Trinity Sunday Sermon
THE FEAST OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY
one Godhead in three hypostases;
one will, one operation, alike in three persons;
wisdom incorporeal, uncreated, immortal, incomprehensible,
without beginning, unmoved, unaffected, without quantity,
without quality, ineffable, immutable, unchangeable, uncontained,
equal in glory, equal in power, equal in majesty, equal in might, equal in nature,
exceedingly substantial, exceedingly good,
thrice radiant, thrice bright, thrice brilliant.
We may not understand, but we believe with simplicity. We may not understand, but we accept this with humility. This attitude lies at the heart of the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. Our powers of logic and reason and inquiry fall short of the task of comprehending the nature of God. One is three without division; three is one, yet not the same–nothing created can fully fathom this sublime truth about the nature of the Divine. But we submit humbly and say: Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief (Mark 9:2). By the grace of God, not by our own intellectual abilities, do we live and serve. For this we are gathered to give thanks and praise on this morning of grace.
Last week I talked a little bit about the church calendar–actually, I talked at length about the calendar–and how it all hangs together in a coherent whole. From Christmas to Pentecost we commemorated, celebrated and gave thanks for the earthly ministry of Christ. Now we enter a string of twenty-plus weeks that are ordered quite differently. They are faith feasts in which the mysteries and doctrines of our faith are the focus of our reflection in liturgical worship. The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity is the first of these, and it is also the finale to all the preceding feasts.
All three persons of the Holy Trinity shared in the work of redemption. The Father sent the Son to earth, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (Jn 3:16). The Father created us, created us anew in Christ, called us to the faith. The Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, became man and died for us. He redeemed us and made us children of God. He remains with us in his body the Church, and through His body and blood in the sacrifice, His sacrifice, of the Eucharist. After Christ’s ascension, the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father, as the Son promised, to be the Teacher, the Leader, the Comforter, our Guide. Today we are called to relect on a mystery of faith that, in effect, is a synthesis of Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. The fact that this celebration falls on the first Sunday after Pentecost should make us mindful, help us recall, that all Sundays are devoted to the honor of the Most Holy Trinity; that every Sunday is sanctified and consecrated to the Triune God. Sunday after Sunday we should recall in adoration and gratitude the gifts which the Most Holy Trinity is bestowing upon us.
Some might ask, why is this even an issue? There is no mention in the Bible of the concept of Trinity. None. There is no passage that explains it or lays down the law on Trinitarian doctrine. The closest we get is the great commission, when Christ tells the disciples to go and baptize in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Ghost. This is actually very important in the context of the Trinity. Particularly because ‘the name’ of the three is singular; it is not ‘the names,’ but ‘the name,’ and this is not a translation error. Hardly enough for a doubter, though, who could reasonable say, ‘show me a passage where it says, specifically, that there is this mystical reversal of mathematics and logic.’ I can’t. There isn’t one.
We know of the Most Holy Trinity because the first generations of Christians pondered, prayed, read Scripture, and reflected on the way Scripture was connected, is connected, and their insight is preserved for us in, among other things, our creeds. They were able to see the picture behind the picture. The backdrop that looms large but that, if you stare at the details, you will miss. The backdrop that gives color and tone and context and depth to everything in the picture. The backdrop that makes the picture you see the picture you see, and not some other picture. We may not even notice the backdrop as we look at the details, but we are able to see the details because of that very backdrop. The Most Holy Trinity does not need to be explained in detail, not even explicitly mentioned, for it to be present on every page of Scripture.
Johannes Tauler, a great German 14th century mystic and student of Meister Eckhart, wrote that, “on this subject a staggering amount of things could be said, and yet nothing would have been said… To experience the workings of the Trinity is better than to talk about it… and though there is no subject more joyous and sweet to the taste, there is also nothing more grievous than falling into error concerning it. Therefore, stop your disputations on that mystery, and believe it in simplicity, entrusting yourselves wholly to God” (Hom 29).
For the Christian, life begins and ends by the grace of God. He created us and has given us every minute of our lives until the day we die. This is God’s grace and providence that we partake of every day and for this reason the life of a Christian is very explicitly begun and ended, in baptism and last rites, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This concept, then, that we cannot even explain has become one of the single most important doctrinal statement of the Christian Church. The understanding of the Church is that baptism in the name of the Triune God is what provides membership in the Christian Church. This is why no one who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is baptized again when he or she moves from one denomination to another. And it is why those who are members of groups that claim to be Christian but do not baptize their members in the name of the Triune God are baptized, such as Jehova’s Witnesses and Mormons. Walking by fait in the Triune God, who revealed himself to us in the person of the Son and guides us in the person of the Holy Sprit is what makes a Christian.
I began this sermon with a few lines from a doctrinal statement from the early undivided Church. They were written by one of the Church’s greatest theologians and confessors, St John of Damascus. St John goes on, and let us listen carefully:
Light is the Father, Light the Son, Light the Holy Ghost;
Wisdom the Father, Wisdom the Son, Wisdom the Holy Ghost;
one God and not three Gods;
one Lord the Holy Trinity discovered in three hypostases.
Father is the Father, and unbegotten;
Son is the Son, begotten and not unbegotten, for He is from the Father;
Holy Ghost, not begotten but proceeding, for He is from the Father.
There is nothing created, nothing of the first and second order, nothing lord and servant;
but there is unity and trinity
- there was, there is, and there shall be forever –
which is perceived and adored by faith –
by faith, not by inquiry, nor by searching out, nor by visible manifestation;
for the more He is sought out, the more He is unknown, and the more He is investigated,
the more He is hidden.
The most important question may not be ‘what can be said about the Trinity?’ but ‘what can be felt?’ Johannes Tauler argued that you must “allow the Holy Trinity to be born in the center of your soul, not by the use of human reason, but in essence and in truth; not in words, but in reality. It is the divine mystery we should seek, and how we are truly its Image; for this divine Image certainly dwells in our souls by nature, actually, truly, and distinctly, though of course no in as lofty a manner as in itself” (Hom 29). And St John of Damascus expresses a similar view when he writes:
And so, let the faithful adore God with a mind that is not overcurious. And believe that He is God in three hypostases, although the manner in which He is so is beyond manner, for God is incomprehensible. Do not ask how the Trinity is Trinity, for the Trinity is inscrutable.
But, if you are curious about God, first tell me of yourself and the things that pertain to you. How does your soul have existence? How is your mind set in motion? How do you produce your mental concepts? How is it that you are both mortal and immortal? But, if you are ignorant of these things which are within you, then why do you not shudder at the thought of investigating the sublime things of heaven?
Think of the Father as a spring of life begetting the Son like a river and the Holy Ghost like a sea, for the spring and the river and sea are all one nature. Think of the Father as a root, and of the Son as a branch, and the Spirit as a fruit, for the substance in these three is one. The Father is a sun with the Son as rays and the Holy Ghost as heat.
This is the advice of one of the greatest theologians of Church history: leave it alone. Leave it alone not just because the creature cannot grasp the essence of the Creator, but because it is a virtue to walk by faith alone. Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed (John 20:29). We walk by faith even when it comes to the very nature of our God. I love this fact because, whatever He is, He is most certainly not made in our image. If we could comprehend God, then He could very well be an idol, a mental graven image made in our own likeness. The fact that we cannot comprehend God is to me a good argument for the truth of the Christian faith. Again, St John of Damascus:
Be persuaded, moreover, that the incarnate dispensation of the Son of God was begotten ineffably without seed of the blessed Virgin, believing Him to be without confusion and without change both God and man, who for your sake worked all the dispensation. And to Him by good works give worship and adoration, [and venerate and revere] honor the most holy Mother of God [and ever-virgin Mary as true Mother of God,] and all the saints as His attendants. Doing thus, you will be a right worshiper of the holy and undivided Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Ghost, of the one Godhead, to whom be glory and honor and adoration forever and ever. Amen
Be humble, have a simple faith, and let your love for God be ardent. Embrace God in complete, utter and total trust. Know that he is, instead of inquiring or disputing abou what and how he is. When all is said and done, that may be the most important lesson of the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity—humility, simplicity and love, fundamental as both a point of departure and as end station for our journey of faith.
May the Lord continue to have mercy on us all. Amen.