When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So today is Trinity Sunday -- the feast that has spawned a thousand jokes among preachers about how this is the Sunday to avoid preaching on at all costs. But I can’t think of a more exciting topic to preach about! And then there are all the various analogies that we’ve come up with to somehow explain the mystery of the Trinity that you might hear on Trinity Sunday: water as ice, liquid, and vapor; the three-leaf clover allegedly used by St. Patrick; an egg with its shell, white, and yolk; and a bunch of others, I’m sure. Most of them are fine enough, but if you take any one of these too literally, you’re probably bound to end up walking into some straight-up Trinitarian heresy! After all, we’re dealing with an unfathomable mystery here; we’re dealing with who God really is; the God who has revealed himself to us and whose true nature is known and proclaimed by the Catholic Faith that we receive as the Church.
To give you a sense of just how complicated the doctrine of the Trinity is, and how insistent the Church has been on getting it right, consider this bit from the Athanasian Creed -- which you can find in the back of the Prayer Book. According to this creed, “...the Catholic 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.
You got all that, right? But for all the complexity, you can really sum it all up by saying that there is one God in Trinity, who is Trinity in Unity. From that basic claim, the Church has reasoned that anything that pertains to God necessarily pertains to each of the three Persons equally and infinitely -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, if God is eternal, then all three Persons are likewise eternal, etc, etc. That’s the important takeaway: there is no inferiority or succession among the three Persons of the Godhead, but absolute equality and unity.
Ok, so all well and good. But what difference does all of this make? Is it not just an academic curiosity for arcane theologians, with little to no relevance for “ordinary” Christians? Well, I would want to insist that the Trinity is anything but that, because the Trinity is simply who God is, and, therefore, is of the most profound and immediate significance for each and every Christian. Salvation is a matter of becoming a partaker of the divine nature, and what is revealed to us through Christ is that this divine nature is Trinitarian. Which means that our salvation depends upon the truth that God is Trinity; it is what makes our salvation possible.
Now, I’m going to focus on just two points that we find across our Collect for today as well as our readings. First, the revelation that God is Triune -- one God in three Persons -- is, in fact, a revelation. And that means that the Trinity would have remained completely unknowable to us were it not for God’s revelation of his triune nature. As human beings endowed with reason, it’s possible for us to look out on the world and deduce at least a few things about God. We can determine that God exists, for instance, and we can even determine that there is only one God. So there are certain truths and attributes of God that human beings can discover simply by surveying the world God created and using our faculty of reason and logic. But not the Trinity. We could never have figured that one out on our own. The Trinity is a truth that infinitely transcends what can be discovered by human thought alone. God has to reveal himself to us as the Trinity in order for us to discover it.
That God must reveal himself in order to be known by humans can be seen in the scene from our reading from Exodus. Moses goes to Horeb, the mountain of God, where “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” Note that God has to appear to Moses, through the angel. Moses doesn’t find God on his own, but has to encounter the appearance that God makes before him. As it continues, “when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush,” and after a brief exchange, God reveals his true identity: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” So Moses receives a revelation of who God is -- a revelation that is given by God himself.
But crucially, Moses is also warned by God to keep his distance -- he is commanded to “not come near” -- and after God reveals his name to Moses, the text adds that “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Even in this revelation of God in the burning bush, there is still the distance of God’s holiness that cannot be approached by Moses, being the mere mortal that he is. And as God himself tells Moses later on, no one can look upon God and live, and so Moses understandably hides his face in awe and fear. This may be a revelation for Moses, but it is not yet a participation: God may be “the God of your father,” but Moses cannot yet cry out and address God as “Abba! Father!” -- as his Father. Neither Moses nor any other human being could call God our Father until the Trinity was made known to us and, further, until it became possible for us to be brought into the Trinity.
And this leads to my second point, which is about the difference that the Trinity makes for us as Christians. I said earlier that our very salvation depends upon the Triune nature of God, and it’s this dependence that can be clearly seen when we compare our Gospel and Epistle readings to what we found in our reading from Exodus. So take a look at our Gospel reading from John. At first glance, we see that there is similar kind of distance between God and humanity that we saw with Moses and the burning bush. Jesus draws a firm line between “earthly things” and “heavenly things” -- as he asks Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” And he also draws a line between “that which is born of the flesh...and that which is born of the Spirit.” So what we find is that there is no overlap between flesh and spirit, heaven and earth; each side is separated from the other by an infinite distance. For “no one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man,” Christ says. Which means that the only person who can truly know of heavenly things is the one who himself was in heaven to begin with, before descending to earth as the Son of man. Only God can really know these heavenly things, in other words; that is, unless God reveals these things to those who live on earth -- those who are born of the flesh.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Jesus says; nor can one enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. But see how important that little word “unless” is: that “unless” suggests that what was once impossible has now become possible. Moses could not approach the presence of God in the burning bush; St. Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). That’s what’s impossible. But what Christ is revealing to Nicodemus is this new possibility that those born of the flesh can become born anew of the Spirit; it is now possible that we can become those born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God,” (John 1:13); human beings can now receive “power to become children of God” (John 1:12). And it’s the arrival -- the revelation -- of Jesus as the Son of man that makes this possible. It’s the Incarnation of our Lord that brings this power to be born again as the children of God to the human race. It’s the Incarnation that both reveals God as Trinity and makes it possible for us to be born anew.
But the descent of Christ into the world as the Son of man only makes our salvation possible because Christ is also the Son of God. And this is where the Trinity can be seen as the basis for our salvation. Because if Christ is God the Son, then there must also be God the Father -- for every son proceeds from a father. But for Christ, God is not just “the God of your father,” as God revealed himself to Moses, but simply is his Father. And where Moses had to keep his distance and hide his face, Christ knows no such distance and can behold God the Father in perfect fellowship and unity. Instead of a distance, there is only the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity who is the love that is shared between the Father and the Son -- the principle of their unity. And all of this that Christ enjoys as the Son of God is what is now offered to us in salvation. In baptism, we are born of water and the Spirit -- we are born anew -- which means that we are united to Christ the Son by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And if we are united to the Son, it can only mean that we thereby come to share in what belongs to the Son; we become the children of God. The revelation of God in the humanity of Jesus -- which, unlike the burning bush, can be approached -- is our invitation to participate in the relationship that Christ has with his Father through the Spirit. It’s why St. Paul says that we are adopted as God’s children: we are brought by adoption and grace into the very life of the Trinity. And this puts us into a relationship with God that had never been possible before, for God is now our Father, just as he is Christ’s Father. We can only cry, “Abba! Father!” if that is who God actually is to us; and God can only be our Father if “it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” To know the Trinity is to participate in the Trinity; it is to be brought into the life of God.
So we can wrap this up by paraphrasing the words of our Collect this morning. In Christ, God has given us grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity; this grace is what makes it possible for us to acknowledge this glory. In Christ, God has given us “the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity”; this power is what makes it possible for us to worship this Unity. And as those who have received this grace and this power in Christ -- as those who have been born of the Spirit -- we await that day when we will at last see the Triune God in his one and eternal glory, no longer hiding our faces in fear, but gazing upon God as he really is, world without end, having been made like him as he really is.