Sermon for High Mass – Trinity Sunday Sunday 27 May 2018
TRINITY SUNDAY, 2018 HIGH MASS
Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17
We like that passage from Isaiah with its picture of the house of God filled with smoke and “Angel voices ever singing” (New English Hymnal 336). It reassures us when critics condemn our worship with its ceremonial and music as unbiblical. But there is a connection with the vision of Isaiah at a much deeper level than bells and smells and choral music: a license for servers with pyromaniac tendencies; choristers in polyphonic overdrive; or organists tempted to pull out the “Wall of Sound” stop.
Our worship reflects Isaiah’s experience before the Lord in the Temple. We gather to praise God we confess our sin and ask forgiveness. We pray God to allow us to hear the Word with discernment and understanding and to respond to to it. The elements of our worship – gathering, praising, praying, hearing, and responding, – are all appropriate responses to the holy God who has made us and claims us as his own.
This sermon began, as it will end, with the invocation of God the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Our Christian lives began with our baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
So too, the liturgy of the Eucharist begins, and it will end with the Blessing in the same Triune Name.
Throughout it there will be not just Trinitarian language but a Trinitarian shape.
In the Collect for Purity, we will address God, and pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit through Christ our Lord.
After we have confessed our sins, echoing the prophet’s “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…” and been assured of God’s forgiveness, – not thankfully by the application of a burning coal from the altar, but by the words of absolution, – we sing The Gloria which ends:
“For thou only art holy; thou only art the Lord; though only, O Christ, with the Holy Spirit, art the Most High, in the glory of God the Father.”
We would expect on this feast a particular emphasis on the Holy Trinity in the Collect of the Day, a particular emphasis on the Holy Trinity, but the general pattern in the liturgy of is for prayer to be addressed to the Father, through the Son, Christ our Lord, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
After the sermon, we will make our profession of faith in the Nicene Creed, with its three sections speaking to the three persons of the Holy Trinity.
Then we offer our prayers of intercession “In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ…..to God the Father.”
In the Eucharistic Prayer, the Great Thanksgiving, we find the same pattern. As we give thanks to God for our creation, redemption and all the blessings of this life, we sing the Sanctus, the thrice holy hymn which echoes the worship of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision. We pray for the outpouring of the Spirit on both gifts and people; to transform them and us; to enable our communion, our participation in the Body of Christ and therefore in the divine life, the perfect union and communion of Christ with the Father in the Holy Spirit which our readings from St. John’s Gospel on recent Sundays have spoken about.
[If you were here early enough for Morning Prayer or come back to Evensong, you will find the same Trinitarian refrain in the Daily Offices of the Church: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” It is there in the opening versicles and then at the conclusion of psalms and canticles. Similar Trinitarian doxologies also feature in the Office Hymns. The Apostles Creed, the baptismal creed of the Western Church, which we recite at Prayer Book Morning and Evening Prayer, has the same threefold structure as the longer Nicene Creed.]
The taking of the Sanctus from Isaiah into the central act of Christian worship does not mean that there was a developed doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament. The general thrust of the Old Testament’s understanding of God is in the direction of a strict monotheism in the midst of a powerful and seductive culture with pantheons of gods. But the divine we, of “Who will go for us?”, like the “Let us make man in our image” of Genesis, came to be seen by the Church as foreshadowing that teaching; that understanding, which only came of be worked out in the early centuries of the Church’s life in response to the revelation of the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” and the experience of his continuing risen life in the Holy Spirit.
Likewise, the New Testament does not contain an elaborated systematic doctrine of the Trinity. What we have there is language about and experience of God the Father, of Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, which would lead the Church towards confessing the divinity of all three while maintaining their unity in the Godhead.
Our Gospel passage today begins with Nicodemus, “a teacher in Israel,” coming to check Jesus out, to examine the theology of this country preacher. He thinks he is the one in charge of this conversation, the expert who will ask the questions and evaluate the answers. But he soon finds that the roles are reversed: He is the one being questioned and taught. We hear him floundering as he fails to comprehend what is beyond his established understanding of God.
It is not only Nicodemus’ thinking which needs to undergo transformation, but his whole being and life. He needs to be “born again,” that much-abused term, better translated as “born from above. He can only understand that in terms of “earthly things,” of a natural birth, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”….How can these things be?”
What he fails to grasp is that in his encounter with Jesus he meets the one who speaks to him of heavenly things, the “one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” His understanding needs to be expanded and transformed if he is to receive this revelation; if he is share in the “eternal life,” the divine life into which Christ invites us. What is true of him, says John, is true of us all. Our understandings of God and life, the divine and the human, always need to be formed and transformed, deepened and expanded, turned upside-down and inside-out, by God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
We leave a Nicodemus as baffled and confused as we often feel, but he will reappear at the end of the Gospel as one of those who take the body of Jesus for burial. Nicodemus did learn in the intervening time what it meant to be “born from above,” to be “born again.” So there is hope that we will come to understand.
Paul, another zealous teacher in Israel, would learn the same lesson in his unexpected encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road in which he hears his equivalent of, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”
In the Letter to the Romans he too speaks of our sharing in that relationship between Father and Son made possible by the Holy Spirit: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ….” In the gospels, too, we see the relationship in prayer of Jesus with the Father he addressed in that intimate term of endearment “Abba,” which Paul applies to our prayer.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not a piece of abstract philosophizing. It was not the work of academics with time on their hands, but of bishops with a Church to care for and keep faithful in unity, sometimes under persecution; a gospel to be proclaimed to a world with its different cultures, faiths and philosophies; worship to lead, sermons to preach, converts to instruct; charity to administer.
Life would have been much easier for them if they had settled for simpler understandings of God: say as a lone autocrat – an emperor writ large. People could understand that kind of deity – it was what they were used to – but it would not be the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ – that love into which we are called. Instead, they wrestled in prayer and contemplation and thought with that revelation of the being and nature of God as love, and of human beings made in the divine image. They explored what it meant for relationship, participation, society and communion. They sought to make connections between that revelation and the experience and understanding of others.
We can be helped here by reflecting on our own human relationships. We do not relate to our families and friends, communities and congregations, simply at an intellectual level, ideas about them. We live in relationship with them; in love and friendship and companionship with them. We share their lives, their joys and sorrows, and they ours.
Just as in the life of prayer which must be at the heart of our relationship with God, so too in our human relationships, we must learn to listen as well as speak. In any true relationship, we find ourselves being changed and growing; challenged as well as affirmed: being “born again”, “born from above,” from outside ourselves; becoming the person we could not be on our own; something we could not make for ourselves, by ourselves. If we refuse to listen, to change and grow, to repent of our failings and seek forgiveness, to recognize that we are men and women “of unclean lips”, who “live among a people of unclean lips;” then relationship, friendship, companionship, love, all wither and die. But in the mutuality and sharing which reflect the being and nature of the God in the image of whose perfect communion and fellowship we are made, they flourish and grow, and as they do we find that fulfillment which the Gospel calls “eternal life.”
Not only do we find it. We are sent to share it with others.
“Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?
“Here I am, send me.”
Not, as has been said, “Here I am, send her or him.”