I do not normally post my sermon for the week here, but I was encouraged to do so on this occasion by Fr. John Sharpe, Rector Emeritus of Christ Church Anglican, Southern Pines, and so here it is:
Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2022
Preached at Christ Church Anglican,Southern Pines, NC
Sunday, June 12, 202
The Rev’d Thomas H. Harbold, M.T.S.
Blessed be God: ✠ Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.
Today, in our liturgical calendar, is Trinity Sunday: the only Sunday – or any other feast, for that matter – in the Prayer Book calendar that is not dedicated to a Biblical person or event, but to a doctrine of the Faith. And a complex and mystical doctrine, at that! One which is not, it must be said, contained explicitly and directly, by name, in the Holy Scriptures, although it certainly “may be proved thereby,” as the Sixth Article of the Thirty-nine Articles requires.
But the Holy Trinity is a topic that poses challenges to a preacher, as one must navigate between a variety of heresies, in one’s search for a way to express this theological Truth! If I should inadvertently stray into any such, I hope that God and you will forgive me. In any case:
There are two core doctrines that separate Christianity from all other religions of the world, historical or contemporary. This is important to note, in an age where many in the secular world (and sadly, some even in the churches) will try to argue that Christianity is really nothing new, or different, just a recasting of older, pagan religions “dressed up in new clothes,” as it were.
Orthodox Christians, of course, assert that it is not surprising that older religions would contain in partial or embryonic form the truths revealed in their fullness in the Christian faith, since God has always made Himself known to His people in one way or another, and the human religious impulse itself came from God and tends toward God.
But that is a bit of an aside – the point is that Christianity has at least two very critical and central points of difference from every other religion out there: the first, of course, is the person of Jesus Christ Himself, as the Incarnate Word of God, both fully God and fully Man, God Himself taking on flesh to dwell among us. The other – closely linked to the Incarnation – is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
In general, it can be argued that theistic religion – that is, religion that recognizes some form of deity – can be divided into two sorts: polytheism, which believes that there are a number of Gods, each with a different function, and monotheism, which recognizes but a single God. There are many examples of both; but the most famous and well-known monotheistic religions, of course, are Judaism – with its core doctrine expressed in the Shema,
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one!”
and Islam, which borrowed that concept from Judaism and asserts that there is but one God, Allah, with Muhammed as his prophet. Christianity is also a monotheistic religion, of course… but there is a bit of a twist to our understanding.
Christianity holds that there is indeed one God, but that God exists as a Trinity of Persons, though in unity of Essence. I’ll get back to that! But basically, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is something which is suggested or foreshadowed in the Holy Scriptures, but which was developed, explicated, and canonized in its full and final form in the Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
One of the interesting things about the Old Testament is that while it is clear that God is One, He is often referred to, or even refers to Himself, in the plural: “Let us create Man in our own image,” being perhaps the best-known of these instances.
Historical scholars of religion consider this to be a vestige of ancient polytheism, which evolved through henotheism – the idea that there are many gods, “but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” – into the pure monotheism of later Judaism.
But Christians, while not necessarily denying that historical context, also understand the plurality that sometimes appears in reference to God to be an example of foreshadowing, in the Old Testament, what became more explicit in the New, and eventually was fully realized and expressed in and by the Church.
It is in the New Testament that what was “seen in a glass, darkly,” in the Old Testament begins to become more clear. We have Christ clearly and repeatedly teaching and pointing toward God the Father – but then stating, “I and the Father are One,” or even, “before Abraham was, I AM.” Christ is quite clear about the unity between Father and Son.
We also see our Lord clearly teaching – as in our Gospel lesson today – of the existence of a Holy Spirit, or Holy Ghost, the Spirit of God, who appears to exist and operate in a way which is not independent of, but is none the less distinct from, both he himself and from God the Father. In our Gospel lesson, we see Jesus teaching that a Christian must be “born of water and of the Spirit”; last week at Pentecost we heard him saying that God the Father would send “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost,” to be with His people. And many additional examples could be cited!
The point being that the early Christians – including our Lord Himself – were clear that God is one, and yet there are three distinct… let’s call them by their later name, Persons… operating within that divine Unity. The challenge for the early Church was to figure out how that could be, and how to best express it.
Obviously, they wanted to steer clear of the polytheism of the pagan religions that surrounded them in late Hellenistic antiquity. But equally obviously, they wanted to avoid lumping together what the Scriptures had clearly expressed as being distinct in both operation and manifestation.
The formula that was eventually decided upon, and expressed – again, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are of the same essence or substance, but distinct as to person. That is to say, Trinity of persons, but Unity of substance: as our processional hymn for today puts it, “God in three Person, blessed Trinity!”
The Greek term used for “of the same essence” is “homoousios,” while the rival position, promoted by the presbyter and heresiarch Arius, and other opponents to this idea, was “homoiousios,” or “of like essence.” The only difference in spelling is the existence of that central “i,” which in Greek is called “iota.” Thus the term, “there’s not an iota’s worth of difference between them.”
But of course, for Christians, an “iota’s worth of difference” is all the difference in the world! It is the difference between Christ being really, truly, and fully Divine, indeed God Incarnate, or being divine only derivatively, secondarily, by God’s declaration. It is the difference between the Son being coeternal, coexistent, and consubstantial with the Father, or a lesser, created being.
But ultimately, of course, the Holy Trinity is indeed a Mystery. There are many things which we as humans simply cannot fully grasp with our limited, mortal, human intellect, but which are nonetheless revealed truths which we are called to embrace in faith. But while we may not know how this can be, we do know that, “with God, all things are possible.” And we have faith that while we now see in a glass dimly, we will, in God’s nearer presence, understand in fulness.
So let us embrace the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, as we celebrate that which has been revealed to us: the glory of our Triune God, One in substance but Three in Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! To whom be all glory and honor, majesty and power, for ever, and for evermore. Amen.