Monday, June 08, 2009

Trinity Sunday

Yesterday was a very special treat for me. My dad is in town for the graduation of my daughter, Elizabeth, from High School (tonight!). During our Clergy Family day at the Diocese' camp near Lake Texoma, the Bishop sent me to St. Martin's in Lancaster, a small mission in a southern suburb of Dallas, to lead worship and perform a Deacon's Administration from the Reserve Sacarment. Their supply priest was to be out of Pentecost and Trinity and the Bishop wanted me to go, so I went.

But I believe it is always preferable to Celebrate Holy Communion instead of a Deacon's Administration. My dad is a priest in the Diocese of West Texas and, so, I contacted the Bishop's office and received permission for dad to celebrate yesterday. So, yesterday I and my dad, for the first time since I was ordained, were both leading worship and were the only clergy.

I also had the joy of preaching for my dad on Trinity Sunday. Aware of Dom Gregory Dix's admonition that no one can preach on the Trinity for more than 15 minutes without falling into heresy, I offer this sermon that I preached yesterday.

Almighty God, give us ears to hear, minds to understand and the will to do those things that you teach us today. Amen.

I just prepared a Confirmation Class at St. James. Part of every class is where the instructor scares the students by reminding them that the Bishop has the right to ask any question of a candidate before administering the Sacrament of Confirmation. I’ve travelled with Bishops Stanton, Jecko, and Lambert to many confirmations and I have never seen a bishop do this, but jokes abound about what happens when a bishop decides to ask a question.

At one parish, there was a very shy young man and the Bishop decided to ask him “Tell me about the Holy Trinity” expecting to have the boy say something like “We worship one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The boy mumbles and kicks his feet. The bishop says: “What did you say?

The boy mumbles again, so the bishop, somewhat frustrated says: “I’m sorry. I just don’t understand.”

The Boy also frustrated responds loudly: “You’re not supposed to understand, Bishop, it’s a mystery.”

Today, Trinity Sunday, is the one day of the year set aside for the remembrance of a Doctrine of the Church and not an event that occurred in history. The Resurrection is an historical event. The crossing of the Red Sea is a historical event. Pentecost is a historical event, but there is not a specific day when the Trinity made itself known. While the Doctrine of the Trinity is supported by Holy Scripture, it is not specifically defined there. The Resurrection is defined in Holy Scripture. The Atonement (by which we are made acceptable to God by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ) is laid out in Holy Scripture. That God created the heavens and the earth is specifically mentioned in Holy Scripture. But the word “Trinity” never appears in Holy Scripture.

So, what is the Trinity and why do we believe it and even set aside a day to remember it? First, the Trinity is a very simple doctrine to state, but it is very hard to understand. The doctrine of the Trinity simply states that we believe in One God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three persons are co-equal and co-eternal. All are “God” but there is only one God. So, God is three and God is one. When we hear something like that, it causes our minds to boggle, so we try to rationalize it.

The first “rationalization” that we normally run to is to try to describe God as One God with three functions. I’ve heard people try to explain the Trinity using the analogy of the different roles they have in life. For example, I am a husband, a father, and a deacon. They describe God as acting as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just as I act as husband, father, or deacon. Now this sounds good because it emphasizes the unity of God. There is One God. But let’s look where it leads. If there is only one God and not three distinct persons, then Jesus (God incarnate) cannot be fully God. Because if Jesus is fully God and God is not three persons, then where is God while Jesus walks the earth? Where is God when Jesus dies on the cross? If there is only one person in different roles, then, Jesus cannot be God. If Jesus is not God, he could not have lived a sinless life and his death on the Cross is, somewhat, deserved and, therefore it cannot be a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” So, if God is not at least two persons, (the Father and the Son) then we cannot be reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. So, the Trinity cannot be one God with three functions. That is actually a classical heresy called “Modalism” – one God with three “modes” of relating to us. The Church actually rejected this heresy in its early days.

While Modalism is a heresy in one direction, there is another heresy in the other direction. This heresy emphasizes the three Persons of the Trinity at the expense of their unity. So, there are three gods, but that only the Father is fully God. The Son and the Holy Spirit are close to God, but not fully God. This comes by an attempt to take the word “Father” too literally. Arius, the first proponent of this thought believed that since there was a time when a human father was not a father – my dad was not a father until I was born – that there must have been a time when the Son did not exist. If the Son is not eternal, then the Son cannot be fully God. And, again, if Jesus, being the Incarnate Son, is not fully God, then he cannot pay the price for our sins. By the way, this controversy rocked the Church to its core. Are you familiar with the phrase “It doesn’t make an iota’s worth of difference?” That phrase actually comes to us from this controversy. Arius – the chief architect of this heresy said that the Son was of like nature – in Greek homoiousious with the Father. Athanasius, the chief architect of the Nicene Creed (which we will say in a moment) said that the Son was of the same nature in Greek homoousous with the Father. The only difference between these words was the letter “I” – in Greek it is called “iota.” Those who were not Christians at the time and those who didn’t want to fight about the nature of God thought that this was an awful lot of fuss and anger and hatred over the smallest letter in the alphabet. It was and is of critical importance, but we’ll get to the reasons for that in a bit.

Scripture witnesses that the Son of God has to be separate from God the Father and still is God. John’s Gospel begins “In the Beginning was the Word and the Word with with God and the Word was God.” A little further on, John writes “…and the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us.” This simple passage – read each year on the Sunday after Christmas and on Christmas Day itself – witnesses that the Word of God – God the Son – is at the same time With God and Is God. That cannot be true unless there are at least two persons in the Godhead.

Scripture clearly witnesses to two persons, but we say that there are three persons in the Godhead. Why is that? Again, it is the witness of Holy Scripture and the practice of the Church. The New Testament talks about the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God. Why do we say that the Holy Spirit is God as well? There are several reasons, but let me give the basic one. When we baptize in the Church, we baptize in the Name (not names, but name) of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our earliest recorded liturgies are mentioned in the Didache (written at the end of the 1st Century or the beginning of the second) and Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (written about 215AD and speaks of tradition that Hippolytus received). The person being baptized is dunked three times – for the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Today when we baptize, we pour water on the persons head three times saying I baptize you in the Name of the Father (pour) and of the Son (pour) and of the Holy Spirit (pour). We are baptized into the singular name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is something that is attested to in Holy Scripture and it is what we have always done. If the Holy Spirit is not God, then we are baptizing someone into a creature, not into the Creator. If the Holy Spirit is not God, then he cannot bring us into all truth and cannot give us new life as we say the Holy Spirit does in the Nicene Creed.

Now, I’ve tried to keep the theological and historical part of this sermon as short as possible. I find it interesting and fascinating but many of us are more interested in the (big yawn) “so what?” question. What was that big deal about the iota? What does the Doctrine of the Trinity matter?

First, I would say it matters because it speaks to the ultimate nature of God. If God is not a Trinity of persons in unity of being, then we are worshipping a very false God. We are moving away from what is real to what is not real and that movement has eternal consequences for us. We need to understand God as He is (or at least understand Him as much as we are able). Second, the question has to be asked, “How are we saved?” The Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross has to be a pure sacrifice – it has to be an undeserved death, so it has to be made by a person without sin. God alone is without sin, so only God can put us right with God.

Finally, the Trinity points to one very important truth about God. God is, at his essence, Community. The inner life of God is a constant dance where each person gives himself to the other. Our society does not understand the need for community. We shut ourselves in our homes and surround ourselves with TV and computers and stuff in the hopes that we can generate for ourselves that sense of community that we long for. The internet is full of places where people try to form community, but don’t want to risk themselves in the process. That is not how we were designed to live. God designed us to live, not as individuals who exist for their own benefit and their own good, but as persons whose life together reflects the life of the Holy Trinity. We were designed to care more for the other persons in our community that we do for ourselves. But we are so blinded by our sins that we cannot see the need for or the benefit of caring for the others more than for ourselves, so we erect walls around ourselves and hide our selves from each other.

The first thing that God says about man is “It is not good for man to be alone.” Why not? Well, it is not good for the man to be alone because he is made in God’s image and God is not alone – God is community.

The Church, in addition to being the Body of Christ, is the place where we learn to live out the life of the Holy Trinity. Here is where we learn to care for others more than ourselves. This place is where we start to give of ourselves and find out that we receive much more than we give when we give. God designed us to live in community and to live by giving away our own life. Bishop Michael Marshall of England said (and I believe he was quoting someone else) that we were designed to love people and use things but we ended up loving things and using people. This place is where to start to undo all the damage that our society has done to us and that we have done to ourselves. Here is where we learn to love by following the example of God who “so loved the world that He gave is only son, that whoever believed in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

This passage from today’s Gospel actually points to my favorite image of the Trinity. We say that God is many things, but one of the most common we hear is that God is Love. Now too many people say that or hear that and hear “God is not judgmental” or “God doesn’t really care what I do because he loves me.” Those ideas are just as false as the two heresies I mentioned earlier. Love absolutely cares what the one loved does – right dad? As the recipient of loving discipline and as a father who attempts to give out loving discipline, I can say that love requires discipline.

But let’s get back to God being love. God is love. That is a true statement. Now, God is also unchanging. If God is love, then God has always been Love. Now Love is a verb. We normally don’t say “I have love for you” we say “I love you.” Love is what is called a “transitive verb.” It always requires an object. It is meaningless to say “I love.” I don’t love. I love someone or something. So if God is love and God alone is eternal, then there has to be an object of that love that is separate from the lover. That object of God’s love is God the Son. God the Father loves God the Son and always has. The Son loves the Father and always has. The Love that flows from the Father to the Son and back from the Son to the Father is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is Love personified. So, in the Trinity we have the Lover (God the Father), the Loved (God the Son) and the Love itself (God the Holy Spirit). All are separate, but all are required to have or to be love.

Today we celebrate the Holy Trinity. Today we celebrate that God loves us and the whole world so much that He became one of us – to share in our human nature so that he could share his divine nature with us. God calls us to reflect in our lives, His life within the Holy Trinity by living in community and by caring for each other more than we care for ourselves. This can be scary and frightening, but it is also the life we were designed to live. Will you join me in asking God to help us live that life and asking for the strength to let our lives reflect God’s life in the Holy Trinity?

In the Name of God: Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Phil Snyder


Adam Pastor said...

Greetings Phil Snyder

Indeed Modalism is erroneous!

On the subject of the Trinity,
I recommend this video:
The Human Jesus

Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

Yours In Messiah
Adam Pastor

Milton Finch, LAYPERSON said...

Dear Phil,

I see that Adam Pastor is wrong. Having read your sermon, it was a good one. I especially liked where you tried to bring the Trinity to "community."

If, though, you desire a simply spelled out reality of what youare talking about, might I suggest my book that has a complete chapter on the Trinity? It is called "Hello Again, Already!"

If you don't wish to spend the money for the book, I can send you one for free.

Let me know!

Milton Finch

plsdeacon said...


Thanks for the compliment and I appreciate the offer for a free book. But my reading list right now is about 10 books deep and I dread adding another book to the list.

Phil Snyder

plsdeacon said...


I don't understand the problem you have with my sermon. I explicitly reject Modalism (or Sabellianism or Monarchial Modalism - which ever name you prefer for the heresy) and Arianism.

While I did not mention the fully human nature of Jesus, this was not a class on Christology or even on Soteriology, but it was a sermon on the Holy Trinity. So, I had to emphasize the full divinity of Jesus to defend the Trinity against its modalist or arian heresies. If I fell into one of the classic heresies on the Trinity, please point out my error.

Phil Snyder

plsdeacon said...

Actually, I looked at Adam Pastor's blog. He is of the Opinion that Jesus was not and is not divine. Jesus, according to Adam is not at all divine.

Now I will admit that the title "Messiah" or its Greek equivalent "Christ" did not mean divinity at the writing of the New Testament. It was title of Royalty and rule. David and his decendants were "Messiah." Jesus is God's final Messiah.

The problem is that Scripture is against this view. Jesus claimed divinity in several places, most notably by claiming the power to forgive sins (something God alone can do). In the prologue of John, John says: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1) and "And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongs us...." (John 1:14).

If Jesus is not fully God, then his Sacrifice on the cross cannot put us right with God. If he is not fully man, then he cannot redeem us for God.

In short, the Trinity is the mystery that expalains all the other mysteries of the Christian faith. Only in light of the Trinity does the Incarnation make any sense. Only in light of the Trinity does the Atonment make sense. Only in light of the Trinity does the gift of the Holy Spirit make sense. Only because of the Trinity can we be baptized in the name (not names, but name) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Phil Snyder

Adam Pastor said...

I don't question the divinity of Christ; I assume you are using another definition of the word "divinity"

Here is what I mean by the divinity of Christ:
Christian (Biblical) Unitarians believe in the Divinity of Christ

In regards to Jesus forgiving sins please see:
Jesus forgave sins

John 1.1,14, the Prologue, are all discussed in the aforementioned video:
The Human Jesus

There is absolutely nothing in Scripture which states that "If Jesus is not fully God, then his Sacrifice on the cross cannot put us right with God!"

Rather quite the opposite:
Jesus had to be fully human i.e.

(Rom 5:15-19) But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. 16 And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. 17 For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) 18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. 19 For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

(1 Cor 15:21) For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.

One "man's" disobedience caused the dire situation we are in.
GOD promised another 'man' whereby through this "man's" obedience many will be made righteous.
So besides the obvious fact that Almighty GOD cannot die; the Bible makes it clear that it would be by man that righteousness/resurrection/life will come about.
Now think about it. If Jesus was Almighty GOD, would Paul really be comparing Adam with GOD!?!?
[Isa 40.18, 46.5]

Oh BTW ... the apostles solely baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus
e.g. Acts 2.38, 8.16, 19.5, etc.

Phil, please watch the video.

Yours In Messiah
Adam Pastor
The Human Jesus

plsdeacon said...

Jesus is fully human and fully divine. He is consubstantial (or if you prefer the Greek homousious) with God the Father. He is also fully human - with a human mind and human will. Jesus is like us in every way, except without sin.

In your blog, you quoted Fredrick Farley: "A being may be Divine, without being the Supreme God, and such is Christ. Unitarians believe in his Divinity."

This is, quite simply, Arianism reformulated. Jesus is like God, but is not fully God. Arius was titled "the Chief Heretic" because his heresy left us without a savior. I will quote the Capadocian Fathers: "What he (Jesus) did not have, he could not give. What he did not become, he could not redeem." Jesus has to be fully divine to give divine life - the zoe that Christians have. Jesus also had to be fully human to redeem humanity. Jesus was like us in every way, except without sin.

Jesus said: "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) how can Jesus not be consubstantial or homousious with God and still say that he and the Father are one.

BTW, I don't have an hour to spend listening to a video that spouts heresy. Jesus himself commanded us to baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 28:19). There are two things to note here. First is the word "name" (onoma). It is singular, not plural. If God is one (and I confess that God is three persons, but one God), there there is only one name. So, the Son and the Holy Spirit are consubstantial with the Father. They are ONE. If the Son is divine, but not supreme God, then he cannot be in the same name as God and he must be a creature. There must be a "then" when the Son did not exist. This brings me to my second point. If the Son and the Holy Spirit are not consubstantial with The Father, we are baptizing people into two creatures and the creator. We are attributing to creatures the praise and worship due only to God.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Phil Snyder

Milton Finch, LAYPERSON said...


My book has quite a few pages, but only about 9 that deal with the Trinity. Can you take that time out of your day to read that...taking a few breaks to let it sink in?