The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Trinity Sunday in this Year C is John 16.12–15. It is another very short reading (four verses) from the ‘farewell discourse’ of Jesus, and I think is actually quite a difficult reading to preach from. Like much of this part of the Fourth Gospel, it is reflective, repeats things that have been explored before (in chapter 14), and when a few verses are removed from their context in the wider passage, this makes it even hard to preach about.
But many will not preach on this anyway! For some reason, this is the one Sunday of the year when those preaching feel they should depart from the Scripture readings, and (sometimes for the only time in the year) try and preach on a theological idea. I can understand the temptation; Stephen Holmes, in his Quest for the Trinity notes the influence of Karl Barth, who commented:
The doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian…in contrast to all other possible doctrines of God (cited in Holmes p 4).
I think this is true, and you only realise how surprising this is if you ask someone who has not thought about it: what is the central distinguishing feature of Christian faith? I remember being asked this when I started ordination training, and still feel my sense of surprise, first, that I hadn’t ever really considered the question and, second, that this was the answer.
But focussing on preaching on the Trinity is a bad idea for several reasons. First, why depart from preaching on Scripture on this day of all days? Secondly, why choose to preach on the Christian doctrine which, although distinctive, has been the biggest and most challenging that theologians have wrestled with down the centuries? Thirdly, why preach on something that so many get so badly wrong, with illustrations of clover leaves or ice, water and steam that alternately lapse into tritheism and modalism or (even worse and more common) make the false analogy between the ‘persons’ of the Trinity and human persons in social Trinitarianism? These problems might be a good reason to do some teaching—but whether this can be done on one Sunday of the year, in a service of worship, is another matter.
Yet there is a bigger reason not to preach ‘on the Trinity’ on this one Sunday. If the Trinity is indeed not so much taught in Scripture (though Revelation gets pretty close to this) but the doctrine underlying all of Scripture, without which Scripture does not make sense, then if we have been preaching faithfully on Scripture all through the year, then we have in fact been preaching on the Trinity! What we might do is to make the Trinitarian assumptions of our text clear as we preach on them—but that is something we should be doing all the year.
I was encouraged to read this comment on social media in response to my previous post on Pentecost:
I REALLY appreciate this post and the emphasis on maintaining a trinitarian lens through which to understand and explain Pentecost and the role of the Spirit. Thanks.
Perhaps this Sunday is a moment to reflect on our preaching through the year, and ensure we have a Trinitarian orientation to it, just as we should have an anti-antiSemitic orientation to our preaching and reading of Scripture. as well.
So I offer here some briefs notes on the reading from John 16.12–15, followed by some important contributions on the subject of the Trinity from previous articles here which might help shape your preaching on this occasion.
In some ways, this is not the most obvious reading to have on Trinity Sunday; but in other ways, it emphasises the close interrelation between Father, Son and Spirit.
Jo-Ann Brant (Paideia commentary) notes that the material in this section appears to repeat much of what Jesus has said in John 14, so it is worth reading these two sections together—although in chapter 16 some ideas are further developed.
The context of this passage is the promise of Jesus to send the Paraclete (John 16.7), which has several important implications. It means that the Ascension is closely related to Pentecost, since it is the ascended Jesus, now enthroned, who sends the Spirit. There is something here akin to the normal human process of learning, growing up, and taking responsibility; the disciples’ dependance on Jesus changes register, and it is a dependance which leads to maturity. And it is striking that, at times, Jesus says that he is the one who sends the Spirit (as here), but at others he asks the Father who sends the Spirit (as in John 14.16, 26), and in John 15.26, Jesus sends the Spirit from the Father. The Spirit is sent by both Father and Son, so that in Rev 22.1 the river of the water of life, symbolising the life-giving Spirit, flows from the (single) throne of both God and the lamb.
The term ‘Paraclete’ is only used four times in the Fourth Gospel, in John 14.16, 26, 15.26 and 16.7. Its basic meaning (reflected in its etymology) is meaning ‘one who has been called alongside’ another. It has a passive sense, in that the one who comes alongside has been requested by another, and this is reflected in the ‘self-effacing’ description of the Spirit here. The Spirit does not do things of his own accord, but in response to the request and calling of Jesus and the Father. The Spirit does not point towards the Spirit’s own work, but points us what belongs to Jesus, which in turn is of the Father (John 16.15).
Some ETs translate the term as Helper (which sounds rather weak) or Advocate (which sounds rather forensic) though this does fit with the one mention of Jesus as our Paraclete in 1 John 2.1, where he pleads our cause with the Father. In fact, the Spirit is ‘another Paraclete’ (ἄλλος παράκλητος), that is, another of the same kind. The role of the Spirit here appears to be to make real for the disciples the presence, power and speech of the risen Jesus. Interestingly, some Rabbis taught that the Messiah would be called Menachem (the Hebrew for ‘comforter’) because the gematria value of Menachem is the same as the value of ‘branch’ nezer in Isaiah 11.1.
The cognate verb parakaleo is common in the NT (though absent from the Fourth Gospel), and is variously translated to urge, to encourage, to comfort, depending on the context—these things are all the work of the Spirit. And as we are comforted in all our sufferings, so we learn how to comfort others (2 Cor 1.4).
The opening sentence of our passage raises some important questions. If Jesus ‘still has many things to say’, does that mean that the gospel records are incomplete or inadequate? The writer of the gospel does not appear to think so; we have enough to know who Jesus is, understand his purposes, and so believe (John 20.31). David Ford, in his theological commentary on this gospel, notes that the term ‘to bear’ is very often associated with suffering—so Jesus ‘bears’ his cross (Luke 14.27), and we are to ‘bear with one another’ in the things that weigh us down (Gal 6.2).
This then means that when the Spirit speaks of ‘what is to come’ (John 16.13), this is not about the end of the world, but about the coming suffering and exaltation of Jesus. at the time, the disciples will not understand, but as they look back, with the understanding that the Spirit gives, then it will make sense. We have seen this theme from the very beginning of this gospel: ‘After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said’ (John 2.22; compare John 12.16).
The Spirit is the ‘Spirit of truth’; all through this gospel the question has been explored, who is the true witness to the things of God, as Jesus is put on trial by his accusers, culminating in the actual trial before Pilate. We have just learned that the Spirit is the one who tells us the truth about what is right, what is wrong, and how to tell the difference (verses 8–11), and we will hear Jesus’ prayer that all his followers will be ‘one’ when they are ‘sanctified in the truth; your word is truth’ (John 17.17).
It is not possible to suggest that Scripture says one thing, but the Spirit is now saying something different, because what the Father says, what Jesus teaches, and what the Spirit speaks to us are one and the same. The articulation of this here is a reiteration of what we heard in chapter 14: ‘But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you’ (John 14.26). The idea that ‘he will speak whatever he hears’ is expressed rather well in the message to the seven assemblies in Revelation 2–3; the opening of each message proclaims that ‘these are the words of…’ the risen Jesus—yet at the conclusion of each we are urged to ‘hear what the Spirit is saying.’ The words of Jesus are what the Spirit is saying.
The mention of ‘glory’ is characteristic of this section of the gospel; the first half focussing on signs, whilst the second half has the prominent theme of glory. The Spirit is associated with Jesus being ‘glorified’ as early as John 7.39; the glory of Jesus is bound up with the glory of the Father (John 8.54). God’s glory is made manifest when we pray in Jesus’ name (John 14.13) and when we bear fruit by keeping his commandments and abiding in him (John 15.8). But Jesus’ glory is most notably associated with his death, as he remains obedient to the Father and offers himself up for us (John 12.23, 28, 13.31, 17.1, 4). And this carries over into the death of those who would be martyred for their faith (John 21.19).
If you are tempted to talk more about the Trinity than the passage, then here are some pointers from previous articles.
Mike Higton, Professor of Theology and Ministry at Durham, preached on Trinity Sunday a couple 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.
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.
The way in which the three divine persons relate to one another in eternity is neither a model for nor prescriptive of human relationships in the temporal world. God’s life in heaven does not set a social agenda for human life on earth. Divine relations in eternity cannot be replicated on earth by created human beings, and fallen beings at that. What the Bible asks disciples of Christ to do, both men and women, is to exhibit the love of God to oth- ers and to give ourselves in self-denying sacrificial service and self-subordination, as the Lord of glory did in becoming one with us in our humanity and dying on the cross. In other words, the incarnate Christ provides the perfect example of Godly living, not the eternal life of God.
Specifically, appealing to the doctrine of the Trinity, a three-fold perfect divine communion, to support either the equality of men and women or their hierarchical ordering, is mistaken and to be opposed.
Happy Trinity Sunday!