Resources for preaching on Trinity Sunday

Once more we come to Trinity Sunday. With the various debates about this on social media over the last few years, I dare to hope that the preaching on this Sunday is now better than it used to be—but I worry that I am mistaken here. It is worth reminding ourselves of some key things to hold on to on this day.

First, this is not a day to explain the Trinity! If your preaching has not been Trinitarian all through the year, then you are a heretic! If it is anything, then it is a focal moment which asks you to check how Trinitarian your preaching has been. If you are in any doubt about this, just stick with preaching on the lectionary passages (or whatever other biblical readings you are using this Sunday).

Secondly, we have during the year focussed on various aspects of the work of the Father. More recently we have (in Lent and Easter) focussed on the ministry, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Then we have celebrated the giving of the Spirit. So it is quite natural now to celebrate the Trinity. This is not a separate subject; rather, it is a drawing together of the different threads with which this story 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.

Thirdly, this is definitely the time to avoid crass heresies, such as modalism (‘water, ice, steam’), tritheism (The Shack) or social trinitarianism (‘We are called to live in perichoretic community’).

So rather than another new posting, I offer here some resources from previous years which I hope will encourage you not just this Sunday, but in all your Trinitarian preaching.

First, I was grateful to share the sermon Mike Higton, Professor of Theology and Ministry at Durham, preached on last year’s Trinity Sunday. 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.

Three 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 tomorrow, may God the Father direct you, God the Son equip you, and God the Holy Spirit empower you and breath life and grace into your every word.

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7 thoughts on “Resources for preaching on Trinity Sunday”

  1. Thank you Ian, that’s really helpful. Like your extract from Sadgrove, I’m planning to be tracing the theme of “God with us” from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel to its end, and hence from Christmas to Trinity.

  2. At the ‘Triple Point’ of H20 – a temperature of 0.01 celcius and pressure of 4.58 mm mercury – the solid, liquid and gaseous forms coexist simultaneously. Surely Modalsim posits an either/or/or scenario : Father or Son or Spirit (solid, liquid, gas) successively, which is different from this *particular* quirk of physics.

    If only light was both a particle and a wave and some third phenomenon… 🙂

    • Im not sure light ‘is’ both a particle and a wave, but rather shows those particular properties depending on different circumstances. But as a professor in quantum mechanics once said, if someone claims to understand quantum mechanics then they dont understand quantum mechanics!

      As for the Trinity, 1 x 1 x 1 = 1


  3. Today’s sermon on the Trinity, like those of every previous year, was the standard fare. “No one understands the mystery of the Trinity, but it’s like an egg, or a clover leaf, or the three phases of water…”

    Those questioning the dogma have long been labelled heretics in an effort to shut down debate, but the situation is actually the reverse. The key tenet comes from the (Pseudo-)Athanasian Creed (not the Nicene Creed, still less the New Testament), namely that the Son and the Holy Spirit are co-eternal with the Father. This is heretical because it denies the sonship of Jesus. To say with the confidence of orthodoxy that Jesus is the Son of God and at the same time that his Father did not precede him is nonsense, of a kind that only Christians, trained not to think outside the box of their own doctrines, have the ability to tolerate. In truth, denying Jesus’s sonship is a heresy of the first order (1 John 2:22).

    The Bible nowhere says that Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, is co-eternal with the Father; on the contrary (Col 1:15, Rev 3:14). Nor does it teach that the Holy Spirit is a third person, coequal with the other two. God is Spirit, as is stated from the start, and he is holy, even when he interacts with, even indwells, human beings. That seems to be the significance of the two places in the OT (Ps 51, Isa 63) when there is reference to his (NB, not ‘the’) Holy Spirit.

    ‘The’ Holy Spirit comes into existence after Jesus’s resurrection, when he or it is given to the Church. This is clear even at Pentecost, when Peter explains what men are witnessing by quoting Joel: “In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” – his Spirit, not a third person coequal with the God who is speaking. God gave the promise of the Holy Spirit to his son (Acts 2:33), in consequence of which it was the Son who poured out the Spirit on the disciples. Since the Son and the Father are one, the Holy Spirit is also, equally, the Spirit of the Son.

    This is the true teaching of the New Testament, not the neo-pagan dogma of three gods in one. Jesus promised his disciples (speaking about the Holy Spirit), “I will come to you.” Likewise, Paul teaches: ‘You are in the spirit if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you…’ (Rom 8:9-10) Receiving him is necessary for rebirth – hence Matt 28:19. When you receive the Holy Spirit, you receive the spirit of the Father and of the Son. Since there is much more to be said, I would recommend

    In his words to his disciples at the last supper Jesus spoke about the Comforter/Helper/Advocate as a separate person, and in a sense he is, because he is no longer God ‘out there’ but God in us. But in truth God in us is Jesus in us. If the figure of speech (John 16:25) might seem as if Jesus was introducing a previously unknown third person, John makes the truth crystal clear: ‘We have an advocate [Paracleitos] with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.’

    So let us have no more, “The Trinity is a mystery we cannot understand, you just have to believe it. If it helps, God is like an egg: one egg, three parts – shell, white and yolk. If you don’t agree, you’re a heretic and are not part of us.”

    • Steven,
      Here is a series of 6 lectures (a little less than 25 mins each) on the Trinity by the late Dr RC Sproul.

      You may also gain something from Dr Mike Reeves book “The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit” and his teaching here (short videos) -and elsewhere.

      Here is a review of the book by Andrew Wilson (now Dr.):

      • Alas, the book review does not encourage me to read the book. Take this quote:

        ‘That Jesus is ‘the Son’ really says it all. Being a Son means he has a Father … And a father is a person who gives life, who begets children. Now that insight is like a stick of dynamite in all our thoughts about God. For if, before all things, God was eternally a Father, then this God is an inherently outgoing, life-giving God. He did not give life for the first time when he decided to create; from eternity he has been life-giving.’

        This is precisely the sort of mushy pseudo-Christian nonsense that I had in mind. It is not an ‘insight’ (we all know what fathers are) and it is not rooted in Scripture. How can one eternally be a Father? To whom has he been giving life eternally? It would be better to engage with the points made and scriptures cited (with more in the commentary I provided a link to) than insinuate that I was writing in ignorance.

        Peter Mattacola makes some good points, all of which are addressed in that commentary. John’s gospel stresses the subordination of the Son to the Father again and again, and I can’t help thinking that the modern tendency to downplay this reflects an unwillingness to recognise that we too are servants as well as sons.

  4. Sorry, late to the party as ever!

    I’ve just caught up on the 2015 article and Giles’ critique. Ian, have you dealt anywhere with those passages which do suggest subordination such as:
    Matthew 24:36 in which older manuscripts have “no one knows … nor the Son, but my Father only”
    Matthew 26:39 “not as I will, but as you will”.

    And in terms of the Trinity, Revelation 5:6 “the seven spirits of God sent out into the world” is not too helpful as a designation of “I will pour out my Spirit” or “when the Helper comes … the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father”. I appreciate that you describe it as a circumlocution in your book, but as a plain reading it doesn’t come over as very ‘Trinitarian”.

    I suppose I should state that I am a fully signed up Nicene Creed card-carrier.


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