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Trinity Sunday

Sunday, 26 May 2024
Professor Paul Foster

Consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday – Year B: Isa 6.1-8, Rom 8.12-17, Jn 3.1-17

Many of you know that I am rather partial to chocolate. I do not bring this up because my Easter supplies have recently run out, but rather to share with you one of my pet peeves! It is not with the chocolate itself, but rather with some of the wrappers. Take for example this bar of wholenut chocolate. On the back it gives me the following warning. “This product may contain traces of nuts.” Well, I certainly hope so. But how could it be otherwise? No doubt this is a legal protection. The blindingly obvious is stated – not as a piece of genuine consumer advice, but to safeguard the company against prosecution. In today’s society, perhaps such warnings are necessary. So, following the wisdom of leading chocolatiers, I fear I must give you a health warning about this Trinity Sunday homily. It is this, – “This sermon may contain traces of … (wait for it!) … theology.” But how could it be otherwise? Today we speak of the very being of God. And the term “theology” is an anglicised rendering of the Greek, “Theos” meaning God, and “Logos” in this context meaning the study of, or speaking about the divine. Thus, Trinity Sunday invites us to study, or to contemplate the very being of God. And to consider how from within the being of God, the divine reaches out to humanity in endless acts of love. So today, with necessary health warnings, this sermon will, I am afraid, contain traces of theology. You have been warned!

“Consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run.” This is the final line of John Neale’s hymn, “Come, ye faithful, raise the anthem.” The words roll off the tongue surprisingly easily – so much so, I wonder if we stop to consider what it is that these words are actually communicating. In fact, this phrase distils the outcome of a long theological controversy that raged through the second half of the third century and deep into the fourth century and even beyond. On the one side of the debate was Arius, who is perhaps cast as more of a bogey-man than he should be. He argued that there was a time when the son (the Word of God) was not. And, that the son was a created being, the “first-born” of all creation. Moreover, the Arian position saw the son as being of like substance to the father, but not formed of exactly the same type of divinity as the father. By contrast, Athanasius, who later history casts as the lone hero (again, an overdrawn characterisation) argued vehemently against this view. He argued that if God was truly unchanging, then he must always have been father, which implied he always had a son. Therefore, the son always existed beyond time and was co-eternal with the father. This, for Athanasius, meant the son was fully divine, not simply of a similar, divine-like substance, but that the son was eternally part of the Godhead and consequently was of the same substance, or consubstantial with the father.

Such fourth century debates can seem abstract and perhaps removed from the way the scriptural texts speak about God. Even worse, maybe even irrelevant to contemporary twenty-first century perceptions of divinity. However, I would want to challenge both of those perceptions.

Our first reading from the book of Isaiah takes us to a familiar text. It is Isaiah’s vision in the year King Uzziah died, of the divine throne-room, with the Lord of hosts sitting high and lifted up above humanity. The seraphim thrice declare his holiness, as they cry “holy, holy, holy.” Some have seen in this threefold declaration an allusion to the triune nature of God. But that is surely wrong, and is a case of colonising an ancient text of Israelite religion with Christian theology. However, this text does speak of something that is of fundamental significance for understanding the being and nature of the deity. The God who Isaiah encounters is holy beyond measure. This God is separated from all human frailties of infirmity, impurity, and sin. This encounter with the God who is over humanity causes Isaiah to realise that he is unfit to stand in the presence of the divine. In this perception, Isaiah is of course correct, he is a person of unclean lips and he understands that to come into the presence of God in such a state can only mean death. But then one of the six-winged seraphim, who fly at God’s command, takes decisive action. A purifying coal is lifted from the heavenly altar. It is used to cauterise Isaiah’s lips from all unholiness. This scene speaks to me of a God of redemption. This is the deity who seeks not to punish, but to purify, not to exclude but to include with invitation and action. The purifying fire of the God who stand over humanity brings individuals into the holy presence.

Our gospel reading also speaks of the divine work of inclusion and the realignment of human lives. Coming into the presence of the divine kingdom is never an entirely comfortable experience. The prominent Pharisee Nicodemus thinks he is making a significant concession to Jesus, when he states, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God.” However, the Jesus of John’s Gospel needs no affirmation of status from any human. Instead, it is Nicodemus who must consider his own status before God. Jesus challenges this teacher of Israel concerning his qualification for entering God’s kingdom, as Jesus speaks of rebirth through water and the Spirit. Last Sunday, at Pentecost, we celebrated the bestowal of the Spirit, and through baptism purifying waters were outpoured on those seeking a new life led by the Spirit. There is so much that could be said about this passage in John’s Gospel that is central to the Christian life of faith. However, note these three things. First, the son is the one come down from heaven – not brought down or called down – but come down through divine volition. Second, in what is perhaps one of the most famous verses in the New Testament, the son not only freely comes but is given for humanity. As Jn 3.16 makes clear, God gave the son to the world to bring all that trust in the son to eternal life. Third, God acts in a consistent manner. As Isaiah was purified by a burning coal provided by the God who was over him, this same God is not desirous of condemning humanity, but rather instead with offering humanity everlasting life. Through incarnation and death, the co-eternal, consubstantial son, the one who is very God of very God, is the God who comes alongside humanity as the babe of Bethlehem, the teacher of Galilee, and the crucified of Calvary. In the fourth century, one of the Cappadocian theologians, Gregory Nazianzus stated, “that which is not assumed is not healed.” His key insight was that it was only through the incarnation of the son as fully human, that humans might be purified and prepared to dwell in the divine presence. In Christ, one sees the God who comes alongside humanity, who lives our common life, who was unjustly condemned to a criminal’s death, and through his rising to new life brings life to all. This is the God who is beside us and acts for us in the fulness of humanity.

Our third reading from Romans speaks of the work of the Spirit in the lives of believers. The Spirit is God who is within us. The purifying aspect of the Spirit’s work is prominent in this passage. The Spirit puts to death the selfish deeds of our weaker natures. Everything that would separate a person from the divine presence is removed by the indwelling presence of the Spirit. John the Baptist compared his water baptism with the baptism that would be offered by the one who was to come after him. He declared that the coming one would not baptise with water, but with the “Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3.12). Some have seen the reference to the “spirit and fire” as opposing images – the spirit that saves and the fire that destroys. I think that is wrong. Only once have I had to drive through a largescale bush fire. The acrid smoke and the blocking out of sunlight are vivid memories that do not easily fade. The fire was fed by all the dead vegetation and the fallen wood in the forest. The intensity of the heat could be felt inside the vehicle. However, about a month later, on the return journey along the same road a strange thing had happened. The dead and decaying material was gone. The living eucalyptus trees certainly had chard trunks. However, not only did they continue to live but they were bearing fresh foliage. And the forest floor had fresh flowers – from seeds that could only germinate with intense heat. The location was the same, but it was entirely transformed, new and strikingly beautiful. I believe this is the same way that the one who baptises with “Spirit and fire” works within human lives. Removing that which is dead and destructive in our own too human patterns of behaviours, and causing new life in each of us by the indwelling and life-imparting Spirit. This is the God within us. This is the one who not only makes us fit to dwell in the divine presence, but provides us with a new status. Our reading tells us that through the Spirit, the indwelling God, we receive a spirit of adoption, which makes us children of God. That gift enables us not only to understand God as the thrice holy one, but also to recognise that it is the work of one and the same God that purifies and prepares us to call the divine one that most intimate of names – Abba. Who is the loving one who is always over us guarding us, always alongside us standing with us in our humanity, and always within us interceding for us and making us true children of God.

Like the warning on my bar of wholenut chocolate, I suspect this sermon might have been a case of false advertising. Hopefully there was more than mere traces of theology, perhaps it even contained some solid kernels on which to munch. But I hope as we pondered together the nature of the being of God as Trinity, we perceived the divine life of Father, Son and Spirit working together in perfect unison in the acts of calling, purifying, and drawing humans into that perfect presence. This has been the divine purpose before all time, as those three co-eternal persons of the Trinity who are of the same divine substance, but who are for ever three and ever one, reach out beyond the inner life of the Trinity to purify and call humanity to a restored and right relationship with the divine. For it is when perceive the God who is perfect in unity and glorious in Trinity that we begin to rightly render praise to the Father who is ever over us, to the Son who is ever beside us, and to the Spirit who is ever within us, now and always. Amen

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