A Sermon preached by the Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D. June 7, 2009
In the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
You see that I have a visual aid this morning. This is the famous Rublev icon of the Holy Trinity. You can go to Google Images and type in Rublev Icon and also search for more in-depth information than I can give this morning. We’re talking about the Holy Trinity this morning. The color is white, which is the color of feasts in the church year. We’ve had some big feasts, the Feast of Easter which is the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Feast of Pentecost last Sunday, which is the feast of the Holy Spirit. The disciples were gathered and the Holy Spirit descended upon them, like flames of fire upon their heads. Jesus said, “It is good for you that I go so that the Spirit, the Comforter, the Paraclete, the Companion will come and lead you into all truth.”
Most of the feasts that we have are either something that happened in the life of Jesus or something that happened in the life of the Church. The feast that we have today comes at this point in the Christian year as a way of summing up the teaching that we have had throughout the year. It is an interesting feast because it is the feast of an idea, the Holy Trinity. It is the Feast of the Christian idea of God. Christians have a very specific, a very unique, even a very peculiar idea of God. We say that God is One God in three persons. We say that God is Holy Trinity. One in three. Now this is really difficult. The Christian religion is many things. One of the things that it is is a rigorous intellectual system. It is a body of thought that is exquisitely beautiful and profound and deep, and capable of absorbing our deepest and best thinking. The Trinity is something that is vitally important. The alternatives to the Trinity are many; one that is coming back today in an astonishing fashion is polytheism. When I started out preaching, I used to have to help people understand polytheism and how people could worship many gods. It’s not so tough now. Many gods, that are life-destroying (usually beginning with the sacrifice of children), not life-giving, that’s one alternative. Another alternative is monotheism — God is one but remote, or God is so immanent that God disappears into the world in pantheism. A lot of the New Age sensitivity is really a version of pantheism, an identification between God and the world such that the transcendence of God (His power and willingness to act) is lost.
How can God be wholly other, and be with us at the same time? Because God is three in one. That is how that can happen. So we struggle a bit to understand this. The first thing to understand about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is that it is, so to speak, a scientific doctrine. Sometimes I hear people misunderstand — I was at a psychology conference and one of the speakers said “well, that’s theology”. What did he mean by that? He meant that theology is speculation, there’s no objectivity, no fact to it. But the Trinity is scientific. What does that mean? It means that it is an understanding that is developed in order to make sense of a reality which is given. What is the scientist trying to do? The scientist doesn’t just go and sit in an office and say “I’d like to kind of explain things — maybe it’s like this…”
It has to be tested against reality. It has to be able to comprehend the reality that presents itself. One of the great stories in the history of modern science is the story of the understanding of light. Very early on, it was understood that light acted like waves. You could understand light to a degree if you could understand the ways that waves work. As the 20th Century dawned, it became clear that light also acted like a beam of particles. In the understanding of the time, you could understand how light could be particles, and you could understand it as a wave, but you couldn’t understand how it could be both things at the same time. What the scientist has to do is say, “That is the reality that we have encountered. Now we must develop our understanding in such a way that it can comprehend the reality that presents itself.” I’m not a physicist but I suspect there are some in the congregation who are familiar with this — that modern, contemporary science has a way of understanding and explaining how light can be wave and particle.
That is the way theology works. One thing to understand about the Holy Trinity is that it is not just some answer in the back of the book — “Who is God? God is three in one, okay, now we move on to the next thing.” The Holy Trinity is an explanation, an understanding, that is derived from experience. It has taken rigorous and deep thinking to come to this understanding. It has taken the Church a while to come to this comprehensive understanding of who God is. There is a famous priest and theologian, a man named John Polkinghorne. He is a world-famous physicist, and has written a number of books about science and religion. I was able to get him to come to the parish I was serving in Connecticut, and I asked him what was his most popular book. He answered that it was the Japanese translation of his explanation of particle physics. At about age 50, he thought that he had made his contribution to the world of physics, so he retired from the chair (now held by Steven Hawking) in Cambridge. He went to seminary and became an Anglican priest. He writes about science and religion, and was given the Templeton Prize, which is given for thinking about the relationship between science and religion. One of the things he said is that when he began to study Trinitarian theology, and the history and understanding of the Trinity in the life of the Church, he realized that he was in touch with a body of knowledge and a body of thinking that was as deep and profound and sophisticated and as nuanced as anything that he had encountered in his life as a physicist. So it is a little bit consoling to me that somebody who has been dealing with a subject that everyone agrees is hard and difficult but rigorous recognizes those qualities in the doctrine of the Trinity.
It comes out of Christian experience. Now here is the first thing that happens. Jews. The Jews are the people that God has called to Himself. God has revealed Himself to them. The great thing that the Jewish people know is that there is One God. What a thing we go back on if we go back on that. What a regress that is in the life of human civilization, to go back from this great understanding that God is One. The prayer of the Jewish people is “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.” There is only one true and living God. He has revealed Himself to the people of Israel. He has shown Himself with his mighty saving deeds. He is the creator of all things. He is beyond all heavens and beyond all gods, maker of heaven and earth. And the people who worship this one true and living God — it is these people — you know St. Thomas the Apostle is a Jewish man. Think what he has to do, what has to happen for him, who has a horror of polytheism, to be able to kneel down and say “My Lord and my God” about Jesus Christ. To this day, it is an offense to some Jewish people and it is offense to followers of Islam that we say that God is Three in One, and they misunderstand what we mean by that. They think that we mean there are three gods; it sounds like polytheism to them.
So where does this come from, the idea of the Trinity? It comes from Christian experience. They know that there is one God, but they also know that this man Jesus Christ is God Himself with us. Then there is the experience of the Spirit, which we have just celebrated last week. We know that there is the Father; Jesus talks about His Father, the God that the Jewish people have always known. Yet this God that they have always known has come in amongst them, has become incarnate. So there is the Father, and there is the Son, and then — there’s the Spirit. There is this experience of the Spirit, and the Spirit comes upon the Church. And when the Spirit is present, filling up the Church, and building it up in love, God is with us. And the Spirit is really God. The Spirit is not the Father, and the Spirit is not the Son, but there is only one God. So here is this Christian experience, this experience of God as Father, experience of God as Son, experience of God as Holy Spirit, but a knowledge that there is only one God. It’s like light being wave and particle — How can this be? They have to hold it together. Here’s the first thing that happens in the development of the understanding of the Trinity. I’m going to teach you a technical theological term this morning. It’s “the mutually opposed relationships”. Say that, “mutually opposed relationships”. You have probably seen this diagram (can be googled: Holy Trinity), when you were in Sunday School. You can see it says God in the middle and around “God” it says the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There is a little line that says “is” connecting each one to “God.” The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Around the triangle is a circle that says “is not”. The Father is not the Son, the Father is not the Holy Spirit. The Son is not the Father, not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father, not the Son. So everything that the Father is, the Son is, except that the Son is not the Father. And everything that the Father is and that the Son is, the Holy Spirit is, except that the Holy Spirit is not the Father and the Holy Spirit is not the Son. And it goes around and around like that. It is called the mutually opposed relationships. That’s a minimal beginning to understanding the Holy Trinity. So we begin to think about this love, that gives itself completely and totally but yet creates identity as it gives itself. Now, theology really gets rolling when it crosses cultural boundaries. Jewish people are not that theoretically oriented. There are different kinds of understandings. You understand how to ride a bicycle. You don’t understand all the theoretical physics that are involved in riding a bike. People who race bicycles for a living, they think about that stuff a lot. So we worship easily the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit without being deep into Trinitarian theology. But if we can come to understand this a little more, it will deepen, it will guide our life. What happens when the Jewish Christians cross over into the Greek-speaking world? Greeks think a lot about this. They ask, This Father, this Son — Is the Son of the same being as the Father? That’s a Greek question. Now this morning you pay attention to the Nicene Creed. “We believe in the Father and the Son.” The Son is of the same being as the Father. “Light from light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” Begotten, not made. The Father is always generating the Son. The Father doesn’t make the Son, the Son is not a creature. He is God Himself, always coming out of the Father. It takes the Church a long while to come to this understanding. Here is the understanding that I think is the most helpful one. It comes through St. Augustine and through St. Thomas Aquinas. Many of the things that we use to explain the Trinity are very misleading. St. Patrick’s shamrock — one thing and it has three parts. It gets you thinking a little bit, and it was a visual aid that was right there for him to pick up and show to everyone, but it’s really one thing with three parts. Most of the examples we use are material examples, and in the material world there is no such thing that is three in one at the same time. Everything is either one thing that has three parts, or at the end of the day, it is really three different things. I went on the internet last night and there was someone on there saying “I’m going to explain the Trinity in a very simple way. The formula for water is H2 O. There is water like what is in this glass, and then there is water that is frozen, and there is water that is vapor, and it all is H2O.” Well, that’s wonderful, but it is a heresy, the heresy called modalism. The Trinity is not one thing that appears in three different modes. It is three in one at the same time. How can that be? You’ve got to have a spiritual analogy for that. St. Augustine was the one who really understood that, and Thomas Aquinas was the one who really developed it. Here is what St. Thomas said: The way to understand how God can be Three in One at the same time is to think about a speaker who eternally speaks a word of love. If I speak a word of love to you and I really mean it, if I really mean it, I put myself into it. He really put himself into that. Think of a perfect speaker who speaks a perfect Word of Love, God Himself. And when God says something, it is. God has always been speaking a perfect word of love, and that word of love is the eternal Son. It is the eternal Son who has become incarnate in the Lord Jesus Christ. St. John says this well in the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” An eternal speaker who eternally speaks a word of love. There is the Father who is the speaker and there is the Son who is the Word, and the Father and the Son have a relationship with each other. The Son hears and obeys the Father, and the Father delights in the Son. The bond of love that they have with each other, the delight that the Father has in the Son, and the hearing and obeying that the Son has for the Father, the going out and returning in worship and praise and adoration — this bond of love between the Father and the Son — because God is God, and what God does is real, this is God as well, this bond of love. So St. Thomas says — Doesn’t it make a tremendous difference that at the heart of the universe is an eternal conversation of love? There is one God, one true and living God, a God who goes out in love and gathers in in love. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We come to the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit. This is the Christian life.
The visual aid up here this morning is the famous icon, the Rublev icon, painted in 1410. The way that icons work — they talk about “writing” an icon rather than painting or drawing it. It is supposed to be a window into eternal things, to draw you into eternal things. It’s not literally “there’s the Father, there’s the Son, there’s the Holy Spirit”. The feeling of it is supposed to give you the feeling of the Trinity, to help you look through this world into eternal verities. If you look at this for a little bit, you will notice that the way in which the three are gathered together describes a chalice shape. Look at the icon as you come to communion, you can see the chalice shape. It is talking about this life of sacrifice and praise and love, this out-poured life. And then if you look at it a little bit closer, you will see that it is drawn in such a way that it pulls you in, and there is a place at the table for you. There is a place at the table of the eternal conversation of love which is God Himself Three in One. There is a place at the table for us — not in our own right, but in Jesus, in Christ, who has become incarnate for our sake by the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit is drawing us. The Spirit is drawing us, and in repentance and faith we identify with Him who is the eternal Son, and by the power of the Spirit we are taken up in Him into this exchange of eternal love, this song of Love which is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And so let us take our place at the table this morning, and let Love be our song. Amen.
2 thoughts on “Trinity Sunday Sermon, 2009”
I enjoyed reading the message regarding the Trinity.
Though there have been many attempts to explain this humanly incomprehensible doctrine, I find it helpful to use the analogy of a person who, though a single being, may be a son/daughter, spouse, and parent. He/she is all three within a single being. The analogy falls short, however, since he/she relates within his/her family system in singular roles, whereas outside of the family system he/she may simultaneously be all three.
What I cannot fully comprehend I accept by faith. If full comprehension is important, it will be accomplished when I am with God, Son, and Holy Spirit in glory.
Until then, I have the incredible privilege of knowing all three in my various experiences with God as I walk, work, study, and minister.
Carl J. Fielstra
Dr. Harding, this is excellent. I appreciate the discussion. Best and blessings.