Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: Matthew 28:16-20
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to increasingly see Jesus and thereby be equipped to tell others about Him who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Show video clip at https://youtu.be/Q2l4bz1FT8U.
What is it? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it . . . , well, today is Trinity Sunday. Perhaps, one of the most enigmatic, mysterious, mind-boggling tenets in the Christian vocabulary is that of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The theological debate around what or rather who the Trinity is goes back to the second century AD. Disagreement over the meaning of the Trinity has been the source of persecution, division, theological mudslinging, and perhaps even war. While there were several contributing factors to the split or schism between the western/Latin church and the eastern orthodox/Greek church, the disagreement over the nature of the Trinity is foremost among those factors.
For many of us, we may care less. It is all God, is it not? The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Who is in charge though, we may ask; and that has been part of the controversy. If God the Father begot the Son (not the same thing as giving birth, incidentally), well from where did the Holy Spirit come? Did He come from the Father alone, as is confessed in the Eastern Orthodox Church to which we might ask, “Well, does that make Him Jesus’ brother?” Did the Spirit come from the Father and the Son, as we in the western church confess in the Nicene Creed: “who proceeds from the Father and the Son”? If so, are we to understand this in familial terms like father and son? What relative is the Spirit to the Father and to the Son?
Whereas the term, Trinity, is not found in the Bible, certainly the concept is. In today’s gospel from St. Matthew we indeed heard Jesus say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Scripture or the Bible is pretty clear that they are separate persons. Note the word persons. They are not a Star Wars force. They are separate persons, being of the same spiritual substance, homoousious in the Greek. Though separate persons, they do not operate separately or have separate agendas. The term applied as to how they function together is perichoresis. The image here is of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dancing in unity as well as being in community.
We first get wind of them as separate persons in the Genesis reading this morning except that the NRSV translation of the Hebrew word has clouded that. We heard: “while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The word in Hebrew, being translated into wind isruach; most translations render it as Spirit. The Revised Standard translation sounds like this: “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”
Reference to God the Son is a little more cryptic in the Old Testament because of His humanity. The verse from Isaiah (7:14), so familiar to us around Christmas, is an example. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman (virgin) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanuel, of course, means “God is with us.”
Because it is challenging to understand who or what the Trinity is, there is the risk of oversimplifying and as a result inadvertently stumbling into heresy. Some have tried to explain the Trinity as water in different stages, ice, water, and steam. While this is easy to grasp, it makes God sound a bit like a quick change artist, sporting a different costume for different occasions. The term applied to this kind of heresy is Sabellianism or Modalism—God in different modes.
So, understanding the Trinity on a day to day basis may not mean much to us. I have probably told you more than you wanted to hear. Jesus, though, as we heard in the gospel, is clear about the distinction, so it matters. It could be argued that the whole of salvation history, what God has done for us, is doing for us, can be summed up in the concept of the Trinity. Each person of the Trinity specifically defines ways in which God has loved, redeemed, and empowers us (notice the present tense), and this we can know and have known in a very personal way. Indeed, the work of the Trinity is what we heard in this morning’s Corinthians reading. Paul closes his letter with a Trinitarian blessing. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
Last Sunday, of course, was Pentecost Sunday when we celebrated the promised Holy Spirit having been poured out on the disciples. While there had been similar occasions in the Old Testament, where the Spirit had been poured out, those had been limited to a few individuals like a prophet, a judge, or a king. On Pentecost that limitation was thrown to the wind. St. Peter declared to the assembled crowd, “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:16, 17).
So, in this morning’s gospel all three persons of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are now fully identified and accounted for. This is unique in the Biblical narrative. Yes, there were intimations of all three in the Old Testament, but they were just that intimations or hints. In other words what we see in the Biblical story is that God has progressively revealed Himself to His creation, to humanity. He continues to reveal Himself even now, suggesting that there might be more to Him, more to Jesus that we have yet to see. We can be blind to Him, His presence and love, even when He is standing right in front of us.
Indeed, we find a rather telling example of this blindness in today’s gospel. We heard in verse 17, “When they saw [Jesus], they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. What is that about? The crucified, resurrected Jesus is standing before them (how much evidence do you need?), yet some doubted. Doubt can be another word for blindness. We can be blind; we can be looking at something right in front of us and not see it. How is that possible?
It would seem that there is something inherent in our humanity; a spiritual blindness if you will that makes it difficult for us to see, to know God. This blindness is addressed in the gospels. Whereas Jesus easily healed people of anatomical blindness, spiritual blindness presented a different if not more difficult challenge. We hear, for example, in Matthew 23:24, Jesus say, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Certainly, these blind guides, the Pharisees and Sadducees, were not friends to Jesus, but that does not explain their spiritual blindness. In the Emmaus account of the disciples walking with Jesus, we come across this curious episode in Luke 24:31, “Then (the disciples) eyes were opened, and they recognized (Jesus); and he vanished from their sight.” Apparently, even friends of Jesus can be blind to seeing Him.
The pre-converted St. Paul’s spiritual blindness was so dark, that it seemed to have an organic dimension to it, as if, in modern parlance, he had cataracts. We read in Acts 9:18. “And immediately something like scales fell from (Paul’s) eyes, and his sight was restored.” What was the occasion that brought about his blindness? Certainly, he had not been anatomically blind. We read in Acts 9:3 that “as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me (me being Jesus, of course)? It would appear that God’s light had blinded Paul.
It is a curious fact, one yet to be identified with some catchy psychological term, that the light of truth may blind us before it gives us sight. Upon closer examination though, we see that it is not the truth which blinds us; so much as it exposes the darkness in our hearts and minds. Until that darkness dissipates, until we let it go, we will be blind. This is actually what happened to St. Paul. What within Paul had blinded him, what was the cause of the darkness within him? This may shock us. Bluntly, speaking, it was Paul’s sense of right and wrong. His sense of right and wrong had blinded him to the truth.
I don’t normally keep up with this sort of thing, but the headline caught my attention. Some of you may know that there is ongoing feud between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, currently two of the top female recording artists. Katy was upset at Taylor because in one of her recent songs she suggested bad things about Katy. Katy was quoted as saying, “No one has asked me about my side of the story, and there are three sides of every story: one, two, and the truth.”
Katy’s words are certainly apropos of today’s political headlines. What side of the story are we to believe? Better yet, can we believe the source of the story? What is the motive behind the story becoming public? Most would agree that the New York Times is a liberal newspaper. Even so, for the past number of weeks it has been running articles on how the left sees things, and how the right sees things—an obvious acknowledgement that we all suffer from some form of blindness and inability to see the truth—a blindness that comes from our sense of right and wrong. Perhaps, it would be better to say our incomplete sense of what is right and wrong.
St. Paul was so convinced, so impassioned that he knew what was right and wrong, that he persecuted Christians, seeking to imprison them. That’s how much his idea of right and wrong blinded him. From where did Paul get his ideas of right and was wrong? He got it from the Jewish religion. He got it from his incomplete understanding of the Old Testament. He identifies and explains this in 2 Corinthians 3:13-16.
“[Not] like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 14 But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15 Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” The law of Moses, not properly understood, had blinded, had placed a veil over the hearts of the Jewish people, including Paul’s, so that they could not see the truth of who Jesus is and what He came to do.
If you read Bishop Benhase’s letter (ecrozier, as he calls it) this week, he likewise describes, though in different terms, what blinds us. “Sin is the only tenet of the Christian faith that’s provable through basic human observation. It’s also being increasingly verified through social science. Social Scientists, however, don’t call it sin. They’ll often refer to it as a bias we humans have. And they can’t say for sure whether such bias is innate or culturally-conditioned. Either way, such biases are present in all of us.”
Later, Bishop Benhase writes, “Our biases simply betray the truth about ourselves. We might think our minds direct our wills, but they don’t. Our minds are captive to what our will wants, and our will itself is then held captive by what our heart desires.”
Whether it is through sin, biases, incomplete understandings of right and wrong, or our hearts desires, we can be blinded by them. Whereas our minds can be prepared to see, it is our hearts which must see if we are to see indeed. Much of the time, we live by artificial light, such as reason, favorable circumstances, and relationships. They, however, cannot illuminate against serious darkness, disease, inequity, and death. These artificial lights easily burnout or are extinguished, leaving us blinded by the dark. Where then, does that leave us? Are we to be forever hopelessly blind, bumping our knees in the dark, straining for a little bit of light—not even realizing that we are blind? The answer to that question leads us back to where we started, back to the Trinity.
Jesus tells us in the last verse of the gospel reading this morning, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Really, how can that be when He is no longer here because He has ascended to the right hand of God the Father? The answer, we will remember, is found in John 16:7-13 (RSV).
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. 12 ‘I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.’”
And hasn’t that been our experience? No, we might not have thought of it with the same words used by Jesus, but nonetheless that has been what we have experienced. I was talking with someone this past week. She shared with me a time in her life where everything she held dear had been taken from her—those artificial lights if you will. Plunged into darkness, she felt totally bereft, absolutely alone, when suddenly the peace of God mysteriously came and enfolded her. She had been comforted by the promised Comforter. I know others of us in our own words can say the same. Incidentally, this is what we are to share in trying to talk to people about Jesus.
Jesus, though now in heaven with the Father, has with the Father sent the Holy Spirit to guide us, to progressively reveal to us all truth, meaning who He is. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus tells us in John 14:6. God the Father, with God the Son, through God the Spirit, continues to reveal Himself to us. He reveals Himself personally to you and to me. You and I are participating in God’s progressive revelation to His creation. We may not see ourselves in such lofty terms, nonetheless, what you and I do and say through our Christian character, words, and deeds makes a difference, a big difference.
Jesus’ command to us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” is not something we do merely because He has told us to do this. We have not been left empty-handed. We know for ourselves through our own experience that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Him]. Indeed, we wait for Him to further reveal Himself to us, giving us even more to share with others so that they, too, may see and come to know His incredible love for us.
In the name of the the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.