A reflection on the Trinity

We recently spend a very pleasant week in Cornwall where once again I was allowed the privilege of leading worship at Delabole Methodist Church in the Camelford/Week St Mary Circuit. Sunday May 26th was Trinity Sunday, that celebration of the three persons of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Being more than conscious of failing to meet my new year resolution to become more of an active blogger, I was determined not to let this event in the church calendar pass without providing a reflection on why it is still an important part of our faith.This blog is based on the sermon I gave at Delabole that Sunday. The readings used were Psalm 29, Romans 8: 12-17 and John 3: 1-17.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the celebration of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the three Persons of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

It is also Aldersgate Sunday which this year falls after Aldersgate Day on the 24th of May which was this Friday just gone. It is when Methodists commemorate John Wesley’s deeply religious experience while listening to Martin Luther’s sermon on Romans in 1738, which assured him of his new birth and salvation by grace in Christ and which led to his founding of the church we know today.

We celebrate the three- in-one of the Holy Trinity as being three parts of the one whole. That whole being God. We also recognise that in the epistle to Romans provides a blueprint for Christian living, particularly Romans 8. God is the creator who rules over all things, who provides the gift of salvation by grace through Jesus the son who was sent to show the world a better way, and the spirit that guides us in our daily lives.

The Holy Trinity has given its name to many a church and school. It is sometimes used to describe something wonderful, people or places which involve the number three. If you are a Manchester United fan, you will remember doubtless your own holy trinity of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. As a Chelsea fan I prefer John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba myself.

I looked up some old notes from my degree course on the doctrine of trinity by my old Professor, John Hull (1935-2015), and found the following-.

Although the doctrine of the Trinity was not formed for several centuries traces of it may be found in scripture. So, the Bible bears witness to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity but does not clearly define it. Here are some examples of such traces.

 Father, Son and Spirit at the baptism of Jesus: Mk 1:10-11

The Trinity and baptism in the Triune name: Matt 28:19

The sending Trinity: John 20:21-22

The Trinity on the day of Pentecost: Acts 2:33

The three that bear witness: 1John 5:6-8

The Pauline blessing: 2 Cor. 13:13

The name of Father, Son and Spirit means that God is the one God in a three-fold repetition. God takes upon God the responsibility for sin. Hence the gift of salvation through grace.

The history of salvation may be thought of in three stages: The age of the Father (ancient Israel), the age of the Son (the gospels), and the Age of the Spirit (The early Church and on to today).

If we think of the Trinity in chronological terms then the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, the Spirit sends the apostles, whose authority descends upon the bishops, who ordain the priests, who baptise the rest.

The experience of the early Church therefore was based in faith in God, which was experienced through Jesus Christ, and made real through the Holy Spirit.

In our scripture readings today, we can see how that experience shows itself.

Psalm 29 is a poem praising God’s glory, what is referred to as the divine council, a group of celestial or heavenly beings who lift their voices to declare God’s glory. In verses 3-9 we hear the power of God’s voice over the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful and full of majesty.

The image of chaos and destruction is common throughout the Hebrew bible particularly in the psalm verses as it overwhelms the very nature he created. God’s power is unmatchable, thunder, lightning, storm-tossed seas, trees uprooted. Such power is worthy of worship and devotion, for the Lord sits on his throne looking down on his creation.

Such power encourages his people who believe in his ability to give strength in times of trouble and to give them hope for lasting peace. It is as common a belief today as it was in the past. Successive generations have constantly cried out to God for help to alleviate their suffering and to bring hope and comfort. The Old Testament in particular is full of such stories, praising God for his mercy and the hope in his power to change things particularly in Israel’s darkest periods of its history.

 We do the same in our prayers of petition and intercession every Sunday. It is that faith in God to deliver us from our troubles however much or little we believe it, which is the starting point of our experience and probably always will be. As a Police Chaplain one mantra I constantly hear from officers and staff members is, “I don’t believe in God, but I expect I will be asking for his help one day”.

In our epistle reading from Romans 8, the whole chapter is concerned with living life in the spirit for those who were newly baptised members of the church and for the freedom it gave them from works of the Law.

The opening in verses12-13 is a clear warning, “brothers and sisters, we are debtors not to the flesh, for if you live in the flesh you will die”. If you live your life by earthly values you will perish. But life through the spirit means you can reject earthly pleasures – put to death the deeds of the body – and you will gain eternal life.

Paul uses the term, Abba or Father signifying God the Father whereas he describes Jesus as Lord. It is through the spirit that we all become God’s children. This to Paul is the true hallmark of Christianity. One God, One Son and One Spirit.

Finally, in V17 Paul refers to suffering and how if we also suffer with Christ we are similarly glorified. In the context of those times the suffering is not only hypothetical but actual, something Paul would know given his Pharisee past. By suffering for Christ, our glorious inheritance in death is as assured as the affliction we endure in life.

Today as we know, in some parts of the world it is dangerous to be a Christian. India, Pakistan, parts of the Arab World, parts of SE Asia, Nigeria to mention a few. Even here in our own country being an openly practising Christian often invites ridicule and abuse from the prevailing orthodoxy of our times. Christians have been dismissed from their jobs simply for stating biblical teaching in their opposition for example to same-sex marriage or for their gender-critical stance in the transgender debate.

But like those before us, we must keep the faith and continue to be guided by the spirit however fraught or dangerous that may be.

Our Gospel reading refers to Jesus the Son. This passage arguably containing one of scriptures most famous quotes in verse 16 serves as a reminder of God’s intentions towards his creation.

The visit by Nicodemus took place at night, but it also suggests that Nicodemus was approaching Jesus because he was also in the dark about some of the signs that Jesus had given to show he came from God. As a senior leader of the Jews, he wanted to understand more about this Rabbi and the message he was preaching.

There is much ambiguity in the resulting conversation between the two. Nicodemus like all Jews is awaiting the kingdom that has been promised to Israel. But for Jesus the new life offered must come in a re-birth or renewal of life in him as God’s son.

Nicodemus takes this meaning literally; how can someone be born again having lived already? Jesus’ use of water and spirit signifies birth from above, the birth-like transformation effected by God’s spirit. By accepting Jesus, the spirit will re-create that new life in that person which is being offered to them through the waters of baptism.

The old order has gone, to be replaced by a new way of life, a new way of fulfilling God’s desire for his creation. But human frailty is as we all know never far away.

Nicodemus exemplifies much of what many Jews particularly the pharisees failed to understand by Jesus’ message of rebirth. He asks, “how can these things be?” Jesus’s reply is straight to the point. “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”

He continues: “We have told you of what we have seen and what we know yet you do not believe us. If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe them, how can you believe me about heavenly things?”

Heavenly things refer to rebirth because he is the son of man and only he can speak with authority about it. Again, something Nicodemus would find hard to comprehend.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, Jesus was to be a symbol of life and healing and was to be exalted. Lifted up could also refer to the cross upon which people were given the chance of new eternal life through the spirit following Jesus’ death.

Quite a lot of symbolism in this passage but necessary because in verse 16 Jesus declares the true purpose of his mission. God’s love for the world was such that he sent his only son into the world so that anyone who believes in him would have eternal life.

Verse 17 expands on this when it declares that God did not send his son to condemn the world but to save it from itself. God’s objective was to see salvation among his people. God’s objective hasn’t changed.

But again, that thing called human frailty intervenes on a regular basis. Humanity still follows its dark side, causing its own condemnation by preferring to remain in the darkness of evil rather than through the light that Christ offers.

So how do we maintain faith and hope in an increasingly secular world?

It is not an easy question to answer. Individually and corporately, we are challenged to live our daily lives through the Gospel despite the provocations we endure from others both internally and externally. We must continue to seek solace as well as strength by praying to the three in one, God represented as three separate entities yet of being of one substance.

As many of you may know St Patrick was famous for using the three-leaved Shamrock in his teaching to signify the Holy Trinity, the blessed three . He did so because each leaf was perfectly formed, of equal size but still part of one plant, one growth exemplified in this prayer which I believe to be as relevant today as ever before.

May the love of the Three give birth to new community

May the uniting of the Three give birth to new solidarity

May the flowing of the Three give birth to new creativity

May the oneness of the Three give birth to new unity

May the glory of the Three give birth to a new society.