Resource for preaching: Trinity Sunday

 


It is such a shame that the lectionary now includes Trinity Sunday straight after Pentecost, for two reasons.

First, it seduces clergy and other preachers into thinking that they need to preach about the Trinity, and all too many lapse into a form of low-grade theological lecture (though of course, not you, dear Reader! It’s those others who are the problem…). If your preaching has not been Trinitarian all through the year, then you are a heretic! If this Sunday is anything, then it is a focal moment which asks you to check how Trinitarian your preaching has been. The Trinity is not a separate subject (so, unlike Pentecost, should not mark a ‘season’); rather, it is a drawing together of the different threads with which the story of Scripture has been weaved. This reflects the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture: it is not explicitly taught (though some texts in Revelation come pretty close), but it is the doctrine without which we cannot make sense of the narrative of Scripture itself.

Secondly, we have just celebrated Pentecost, and this should be a season of dynamic excitement at the work of the Spirit amongst the people of God, a time to seek personal and corporate renewal in taking out to the world, with confidence and power, the message of the risen Jesus and the transformation that he offers. This is not the time to engage in obscure reflections on what many people find a difficult concept!

So I heartily recommend that you continue preaching as you would have done, either following through the theme of Pentecost, and/or doing so by following the lectionary reading for this Sunday, which is John 3—and on which I will comment in my next post.

But if you do decide to preach ‘on the Trinity’, here are some useful resources. They should help you avoid crass explanations, as well as the most common heresies, such as modalism (‘water, ice, steam’), tritheism (The Shack) or social trinitarianism (‘We are called to live in perichoretic community’). And, given that all our preaching, teaching, and living should be Trinitarian, these resources might just help us all to be better disciples of Jesus.

Enjoy.


First, I was grateful to share the sermon Mike Higton, Professor of Theology and Ministry at Durham, preached on Trinity Sunday a coupe of years ago. To demonstrate that this was not complicated, he preached (almost) the whole sermon in words of one syllable. He concludes:


So there is God, the one to whom we pray, the one to whom we look, to whom we call out, the one who made the world and who loves all that has been made. And then there is God by our side, God once more the one with whom we pray; God in the life of this man who shares our life, this man who lives the life of God by our side, and who pours out his life in love for us. And then there is God in our hearts, God in our guts, God one more time, the stream in which we dip our toes, the stream in which we long to swim, the stream which filled the Son and can fill us too, and bear us in love back to our source.

The life of the one God meets us in all these three ways, and all that we meet in these three ways, has its roots deep, deep down in God’s life –all the way down in God’s life –in ways that our minds are not fit to grasp in ways that break our words to bits. One life, one love, one will, works through these three to meet us when we pray, to catch hold of us, to bear us up – and to take us home.

And that’s why our words for God need to stretch; one-bit words, it turns out, will not do on their own. We call the source, the one to whom we pray, God the Father. And we call the one by our side, the one with whom we pray, God once more, Jesus. And we call the one in our hearts, the one in whom we pray, God one more time, the Spirit. And that is why we call this God – the God we meet when we pray, the God we know when we pray – that is why we call this God ‘three in one’; that is why we call our God Trinity.


I have also shared insights from three other, quite different Trinity Sunday sermons, and we find a similar shape in the moving conclusion to former Dean of Durham Michael Sadgrove’s sermon:


In this morning’s gospel, the risen Jesus says farewell to his disciples with the words: ‘all authority in heaven and on earth is given to me’. It is the climax of the gospel, the culmination of all that St Matthew’s story has been leading up to.  ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’. It ends as it began – with the angel’s promise to Joseph that the child would be called Immanuel, God-with-us. The narrative has travelled far since then. But the promise is the same: that Yahweh the high and hidden one, who is beyond all words and images, the creator of the world and the holy one of Israel, is in our midst, present to us forever as grace and truth. This is God the mighty and eternal who calls worlds into being and loves us into life. This is God the compassionate and merciful, who bears on his heart for all time the sorrow and pain of the world. This is the God enthroned in majesty who answers the longings of the ages and shows us his glory. This is God who is Trinity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to whom be all might, majesty, dominion and power now and to the end of time.


Turning to the text of the New Testament, I previously shared my theological comments on Revelation 4 and 5, which offer perhaps the clearest narrative articulation of the Trinity in the Bible:


The language of worship here does a remarkable thing in identifying the lamb as equal with the one on the throne in deserving of worship and adulation—in a text which implicitly refutes the claims of the human figures to be deserving of such obeisance. Because of this, it is reasonable to claim that it offers us the highest possible Christological understanding in the whole New Testament: what we can say of God in worship, we can say of Jesus. The two figures of the one seated on the throne and the lamb are thus characterised as God the creator and God the redeemer. These figures are never quite merged, and remain distinct within the narrative of Revelation and, unlike the association of the Word with the work of creation in John’s gospel, their roles also remain distinct. But in the final hymn of praise, the worship is given to the two as if they were one.

The placing of these scenes of heavenly worship following on from the royal proclamations to the assemblies in the seven cities has a powerful rhetorical impact. The followers of Jesus might be facing particular challenges and opportunities, located within their own cultural and physical contexts—yet the context for all their struggles is this cosmic vision of the praise of God and of the lamb. Where they might feel as though they are ‘swimming against the tide’ in terms of dissenting from the cultural norms of their society—in their participation in the trade guilds with their associated deities, in their moral stance, and in their reluctance to participate in the imperial cult—the juxtaposition of chapters 4 and 5 offers a startling reconfiguration of their world. All of creation is caught up, not in obeisance to the emperor, but in the worship of the God and Father of Jesus, and of the lamb, and any who are not taken up with this are, in fact, in the minority. It is an extraordinary cultural and spiritual counter-claim to the majority perception of reality. And in its emotive extravagance, this vision of worship is not offered as a rational fact, but as a compelling call for all readers to join in themselves.


Some years ago I published a paper by Kevin Giles on Evangelicals and the Trinity. Kevin’s primary focus is the issue of the relationship of the Father with the Son, but his exposition of the Nicene understanding of the Trinity is worth reading as a helpful and clear summary. He comments:


When it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity we are not discussing a theological question where one side can assert something and the other side the opposite and resolution is not possible. In this case, there is absolutely no uncertainty as to what constitutes trinitarian orthodoxy. No other doctrine has been more clearly articulated by the great theologians of the church across the centuries and none more clearly and consistently spelt out in the creeds and confessions of the church.

The Nicene Creed is the definitive account of the doctrine of the Trinity for more than two billion Christians. It is binding on all Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Reformed Christians. These 2 billion believers agree that anyone who denies what is taught in the Nicene Creed stands outside the catholic faith, and any community of Christians that rejects what the Nicene Creed teaches is by definition a sect of Christianity. On this basis, we do not accept Jehovah’s Witnesses as orthodox Christians because they cannot confess this creed, even though like us evangelicals they uphold the inerrancy of Scripture.

Be assured, I do not place this creed or any other creed or confession above Scripture in authority or on an equal basis with Scripture. For me, and for 2 billion Christians, this creed expresses what the church has agreed is the teaching of Scripture. I believe every single statement in this creed reflects what the Bible says or implies. In my view, we have in this creed the most authoritative interpretation of what Scripture teaches on the Father-Son relationship. 


This takes us back to my first article on the Trinity, where I draw on the writing of Stephen Holmes at St Andrews and agree with him that the Trinity is not our social programme.


Holmes points out that there is something of a problem in this way of moving from the relationships within the Trinity to relationship between people, as shown by the radically different conclusions theologians come to about the implications of this move.

 For Zizioulas, the monarchy of the Father, as cause of the Son and the Spirit, leads to a monarchical view of the role of the bishop, and they strongly hierarchical, and tightly ordered, church. For Boff, perichoresis  is the decisive principle, and it is completely mutual and symmetrical (p 26).

So the life of the Trinity is either egalitarian, or it is hierarchical, depending on your viewpoint. The sceptical reader might, at this point, wonder whether this doctrinal discussion is little more than a projection of the theologian’s prior viewpoint on to the blank screen of speculation about God’s inner life. But the discerning reader might also recognise Zizioulas’ hierarchical conclusion in another, rather surprising, context. Conservative evangelicals have also read hierarchy in the relationship between Father and Son, and since ‘the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God’ (1 Cor 11.3) then the hierarchical ordering within the Trinity is expressed not so much in the specific hierarchy of the bishop over the people but generally in the hierarchy of men over women. In this way, debates about gender roles and women’s ordination are elevated to central questions about the nature of God, and are therefore ‘primary’. It is odd that this argument can ever be applied to ministry only, rather than to society in general, though perhaps not as odd as evangelicals being in logical debt to a Greek Orthodox bishop.


Whatever you say this Sunday, may God the Father direct you, God the Son equip you, and God the Holy Spirit empower you and breath life, truth and grace into your every word.


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29 thoughts on “Resource for preaching: Trinity Sunday”

  1. “It is such a shame that the lectionary now includes Trinity Sunday straight after Pentecost,”

    But it always has been that hasn’t it?

    Reply
  2. Maybe, as it is hot on the heels of Pentecost, it would be an opportunity to focus on the Person and work, within the Trinity, of the Holy Spirit. (Though I don’t know the lectionary readings.) Or the theological Divine simplicity of our triune God, as opposed to subordination within. !!!

    Reply
  3. “But the discerning reader might also recognise Zizioulas’ hierarchical conclusion in another, rather surprising, context. Conservative evangelicals have also read hierarchy in the relationship between Father and Son, and since ‘the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God’ (1 Cor 11.3) then the hierarchical ordering within the Trinity is expressed not so much in the specific hierarchy of the bishop over the people but generally in the hierarchy of men over women. In this way, debates about gender roles and women’s ordination are elevated to central questions about the nature of God, and are therefore ‘primary’.”

    Conservative evangelicals get many big things right but some, perhaps many, get this particular big thing wrong. Christian men and women are exhorted to model their relationships in marriage and ministry (via Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 11:3, Genesis 1 and 2, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Timothy 3) on the Christ-Church relationship, not on the Father-Son relationship. The Father did not die for the Son.

    See post Phil Almond August 28, 2014 at 3:42 pm #at:

    https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/pauls-concern-for-the-women-in-timothys-churches-notes-on-1-tim-2-8-15/

    Phil Almond

    Reply
  4. No definition of trinitarianism, no definition of heresy. Heresy, one might suppose, would be believing and advocating ideas contrary to the clear testimony of Scripture, but that proves not to be the case. Rather, it is invoked to stifle scriptural examination of traditional beliefs. As was illustrated when I questioned whether the promise that Jesus would ‘baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ ‘only made sense with a Trinitarian understanding of God’. The question was met tout court with the query, “You are not a Nicean or Trinitarian Christian?” Heresy, it turns out, is not believing what the Nicene Creed says is orthodoxy. In practice, the Creed is placed on the same level as Scripture and above it inasmuch as it says things contrary to Scripture. Here are some problematic areas:

    1) We believe in one God, Maker of heaven and earth. I accept this fully, and it accords with Scripture, but most Christians subscribe to Darwinian evolutionism, whereby Nature created itself: there is no such thing as ‘life’ as such, only atoms; all living beings are just matter, and these evolved by natural processes over billions of years from less organised forms of matter. This is the ultimate heresy, since it gets rid of God the Father completely, yet Christians recite the creed before the altar without any sense of inconsistency. It’s tribal unthinking rote.

    2) We believe in one God. I fully accept this too. The oneness of God is the central tenet of Judaism (‘Hear, O Israel, Yahweh, our God Yahweh, is one’ – Deut 6:4) and is affirmed more times in the New Testament than in the Old, yet Trinitarianism asserts that God is eternally ‘three in one’. No one understands the idea, it makes no sense to human reason, it’s not in Scripture, and its origins lie in Roman and pre-Roman paganism.

    3) From thence [heaven] he shall come [to earth] to judge the quick and the dead. This gives the impression that he will judge the dead as soon as he comes back, and that there is only one resurrection. Neither of these ideas is scriptural. Christians come before Christ’s judgement seat before his return. Judgement of the dead who are not in Christ does not take place until after the millennium, at the second resurrection (Rev 20:4-5).

    4) Jesus Christ was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary. (I pass over the odd phrasing.) According to Trinitarianism, the Holy Spirit is one of the gods of the Trinity, so Mary is the human mother (agreed) and the Holy Spirit is the Father. This means either that Jesus has two fathers, the Holy Spirit mentioned here and the Father synonymous with the ‘one God in the second clause of the Creed, or the latter was not in fact his Father. Therefore I don’t believe this, it’s muddled, and it’s not what Scripture says. So indoctrinated by Trinitarianism are the ESV translators, they even render Matt 1:20 as “That which is begotten in her is from the Holy Spirit”, whereas the correct translation is “That which is begotten in her of spirit is holy”. The holy spirit is that of God (i.e. the Father) – the holy spirit that we already know about from the OT.

    5) … whose kingdom shall have no end The kingdom is central to the gospel, yet this is the only mention of it. We are not told when the kingdom begins nor what it is. The Scriptures are much clearer and tell us that, in its fullness, it is the millennial reign of Christ on earth before the second resurrection.

    6) … the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life. This is plain false. Jesus Christ, together with the Father is the Lord and Giver of Life – unless one is speaking of life sensu II Cor 3:6 rather than Gen 2:7 (and always assuming that you believe that the Spirit of the living God does not consist of atoms). In either case, the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son. He/it is not an independent Lord (John 16:13). Although in a few places ‘Lord’ refers to God, credally there is only one Lord in the NT (I Cor 8:6).

    7) … who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified Nowhere in Scripture do we see men worshipping the Holy Spirit, and rightly not, for this would be tantamount to worshipping ourselves, since it is in us that the Holy Spirit dwells (if he does). Nor is he anywhere portrayed as glorified. The Creed misunderstands II Cor 3:17f, where Paul is referring to Jesus as the Lord, not the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the Spirit. Jesus Christ is the glory (II Cor 4:4), and the Spirit’s purpose is to glorify him (John 16:14).

    It is high time Trinitarianism ceased to be a no-go area. If the dogma is synonymous with the Nicene Creed, and the Church thinks it reflects the teaching of Scripture, God have mercy on us. Personally, I will not be intimidated by cries of “Heresy!” – the Christian sectarian equivalent of Acts 19:28.

    Reply
    • Hi Steven
      My view of the trinity is taken from a snapshot in time when Abraham instructed Eleizer to get a wife for Isaac. Here we see a father instructing his closest confidant on behalf of his son to whom he has willed everything. The chief steward could inherit but obeys Abraham.
      Likewise, The Father has put his son as heir of everything. The Spirit goes out to fetch us as a bride.

      The way these three work together portrays God’s dynamic. sThe Spirit is escorting us towards the Family centre. Union with Christ.
      Of course this is only partial image but I believe it displays the nature of God . Outward going. Drawing in . Building . Relational. Sublime.
      One day we will look up and the veil will be removed. Ps45 “forget your old family”
      I think too that The word Trinity tends to remove the aforementioned warm friendly family dynamic and replaces it with cold rational theology. Its invention was to give club members something to sign up to . St. Paul eschewed the terminology because he wanted his readers to feel their way in faith via relationship before signing up to a creed. Too many people ‘believe’ what they are told they need to know before knowing in their heart.

      Reply
    • 1. Yes many Christians, including myself, believe that evolutionary mechanisms explain how life developed, and continues to develop on earth. But I and others continue to believe that God is the Creator. There is no contradiction. If God created this universe such that the laws of physics accurately describe how it works (as best as we know so far), eg gravity and those laws explain why an asteroid continues in a certain trajectory, does that remove God from the equation? Of course not. Similarly, the Creator has designed evolutionary mechanisms such that life in all its diversity would develop in a particular direction (nothing is ‘random’ to God, by definition) ultimately resulting in human beings. I find it glorious and reflects the Creator.

      2. Yes the OT is strong on the ‘oneness’ of God, which is precisely why the ‘Trinity’ came to be. Jesus is portrayed time and again in the NT just as Yahweh was portrayed in the OT. Yet Jesus (and the NT writers) still referred to the Father and the Holy Spirit. So we have the oneness of God, yet three persons. Are you really surprised that ‘noone understands the idea’? Why would anyone expect to fully understand the very nature of God? That’s just human arrogance. Quantum mechanics makes little sense to human reason, yet it seems to describe the underlying reality of our day-to-day lives (photosynthesis, one of the key mechanisms of life, is explained by the weird world of quanta).

      As for it originating from Roman beliefs and paganism – evidence please.

      3. We dont really know how things will play out when Jesus returns. We’re only given glimpses, and even those are full of symbolism. Perhaps the millenium is a literal 1000 years or a very long time, but I suspect not. It seems odd that Revelation mentions it so briefly despite its apparent very long length. But you seem to understand the writings at the beginning of Scripture and at the end to be literal in genre. I dont agree.

      4. “According to Trinitarianism, the Holy Spirit is one of the gods of the Trinity”. Well, no. Youre the one using ‘gods’. There is One God Three Persons. Can I fully explain that? No but see my comment in 2 regarding human arrogance, expecting to be able to understand everything. Why does 1+1+1 =3 the only way some people can think?

      5. Im pretty sure ‘the kingdom’ does not just refer to the millenium (whatever that actually refers to), but others can comment on that.

      6. “Jesus Christ, together with the Father is the Lord and Giver of Life”- what do you mean by this? You seem to be implying that Jesus and the Father are ‘one’ given your use of ‘is’.

      God in the OT is Lord. Jesus in the NT is Lord. And according to 2 Cor 3: 17 “The Lord is the Spirit…”. Was it not the Spirit of God who hovered over the waters in Gen 1? How is He not the giver of life along with the Father and Son?

      7. “The Creed misunderstands II Cor 3:17f, where Paul is referring to Jesus as the Lord, not the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the Spirit. Jesus Christ is the glory (II Cor 4:4), and the Spirit’s purpose is to glorify him (John 16:14).”

      So Jesus is his own Spirit, and his own Spirit glorifies himself?

      And it should be noted that whilst the Spirit indwells believers (however that works), He is clearly not limited to us. As Jesus himself said, the Spirit goes wherever He wishes to go. God is not limited by space or time, unless of course He chooses to be.

      I dont think Trinitarianism is a dogma, it is the inevitable conclusion to draw from NT & OT teaching.

      Reply
      • Your bit about quantum photosynthesis. I read about that. Amazing. Shows how ‘life’ is dependent on the very styructure of existence; not an add on plonked into ther dead stuff of matter. BTW, all the other points you made are spot on. Thanks

        Reply
          • Like walking on water or passing through walls?
            Perhaps even this argument can be compared to the wave/particle description of reality; light even. One party subscribes to a physical land the other to a spiritual one? Please don’t pick me up on this brainwave anybody. Thanks

    • “Whatever you may make of Roman Catholicism…”
      Whatever you may make of evangelicals they tend to make vast generalisations about 1.2 billion members of the world’s largest Christian denomination.

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    • Hear, hear.

      If only Ratzinger’s writings were treated with the same media publicity and interest that those from Francis seem to generate. I have nothing against Francis of course, but some of the older encyclicals are excellent.

      Mat

      Reply
    • Thanks for that David,
      Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict XVI as theologian is a great loss to Catholicism. I recall him speaking publicly far more of Christ than either the present or former AoC.

      Reply
  5. I would also add, can the statement “God IS love” really make sense without an eternal relationship within the Godhead? You could say ‘God loves’ but not ‘God is love’. The Trinity is the eternal love because love requires a giver and a recipient. It is not ‘love’ otherwise.

    Reply
  6. The bigger picture is the movement, downward movement of God, (in the Garden, in Christ, in the Spirit -pentecost- Father, Son, Spirit, new heaven come down) not human movement and technological striving upwards to God, Babel like, cf Jacobs ladder.
    And fighting fires of our own making, I’d add as a slight diversion.
    I’ll look at your link when I get home, thanks.

    Reply
  7. How important is the Trinity in Christianity?
    1It is unique to Christianity.

    2 Augustine, “In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or discovery of truth more profitable.”

    3 The trinity is deeply woven into the warp and woof of the gospel.

    4 “Only when we read the NT through trinitarian lenses can we make sense of its message.”

    5 “And since our fellowship in the Spirit is with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3) it is tremendously important for our growth in sanctification that we learn to live, serve, and worship in a Trinity-conscious way.”

    6 Statements reflecting the foundational and pervasive nature of God in his trinitarian interaction with his creation.

    6.1 The Trinity engages in creation and its sustaining (John1:1ff; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2; 2:10)
    6.2 The Trinity is engaged in the work of incarnation (John 3:16; Hebrews 2:11-14; Luke1:35)
    6.3 The Trinity is present in Jesus’
    6.3.1 Baptism (Luke 3:21)
    6.3.2 Temptations (Luke 4:1-12)
    6.3.3 Ministry (Matthew 12:25-28)
    6.3.4 Crucifixion (Romans 8:32; Hebrews 9:4)
    6.3.5 Resurrection (Romans 1:3ff; 1 Peter 3:18)
    6.3.6 ascension and Pentecost (John 14:15-17; 15:26)

    7 The Trinity is seen as essential to the accomplishment of redemption and to its application:

    7.1 The summary of all the blessings of our redemption is expressed in trinitarian terms (Ephesians 2:18)
    7.2 The whole of the Christian life is marked by the reception of the name of, and involves personal fellowship with, the Trinity in baptism 9Matthew 28:18-20)
    7.3 The plan and privileges of salvation are provided by the Trinity (Ephesians 1:4ff; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14)
    7.4 The accomplishment of salvation is done by the Trinity (Romans 8:34; Titus 3:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2)
    7.5 The revelation of the gospel comes to us from the Trinity (1 Corinthians 2:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-6)
    7.6 The nature of fellowship is seen in Trinitarian terms (2 Corinthians 13;14)
    7.7 The Christian life as Kingdom- life is trinitarian (Romans 14:17-18)
    7.8 The Christian life as a life of sonship is the fruit of the work of the trinity (Romans 8: 9-17; Galatians 4:6)
    7.9 The Christian life as life in the Spirit is viewed within a trinitarian matrix (Ephesians5: 18-20)
    7.10 sanctification involves the work of the Trinity (1 Corinthians 6:17-20)
    7.11 Ongoing faith depends on the Trinity (Jude 20-21)
    7.12 True worship is always trinitarian (Philippians 3:3)
    7.13 The unity and diversity of the church is grounded in the trinity (1 Corinthians 12: 3-6; 12-13)
    7.24 Worldwide evangelism is a trinitarian mision (Matthew 28: 18-20)
    7:25 the consummation of all things will be the work of the Trinity (1 Corinthians 15: 22-28; Philippians 3:21)
    All of paragraphs 2 -7 inclusive are from “Devoted to God” by Sinclair B Ferguson

    Reply

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