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The Doctrine of the Trinity – Faith and Doubt

a Sermon for Trinity Sunday
St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Winnipeg.   June 7, 2020
The Rev’d Canon Tony Harwood-Jones

Biblical texts underlying this sermon:
  • Genesis 1:1-2:4a
  • Psalm 8
  • 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
  • Matthew 28:16-20


Today is Trinity Sunday.  It completes the annual cycle that celebrates Jesus’ mission to the human family – from the celebration of His birth, at Christmas, through His ministry and teaching (at Epiphany and Lent), His saving death and resurrection (on Good Friday and Easter); His post-Resurrection appearances and His Ascension (in the Easter Season); the formation and empowering of His followers (at Pentecost); and now, today, the celebration of the whole majesty and mystery of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as articulated by the earliest Christians, from the first to the fourth Centuries of the current era.  From this day forward, in each year and in 2020, until the cycle begins again in late November, the church concentrates on the basics of Christian living.

As you probably know, the Scripture readings for each and every Sunday of this great annual cycle, are selected by a worldwide inter-denominational body, and they are chosen with a view to emphasizing and amplifying the theme of the day.  So, on Trinity Sunday, we can expect to have Bible selections that help us to reflect on the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

As you heard at the beginning of this service, the readings for today were the Creation story in Genesis, emphasising the majesty and mystery of Almighty God, as well as the concept of humans being made in God’s “image.”  The theme of the majesty of God is continued in Psalm 8, along with the amazing fact that humans are an extraordinary part of creation, “but little lower than the angels.”  In the Epistle reading, we get a direct mention of the Trinity – “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of [or, ‘sharing in’] the Holy Spirit” is extended to the people in Corinth, who are having the letter read to them.  And, finally, the last paragraph of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, is read, and we have Jesus, risen from the dead, telling his followers to preach the Gospel and baptise everyone “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Interestingly, those two passages – the end of the second letter to the Corinthians, and the end of the Gospel of Matthew – are the only places in the entire Bible where we can find anything close to the now-familiar words, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  Can we find the word, “God?” – yes!  “Jesus,” and “Christ?” – all over New Testament, as is “Holy Spirit,” and “Spirit of God.”  But in one sentence, speaking specifically of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” 1 – just the two passages read today.

The fact is, although the doctrine of the Trinity is at the core of Christian belief, it is a concept that only evolved over time, as the followers of Jesus reflected upon, and tried to make sense of, what had happened to them.

Making sense… let me try to point out some of the things that they needed to figure out:

Jesus, the rabbi who liked having dinners with outcast and marginalized people, looked like an ordinary person.  He needed to eat, and he needed his sleep.  If he didn’t eat for a while, he got hungry.  He laughed, he cried, he prayed, and went to religious services.  He learned to read, and he read the Bible.  If you cut him, he bled.  At the end, when they tortured and killed him, he hurt dreadfully, and, on the cross, he even wondered if God had forsaken him.  And then, he died.  Dead.  Dead-and-gone.  A cold, broken body that needed to be buried before it started to stink.  People wanted and needed to put a few aromatic spices around it, to postpone the smell.

Now, if we stop the story there, we have the story of a remarkable, but ordinary man, who preached a radical ethic that not only included love of God and love of neighbour, but love of enemy, turning the other cheek, blessing those who persecute you, and praying for those who “despitefully use you.” 2  And he lived out those precepts, himself, even forgiving his executioners as they nailed him to the wood of the cross.

And what did it get him?  Pain, loss, and a grisly death.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for saying, “If loving your enemy gets you crucified, who needs it?  It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, where only the strong survive.  Forgive those who abuse you?  It’s best to crush them!”

If the end of the Jesus story is his death and burial, then “Survival of the fittest” seems like a much better option.

With Jesus’ death, his friends were devastated.  Their excited belief that he was a leader for a new age of love and forgiveness, was shattered.  They went and hid, in case the same fate awaited them.  They wanted to survive.

Then the Resurrection happened.  And turned everything upside down.

Their first reaction was simple joy, that their friend had miraculously returned.  But, while they were convinced he was real, he no longer functioned like the ordinary person he used to be.  For one thing, He could appear and disappear.  He didn’t always have the same appearance that he had had in life.  He was more intense, and more awesome.

And with his help, it became clear to them that he was the person to whom the prophets of Israel had been pointing, time out of mind.  They began to sense that on that cross, something wondrous had happened… they began to believe that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” 3  Those are Paul’s words, in his second letter to the Corinthians.

One of the things that most convinces me to be a Christian is how those disciples behaved in the months and years that followed the Resurrection.  The very people who had run away and hid, when Jesus was on trial, are reputed to have died grisly deaths of their own at the hands of Roman authorities.  They had become willing to die, rather than deny that they saw their Lord and Saviour after his crucifixion.

Something awesome had happened, that changed them, and the whole world.

But what it was that happened needed to be figured out.  In life, their friend, Jesus, had been just like any other human, and yet… and yet… they could remember him saying things like, “the Father and I are One,” 4  and “whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.” 5  Were Jesus and God one and the same?  If Jesus was one with God, did God leave the universe when he was walking the earth as a human?

The process of figuring it all out was long – too long for an evening sermon – but in the end Christians have affirmed that God is ONE, and not many, but that within the divine unity there is relationship.  Indeed, “God is love,” as the letter of John says.  And a singularity cannot be love – there has to be a giver and a receiver of Love.  The Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that flows between them (I’m quoting St. Augustine, here).  The Unbegotten, the Begotten, and the Spirated, which means “breathed” (and here I’m quoting Bishop Victoria Matthews).  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

And, in using these various formulae, I am expressing the Doctrine of the Trinity.

It took until the mid-300s 6 before the doctrine, as we have it today – in the Nicene, and the Athanasian, Creeds – was established as the best understanding of the nature of God.  Here I must insert a note of warning: please don’t assume that, because it took so long for Jesus’ followers to come to an understanding of God’s nature, that the Doctrine of the Trinity is not a valid teaching.  The church had to work out truly thorny questions, such as, if the Son of God prayed to the Father, and admitted he didn’t know certain things, 7 and if he felt “forsaken” by the Father when he was on the cross, was he less than, or inferior to God?  Or, did God himself die on that cross, such that the entire universe was empty for three days?

But one thing I do know: if you choose not to believe the Doctrine of the Trinity, no amount of persuading, no elegant sermon, is going to force you to change your mind.

You see, this entire sermon is actually about one tiny line in the Gospel reading.  The disciples meet Jesus in Galilee, and, I’ll quote, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (v.17)

We need to note, too, that this was not a crowd of people, like the five thousand that Jesus once miraculously fed.  The passage says that it was only the eleven disciples who “…went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” (v.16) These were the core – Jesus’ picked followers, with only Judas missing.  And yet, Matthew remembers that “some doubted.”  He doesn’t name names – the disciples who doubted will be forever unknown.

But… doubt in the Resurrection was possible; even when face-to-face with it.

A couple of paragraphs before this, Matthew records the Resurrection moment itself in a very dramatic way: with an earthquake, and an angel from Heaven rolling away the stone that was in front of Jesus’ tomb, and sitting on it, then telling the women, who had come to put spices on the body, that Jesus was risen.  Matthew, who had told us earlier that the authorities had posted an armed guard at the tomb, then says that the guards shook for fear “…and became like dead men.”  Pretty convincing, huh?  Well, he then says that these guards went back to town and told the authorities what had happened, and promptly accepted a bribe to say that the disciples had merely stolen Jesus’ body.  These guards then did what they were paid to do, and spread the lie.

What???  Can someone actually go through an experience like that, and willingly deny that a huge event had happened?  And, can a disciple actually see the risen Lord Jesus, and “doubt” his or her eyes?

But the fact is, God always leaves a door open for doubt.  Jesus, we believe, was God in human form, the Word made Flesh, and people saw him, daily… and crucified him.  He chose disciples, and one of them turned on him; and threw him over to that crucifixion.  And another one of them – unnamed – didn’t believe his eyes at the Resurrection.  He rose, and people lied about it, or doubted.

God has never ever slammed us in the face and said, “Listen up, stupid!”  For he does not force people to come to Him, or to believe in Him.  God may be awesome, and majestic, and more powerful than a million nuclear bombs, He may be a Holy, Infinite, and Immortal Trinity – but he holds back – he comes to us as a little baby, who, grown up, is a friendly rabbi with a message of love and forgiveness, upon whom we are permitted to turn our backs.

In Matthew’s account, Jesus stood there on that Galilee mountain, and even while some doubted, he told his listeners to go out into the world (and I quote), to “…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I believe that those are our marching orders, as Christians.  To go into the world and make disciples; and to obey everything that Christ has commanded – including love, and forgiveness, and self-giving, and humility; being willing to be the “least” instead of the “greatest;” to be the servant of all instead of the boss of all… And, I believe that Jesus is with us, until the end of time – guiding, and supporting, and strengthening.

And so I have spoken to you this evening, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

© 2020, Tony Harwood-Jones

You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.


FOOTNOTES

(These footnotes were not read as part of the sermon, but are here to assist with discussion and reflection)

1  In addition to 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, and Matthew 28:16-20, used today, I can find only two more that explicitly mention Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a single statement: Ephesians 1:17, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him,”  and 1 Peter 1:2, where the letter is addressed to “exiles,” scattered throughout Asia minor, “… who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood.”
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2  Matthew 5:44; and Luke 6:28.
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3  2 Corinthians 5:19.
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4  John 10:30.
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5  John 14:9 (italics are mine).
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6  The Nicene Creed was developed between the Council of Nicea, in 325 and the First Council of Constantinople, in 381 of the Common Era.  One of the main figures in its development was Saint Athanasius (c.296 - 373 CE), whose name is also attached to an extremely long creed, that presents the Doctrine of the Trinity in intense detail.  The Creed of Saint Athanasius may be found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and in other places.
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7  Jesus said, “…about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew 24:36 and parallels.
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