Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-15, Revelation 4:1-11
AFTER this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven.
Today is Trinity Sunday – it is in the Anglican Tradition (and in some Lutheran circles), the beginning of the last season of the Church’s year, Trinity season. All our Sundays from now until Advent, the last half of the year, are named as Sundays after Trinity.
In our readings in the first half of the Christian year, from Advent until now, we have looked at the revelation of God as Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. In the last half of the year we will be considering our entrance into the life of this triune God and our growth in that spiritual life.
I have been preparing 20 young people for confirmation, God willing, on June 20 – and I find the hardest part of that catechism, the teaching of the Church, is to speak about God the Holy Trinity.
We can use images to try to make some sense in our minds of who God is – like St Patrick, who is reported to have used the shamrock, when travelling through Ireland to teach about God the Holy Trinity – three leaves on one stem. Of the course every picture we try to make with our minds, if we think about it for a moment, falls apart somehow – one of the three leaves on the stem looks like less than the three on the stem – so that doesn’t work. Or Dante tried to describe his vision of God as three concentric spheres of rainbow light – but how could you see the three distinctly if they are concentric? And the image of a sphere still expresses God as somehow having a body, as contained, but God is without a
body. Our minds fail, and must fail in trying to comprehend the incomprehensible God. (The Orthodox only authorized icon of the Trinity are images of the three angels who visited Abraham to announce the birth to Sarah of a son. In that mysterious encounter, we hear of three sometimes and sometimes of one. Rublev’s icon (right) is beautiful for many reasons but especially because all three figures have an identical face. Still, we might be confused in seeing the image that somehow the substance of God is divided.)
In recent times, to justify diversity in doctrine, some theologians have said that the Trinity is a wonderful example of community reflecting unity in diversity – yet, that statement falls apart – because there is no difference whatsoever between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God – and yet there are not three God’s. You cannot say of one of the persons that they do not have something that the other two have or that person would not be God. The only thing we can say is different between the persons is their relation to one another – as is described in the Creed of St Athanasius – The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father and the Spirit is not begotten but proceeds from the Father and the Son.
God has no body, parts or passions, God is beyond gender, and yet we are given words to describe God, by Jesus Himself, God in the flesh, that keep us searching, and tell us something about the nature of God. And in the light of Jesus Christ, we can see God the Holy Trinity being revealed from the beginning of Bible to the end. The first few verses of the Bible – Genesis 1:1-3 speak of God (the Father) speaking the Word (the Son) and all things coming into being by the Spirit.
So why does God reveal Himself as Father, Son and Spirit, yet one God in the Bible?
That God is trinity, helps in seeing God as self-knowing, and God is a dynamic relation of love – the Father and Son behold one another in Love, the Holy Spirit. That each one of us in our souls is made in the image and likeness of God – gives us something to ponder and reveal about the Trinitarian nature of our souls – its deformation by sin and what it looks like when it is reformed by grace. (St Augustine speaks of being/memory (the Father), knowing/intellect (the Son) and willing/will (the Spirit) as an image in the human soul. The Collects each Sunday pick up on this trinitarian psychology.)
The holy Trinity is not a teaching that may be finally made clear in a sermon, or a 1000 sermons – only perhaps that we can say that some things cannot be true about God. But our minds are left in a kind of awe and openness and a necessary and healthy confusion to the glory and wonder of God when we try to ponder the Trinity.
Because Jesus told us to believe in the Trinity, there must be something that brings health to our minds and hearts about worshipping the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity, of joining in the song of the angels that Isaiah and St John saw in a vision – Holy, Holy, Holy, (are these adjectives or nouns? they are both, expressing the Trinity) is Lord God Almighty (expressing the Unity), who was and is, and is to come.
It is helpful to hold before our minds the Trinity in Unity – if we speak uncautiously, as if there are three Gods, we can prevent others – such as Muslims and Jews – from being able to accept Jesus and the Christian faith.
We have images of the worship in heaven of the Triune God, seen by Isaiah and by St John in our readings today. Our end is to be taken up into this God through faith in Jesus Christ – one day we hope to be lost in that wonder and glory. The visions of Isaiah and John are meant for our minds not yet ready for such glory, though to see the Kingdom of heaven is something we are to expect to have opened up for us even while we still walk on the earth.
In our Gospel, Jesus declares to us, how it is that we can get from here to there.
Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus is saying that by our creation as creatures we cannot know or participate in the life of heaven, to see the kingdom. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. For us to know and enter into the life of heaven, that is, to see, to enter the kingdom of God, we need spiritual eyes, and to receive such eyes, we are in need of a new birth – that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
God is Spirit and to see God, we need a new birth that comes from above – the descent of the Holy Spirit to open up that vision of God.
But how can we receive that Spirit from above, to lift us to the heights of heaven, to see that spiritual world? And why did God wait until Jesus to pour out his Spirit on all flesh? What was God waiting for?
Jesus makes it clear here, as he did in last Sunday’s Gospel – the necessary receiving of the gift of the Spirit is linked with what Jesus has done for us on the Cross. In the last verse of today’s Gospel Jesus says,
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Jesus is referring to what happened to the Jews on their wilderness wandering out of slavery in Egypt to the promised Land. The people sinned by despairing on their journey and even despising God’s provision of bread. Poisonous serpents began to bite them on the way, and they were dying (a kind of outward clear sign of what was happening to their souls inwardly). Moses pleaded with God to deliver the people, to forgive them – and God said, here’s a way that the people can be saved – make a bronze serpent and put it on a wooden pole – and when the people are bitten, if they look to the bronze serpent, they will be healed – in other words, if they turn in obedience and faith to God for help, he will help them. But they later confused why they were given the bronze serpent – later some even began to worship it! And it had to be destroyed.
Jesus is saying that, there is a way, despite our failures in love, to be forgiven and to be restored and to have the vision of God opened up to us, to be able to see the Kingdom of heaven and to enter it.
Jesus says, the Son of Man must be lifted up – and Jesus knows it will be on a cruel cross –that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
We trust in the offering of Jesus on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins and to heal us from the destructiveness of sin. And once forgiven, we don’t go back to that life which by its very destructiveness blinds us to the vision of the Kingdom. Rather, we cooperate with the gift of the Spirit to turn away from sin and to lead a life more and more in righteousness and holiness – because that life alone opens our eyes to the Kingdom of heaven that has come and is coming.
Soon we will present Jesus Christ crucified, in the Holy Communion. Here we can be forgiven our failures in love, here our blinded vision of the thrice Holy God, is cleansed.
Let us prepare ourselves through true repentance and a lively faith.