirit of the LORD speaks through me... 2 Samuel 23:2
(Obadiah to Elijah) ‘the Spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where...’ 1 Kings 18:12
‘You gave your good Spirit to instruct them...’ Nehemiah 9:20
‘For many years you were patient with them, and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets... Nehemiah 9:30
‘The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.’ Job 33:4
The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. Isaiah 11:2
But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. Isaiah 63:10
And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Mark 1:12
‘The Spirit/Wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit/Wind.’ (Jesus to Nicodemus) John 3:8
‘It is the Spirit that gives life...’ John 6:63
‘And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive...’ John 14:16-17a
‘...the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.’ John 14:26
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God... Romans 8:14
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26
...for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 1 Corinthians 2:10
...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22