Archives for posts with tag: trinity sunday

(An edited version of this paper has been published at https://anglicanism.org/at-whitsuntide-trinity-sunday-encounters-with-god)

By Hugh Bryant

Archbishop John Sentamu retired on Trinity Sunday. There is a lovely tribute to him in the Church Times, which ends like this.

AT THE end of one of many public meetings held when he arrived in Yorkshire, he invited questions. The last one came from a little boy, whose parents must have delayed his bedtime so that he could see the new Archbishop. “Why do you believe in God?” the boy asked.

The Archbishop beckoned him to the front, and, noticing that the boy’s shoelace was undone, knelt down to retie it. “When I was a boy,” he said, “someone told me that Jesus could be my friend. So, that night, I knelt by my bed and asked Jesus to be my friend. And do you know something? He is still my friend.” You could have heard a pin drop, as grown-ups wondered whether that could be true for them, too.

How well do you know Jesus? At Whitsuntide, Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, as Ruach, πνευμα, a rushing wind (with tongues of fire). Ruach and πνεύμα are Hebrew and Greek words which mean a wind, which by metonymy come to mean ‘Spirit’ in the sense of the Holy Spirit. A divine wind.

As Christians we understand God as the Trinity. God the Creator: God as human: God the Spirit, replacing the human God when He has gone back to ‘heaven’, back into the Godhead. ‘The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us’. 

It’s a way of understanding the third act of the drama. Act one. God created the world. Act two. God was born in human form, as Jesus, lived and died. Act three. Jesus was resurrected from the dead, but then eventually he left to join the Godhead, or more familiarly, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven,’ and was replaced by the Holy Spirit.

To explain the mystery of ‘God in three persons’ is a rite of passage for every preacher in training assigned to preach the parish sermon on Trinity Sunday. But perhaps a greater challenge arises in connection with Ascension and Pentecost. 

There may be many faithful people who are content to hold ‘in tension’ apparently contradictory ideas about ‘heaven’: that it is in some sense ‘up there’, but at the same time that God is not delimited in time and space, so there is nowhere, up or down, where God is particularly at home. 

I used the term ‘Godhead’ deliberately. If God is in ‘heaven’, it begs the question where exactly He is. So an alternative way of thinking on the Ascension would be that Jesus was somehow subsumed into the ‘godness’, the heart of being, the Godhead (cf. the ideas of Paul Tillich in John A T Robinson, Honest to God (1961)).

It is said that Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, reported back that he had ‘looked and looked, but I couldn’t see God up there’. But it wasn’t simply a matter of his seeming to confirm Marxist atheistic dogma. Gagarin was a Christian. He believed in God: it was just that he hadn’t found him in space.

We make a rather easy move, I think, to dismiss the very long tradition that high places, being ‘on high’, say, on Mount Olympus, or above the clouds, are somewhere reserved to the divine. In the Old Testament, the Deuteronomist is concerned, in identifying divinity with the One True God, that the former places of worship, worship of idols such as Baal or Asherah, described as ‘high places’, should be eradicated. But Yahweh lived in heaven, and he was worshipped on the Temple mount, a high place in itself.

If what we are looking towards in God is ultimate power, truth and authority, again this is most simply imagined spatially: God reigns over the earth. The Enlightenment challenge is almost the same as Yuri Gagarin’s. If God is, if heaven is, ‘up there’, then why is He not observable and susceptible of scientific analysis? Because, indeed, He isn’t. Wittgenstein put this propositionally, that metaphysical statements could not be verified in the same way as ordinary empirical ones. 

So whereas we can agree about what it is for something to be a chair, or a nut cutlet (the humour of which, in concept, has not lasted so well since it convulsed the lecture theatres in the 1960s), we cannot say what would verify the truth of a statement about what it is for something to be good, or for someone to be the Son of God. 

‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, Wittgenstein wrote at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He meant that his theory of meaning could not cover metaphysical concepts, and therefore he had nothing to say about them. But again, like Gagarin, Wittgenstein was a believer. He went to church throughout his life.

So we can infer that Wittgenstein, and presumably Gagarin, did not take the fact that their chosen means of verification had drawn a blank as proof that there was no God. Just because in earth orbit in VOSTOK 1, Gagarin did not perceive God with his senses, and just because Wittgenstein could not identify a way to verify metaphysical statements, neither of them took those failures as evidence of falsehood. 

Obviously by the time that the early twentieth-century Vienna School of philosophers including Wittgenstein, Carnap, Neurath and its founder, Schlick, had been written up by A.J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), the doctrine of ‘logical positivism’ had assumed an atheistic face, or at least an anti-metaphysical one. Bertrand Russell, who was Wittgenstein’s tutor at Cambridge, was militantly atheistic, as was Ayer.

Logical positivism is heavily influenced by mathematics. It distinguishes between ‘first order’, logical truths, such as that the same number cannot be both positive and negative at the same time, and ‘second order’, contingent truths that can be inferred or observed from first order truths – that something is a red cow, for instance. This has no room for the Platonic or Aristotelian ideas of metaphysics – μετά τα φυσικά, things after, or on top of, physical things. So there is the Platonic concept of Ideas, essences. Not just that something is a table, but that it has the qualities which make it a table, the essence of tablehood. 

Plato understood a dualism of body and soul. The soul of a person was that person’s essence, what it is for someone to be that particular person. So it was a short step to a concept of immortality, based on a transmigration of souls, a nether world, Hades, where the souls of the dead go across the river Acheron, and from which the blessed emerge into Heaven above, into the Elysian Fields.

The logical positivists had nothing to bring to this understanding. In a binary world or any other world conceived mathematically, it was impossible to find room for souls.

But more recently, Oxford philosophers of religion, most notably Richard Swinburne, have looked again at the apparent conflict between logic and metaphysics. Quantum theory has produced mathematics described as ‘fuzzy logic’. 2 + 2 does not necessarily equal 4. Logical proofs can be constructed so as to demonstrate that a soul could exist independently of a body.

But even if one allows that metaphysical entities can exist, how do they ‘work’? What are we to make of the concepts of ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’, in a sense of reunion with God? If sin is άμαρτια, literally, ‘missing the mark’, salvation lies in being recovered into the divine safe haven where the Godhead is.

Except it isn’t a ‘haven’, in most Christian understanding. It is ‘heaven’. But first let us go back to sin. The ingredients include, of course, not just sin, but

sins, bad acts. It seems to me that this might also lead to an examination of theodicy. Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?

It is argued that, for instance in the Book of Job, when Job rails against the injustice of God, we are almost led into concluding that God is not in fact all-good. But suppose one brings in the traditional answer to this ‘problem of evil’, which is that humans have free will: we can choose freely to do what is bad, evil, as well as what is good.

In so doing, we are opposing the good God. If what we do goes against the goodness of God, it is taking away from, missing, the love of God – and it is therefore sinful. But it doesn’t make God into a bad God – indeed, just as Jesus wept, at the death of Lazarus, it may even sadden God.

But consider St Paul’s discussion in Romans 7, which arguably muddies the waters by positing limits to free will. Paul sins not because he has chosen the bad over against the good, but because he ‘couldn’t help it’. In other words, he feels himself not to be a free agent. So perhaps free will isn’t an explanation for apparent divine cruelties.

Traditionally, theologians have argued that sin and bad conduct are not the same. To follow the Ten Commandments will make one morally good, but one could still be sinful, it is argued. I am not sure, however, that Pelagius was entirely wrong. It may be that one cannot earn one’s way into heaven by good deeds; but to the extent that one’s good deeds draw one back into God’s entrance yard, they may bring one closer to salvation.

But what about the cross, and Jesus’ ‘atoning sacrifice (ίλασμον)’? It seems cogent that, again, a good God would not want his own son to be offered as a human sacrifice. 

We are back to the question of knowing God. How do you know that God loves you? By being aware of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross. ‘Greater love hath no man …’ There are examples of sacrifice – people standing in front of a gun pointed at someone else; standing in for someone else who is going to be harmed. The stories of a Maximilian Kolbe or a Jack Cornwell. 

But specifically, taking upon oneself the burden of someone else’s sin? Being punished for someone else’s transgressions? What is really happening? A suggested model is the Jewish idea of a ‘scapegoat’. 

Sacramentally or symbolically, the sins of the congregation are laden on to a goat (or a sheep or any other docile domestic animal to hand): the poor animal is then cut loose to fend for itself, and probably starve, in the desert outside. How exactly are the sins ‘loaded’ on the poor animal?

We are in the realm of classical drama. Achieving catharsis (‘cleaning out’ your soul) comes through pity and fear, according to Aristotle. Watching someone suffer, to some extent you suffer ‘with’ them. What does that ‘with’ mean? The difficulty is that I cannot know what it feels like to be you, or to experience what you do, and you can’t feel what I feel either.

Maybe this ‘atoning sacrifice’ is not a transaction – an eye for an eye, say, buying off, placating, a wrathful deity – but rather more akin to complementary medicine; healing, by way of a sort of inoculation. If we take in some minor badness or do it, it can protect us, vaccinate us, against being overwhelmed by total badness. In doing this sacramentally, in entering into someone else’s sacramental sacrifice, as the priest perfects the sacrifice, so we the congregation are blessed by an approving God, or, even, ‘saved’.

This kind of salvation does not, though, imply intimacy. It does not lead one to say one ‘knows’ God, or more particularly that one ‘knows’ Jesus, in the same way in which one would know one’s Aunt Florrie. The revelation experiences in the Old and New Testaments – the burning bush, the dove coming down from heaven, the ‘gardener’ at the empty tomb – none of these are at all comfortable. People who ask how well one knows Jesus cannot really be referring to those examples.

On the other hand there is the Pauline idea of Christians being ‘in Christ’, or ‘in the Spirit’. Among others John A. T. Robinson has, in his ‘The Body’ (John A. T. Robinson 1952, The Body – a Study in Pauline Theology, London, SCM Press) argued on the basis that ‘in Christ’ means ‘in the body of Christ’, i.e. in the Church. I do not think this sits particularly well with those passages where e.g. John, in Revelation (1:10) says that he did something when he was ‘in the spirit’.The NEB is stretching the Greek too much by translating έγενομην έν πνεύματι as ‘I was caught up by the Spirit.’ It clearly does not mean, ‘as a member of the church I… [did something].’ Another way to make sense of this is to invert the meaning, so to be in Christ means, to have Christ in you: and in that Christ has gone, has ascended, it is the Holy Spirit that will fill the believer in Jesus’ place. The Spirit is the Comforter, the spirit of truth, the Paraclete or advocate, the barrister at the court of life.

At the first Pentecost the Spirit manifested itself miraculously, burning – or not burning – the disciples’ hair as the burning bush similarly burned without being consumed, for Moses. The men of all the provinces listed in the Book of Genesis, from Parthia and Cappadocia and all, found themselves able to speak each other’s language.

We don’t have such astonishing experiences, however. What would it mean for one of us today to be ‘in the spirit’? 

Sermon for Evensong on Trinity Sunday, 27th May 2018

Ezekiel 1:4-10, 22-28; Revelation 4

‘WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity..’

I turned to the Book of Common Prayer for guidance about Trinity Sunday. Near the beginning is the Creed of Saint Athanasius, also known by its Latin name, Quicunque Vult, which means ‘whoever wishes’ or, as it says in the Prayer Book, ‘whosoever will’; whosoever will, whosoever wishes, that he be saved, he must hold the ‘Catholick Faith’. And that faith is that we worship ‘one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity’.

We worship one God, in three persons, as the hymn, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty’ says. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tonight’s lessons, from Ezekiel and Revelation, aren’t really relevant to Trinity Sunday, except insofar as they are pictures of the divine, of God and heaven – or perhaps more accurately, they are visions of the divine, as the the prophet Ezekiel and as St John the Divine portrayed their visions of God.

Ezekiel had a vision of fire, and of living creatures, and a throne above them upon which was seated ‘the appearance of a man’. The heavenly figures, the living creatures, had, according to Ezekiel, ‘the appearance of a man’. Some man! I’m not sure what sort of a man has four faces – including the faces of lions, oxen and eagles – or wings, or which every one had four, four wings. I was going to say that perhaps this image is one that got people thinking of God as a superhuman being living in heaven above the clouds, but actually Ezekiel’s vision isn’t tied to a particular place, up or down. The vision was of a whirlwind, and fire ‘infolding itself’ in the whirlwind, with a bright light in the middle, where God and the four creatures – his angels – were to be seen.

In St John the Divine’s vision, he was ‘in the spirit’, and saw into heaven, where there was a throne with someone sitting on it who looked like he was made of jewels – ‘to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone’; there were 24 ‘elders’, and around the throne was a sea of glass, with four ‘beasts full of eyes before and behind.’ These beasts had the look, respectively, of a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle. There is clearly a reminiscence of the living creatures in Ezekiel. Here there are four creatures, looking like a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle: there were also four creatures, but each one had multiple aspects, each one had four faces, looking like a lion, a calf, a man and an eagle respectively.

The other day I was talking to someone about saying our prayers. I think it may have been in the context of the recent ‘novena’, nine days of prayer, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which all the churches were encouraged to join, so as to create a worldwide wave of prayer. A sort of Mexican wave of prayer round the world.

My question to my friend was, ‘Who are you praying to?’ My friend said, ‘I’m praying to God’. Without going into too much detail, what worried me was that I wasn’t sure that the god which he was thinking about was the same as the one I thought of.

There’s a new book, by the philosopher John Gray, The Seven Types of Atheism, which I want to read. [John Gray, 2018, Seven Types of Atheism, London, Allen Lane] So far I’ve just learned about it from the Church Times and Guardian reviews. But the reason I’m mentioning it is that in a sense, it helps to understand better what something is, if you think about what it isn’t. We understand what it is to be good, partly by contrast with what it is to be bad. Similarly with black and white, and so on.

So when you meet an atheist, one thing that can be quite illuminating is to ask what this god is, that they don’t believe in. The atheist has to say what the putative god, say, the god he wants to rubbish, looks like, or acts like. That’s what John Gray is setting out to do in his book, identifying seven types of atheists. He doesn’t, according to the reports, end up saying who is right, atheists or believers. But he does ask pertinent questions of the atheists, which, he suggests, leave them looking either like believers in disguise or else they are very simplistic in a way in which believers aren’t.

I won’t spoil your anticipation, but we’re going to sing ‘Immortal, Invisible,’ as our last hymn. When we sing that hymn, we are, I think, being properly cautious about what God is. He is ‘hid from our eyes’. This is not a creator, omnipotent, omniscient, who is somehow ‘my God’, in the sense of being my boon companion. It is still a matter of awe and ultimate respect, I would suggest, for us to come before the Almighty.

One atheistic understanding, Richard Dawkins’, puts up a god who is a ‘blind watchmaker’, a creator who may indeed have made the world, but has just set it ticking and left it to its own devices. That kind of god has no continuing interest in what, or whom, he has created. Strictly speaking, that’s not atheism so much as ‘deism’ – a belief in a sort of god which might as well not be there, or who has, as some philosophers have argued, died, or simply disappeared. God is dead, they say. Just like children who have lost a parent, we have to do without the absent god.

I could see the force of that, see the attraction of it, if we had not come to know about Jesus. God has another aspect, another face. If we believe that Jesus was both human and divine, then we believe in the second part of the Trinity. ‘The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate’; uncreate, which means, not created. Because if the Son were created, were one of God’s creatures, then He could not be an ultimate creator, creator ex nihilo, from nothing – which is the most basic, stripped-down understanding of what it is to be God.

The Nicene Creed was adopted in order to nail down the controversy that Arius, who was a theologian in Alexandria in the fourth century, who, perhaps influenced by Plato and Aristotle, suggested that Jesus as ‘son’ of God was not ‘uncreate’, but was by his very sonship lesser than God. A great controversy broke out in the early church, and the Roman emperor Constantine convened a great conference at Nicaea in the year 325, at which it was decided that Father and Son were ‘of one substance’. The theological opponent of Arius was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius: and the Creed which is called ‘Quicunque Vult’ is also known as the Creed of Athanasius. In Athanasius’ creed, ‘The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.’ We say the Nicene Creed in the Communion service, which reflects Athanasius’ interpretation:

I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father…’,

and when it gets to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Nicene Creed says:

‘And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.’

‘… who proceedeth from the Father and the Son’. Now even today, in the Common Worship service book – at page 140, there is an alternative text of the Nicene Creed, which, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, says,

‘We believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father,..’

Not, ‘from the Father and the Son’. This is so that it may be said ‘on suitable ecumenical occasions’, that is, when you are holding a service with other Christians who don’t accept the outcome of the Council of Nicaea – as for instance the Orthodox churches don’t.

At Evensong we use the Apostles’ Creed, which is simpler, and doesn’t get into whether Jesus was created or not:

‘I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary,… ‘

The Apostles’ Creed really emphasises the dual nature of Jesus, as god and as man. God: ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost’; man: ‘born of the Virgin Mary’.

Now, you may think that this is all impossibly complicated. It is surely part of our understanding of theology that we don’t fully understand: that the nature of God is beyond human understanding. But that doesn’t stop us from trying, from trying to get a better understanding.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s what Christians believe in. The father, the creator, the heart of being: the creator in person, Jesus: and the creative force, the love force, the Comforter, as the Holy Spirit is called in John 15:26, for instance. Three ways of seeing God.

That’s all quite difficult to deny, actually. As a lawyer, I knew that one of the most difficult things is to prove the absence of something. Relatively easy to show that something happened, but not the other way round. So I would say that you needn’t be coy about saying you believe in God, even ‘God in three persons’. It’s perfectly respectable philosophically – indeed, if John Gray is right, the ‘new atheists’ are intellectual lightweights by comparison. So you could say, ‘ What is this god you don’t believe in? Bring it on!

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Here is the text of the Creed of St Athanasius.

Upon these Feasts; Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Saint Matthias, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Saint John Baptist, Saint James, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Matthew, Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Saint Andrew, and upon Trinity Sunday, shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing.

QUICUNQUE VULT

WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost.

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost.

The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.

The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal.

And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal.

As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.

So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty: and the Holy Ghost Almighty.

And yet they are not three Almighties: but one Almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God.

And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord: and the Holy Ghost Lord.

And yet not three Lords: but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity: to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;

So are we forbidden by the Catholick Religion: to say there be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another;

But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal.

So that in all things, as is aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;

God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;

Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;

Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.

Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;

One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God;

One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.

For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ.

Who suffered for our salvation: descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.

He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty: from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works.

And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Text from The Book of Common Prayer, the rights in which are vested in the Crown,

is reproduced by permission of the Crown’s Patentee, Cambridge University Press.

Sermon for Mattins on Trinity Sunday 2014
Isaiah 6:1-8, Mark 1:1-11

Today is Trinity Sunday. We commemorate the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. If you turn to page 27 in your little blue Prayer Books [Book of Common Prayer], you will see that there is a rubric which tells you when the words which follow can be used. That includes Trinity Sunday. So instead of what we did chant, the Apostles’ Creed, ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth … and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, ….’ and then, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost …’, instead of that, we could have said the Creed of St Athanasius, called ‘Quicunque Vult’, Latin for ‘Whoever wants’, that is, whoever wants to be saved; this is what they must believe, if they are to be fit for salvation at the day of judgment.

If you read it afterwards at home, you’ll see that this Creed really goes into the question who God is, and what He is. This all comes from the revelation of Jesus: that Jesus appeared on earth, as a human being.

‘Day by day like us He grew.
He was little,weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us He knew.’
[Mrs C.F. Alexander, Once in Royal David’s City, Common Praise, hymn 66]

But He did more than a normal human being could possibly have done. Specifically, of course, He did miracles. And the biggest miracle of all, He was resurrected from the dead. So whatever else you might say, He wasn’t exactly like other men.

‘Thou art my beloved Son’ [Mark 1:11]

Then, when Jesus had ascended, after His wonderful life and death and resurrection, at Pentecost, last Sunday, Whit Sunday, the Holy Spirit came on the disciples. They realised that God still cared for them. Their Lord was still there. His Spirit is with us.

So when we think of God, the Christian way to do it is to think of the three ‘persons’ of God, as they’re called: the father, the creator; the son, and the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity’ we sing in the hymn [Reginald Heber, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Common Praise, hymn 202], but what does it really mean? It’s a slightly odd way of thinking about our Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Normally we approach those sacred mysteries one by one, and especially through thinking about Jesus Himself and studying the Gospels, His life and teaching here on earth.

The voice from heaven said, Thou art my beloved Son’. So if we accept that this was the voice of God, He said he had a Son. Somehow related to, or representative of, that god, but in the form of a human being. God is not just the Creator.

But then, perhaps those two, Father and Son, are no longer visible: but surely, we are still able to discern lots of greater or lesser occasions when it becomes apparent in various ways that God is still at work here among us. That is the third face of God, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

If there hadn’t been Jesus Christ, or if we hadn’t accepted that He was more than just a prophet or a great teacher, and if we had not recognised the presence of the Holy Spirit, then one would be left with worshipping God as Creator, but not knowing whether He was still actively involved with us; whether He cared for us, or whether in fact God had simply wound up the mechanism of life and set it going: and then gone on to look at other things.

(Incidentally that is roughly where the Jewish and Moslem religions are. They recognise the life of Jesus and they acknowledge Him to have been a great prophet: but nothing more.)

But we know that He did things that would normally be completely impossible, culminating in His glorious death and resurrection. Resurrection from the dead. So Jesus has god-like powers. He isn’t just a great preacher. He really had power to heal, in fact even to raise people from the dead; and when He Himself died, power to be resurrected, three days later. We read they heard the voice of God, saying, Thou art my beloved Son’.

The early church had big debates about how to understand the true nature of God and of His Son. One of the early fathers, Arius, decided that in fact, God was not just God in three persons, but that there were effectively three gods: father, son and Holy Spirit were all gods independent of each other. But if that were true, our understanding of God would be very odd indeed. If the father created the son in the normal way, and if the father and the son together created the Holy Spirit, then who created the creators?

Is it true, or would it be true under that arrangement, that Jesus was divine? It’s a very difficult thing to hold in our heads. ‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity.’ There is a distinction made, in all the early theology, between ‘persons’ and ‘substance’. Thomas Aquinas puts it very simply. A person is who we are: a substance is what we are. Thomas wrote:

‘We can say the Father is another who from the Son, but not another what.’ You can say God is one ‘what’ but not one ‘who’. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol 6, 31-2] The answer to the question ‘who?’ can give you three separate persons within the divine nature, within the Godhead, within the ‘Godness’.

You have in the Nicene Creed, which we say in the communion service, a reflection of this. Did the Holy Spirit come from the father or from the father and the son – and if the latter, was there some kind of family tree, so that the father created the son and the son created the Holy Spirit, so that the son and Holy Spirit were not really God? So that was the controversy. The Council of Nicaea, 325AD, decided that the right answer was that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded from the father and the son. Who with the father and the son together is worshipped and glorified’ [Nicene Creed].

That corresponds with what the Athanasian Creed says (at the beginning of the Prayer Book, on page 27). ‘But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one…. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible’.

(Not completely impossible to understand, but impossible for us to understand every bit of it.) It goes on:

‘So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

… He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.’

The key thing in this whole area is how to think correctly about Jesus. ‘It is necessary to everlasting salvation: that [you] believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ’. If you read this part of the Athanasian Creed (on page 29), it sets it all out:

‘… Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before all worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God, and Perfect Man: …
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.
Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ.’

So that is the Trinity: one God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.