TRINITY SUNDAY – Benedicta sit
Introit: Blessed be the holy Trinity, and the undivided Unity: we will praise and glorify him, because he hath shewed his mercy upon us. Ps. (8) O Lord our Governor: how excellent is thy Name in all the world. Glory be … Blessed be …
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, in the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: we beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities; Who livest and reignest one God, world without end. Amen.
OT Lesson: In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. (Isaiah 6.1-8)
Gradual: Blessed art thou, O Lord, who beholdest the great deep, and sittest upon the Cherubim. V. Blessed art thou, O Lord, in the firmament of heaven: and worthy to be praised for ever.
Epistle: O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen. (Romans 11.33-36)
Alleluia. Blessed art thou, O Lord God of our fathers: and worthy to be praised for ever. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him: Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him: How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him: How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him: Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man, who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (St John 3.1-15)
How many of you love a good mystery story? And what is it like when you have a new book or movie, and then somebody tells you the ending? It ruins it, doesn’t it? The interest, the excitement, the suspense and anticipation, it’s all gone! You might as well throw it away, and go on to something else. Trinity Sunday invites us to enter deeply into that great mystery at the very centre of our Christian Faith—a mystery that can never be solved. We often hear it said that Trinity Sunday is unique in that it is the only Christian Festival that celebrates a doctrine rather than an event. But I would challenge that view, and suggest that the Trinity is also an event, the difference being that this event is not just a one-off historical occurrence, but an ongoing reality. The Trinity is primarily an experience; it is the way Christians experience God in their lives. It is a matter of faith, which by definition negates the notion that it can be figured out or solved. And of course the Trinity is a mystery, because the Trinity is an event of love, and love itself is a mystery. We cannot describe or explain or analyse or dissect love; we can only experience it.
The Holy Trinity is a mystery. If we could solve it or explain it, it would be like that spoilt detective novel—we would just chuck it aside, and forget about it. But that we cannot do. Because we cannot understand it, our human nature wants to solve the mystery, so we keep trying. That is what keeps it alive, and fresh, and exciting. And that is what our talk about God should be, because God is alive, and fresh, and exciting! God is far greater than our imaginations, so how can we think that we could possibly comprehend, or explain, or know all that there is to know about God? Astrophysicists talk about an “expanding universe.” Well, that is sort of what God is like – always beyond our comprehension, and just when we think we are getting near the end, there is more. Now some would be tempted to say, “OK, if that is so, why bother?” Well, scientists do not stop studying the universe simply because it is too vast; they keep on going. That very fact compels them to continue. And so it is with the Trinity – God is infinite mystery, infinite beauty. And that is exciting, and compels us to keep going, even when we know we are only scratching the surface.
A story is told of the great St Augustine of Hippo. Having recently converted to Christianity, he sat upon the beach beside the Mediterranean, trying to understand the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He drew diagram after diagram in the sand—different organizations of circles representing the persons of the Trinity, and lines connecting them, showing how they are one. But with each wave from the sea, the diagram he had just drawn would be washed away, and he would begin to create a new one, only to have it, too, swept away by the sea. After hours of such reasoning and contemplation, an angel appeared to him, and commanded, ‘Draw again, with your finger, a diagram which explains the Lord’s Divine Majesty.’ So Augustine put his finger to the sand, and immediately a wave crashed over it, wiping it away. He threw up his hands in exasperation. The angel asked him, ‘Why are you frustrated? Even as each diagram you draw cannot contain the entire ocean within its grooves, but is whipped away by the sea, so the infinite majesty of God cannot be contained by any human thought, but washes all human thoughts into itself.’
So if God is and will always be beyond our comprehension, how can we ever hope to really know anything about God? Enter Jesus, the Incarnate Son. “Son,” in the ancient sense, means not so much a separate procreated being as an exact image – a replica. In English we have the expression “spitting image” which, etymologists tell us, is a corruption of an earlier phrase “spirit and image.” Well, Jesus tells us that He is the “spitting image” of His Father. He shows us what God is like. One of the theologians I read this week says that in our trinitarian talk of God, we have lost what is at stake, assuming, quite wrongly, that we already know about God, and that our task is to describe the ways that Jesus is like God. But the question for Christians should be not ‘How is Jesus like God?’ but rather, ‘How is God like Jesus?’ “Either God is the God shown forth in Jesus,” he says, “or we have a god like every other god. And if we have a god like every other god, then we’re dead.” “But we’re not,” he continues. “Trinity Sunday is the day to shout from the rooftops, ‘Hey, everybody! The God you always wished was God, well that’s the God you have! The God who looks like Jesus IS God the Father. We don’t have to wish any more!’”
And then we have the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, ever moving like the wind, breathing through us, breathing life into us, bringing God to us and us to God, interacting, interweaving, bringing the Father into relationship with the Son, and us into relationship with Both. Some speak of the Holy Spirit as the love flowing between the Father and the Son, spilling over all Creation, uniting Creation in the love of the Trinity. The fruits of the Spirit, qualities characteristic of loving community, make clear what is implicit in the doctrine of the Trinity – that God’s very nature is relationship. God is love. And we are made in God’s image, in the image of Love. To be Himself, God needs to unify in love. So we, who are made in God’s image, also need others, need to forgive, need to unify, to become most fully the people God created us to be.
God is one: one in essence, one in being, one in power, in holiness and in purpose—the One the prophet Isaiah encounters in his vision. Isaiah catches but a glimpse of the hem of His robe, and even that is so imbued with God’s holiness that Isaiah must turn away his eyes, crying out, ‘Woe is me! I am undone!’ Of the many things being said in this first lesson, central is the vision of God’s holiness—God’s complete otherness, God’s separateness—that is what ‘holy’ means. God is so entirely different from everything else in existence that we simply have no point of reference—no analogy is possible. Nothing in creation is comparable to God. So wholly other is God that even the seraphs—those heavenly beings that guard God’s glory—shield their eyes with their wings as they cry out their eternal hymn: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord …’. Yet their song reveals something more about God than just His holiness. As holy as God is, not only heaven, but also the earth, is filled with the majesty of His glory. Here is the divine contradiction: God, who is so far beyond anything in the created order, is nonetheless personal, fully present, and at work in this world, and revealing Himself in ways that can be encountered and comprehended by mortals such as us. God, who is so holy and incomprehensible, is also Immanuel: God for us and present with us.
Thus through our Christian Faith we discover that God is a community of Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in a living and dynamic communion of love, mutuality, and self-giving—a life in which the Persons of the Trinity constantly relate to each other, giving to each other, and loving each other. The Eastern Church Fathers called this ‘perichoresis’—mutual self-giving and intermingling, the continual giving of oneself and receiving of another. And this perichoresis of love cannot be contained. It spills out and flows beyond the three Persons. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The love of God reaches out, connects, and enfolds, manifested in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the work of the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity draws us into the mystery of who God is, but it does not explain or dispel the mystery. We can use all the lofty expressions of art and literature; we can take the entirety of human skill and knowledge and put it all together, and we would still fall far short of comprehending God. Trinity Sunday reminds us that God is not like anything or anyone we can ever imagine. All the analogies eventually break down or stray into heresy, because they are all attempts to comprehend what is beyond comprehension: they are attempts to examine logically that which is beyond logic. Some things can only be experienced. And belief in God comes only as a consequence of the experience of God in people’s lives. To attempt explanation sometimes diminishes or even eliminates the experience. Yet as Christians, we have to know God.
Nicodemus was a Jewish religious leader; but there is sometimes a difference between being religious, and actually knowing God. Nicodemus had a public and external commitment to God; but he wants something more, something deeper—an interior relationship with God. So he comes to Jesus secretly, under the cover of darkness, to learn more. What Our Lord tells Nicodemus is shocking and confounding. He says, in effect, ‘Nicodemus, you have it backwards! You don’t need God to come into your life; rather, God offers His own life and invites you to enter into it. In fact, you need to be born all over again—born from above—reborn into God’s life.’
‘But I don’t know how to do that,’ protests Nicodemus. Our Lord replies, ‘Of course you don’t. But the Life of God is right here before you, speaking to you now.’ The love that binds together Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that passionate, unconditional love that comprises the divine life—has overflowed into our world in the Person of Jesus Christ, so that all who believe in Him might have real, and everlasting, life. Christ is the Way into the fulness of the loving and mysterious life of God. This is why when people choose to follow Him, they are baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Baptism is not just a ceremony, but a rebirth into a whole new way of life, into the very life of the Holy Trinity.
God created the world out of love, and even when we rejected God’s love and marred His creation with evil, still God went on loving us and did all manner of extraordinary things to rescue us from sin and to win our love and fidelity. That is the Old Testament story of God’s involvement with the people of Israel – a story that culminates in the Incarnation, when God, in His love, actually became one of us, to live a human life and die a human death, and to rise again for our salvation. The story continues with God’s loving presence in our own lives through His Holy Spirit. The entire Bible is the account of God’s love in action. And the story of God’s love goes on.
African theologians speak of ubuntu, a word from the Bantu language which Desmond Tutu (No Future Without Forgiveness) describes as meaning that “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound, in yours … a person is a person through other persons.” “A person with ubuntu,” Tutu says, “is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole.” Ubuntu is not just an abstraction. In South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, ubuntu helped put an end to the spiral of violence that had enveloped so much of the nation.
The Triune God is the ultimate example of ubuntu; love found in loving; self found in self-giving; unity found in relationship; is now, ever has been, and ever shall be. As Thomas Merton writes in Love and Living:
Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message, one that will deceive and confuse us. We will never be real until we let ourselves fall in love – either with another human person or with God.
‘God is love’ means that God gives Himself. God didn’t begin loving when He loved His creation. Even before we existed, and from all eternity, God is love in His very being, and God’s love for us is but the overflowing of the love that God is from all eternity—the eternal love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God the Son comes into the world to redeem us, and when He sends His Spirit into our hearts, God is inviting us to participate in His eternal life of love, in the perichoresis of the Holy Trinity. It is because God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that we experience God’s caring, self-sacrificial, self-giving love.
Julian of Norwich in her Revelations of Divine Love, says,
The love of God most high for our soul is so wonderful that it surpasses all knowledge. No created being can know the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness of the love that our Maker has for us. By his grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand and gaze eternally marvelling at the supreme, surpassing, single-minded, incalculable love that God, who is goodness, has for us.
Love is the image in which we were created. God who is fully, mysteriously, and eternally the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, invites us into a living, loving relationship. The doctrine of the Trinity draws us into the mystery of who God is, the mystery of love that we can experience but never understand or explain. Far from being just some obscure and antiquated theological formula, it is the revelation of the truth of the living God, and the truth which must shape our lives as Christians. But the Feast of the Holy Trinity is ultimately not about a doctrine, it is about a Person. It is a festival of life and self-giving love, a celebration of mystery that invites human beings to participate in the Divine.
Thee, O God, the Father unbegotten; thee, O only-begotten Son; thee, O Holy Spirit, the Paraclete; O holy and undivided Trinity: with our whole heart and voice we do confess, we praise thee, and we bless thee: to thee be glory for ever and ever.
Collect: Almighty God, who hast revealed to thy Church thine eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as One God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace to continue firm in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of thee, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.
May God the Holy Trinity make you strong in faith and love, defend you on every side, and guide you in truth and peace: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.