This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell for Sunday 27th May 2018, Trinity Sunday in Year B.
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
I don’t know about you, but for me the Doctrine of the Trinity seems like a mixed blessing. It’s one of the big-ticket items that really sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam, let alone the religions that don’t worship the God of Abraham and Moses. That’s not really a bother for me, that Christianity is unique in this way, it’s good to be unique. It doesn’t bother me that the Doctrine is somewhat baffling; I want God to be a little bit mysterious because God is apparently all that is and was and ever shall be, and it’s kind of disappointing if I can grasp all of that, even at 46 years old and holding a Masters degree. So, a God who is beyond my imagining and rationalising is a solid point for me: a God who is beyond is a God who is what a God is supposed to be. No, the mixed part in the blessing is the question of the point of it all. So, God is infinite, and God is Three-fold in Unity: but why does that matter? Why do we actually need a Doctrine of the Trinity, can’t we just let God be God, awesome and eternal? Why can’t the Church just get on with saving the lost, raising the dead, and healing the sick, and leave what is above the clouds above the clouds?
In this morning’s reading from the scriptures of Israel the vision of God given to the Judahite prophet Isaiah is of God is The LORD high and lofty, the subject of seraph worship and adoration. Isaiah doesn’t have a vision of God in Heaven; no God is enthroned on earth inside the room which is the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The seraphim are also present on the earth and they cry out in awe of God, the majestic one. The whole temple shakes to its foundations with the sound of seraph worship as the seraphim heed the injunction of Psalm 29:1-2. Now, let’s remember that the foundation of Solomon’s Temple is actually the summit of Mount Zion; so, it seems that the whole mountain and with it the whole city of Jerusalem is rocking at the experience of divine anthems of adoration. It is not that the seraphim are singing loudly, no, what is occurring is that the response of God to worship is so resounding, and the response of all creation to the display of God’s glory as it fills the whole earth is so violent. This is God in all of God’s God-ness, this is undeniably God the earthquake and not God the gentle whisper: indeed, we read in Isaiah 6:3-5 that God’s glory is volcanic in its sound, sight and stench, and that it is utterly terrifying for the self-consciously human Isaiah who stands before it. In the first five chapters of his book Isaiah has been denouncing the sins of Judah, especially of the city, and now here he stands in the first verses of chapter six at centre of Jerusalem in the holiest place on Earth with the memory of his prophecies; he knows that not only is he unworthy to be in the presence of The LORD enthroned he is in a dire predicament as a sinner in the presence of so imposing a display of holiness. However, he is not in imperilled at all, and with a seraph’s touch Isaiah’s sin departs and is blotted out: Isaiah is justified just as if he’d never sinned, and he is considered worthy not only to stand in the presence of The LORD but to step closer to the throne and volunteer for a mission of proclamation.
Now on Trinity Sunday we can see some obvious links. The cry of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 is “holy, holy, holy”, so that’s three holies. Three, eh? Eh! And look at Isaiah 6:8a where The LORD asks Whom shall I send, who will go for us? “Us”, eh? Eh!
But have you missed what has just happened with Isaiah? Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God The LORD is personally present in Jerusalem. And God The LORD forgives and forgets a man’s sin, and God The LORD commissions this renewed man to proclaim the Word of God to Judah. I mean, wow, that’s a lot more pervasive an idea than a three-fold refrain in the liturgy. God does what Jesus is supposed to do, but God does this before Jesus gets a chance to do it. Maybe The LORD God and the messiah are not only on the same team, maybe they are following the same game-plan because today we have seen God act like Jesus.
In today’s prescribed part of the letter to Rome, Romans 8:12-17 Paul is admonishing the Church to be active in the outworking of their faith. Grace introduces not just a new mood (forgiven), but a new way of being in the world. Now life is by the Spirit of God and those who heed the Spirit’s wisdom are saved from the desires of the flesh. It is this Spirit, capital-S, who empowers those who take up godliness to act in this way. In other words, God is active in the life of the believer, and because of God’s action through the Spirit so the believer is supposed to be active in the work of God, calling upon God as Abba and living as children who serve, worship, and obey. “God’s spirit in you is God’s voice testifying that you belong to God” is what Paul is saying. And when the Spirit, big-S, is acting in you and on you when you suffer for Christ then God is in effect suffering with you.
So, another of today’s readings offers obvious connections to the idea that God exists in the plural as a unity rather than in solitude. The Spirit in you points to God who is your Father, the two are working as one to guarantee your identity as son or daughter of the one you call Abba. When you, son or daughter of Abba suffer for the sake of Christ who is the true Son, the Spirit who is in you also suffers alongside you. So, the Spirit within you as you live for Jesus who is called Emmanuel (God-Brings-Salvation and God-With-Us), draws you close enough to God The Father that you can speak of God as Abba, or my own dearest daddy.
In John 3:1-17 the gospel author tells us that Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, recognises in Jesus’ activities the action of God. Jesus confirms this, and says that all who trust God in the way that he trusts God will do the work of God as they empowered by the Spirit, capital-S. However, as he makes clear in John 3:13 Jesus is not ordinary disciple, he is The Son of Man who alone has descended from The Father, and he is the vehicle of trust. To trust in the work and word of Jesus is to trust in the work and word of God, because as John 1:1 reads Jesus himself is The Word of God. Those who exalt the LORD when Jesus the man is crucified are those whom God is saving through the blessing of a full life: Jesus is making a wordplay in John 3:14-15. See Jesus lifted up and lift high the name of The LORD as you look at Jesus. Those who lift high the name of The LORD will live a life of eternity: not just a life that goes to infinity but a life that is literally a “life of the eons”, the biggest, brightest, boldest, most abundant life possible, a life full of God because it is filled with and by the Spirit.
So, what is the point of all of this? And even if we have somehow proved by this skip across the top of the Bible that God’s essence is expressed as a unity of three co-eternal persons, existing of the same substance distinct from all created things, why does that even matter? In some ways that’s a deeper question than we can address in the forty minutes remaining in my sermon: some of the greatest minds in Christianity spent their lives examining this question and never got to the end. The triune nature of God is literally an eternal question: infinite and beyond all proportion of space and time to tell. So, I won’t even begin, except to say that if you’re keen to follow the theological pathways start in the Bible and go next to the Cappadocian Fathers.
In the meantime, let’s remind ourselves of what we have heard this morning. In Isaiah 6 we heard God act like Jesus, forgiving sin and commissioning a missionary with the gospel. In John 3 we heard Jesus speak with patient correction to an expert in scripture, a community leader whose love for law and ritual had misdirected his heart away from those for whom Jesus’ compassion was greatest, the spiritually orphaned. In Romans 8 we heard Paul instruct a local church to be more like Jesus, especially to live in the world with the fullness of the presence of God, and to love like a brother-sister everyone in the Church and every woman or man who entered the local congregation’s space.
So, in a grossly unfair oversimplification, (but on the other hand why complicate things), the Doctrines of The Trinity tell us that whatever God is made of God is internally and eternally consistent. God is always the same. Three points, because of course there must be three.
- God is love and God loves. The Father in all God’s glory has the same character of Jesus in all Jesus’ simplicity; Jesus lived and proclaimed love for neighbour, love for friend, and that greater love has no one than Calvary. That’s God, not just Jesus, that’s all of God who loves with greater love.
- Christians who claim to trust Christ for salvation, and who proclaim Jesus as the Way, not only as “the way to Heaven” where the Nicene Creed is the password to unlock the gate that St Peter holds shut, but the Way as in a way of life, should live like Jesus lived. God is abundant and sacrificial love: we should do the same. We cannot be the love that God is, but we can express the love that God expressed in Jesus.
- Christian love, the love that God is and the love that the Church expresses as people who walk in the footsteps of Jesus, is hard. Love cost Jesus his life, and it may well cost us our lives too: or it may cost us something even worse than death, it may cost us embarrassment. Martyrs sometimes have it easy, they only have to be brave for a few minutes and then they die gloriously even if somewhat messily: we have to stand fast for decades in faithfulness. It can be a lot lot harder to live for Jesus than to die for him, I am in no doubt of this, but that is where the Spirit comes in. The paraclete of Pentecost, the helper, counsellor, and advocate, is also God Godself and the Spirit is the one who helps us to call The Father “Abba”, to call Jesus “lord”, and to call others “brother-sister”. The same one who is God lives in you; equipping, encouraging, and comforting you in the life-long ministries of worship and hospitality.
And that’s why all this Trinity business matters: because not only does God want you to act like Jesus, remembering that God acts like Jesus, but the Spirit who is God is given to you to make it happen.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow: praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.