Trinity Sunday 2024

Exodus 3:1-6; Psalm 93; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-16

The year was A.D. 325. The current, sole Roman Emperor, Constantine I, had gained control of the Empire 13 years prior. Once one of four rulers, he brought his legions down from Britain, through France and into Italy, to wrest control from all but one of his co-rulers. Before the dramatic final battle at the Milvan Bridge against his enemy Maxentius, he claimed to have had a dream, where he was told “under this sign shall you conquer,” the chi-rho. Constantine nominally converts to Christianity, and makes it legal the next year (not obligatory or official), thus relieving the tensions, persecutions, and struggles of early Christianity. Here, 12 years later, he is in a quandary. This faith, which he had hoped would be a source of unification in the empire, was rather creating enormous tensions. The reason seemed to him somewhat obscure: a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, had taught what many others in his region seemed to teach and believe, that God is one, and that Jesus Christ is a created being, higher than us surely, but not co-equal with the Father, not in total union of essence while being distinct persons. The Holy Spirit? Forget about it. 

It can also seem obscure to us. Love God, love Jesus, know he died for you, and call it good. Why all the arguments over how God is in Christ? What’s more, no one seemed to be in their belief maliciously; Arius and his followers believed they were following the Scriptures, just like their opponents. So, Constantine, seeking to end the strife, calls a council, an ecumenical council, where though only about 300 of the 1800 bishops in the world were present, they at least were representative of the whole, to debate and come to a conclusion. These were not stuffy, ivory-tower theologians, having arcane arguments over fine points of interest to philosophers but no one else. Some of these bishops had survived the Decian persecutions, missing eyes, hands, bearing the scars of witnessing to Jesus Christ. And what they heard being taught in Alexandria disturbed many of them. Christ is a lesser being? The Christ whom we worship is not God? And so through their deliberations here, and at the council of Constantinople in 381, they write what we have received as the Nicene Creed. Studying the Scriptures together, and using common philosophical terminology, not to import it to Scripture but to make sense of what Scripture does teach and more clearly define it, they come to a conclusion that has been authoritative for interpreting the Scriptures for all Christians who would bear the name: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one God, united in substance but distinct in persons, all co-equal in all attributes of Godliness, all acting as one in will, purpose, desire, and all existing in perpetual, mutual, perfect love.

That is the God we worship, believe in, confess. But we may ask a question at this point, that, when answered, give us insight even into the very nature of God in his love and grace in communicating to us: why did God not reveal this more clearly in Scripture? Why do we need to “theologize” to get to this understanding of God?

The deep trinitarian structure of Scripture is revealed in the events of Incarnation and Pentecost and requires a careful focus upon the main storyline of the Bible in order to be recognized. It has to be recognized that God could have theoretically saved us without other agents, and simply remained largely mysterious. However, His salvation has the character of “personal communion,” and would have made no sense done abstractly. He chose to act within human history in a concrete way, in a personal way, by being present in divine power among those being saved. The divine actions of saving via the Father sending, the Incarnation of the Son, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are inherently personal, and by being sent the Son and Spirit reveal the triune relationship. He meets us as Father in the burning bush, as Son to the questioning searcher, as Spirit to those who bear witness. In all we are baptized, and as John 17 would have it, we are invited and welcomed in to participate into their divine life, bound by the Spirit to the Son, who is also one with the Father, we receiving as adopted children the love and life of God in ourselves.

If we wonder why this is all somewhat unclear in Scripture as first blush, I think Gregory of Nazianzus gives us a sufficient answer: “The Old Testament preached the Father openly and the Son more obscurely. The New Testament revealed the Son, and hinted at the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Now the Spirit dwells in us, and is revealed more clearly to us. It was not proper to preach the Son openly, while the divinity of the Father had not yet been admitted. Nor was it proper to accept the Holy Spirit before the divinity of the Son had been acknowledged…Instead, by gradual advances and partial ascents, we should forward and increase in clarity, so that the light of the Trinity should shine.”

And this is all not revealed by dogmatic declaration. Such things as creeds are necessary when there is dissent or obscurity, when people can believe things like Arius which, when believed, really does lead us to idolatry. But God, instead of revealing these deep wells about his nature to us in syllogism, reveals himself through his actions. He descends, comes to the world, works within it by giving us promises, acting on our behalf, and accomplishing our salvation. He reveals himself by being present.

This fits God’s manner of revealing Himself. Of necessity, God makes Himself present to His people in a way they can understand, or, self-revelation. He desires to make Himself known to us through the central events of redemption, and characteristically lowers Himself to do so, sitting high on His throne and yet dwelling with the poor and oppressed. If God is consistently one who reveals Himself via stooping to His people, then the acts of Incarnation and Pentecost fit perfectly into that central Scriptural narrative. The Trinity is not obscure, not unimportant, and surely not irrelevant to us. It is the Triune God who saves; it is the Triune God who is for us; it is the Triune God who gives us life; it is the Triune God who reveals what it means to love; it is the Triune God we worship, and indeed it is only in the Triune God’s actions that true worship is even possible, the Father sending, the Son taking on our nature and returning so that we too might ascend, and the Spirit uniting us to them and carrying to them our struggles, our prayers, our songs of praise, as we persist together, as his Temple, from here to eternity. Amen.

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