Thursday, 23 June 2011

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Fountains Abbey, in Yorkshire, is the largest abbey ruins in the country, and it’s a World Heritage Site. Here’s a little quote from a guide book to the abbey – “Here the monks gathered every Sunday to hear a sermon from the Abbot, except on Trinity Sunday owing to the difficulty of the subject.”

We may well laugh but it’s a sentiment that we can all empathise with. Many people find the Trinity a complicated subject. It’s like a mathematical conundrum that even Carol Vorderman would struggle to solve.

We often think that the Trinity is for those who are really keen, for high-powered theologians, for those with nothing better to do. But even with theologians – very few theological books begin with the Trinity. In most of them, there’ll be hundreds of pages on God, before the Trinity is finally tagged on as a sort of appendix at the end. The implication is that the Trinity is not foundational to understanding God – that we can know and talk about God without thinking of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And that’s what it’s like for most of us. We might verbally articulate our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – you know, when we say the Creed… but it’s just not that crucial to our faith in God, and it just doesn’t seem to have any bearing on our day to day lives.

But there was a time when people were passionate about the Trinity! In ancient Alexandria, in the days when Egypt was Christian, people used to brawl over the doctrine of the Trinity. Whether or not you would be served at a restaurant or permitted into the public bath depended on where you stood on this doctrine! Well, we don’t live in such exciting times anymore… but I wonder what you think. Is the Trinity really worth fighting over? Do we really have to split hairs over the Father, Son and Spirit?

According to the ancient creeds on which the Church of England is founded, the answer’s yes! Do you know the creeds? There are 3 of them in particular. You’ll be familiar with the first 2 – there’s the Apostle Creed which is the shortest, then the Nicene Creed, which we used last week.

And then there’s one that not many people know, partly because it’s too long, so it’s not read anymore! It’s the Athanasian Creed, and let me let you in on a secret – we’re a bunch of lawbreakers here! According to Law, it’s supposed to be read in church 13 times a year – not least on Trinity Sunday!

Let me just read you the first few lines of the Athanasian Creed:

“Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the [apostolic and universal] Faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And [that] Faith [that determines our eternal destinies] is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity; neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Substance.”

What do you think of this – believe in the Trinity or perish everlastingly? Is it a bit too strong? Too dogmatic? Well, hopefully you’ll see by the end of this sermon that the reality of the One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is essential to our faith and salvation. That far from being some sort of academic theory about God, the Trinity is an exciting, heart-warming reality – life-giving Truth.

First of all, let’s just dispel a myth that’s been made popular by Dan Brown. In the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown says that the Trinity was only invented in the 3rd Century AD by the emperor Constantine – implying that it’s a fairly new concept about God. Well, from our reading in Galatians, we see that Paul, writing in the 1st Century was already clear about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Yet, it wasn’t even Paul nor John nor any of the other New Testament writers who invented the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is way more ancient than the New Testament!

Look at the famous introduction to John’s gospel – vv1-2 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

The Word is one of Jesus’ many names. John takes us back in time, not just to the very beginning of the Bible, but to the very beginning of all things, and tells us that Jesus was right there with His Father before anything was created.

Quite often people think that Jesus only began to exist on the very first Christmas Day! No… He’s always existed. But as v14 puts it, Christmas or the Incarnation is when He was made flesh, when the Son of God became one of us.

And of course John hasn’t forgotten the Holy Spirit. It’s clear from Genesis 1v2 that the Spirit was also there. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always existed. Before anything was created, there was nothing and no-one else.

But what were they doing before creation? Ever wondered that? One famous theologian answered, “Preparing hell for those who ask questions like this!”

Well, we’ve got to disagree with that theologian on this because Jesus did actually share that information with us! In John 17v24 Jesus tells us that the Father was loving Him [in the Spirit] before the creation of the world.

Then at some point in eternity past, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit decided to create the heavens and the earth, and us! In Genesis Chapter 1, when God created everything, there’s a phrase that’s repeated throughout – God said, “Let there be this or that…” and it was so. God created by speaking.

You know how when we speak, our words are carried along on our breath? In kinda the same but much more personal way, when the Father spoke creation into being, He sent His Word Jesus, who is carried along or empowered by His breath, the Holy Spirit.

Creation is a work of the Trinity – as Psalm 33v6 puts it – “By the Word of the LORD were the heavens made, the starry hosts by the breath [or Spirit] of His mouth.”

So John tells us in v3 – Through Him [Jesus, the Spirit-empowered Word] all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the Light of men.

There’s a really cool verse in Genesis 1 that let’s us in on what happened moments before Jesus made us. Genesis 1v26 – So Jesus has been busy creating for 6 days. Then at the end of the sixth day, just before He formed Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam to finish of His work of creation, there’s a bit of a pause and a little discussion went on between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over everything.”

This conversation between the Trinity explains who we are, what it means for us to be human. Without a clear understanding of the Trinity, we won’t really understand what it means for us to be members of the human race.

We were created to be like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is one big reason why it was not good for Adam to be alone. On his own, Adam could never reflect the loving relationship between the Persons of the Trinity. This is why the LORD took Eve out of Adam’s side and created them to have children… so that together, as a human race – whether we’re married, single, have kids or not – together we can reflect the loving unity between the persons of the Trinity.

No man or woman is an island. I googled “I am my own man” and found that loads of famous people have used this phrase. It’s a proud cry of individualism and autonomy. Who I am does not depend on other people. My life is about doing what I want. It’s about self-fulfilment.

Well, it’s because of such selfish individualism that there are so many broken relationships and animosity everywhere – between family members right up to between nations in the world. Individualism is a denial of who we are and worst still, a denial of the relational Trinity who created us to be like Them. We cannot find ourselves by looking within ourselves… but outside to others… And ultimately, we find ourselves, we become who we really are only by looking to the Triune God.

This is why the Father, Son and Spirit carried out the project of creation in the first place and made us like them. So that we can participate in that divine fellowship in the most intimate way, that we may know them and share in the love that they have for each other. In Genesis 2v7 we see how tender and loving and intimate Jesus was with us when He made us. We were handmade by Him and He breathed the Spirit of life into us.

We often hear people talking about having a personal relationship with God – as opposed to just knowing about Him. Think about the huge difference between knowing about the Queen and actually knowing her. But imagine if Prince Charles came to us and introduced us to her. You’d get to know her personally – Not sure that’s what everyone wants!

The awesome reality is that the Father Almighty hasn’t just given us interesting details about Himself. The otherwise unknowable Father has sent His Son to make Himself known to us!

John1v18 – No-one has ever seen God [that’s the Father], but God the One and Only Begotten [this is God the Son], who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.

Now this raises a question about the Old Testament. John says that no one has ever seen God. But in the Old Testament, loads of people see God face to face – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua and so on. They talk with Him, ate with Him, and Jacob even wrestled with Him.

The second bit of v18 explains this apparent contradiction. It’s not the Father whom they met, but the Only Begotten Son. Whenever people meet with God in the Old Testament, it’s Jesus whom they’re meeting with. So for example, in Genesis 15 we see that it’s specifically the Word of the LORD – Jesus – who took Abraham outside to look at the stars.

Anyway, in the Old and New Testaments, just as with creation, the Father has always only revealed Himself through the Son who is sent in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But what does it mean for us to know the Triune God?

John 1v12-13 – to all who received Jesus, to those who believe in His name, He gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, not of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God – Born again by the Holy Spirit.

And this is what creation and salvation is about – us being part of God’s family. Quite often we only think of salvation in terms of being saved from sin, death and hell, and to live forever in heaven. These things are awesome but not an end in themselves.

Take a look at John 17v3 – “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

Salvation is not just about escaping from hell to live forever. It’s about being rescued to participate in the family life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit forever. If you’re not a Christian, this is what the Father longs for you to be part of, this is why Jesus died for you.

The only begotten Son of the Father has become one of us – He became our own flesh and blood. He’s not ashamed to call us His brothers and sisters. Galatians chapter 4vv5-7 – through Jesus we have received the full rights of sons and daughters. Because you are sons [and daughters], God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but beloved children.

We relate to God Most High in the same way that Jesus relates to Him. We call Him Father, just as Jesus calls Him Father.

Now one question that reveals whether or not this truth has sunk deep down is this: “How does God feel about you today?” Our natural instincts is to look within ourselves and evaluate whether or not we’ve done good or bad things, whether or not we’ve read the Bible etc… And I don’t know, maybe right now, some of us might even think that God must be pleased with us because we’re all at church… and He’ll be extra-pleased when we give some money later on.

For others among us, we just can’t believe that God is pleased with us or that He loves us even now – we know how sinful we are and we just haven’t done enough for Him. Well, the solution is not to give more or do more. If this is how we think, then we’re thinking more like slaves instead of as children.

Let’s just spend a few moments in John 17 thinking this through. John 17 from v23. Jesus is praying for all believers, as the heading tells us. He’s pouring His heart out to His Father before He’s arrested and crucified. Can you imagine, even then, His concern is for us.

He prays – “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

So how does God feel about you today? If you do not belong to Jesus, then you are not His brother or sister, you’re not a son or daughter of the Father in heaven, and you do not have the Spirit of sonship. And of course outside of Jesus, outside of Him who is life and light, there can only be death and darkness.

But if we’ve trusted in Jesus, then the Father cannot possibly be more pleased with us or love us more. Remember when Jesus was baptised? The Spirit descended upon Jesus and the Father spoke from heaven, “You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well-pleased.”

Well, the same Spirit that rested on Jesus rests on us right now. In John 16vv14-15, Jesus tells us about the Spirit’s work – He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

What is it that belongs to Jesus that the Spirit brings to us? Yes, everything that is created – we are co-heirs with Christ. But more than that – more precious than anything else, is the Father’s love for Jesus. And this divine love which exclusively belonged to Jesus has been given to us. We have full rights as sons and daughters.

If we’ve trusted in Jesus, whether we’re at our best behaviour or worst, even in the midst of our most hideous sins, the Father’s words to Jesus remains true for us as well. So listen to the Father’s words to you from heaven itself – “You are my son and daughter whom I love. With you I am well-pleased.”

Jesus, the Word whom the Father sent in power of the Holy Spirit to create us, to reveal Himself to us and to save us has accomplished everything. He has returned to His Father’s side. And He has not returned empty. He has brought us, His own flesh and blood, back with Him to His Father’s side – the place of divine love and intimacy.

Right now, eternal life has begun for us who know the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And one day, Jesus will be sent again, and then we will see Him as well as the Father and Spirit face to face, and live with them in unbroken, undefiled fellowship forever in the family home that is being prepared for us.

In the mean time, do you long to mature as a Christian? If so, it’s not about forcing yourself to do and accomplish more. If you try this, everything you do will be done as slaves – reluctantly, out of fear. And no matter how much you do, you’ll never actually be secure. There won’t be joy but resentment.

To mature as a Christian, don’t try and do things to make God more pleased with you. Instead, spend time enjoying the relationship that we already have with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

How? Read the Bible – not because “you have to or else you’re a wretched Christian!” But because these Spirit-inspired words lead us to Jesus, and through Him, to the Father. If the LORD is whom we delight in and long for, He will give us this desire of our hearts. And then, as we grow in the Trinity’s love for us and our love for them, almost without realizing it, the reality of the Trinity will shape who we are and our relationships – and how we speak, think, and act. The spreading love and goodness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will then overflow from us to the rest of the world.

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