Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity
May 27, 2018
Earthly Things and Heavenly Things
When I started college IBM personal computers were just beginning to make it to market. They were simple machines even if they were too expensive for most of us to buy. As I was studying electronics, I could have explained to you the inner workings of those large boxes. The circuit boards were not complex, the chips few. There were no hard drives and so all programs were loaded from discs. They were contained in large boxes, in part, because the inner workings took up space. As they developed, processor speed and the amount of memory were benchmarks for capability.
Today, just about every one of us has a smartphone within our grasp constantly. Its size is determined by the human hand and eye for comfort and not for component need. All circuits are contained on a single chip. Even those of us with some kind of degree in electronics cannot explain how such things work beyond the obvious. No longer do we think in terms of what is inside but instead on what it does. The hows of the phone are not a concern but the what of the applications it runs and the many pictures of grandchildren it can store are the important things. We don’t understand how the phone works, we just know that it does.
As we look to God, we find that were cannot describe Him apart from how we interact with Him and the way that he presents Himself to us. If we can’t get the well explained things right, why do we think we can get the unexplained things right? It is why our Small Catechism divides the Apostles’ Creed into three articles under headings that describe what we might call applications: Creation, Redemption and Sanctification. We describe God by what He has done and by the attributes that are presented to us in the Scriptures and not by the intricate inner workings of the Godhead that we don’t understand.
It is vogue these days, in some circles, to call upon God with names that He has never used for Himself. Some even assign to Him a fluidity of gender. If we confine ourselves to just our portion of the Gospel today, we can see that there is clear and definite language that assigns to God the historic manner in which we address Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Too many try to answer Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?” Venturing into areas that cannot be explained by the Scriptures by delving into the hiddenness of God and trying to explain the inner workings of what we cannot comprehend is a recipe for heresy and thus disaster. There is more than enough to consider and to contemplate in what we are given in Scripture without wandering into the unknowable.
What is clear to us and is described well in the Athanasian Creed which we confessed today, is that God is Trinity in Unity, one God in three persons; God has a number of attributes by which we can understand Him and describe all three persons in equal fashion; that the distinction between the persons is one of relationship; and that the clearest way for us to understand God is by observing what He has done.
The distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is clear and is to be observed, yet we do not have three gods. The substance of each is one while the persons are distinct. This essence of God is undivided yet wholly shared by all three persons of the Trinity. The angels in Isaiah’s vision sing praise to this thrice holy God. The distinction of persons and the unity of substance is something that we can describe and it is language that we can understand even if comprehending the reality constantly eludes our grasp.
And so, it is easier for us to describe God by the attributes that we are given in Scripture. God is holy, glorious, majestic, uncreated, infinite, eternal, and almighty. We ascribe the titles of Lord and God to all three persons individually and yet never refer to their unity in plural terms. These attributes apply equally to all three persons. One person is not more powerful than another, nor does one receive more glory or majesty. One person of the Holy Trinity does not precede or supersede the others in existence or holiness. One person does not claim superiority over the others but each is equal as the uncreated, infinite, eternal, and almighty God.
But there is a distinction in their relationship to one another and then, in turn, how we comprehend or know God. While none is greater or before the other, we are told by the Scriptures that the Father has begotten the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. These relationships are clearly presented and so we stick to such relational descriptions. The relationship between the first person and the second person of the Holy Trinity is one of Father and Son. It is a relationship that is defined by love not superiority. The Son obeys the Father’s will (the shared will of the Godhead) out of love, not from fear. And the Spirit proceeds as He is sent by the Father and the Son. But this relationship does not indicate that one is greater or lesser than the other as all are God.
In all of these ways, we can describe God and we can see aspects of Him but a complete or full understanding of God always eludes us. The clearest way that we can truly understand God is in the way in which He has made Himself intimate with us in the incarnation of the Son. Here the one true God that is always beyond our grasp and only reflected in His glory has taken to Himself the flesh of humanity that the relationship between God and man might truly be intimate. And that through this uniting of God and man in the person of the Son, we have received the redemption of our beings. For in this way God has loved you that He has given His Son to die for you that you may have eternal life.
He who is infinite has become finite that He might suffer the fate of sinful man and redeem us the finite to an eternity in the infinite. The indescribable and undefinable God has clearly defined and described the manner in which He saves us through the lifting up of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
We do not understand that inner counsel of God and the intricacies of His being but we can and should understand the application of His love for us in the sending of the only-begotten Son and the proceeding of the Spirit, who directs our attention to the Son. We do not need to engage in the fantasies of our minds as we try to explain the Holy Trinity nor do we need to be some kind of high browed theologians. We need simply to cling to the understandable reality that God sent His Son into the world to save it. He sent His Son to save you.
You do not need to be computer engineers to understand or make use of your smart phones, nor do you need to be degreed theologians to understand what God has done for you as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that it is faith alone in Him that saves. But armed with that faith in the God who loves you and the symbols (confessions) of the catholic faith, you are theologians prepared to defend against wrong-headed ideas that obscure or deny the death of Jesus, both God and man, for our salvation.
He who has ascended in glory is He who has descended to manifest that glory by dying for your sins. He has not left you as orphans but has sent His Spirit to work this catholic faith in you that you would believe until that day when He returns and you will be given to understand these heavenly things as clearly as you understand the earthly things.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.