Reflection  26 May 2024 – Linda Cowan

Delivering the sermon on Trinity Sunday is not something people necessarily queue up to do.  And I understand why.  The Trinity is tricky.  The whole concept of the Trinity is a human construct, but it’s so deeply embedded in the theology of the church that it is impossible to avoid but also very difficult to explain.  To try to explain the Trinity in rational human terms is well nigh impossible. 

From the very start of the church, it proved difficult to explain clearly where God the creator, Jesus, God’s son, and the Holy Spirit fit together.  In 325 CE the emperor Constantine called together a Council of the whole church at Nicaea to try to resolve this among other issues. The church in 325 was concerned largely about the relationship between God and Jesus.  One of the Bishops, Arius, saw Jesus as being subordinate to God.  The Council decided that this was not what the Bible taught and not what the apostles had passed down to them.  Rather they claimed that Jesus and the Father were one and of the same substance. This doctrine was incorporated in the Nicaean Creed.  At a Council at Constantinople in 381 CE the Creed was altered and included the Holy Spirit as “worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son”. Hence we come to the words we sang in our first hymn: “God in three persons, blessed Trinity”. 

Well, it may be blessed, but it’s also a doctrine that, while it seems simple, is very difficult to explain.  I thought I understood the Trinity well enough, but on further investigation, I find that most of my analogies for the Trinity are actually heretical!  I guess it’s a while since we burnt heretics at the stake but I’m not anxious to take the risk. 

One analogy that I liked was the one that says the Trinity is like water in its three natural forms, liquid, steam, and ice.  This, however, makes me guilty of the heresy of Sabellianism which is the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes or aspects of God, as opposed to a Trinitarian view of three distinct persons within the Godhead.  Feeling confused?  Me too. 

Then I quite liked the analogy that said the Trinity was like a person being a mother, a daughter, and a sister.  But this, it seems, is the heresy of Partialism, the idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together make up God. This would suggest that each of the persons of the Trinity is only part God, only becoming fully God when they are together. Not ok!

The big heresy however is Arianism which suggests that because the Son and the Spirit come later, they are in some way subordinate to the Father. This isn’t ok either.  In fact, I’m not sure there’s any analogy to describe the Trinity that isn’t a heresy.  So the position I have arrived at is this:

  • the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly addressed in Scripture
  • It is the process of many centuries of thinking about our Christian faith
  • It is foundational to Christianity as a monotheistic religion – the Lord our God is one God.
  • It does actually help me in my understanding of God – but essentially my understanding of God is imperfect because I am me and God is God! 

So maybe what we need to do this morning is rather than looking for definitions of Trinity that satisfy our intellect, look for ways in which the inter-relationship of the three parts of the Godhead have meaning for the reality of our human lives.  In other words, what does this actually mean for me?

Let’s see if our Bible readings can shed any light.  The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah is well known to us.  In a dramatic way, complete with six-winged angels, shaking of the building, and smoke, God appeared to Isaiah and called him to serve him.  Isaiah’s immediate reaction was to recognise his own unworthiness for the job – “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” God symbolically forgave Isaiah, and in response, Isaiah agreed to take on the task God had for him. 

There are some who would see in this story the three parts of the Godhead at work, God the Creator in the initial appearance, God the Son in the forgiveness and restoration of Isaiah, and the Holy Spirit as the one who empowered Isaiah for the challenge God was putting before him. We may not agree with this – the Holy Spirit according to the Bible came after Jesus’ ascension – but strict Trinitarians look for evidence of the triune God in the Old Testament too. But what does this reading say to us?  Perhaps it says that like Isaiah, we too are people who have been called by God.  We may not have been visited by 6 winged angels, but we all know those times when God has prompted us into a role or a task that he has set aside for us.  Maybe it has been in a moment of reflection.  Maybe it has just come upon us as we have been doing a mundane household task.  Maybe it has come to us as part of our work.  But I’m sure we have all known those times when we have been prompted by God into action.  Our immediate response is to say no – not enough time, not my thing, someone else would be better – but God keeps at it and eventually we say OK God, as long as you will help.  It may not be a big deal, someone who we are prompted to visit or ring up on the phone.  And it may be a big deal, something that will change someone’s life. We don’t know.  We just know that God is in it.  And in the midst of this, we see the Trinity at work – we are called by God and then we are empowered by the Spirit to continue Jesus the Son’s mission to the world.  James Torrance, an eminent Scottish theologian wrote: “The mission of the Church is the gift of participating through the Holy Spirit in the Son’s mission from the Father to the world’. We probably didn’t think in these terms when God prodded you and me into action, but I think it makes sense.

Then the New Testament lesson offers us the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of Jews which controlled civil and religious law. It had 71 members and was a powerful body.  We are told that Nicodemus acknowledged Jesus as a teacher and healer sent by God, but he clearly had some anxiety being seen in the company of Jesus because he came to see him under cover of darkness.  It is clear too that he had some uncertainty about Jesus’ teaching because he showed hesitation and doubt in his questioning of Jesus.  Jesus talked to Nicodemus about being “born again”, not physical rebirth or through water, that is baptism, but through the action of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus, the Son, is suggesting to Nicodemus that the way to God the Father is through the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus thinks on a literal level, while Jesus is speaking on a theological level and as a result Nicodemus leaves confused by the whole conversation. I think if I had been in Nicodemus’s place, I might well have been confused too.  It’s easy in the light of hindsight to see how much more Jesus was saying.

But it’s interesting that Nicodemus didn’t give up on Jesus for all that he found their discussion confusing.  We find that in John 7 Nicodemus argued within the Sanhedrin against Jesus’ arrest and then in John 19 he brought spices for Jesus’ burial.  Did Nicodemus go home and think about what Jesus had said some more?  Did it eventually make sense?  Maybe it did – we don’t know. But Nicodemus certainly numbered himself among the followers of Jesus, even after his death when such a label was potentially dangerous.  So it seems that Nicodemus did catch something of what Jesus was on about.

So what does this story say to us?  Well, firstly I find myself liking Nicodemus who wanted to understand on a fairly down to earth level.  I can empathise with his desire to be able to understand what he believes in a straightforward way. Maybe he simply said to himself I’m not sure that I completely understand what Jesus is talking about here, but I like what he says, I like what he does, and through his living, he shows me a way to God I haven’t seen before.  I think this is true for us too.  Understanding the theology behind the Trinity is not something we have to do to be a follower of Jesus to know what the love of God means in our lives or to be empowered by the Holy Spirit.  So, I don’t think we need to get swamped in theology. 

I’m sure we all know people who live their faith with their whole being.  They could never explain the finer points of Trinitarian thinking, but they know what it means to be loved by God unconditionally.  They know what it means to be called by God to continue Jesus’ mission here on earth.  They know what it means to live out their faith open to the leading of God’s Spirit and empowered by God for the adventures that each day throws up.  This is what I think matters. This surely is living out what those bishops at the Council of Nicaea back in 325 were on about.

So this Trinity Sunday let us consider our own calling.  We know God loves us with unconditional, unlimited love.  We know that Jesus came to show us God’s way of living and loving.  We hear the Spirit calling us into the activities, excitement, and challenges of each new day.  Let’s claim God’s power to respond to whatever God has in store for us, living and sharing the good news.