Theme(s): Trinity/God is Three yet One/God is Father Son and Holy Spirit/The Triune God
Sentence: You, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. (Lamentations 5:19)
Collect: God of unchangeable power,
you have revealed yourself
to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
keep us firm in this faith
that we may praise and bless your holy name;
for you are one God now and for ever. Amen.
On Trinity Sunday we reflect on the nature of God as the church believes God has revealed God to be through Scripture, 'We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who in unity with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, and has spoken through the prophets.'
We can read this passage in various ways. It has been, for example, the text for many a service of commissioning for ministry and mission (noting verse 8 in particular). It is a passage which conveys the holy magnificence and magnificent holiness of God: 'the hem of his robe filled the temple' (1) speaks of magnificence and the cry of the seraphs in verse 3 underlines the depth of the holiness of God.
But how does this passage fit into thinking Trinitarian thoughts?
One way is to observe some unexpected features of the vision. First, Isaiah 'saw the Lord sitting on a throne' (1). Other parts of the OT suggest that God is unseeable, being wholly 'other' to us (which is one meaning of 'holy' or 'separate'). When Isaiah 'sees' the Lord he himself is surprised (5). Later, seeing the Unseeable (in the face of Jesus Christ) is a reality for Jesus' disciples (noting especially John 1:14-18). This vision, in other words, anticipates the later and greater surprise that God becomes Incarnate among us.
Secondly, the movement of the seraph from the heavenly throne to touch the mouth of Isaiah as part of his commissioning anticipates the sense that the Holy Spirit 'proceeds' from the heavenly throne to come towards and to dwell in humanity, assuring us of the cleansing of our sins and commissioning us for ministry.
On one level this psalm praises God and that is what the church should do on a day such as this.
On another level, the focus in this psalm on the 'voice' of God performing might acts connects to the Trinity in this way. In ancient theological thinking the more God was thought of as 'wholly other' or absolutely separated from humanity and creation, the harder it was to then explain how God had any interaction with the world. One solution was to envisage an aspect of God which conveyed a sense of how God could reach out to the world while preserving the Otherness of God. For Hebrew thinking, convicted that God had spoken to Israel, the idea that the 'word' or 'wisdom' of God enacted certain things (e.g. speaking creation into being, Genesis 1) was such a resolution.
Here this kind of thinking envisages the 'voice' of God (obviously closely related to the 'word' of God) being the link between God and the world.
Later still, Christians trying to express the conviction that Christ was the embodiment of such a link, took over Hebrew thinking about 'voice', 'word' and 'wisdom' and made it their own as they began to articulate how Christ was identified with God.
Crudely we can observe this passage is 'Trinitarian' because it mentions the Spirit, the Father and Christ! Can we be a little more sophisticated?
Paul, writing to the Romans about life in the Spirit now that the gospel of Christ establishes that observance of the Law is no longer required in order to be saved, continues working through chapter 8 on what life in the Spirit means.
There is still a battle between good and evil in the life of the believer, but it is understood here in respect of living according to the flesh (essentially this is living a life centred on one's self and what serves one's selfish ends) or according to the Spirit (essentially living life by following the leading of the Spirit and by putting 'to death the deeds of the body') (verses 12-14).
In this context the Spirit of God is decisive concerning status before God: 'all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God' (14). The Christian life, in other words, involves a relationship with God via the Spirit of God, the Spirit of God being the presence of God in the life of the believer.
In verses 15-17 Paul develops the theme that this relationship with the Spirit is also a relationship with the Father (15-16). We are not 'children of God' in an abstract or general sense that we in some sense belong to God. Rather, God has adopted us as his children (15) which implies, incidentally, that not all humanity is automatically counted among the children of God. Further, in that same action we are able, through the Spirit, to address God as 'Abba! Father!' (15).
Two notes, before proceeding:
first, in times past (it seems to my memory) exegetes have made a lot of 'Abba' as a term of intimacy between father and child, more 'Daddy' than 'Father' and much less seems to be said about that today. (That may be because some scholars have challenged whether calling God 'Abba' was unique to Jesus himself). But Paul's invocation of 'Abba' in a letter to Christians in Greek speaking churches in Rome suggests he is invoking a special memory about Jesus' own address to God the Father. And Jesus was especially intimate - of course! - with the Father.
secondly, already we see a kind of 'cash value' to the doctrine of the Trinity: when we believe that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are not believing something about God-up-in-heaven-and-distant-from-us. We are believing something about God's involvement with us.
Let's proceed. Where does the Son fit into this passage on Trinity Sunday?
We have already met Christ the Son in Romans 8, for Christians are those 'in Christ Jesus' (1), freed from sin through God's own Son dealing with sin (2-3), and indwelt by the Spirit of God who is also the 'Spirit of Christ' (9). With that in the background, we come to verse 17 and read, 'if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ'
'Heirs' here refers to the promises made to Abraham (of receiving God's blessing), elucidated previously in Romans 4. As adopted children of God we not only have the privilege of praying to Abba, Father, we are also heirs of the promises of God. But, wait there is more. We are not heirs in a secondary sense, so that Christ is the true Son and heir and we are lesser heirs (in the sense that, say, the eldest son gets to inherit the family farm and the other siblings get a lesser cash settlement). No, Paul writes that we are 'heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ'. He writes this consistent with his understanding, e.g. in 8:1, that Christians are identified with Christ Jesus, we are 'in Christ'. That means that what Christ inherits, we inherit.
On Trinity Sunday when we celebrate the revelation that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we may also celebrate the extraordinary truth that we ourselves are being drawn into the life of the Triune God, since we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and identified with Christ the Son.
As with the passages above, we could read this passage in a variety of ways (not least as the passage which brings to us the 'most famous verse in the Bible', John 3:16). But here we are looking for the Trinitarian 'payload.'
First, note the references - implicit and explicit - to God as Spirit, Son and Father (2, 5-8, 13-14, 16-17.
Secondly, note the various works of the persons of the Trinity:
- the Spirit works on bringing new life to believers: 'no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit' (verse 5, see also verses 4, 6-8).
- God (the Father) gives and sends the Son into the world (16-17).
- the Son (of Man) descends from heaven (13) in order to be lifted up (i.e. crucified, 14), that 'whoever believes in him may have eternal life' (15) which means that the descent and lifting up of the Son of Man is the same action as God giving the Son out of love for the world (16) and God sending the Son in order that the world might be saved through him (17).
In other words,
if the doctrine of the Trinity is the church agreeing on what the Bible says and means about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or, perhaps better, the one God whom we encounter as Father, Son and Holy Spirit),
once again we see that this doctrine is not only about an abstract set of relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is also about how these three persons who constitute the one God have worked for our salvation:
the Father sends the Son to save the world, the Spirit enables people in the world to be born anew in order to enter into the fullness of the life of God (i.e. the kingdom of God).