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Trinity Sunday

Readings: Is. 6:1-8, Rom. 8:12-17 & Jn. 3:1-17

About a century or two ago, the Pope decided that all Jews had to leave the Vatican. Naturally, there was a big uproar from the Jewish community.

So the Pope made a deal with them. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If that person won, the Jews could stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would leave.

The Jews realised they had no choice. So they picked a middle aged man named Moishe to represent them. Moishe asked for one addition to the debate. To make it more interesting, neither side would be allowed to talk. The pope agreed.

The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope sat opposite each other for a full minute, before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. The Pope stood up and said,

“I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.”

An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened. The Pope said,

“First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger, to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my fingers around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and the wafer, to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe.

“What happened?” they asked.

“Well,” said Moishe, “First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here.”

“And then?” asked a woman.

“I don’t know,” said Moishe. “He took out his lunch and I took out mine.”

Whilst this is obviously intended to be a funny little anecdote, I think it also reveals a truth to us: we can’t assume that people are always going to understand things in the same way that we do. And I think that’s particularly relevant today–on Trinity Sunday–when we talk about a Trinitarians God: three persons, one God. The doctrine of the Trinity has probably created the most debate (and division) in the history of the church.

In fact, the very first council of the church, the Council of Nicaea in 325CE, was held to deal with this very issue, which threatened to divide, not only the church itself, but also the entire Roman Empire.

After many years of fighting, the Emperor Constantine, had finally managed to unite three independently ruled empires, into one larger and common Roman Empire. And he had declared Christianity to be the ‘religion of the Empire’. But a division had been created among the Bishops of the Church, over their understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ, and his relationship to God.

A leader within the Church in Alexandria, named Arius, had been teaching that in nature, Jesus Christ was both divine and human, but that in terms of his relationship with God, he was created by God. Arius argued that Jesus was the first act of God’s creation, and that in turn, the rest of creation came into being through Jesus. This was a huge problem for the Church, and for Athanasius, who was the Bishop of Alexandria, because it brought into question the very idea of salvation.

Throughout Scripture, starting with the Old Testament, it was clear that God alone could bring about the salvation of humankind. If Jesus Christ was not God, but a creation of God, then how was it possible for humankind to be saved through his death and resurrection?

So the Council of Nicaea was convened by Emperor Constantine to resolve this dispute. Over 300 bishops were invited to the council, where they debated the nature of Jesus Christ and his relationship to God. Eventually a majority of the bishops voted to accept the Nicene Creed as the statement of faith of the Church: a statement which says that we believe in one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Our three readings this morning talk about these three aspects of God. Unlike the readings from the Letter to the Romans and John’s Gospel, in which references to certain aspects of God are fairly explicit, the inference in the reading from the Book of Isaiah is far more subtle. Isaiah uses the trisagion in verse 3, which is the threefold invoking of the holiness of God–‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts’–and this has often been interpreted as a reference to the Trinitarian nature of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The other inference to the Trinity that has been assumed is in verse 8,

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

In the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul talks about God the Spirit as God’s presence in the members of the Church in Rome. Through baptism they had each received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Paul refers to in this instance, as the spirit of adoption. Having received God’s spirit, they are now God’s children, and as His children, they are also the heirs of His inheritance. And that inheritance is salvation. And salvation means both being brought into a right relationship with God in this mortal life, and also being granted the gift of eternal life with Jesus Christ beyond this mortal life.

John the Apostle mentions all three aspects of God, in today’s passage from his gospel. He describes a meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, who is a member of the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the Jewish people who are responsible for maintaining and teaching the Jewish law. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is divine, when he tells Jesus that nobody could perform the miracles that Jesus has performed, if God was not present in them. Jesus, who John tells us is God the Son, then tells Nicodemus that for any person to enter the kingdom of God they must be born of both water and Spirit.

John the Baptist had baptised people with water, to cleanse them of their sins, but they also needed to receive God the Spirit, whom Jesus himself would send in his place. The Apostles would be the first to receive the Holy Spirit, which they did on the Day of Pentecost, and in turn other people would then receive the gift of the Spirit when they were themselves baptised by the Apostles.

Like Paul, John the Apostle also talks of salvation, when Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God the Father is the creator of heaven and earth, of all that is both seen and unseen. Jesus Christ is God the Son, the incarnation of God in the world, who by his death on the cross and resurrection, has washed clean the sins of humankind and enabled humankind to be reconciled to God. God the Spirit, is God’s presence in the world, working in and through people, especially in the Church.

No matter how we try to describe, or explain, the notion of the Holy Trinity, there is never going to be one description or explanation that will appeal to, or satisfy, everyone. But as we prepare to recite the Nicene Creed in a few moments time, I hope that what I have shared with you this morning, might in some way, help you to better understand this central tenet of the Christian faith.

The Lord be with you.
Fr. Michael.

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