Today is Trinity Sunday, the Feast of the Blessed Trinity, when we celebrate (as you probably guessed) the Holy Trinity! This is actually the latest major feast to show up on our Liturgical Calendar. In ancient times today would have been the Octave of Pentecost instead. In fact, our Collect, Epistle, and Gospel assigned for the day all pre-date the widespread celebration of Trinity Sunday itself by several centuries. This is why some folks count the “ordinary time” weeks between Trinity Sunday and Advent as the “Sundays after Pentecost” rather than our “Sundays after Trinity.” Different regions adapted Trinity Sunday at different times and different calendars dealt with the readings in different ways.
For just about everyone in the Western Church, however, this time in the calendar marks a shift from walking through our Lord’s life in the Gospels to a focus on application and growing as we walk out our faith. During this second half of the Church Year our readings will take us on a journey of growing in virtue, growing in Sanctification, and applying the truths we learned in our Lord’s life and teachings.
But today, as we said, is a celebration of the Holy Trinity. While we see hints at the Trinity as far back as the opening chapters of Genesis, our precise language for our understanding of the Trinity comes from the early Church. The Nicene Creed that we chant every Sunday is the foundational teaching on the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed, that we’ll be discussing in Sunday School for a few weeks, is one of the most precise statements about the Trinity. In short, what we know from Scripture and describe in the Creeds is that we worship one God who eternally exists as three distinct Persons. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; yet there is only one God. Furthermore, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father.
Overemphasizing either of these two truths is the root of most unintentional error or heresy in the Church. We tend to fall into one of two extremes. On the one hand we often emphasize the unity of God to the point where we turn the Persons into mere expressions of a single person. You’ll find this in the water/steam/ice analogy or the analogy where someone is a brother, a father, and a son at the same time. The problem with those is that it loses the distinctions between the Persons. God doesn’t simply change roles in the Persons. It’s not like he puts on a long white beard to be the Father, changes to a crown of thorns to be the Son, and puts on some dove wings to be the Spirit. No, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father.
On the other hand, we do not have three gods. This is the other error into which we can fall. Despite the distinctions of Persons, we only have one God. Having three gods is what we’re often accused of by Muslims or Jews. Alternatively, some quasi-Christian groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormans, teach that the Father is the real God and that the Son and Spirit are lesser divine beings, even gods, but created by the Father. Neither of these positions are the truth as found in Scripture or confessed in Christian orthodoxy.
The reason this is important is because the Trinity is necessary for the Gospel to truly be good news. Anglican theologian J.I. Packer (who was our bishop’s mentor in seminary) wrote: “The Trinity is the basis of the Gospel and the Gospel is a declaration of the Trinity in action.” If we did not have three eternal Persons in the Godhead, we could not say with St. John that God is love. His love for us flows out of the eternal love that has always existed between the three Persons of the Trinity. He did not have to create love. He did not have to create us to have someone to love or to be loved. Rather, love is essential to his being. Neither Islam nor modern Judaism could make that same claim because they deny the Trinity.
On the other hand, if the Son and Spirit were not co-equal and co-eternal to the Father, our Lord Jesus could not truly reconcile us to the Father, nor could the Holy Spirit give us the new birth necessary to enter into that reconciliation. If the Son and Spirit were created, if they are creatures, no matter how much they seemed to be gods to us, they would still be infinitely inferior to the Father and therefore unable to bring us into fellowship with him.
As Dr. Packer observed, the Trinity is necessary for the Gospel. In today’s readings we see the Holy Trinity active in both the beginning of our Christian life, and in its culmination in heaven.
In our for-the-Epistle reading from Revelation 4, we have St. John’s vision of the heavenly throne room. If you read previous chapters, you see that the voice who calls John to the throne is that of our Lord Jesus. In the next chapter, John sees him as the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. On the throne, of course, is God the Father. Notice that John refrains from describing his physical characteristics, as is typical when Scripture speaks of the Father. Finally, we see that John is “in the Spirit” when he comes into the throne room, and that he witnesses the Spirit present signified by the heavenly lamp stand or menorah. We also have the three cries of “holy” in the Sanctus. Why do we sing “holy, holy, holy”? Because God is Trinity.
This vision of the throne shows us our ultimate destiny as Christians: being in the presence of the Holy Trinity forever. But it also shows us that the glorious mystery of the Trinity should drive us to worship. Yes, it can be confusing. Yes, its hard to explain. Yes, the one-in-three and three-in-one math doesn’t work to our minds. But it is nevertheless glorious. The doctrine of the Trinity shows us God’s love for us. The doctrine of the Trinity shows us the grand plan of our salvation. And we are brought into fellowship with that glory. This is why so much of our hymnody, especially our oldest hymns (like the Te Deum from Matins), are Trinitarian. Pondering the Trinity should always lead us to worship.
And what about our Gospel passage? Last week, we briefly discussed the Holy Spirit’s role in our new birth, signified in our baptism, as Jesus taught Nicodemus. Today’s Gospel reading is that passage from John 3, right up until the famous John 3:16. When we look at that passage closely we see that all three Persons are present. In the beginning of our passage (John 3:1, page 187)
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus recognized that Jesus had come from the Father. Though he didn’t yet realize that Jesus was God the Son, Nicodemus knew that Jesus’ teachings would lead him to the Father. The Son would be the one to bring Nicodemus to the Father. Jesus told Nicodemus that new birth would be necessary for him to go to the Father as well. Verse 4:
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 answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of he flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The new birth Nicodemus needed would come from the Holy Spirit. As we discussed last week for Pentecost, to come to the Father, we need the indwelling and rebirth from the Holy Spirit. This is not something that can be planned or manufactured by man; no, by the Spirit God brings those he wishes into his kingdom. Jesus uses the analogy of the wind blowing where it wishes. Both in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New, the word for “Spirit” and “wind” are the same.
And, as we confess, all of this comes about through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Skip down to verse 13:
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
The “so” in “For God so loved the world” is not an intensifier describing how much God loved the world, but is a description for the manner in which God so loved the world. This points us back to the previous verse, where Jesus points to the Bronze Serpent in the Wilderness as a type of the Atonement. If you remember the story from Numbers 21, the Lord sent a plague of fiery serpents against the Israelites when they rebelled. God had Moses make a bronze serpent, so that anyone who looked up to it would be healed and not die. The means of judgement also became their salvation. Similarly, Jesus became sin for us on the Cross, took our sin on the Cross, so that we would be saved when we look to the power of the Cross. The way the Father loves the world is to send his Son to be our salvation.
And this demonstrates the love of the Father for us, that he would send his beloved son to be that bronze serpent, lifted up for our salvation. This demonstrates the love of the Son for Father and for us that he would willingly take on this rescue mission, joining our nature to his. And this demonstrates the love of the Spirit who would give us new birth when we look to the Son.
Whether you are a rebel like the Israelites, a confused but well-meaning religious man like Nicodemus, or anything in between, through the work of each person of the Trinity, we are reconciled to the one true God, the God who has invited us into his heavenly throne room, uniting us to himself, even as each Divine Person is united to each other. As we begin our journey of spiritual growth in Trinitytide, may we remember that it all comes from the Holy Trinity himself, as the only true source of love, virtue, goodness, and growth.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.