The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale on the east side of Toronto, ON. on Trinity Sunday, May 26th, 2013.
A Sermon for Trinity Sunday
Sunday, May 26, 2013
I speak to you in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sitting on my desk at home where I do a good deal of my study, indeed, where I wrote the better part of this sermon, sits a copy of a very well known piece of art. It is one of my favourite pieces, the original of which is in a museum in Moscow, Russia. Despite it’s location in a museum, it is not actually primarily a piece of art. To call it art is, in a certain sense, to degrade it entirely. What it is, you see, is an icon, that is a work of prayer. This particular icon is of the Holy Trinity and was prayerfully painted by the 15th C. Russian monk Andrei Rublev. You should have a copy of the icon there in front of you. I would invite you to look at it for a moment, in prayerful silence. This depiction of the Holy Trinity will guide us this morning in the contemplation of the one God in three Persons.
Let us take the text of the Nicene Creed, which we confess together each week, and set it alongside the icon. The composition of the painting echoes our profession of faith: “I believe in one God.” Rublev expresses this unity through the similarity of the three figures and through the circular formation in which the three are seated. “But how can we say that we believe in one God when there are three persons?” First, let us note that this image is a re-presentation of a prefiguration of the Trinity from the book of Genesis. There, three mysterious angels visit Abraham at the oak of Mamre. Christians have traditionally interpreted this appearance as an image of the one God in three Persons. In this encounter Abraham sometimes addresses the angels in the singular (as Thou) and sometimes in the plural (as You). This variation in language already points us towards the unity in Trinity. Second, this brings out something of a linguistic problem. When speaking of God, we must use language. But language is necessarily bound, it has limits and characters with a particular reach and no more, and we must use this language to speak of a God who is not bound in this same way, who is eternal. When speaking of the Trinity this matter becomes clear. For example, when Christians say that God is one we do not mean a countable oneness, as if God were some sort of simple monad void of differentiation or distinction. When Christians speak of the oneness of God, then, we mean to speak of the unity in God amongst the three differentiated Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. OK, back to the icon and the Creed. Note that the first article of the Creed regarding the Father is the briefest, He is the One about whom we can know almost nothing. In the icon the angel on the left is very pale, indefinable, almost transparent.
The Creed continues and, like the icon, stops the longest at the figure of the Son. The second angel is facing us, manifesting Himself completely to us. As we profess in the Creed, we know a great deal about the Son, for He became incarnate, that is he took on human flesh and dwelt among us allowing Himself to be seen, touched, and known. His garment is of bright and bold colours, blue and brown. This points us towards the two natures of Christ. The blue represents heaven: the divine nature of Christ; the brown is for the earth: the human nature of Christ. Jesus, the Son, is fully God and fully man, as we say in the Creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” and also, “he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Behind the central angel stands a tree; its roots are planted in the earth and its branches stretch out toward heaven: “It is the wood of the Cross, which through Christ becomes the tree of life in paradise,” (Living God, 63).
When speaking of the Spirit, like the Father, the Creed is again brief and succinct. Few things can be said of the third Person of the Trinity. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us life as we profess in the Creed. Furthermore, we worship and glorify the Holy Spirit, “with the Father and Son”. Yet, the action of the Spirit remains secret and mysterious. The third angel in the icon, like the first one, is seen from an angle. The dominant green colour of His garment symbolizes the force of life, the sap which allows all thing to exist and grow (LG, 63).
The three angels in the icon form a circle which is not closed. It appears to be open at the spot where the chalice is placed on the table. The final part of the Creed deals with the Church. It is here in the Church where we find the bread and the wine of the Eucharist and where all are united to Christ through baptism that we may take part in the heavenly feast of life eternal. And what is eternal life? It is to enter into and reside in the heart of the Trinity.
And this is the real heart of the matter. The Trinity is not first and foremost a doctrine to be intellectually grasped. The Trinity is not a riddle to be figured out and explained so that it makes sense to our rational capacities. The import of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christians is doxological before it is ever intellectual. That is, the Trinity describes the God that we actually worship. There are many examples I could give here in addition to the Creed but for lack of time I will not. Do note for yourself, however, the Trinitarian shape of our worship. The point is simply that it is perfectly alright if you like I tend to get a headache thinking about this particular mystery. Take for encouragement the words of St. Hilary: “By my regeneration I have received the faith, but I am still ignorant. And yet I have a firm hold on something that I do not understand.” Can I get an ‘Amen’?
In our gospel reading today Jesus addresses his disciples saying, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” However, Jesus continues, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” That is to say, the Spirit is sent to continue the work of Christ Jesus. We should note where in John’s gospel this passage occurs. Prior to our passage Jesus has begun to talk to his disciples about his departure from the world. For example, back in the middle of chapter 12 Jesus announces, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” (12.23). What does this mean? Jesus continues: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” (12.24). The crucifixion is Jesus’ glorification, for in his death much fruit is produced. This is why despite the fact that Jesus’ departure would have sounded like a crushing sorrow to the disciples it turns out to be a real blessing. I’ll say that again: the fact that Jesus is no longer with us like he was with his disciples in the first century is a blessing. This is somewhat counter-intuitive at first, is it not? I mean, when Jesus was here walking the earth his disciples were with him in the flesh! They were able to embrace him, talk with him, share a meal with him, witness all sorts of miraculous happenings. How wonderful! Were not the hearts of the disciples filled with sorrow at the news of Jesus’ departure (16.6)? Would not life be so much better and easier if Jesus were with us now like he was then? Furthermore, do we not eagerly look forward to and anticipate the return of Jesus? In what sense then can we say that Jesus’ going away is a good thing? Hear the words of Jesus to his disciples: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you,” (16.7). Indeed, earlier Jesus had told his disciples, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father,” (14.28). Thus, it is good that Jesus has gone away, for then the Holy Spirit is sent to dwell in the hearts of believers and to continue in the mission of Jesus, that is, to establish His kingdom over which the ascended Jesus reigns. Indeed, this has been the shape of the two Sundays prior to this one, that is Ascension Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.
When a seed falls to the earth and dies, it produces much fruit. What is the fruit that is produced in the wake of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension? Is it not the sending of the Holy Spirit into our hearts? His bodily presence could be only in one place at one time, but his Spirit is everywhere, in all places, at all times, wherever two or three are gathered together in his name (Matthew Henry). “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” Shortly before our gospel reading today Jesus spoke these words to his disciples: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live,” (14.18-19). “Because I live, you also will live.” Jesus continues, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you,” (14.20). And again: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them,” (14.23). All of this is to say that those who in baptism receive the Holy Spirit receive the very life of the Triune God. By the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son come and make their home with us. Or, as the Apostle Paul put it in our reading from Romans: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,” (5.5). The love that has been poured into our hearts though the Holy Spirit is the love of God that was most fully made manifest in Jesus, in his sacrificial self-offering for us. The sort of love that pours itself out and suffers for another. This love, God’s love, the love which the Father and Son share with each other is poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit so that, and this is important, we enter into and participate in the very life of God. Recall Rublev’s icon, the circle is open. The life of God is not closed in on itself but is open to the world, open to our participation in it until the day when God will finally and fully be all in all (1 Cor. 15.28). But why? I mean, this all sounds quite lovely but why be filled with the love of God? Why be taken up into the very life of the Trinity? To be sure, this is not a means to an end. This is the end itself. But in the context of the world we live in, in the context of a world under the power of sin and death, under the reign of a temporary ruler, that is, Satan, there exists a particular community, namely, Christ’s Body, the Church. And, until Christ returns the Church has been given the Spirit who leads us into the ongoing work of the ascended Jesus, enabling us to participate in and continue this work, that is the work of God reconciling all things to Himself in Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 5.11-21). During his time on earth Jesus demonstrated that he was indeed the Messiah, the king of the universe, and we saw with our eyes and heard with our ears the shape of this kingship, one marked by humility and suffering love. With Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension He takes His place on the throne as Lord of all Creation and with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit He forms a people who begin to live under His reign in His kingdom all the while in the midst of the old, decaying world. But, from the very beginning, this kingdom was meant to go out, to include all nations, all peoples.
Immediately after the portion of John we heard read this morning one of the final things Jesus does for his disciples before he leaves is to pray for them. Jesus is going to the Father but he does not pray that the disciples would come with him. Quite the opposite, actually: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world,” (17.15). Instead Jesus prays that the disciples would be protected. Why? Jesus’ prayer continues: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world,” (17.18). And why are the disciples being sent into the world? “So that the world may believe that you have sent me,” (17.21). Indeed, at the end of the gospel after the resurrection Jesus appears to his disciples and says to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” (20.21-2). We receive the Holy Spirit not only so that we may enjoy the life of God but so that we may enjoy the life of God for the good of the world. This is why the disciples receive the Spirit as Jesus sends them out. Have you been baptized into Christ Jesus? Then you are no longer your own. You are Christ’s, and he is yours, and he has given you along with all of your brothers and sisters the gift of the Holy Spirit. And together, as the Church, we are not our own, we are Christ’s Body. He prays for us and sends us into the world, into Toronto, into Riverdale, into our work places, into our homes. He sends us out to live as members of a new world, a new creation, to continue the work of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. To pour our lives out in love, to be broken, to suffer for others, and in so doing to make the love of the Holy Trinity known to human creatures.
Glory be to the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The following reflection on the icon of the Holy Trinity is taken in large part from the Orthodox catechism, The Living God vl.1, p.59-64.