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Trinity Sunday, 05/18/2008

Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2; 4a, by John H. Loving


The Holy Trinity

"Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come."  Revelation 4:8

When, in our worship and in our theology, we affirm the three-fold nature of the Godhead, we are attempting to summarize and perpetuate the experience and reflection of Christian believers for nearly two thousand years.  Surely the doctrine of the Trinity does not exhaust the mystery of the inscrutable God, but primarily points us toward the wonder of God's love and being.

The basic foundation of the Christian doctrine of God is that unyielding monotheism inherited from our Jewish forebears.  It was this distinctive element in the faith of the early Hebrews that set them apart from just about all the peoples of the ancient world.  This is the inheritance of the Christian Church:  a firm and unshakeable belief that God is one; that God is the Creator-the source of all life.  Moreover, the God of Israel is not simply an impersonal force-the "unmoved mover" of classical philosophy or some great undifferentiated monad!  It was perceived even in the earliest days of Israel's existence that at the heart of the Eternal there was a supremely personal intelligence, an awesome purity, and an austere otherness.

All of this comes through in the priestly account of Creation, which was read as our first lesson this morning.  Some people are uncomfortable calling this a myth.  In this context, however, a myth is not a fairy tale or fantasy, but a foundational belief.  Madeline L'Engle has a wonderful explanation of myth in her book The Irrational Season:

Myth is the closest approximation to truth available to the finite human being.  And the truth of myth is not limited by time or place.  A myth tells of that which was true, is true, and will be true.  If we will allow it, myth will integrate intellect and intuition, night and day.  Our warring opposites are reconciled:  male and female, spirit and flesh, desire and will, pain and joy, life and death.

The myth of Creation holds before us the eternality of God.  God IS-before time existed and is independent of everything and anything that may exist.  God creates ex nihilo-out of nothing-and then sets about to bring order out of chaos.  God illuminates the creation and names the darkness (thus bringing even that fearful dimension under God's dominion).  The Creator puts the solid ‘firmament' in place to restrain the upper waters, which still descend in the form of precipitation, and limits the ‘lower waters" or earthly seas by the creation of dry land.

Of course the "crown of creation" in the priestly narrative is the formation of humankind in the image and likeness of God.  The two sexes are complementary and incomplete apart from each other.  We are to be stewards of creation.

Right from this opening chapter of Genesis we perceive that Creation is going somewhere.  It has destiny and purpose, and a loving Creator stands behind the wondrous process.  As Christians we find hints of the Trinity right here in this opening scene.  The wind or spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and later God breathes spirit into the figure that has been fashioned from dust, causing that creature to become a living being.  The psalmist later proclaimed, "The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth."

There are also allusions to the Word of God.  God speaks, "Let there be light" and the world is filled with brightness.  The divine Word has creative power.

Though God is one, though God is sovereign and God's will is unchanging, yet there is richness and diversity in the divine nature.  In the course of Israel's history these distinctions were spelled out more concretely.  Of particular interest in terms of the evolution of Trinitarian thought is the tendency to personify God's Word and Spirit.  We read in the Psalter, e.g., "by the word of the Lord were the heavens made".  More and more things came to be attributed to the Word-the creation, the pronouncements of the prophets, and even the future redemption.

When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, this WORD was, of course, rendered LOGOS, and eventually the Word (with a capital W) came to be seen as a distinguishable function or activity within the Godhead.  Now for the Jews of the "old school", this language was always taken metaphorically.  But among the Jews of the Diaspora, who were so influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, it was taken more literally and seized upon with great enthusiasm.  To them this language seemed to help clarify the relationship between the eternal and unapproachable God and this tangible world that God had brought into being.

The LOGOS or Word was seen as the agent of creation, as the outgoing, expressive element within the Godhead.  From there it is only a small step to the basic affirmation of St John's Gospel, viz., that the LOGOS was incarnate in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth:  "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us".

I hope that I have not oversimplified to the point of distorting either the Old or New Testament on this matter, but I think it is in some such way as this that Hebrew theology, without every yielding its conviction of the unity and unchangeableness of God, helped to prepare the way for the Christian affirmation, first, of the Incarnation-that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself-and eventually, of the doctrine of the Trinity itself.

What the Church gradually came to perceive after long and prayerful reflection is that the One and unchangeable God has been revealed in three eternal modes of Being-as Father, the source of the Godhead, the creator, and ground of all being; as Son-or, perhaps more theologically precise, as the Word, which is the "outgoingness" of God, as Emmanuel, God with us, God as known in self-expression and revelation; and as the Holy Spirit, who is the One by whom response is made.  It is the Spirit who makes the Word present and operative in our lives.  It is the Spirit who enables us to accept and respond to the Father's revelation in Christ.  It is said in St John's Gospel that the Paraclete or Spirit will glorify Christ, i.e., He will make clear the saving work of Jesus.  He will help us to see that Christ shared our existence to the fullest and is the answer to our deepest needs.  Thus right within the Godhead itself there is the source, the outpouring, and the enabling response of eternal love.

In the Western Church we came to speak of the three PERSONS of the Trinity.  But sometimes this technical language creates more problems than it solves.  The Greek theologians spoke of three HYPOSTASES-three permanently existing subjects, about which various things might be attributed.  Even the Latin word PERSONA originally meant not personality (as we understand it) but rather individual in the sense of a mask used by a player in a drama or in life-hence function, office, capacity.  PERSON in this usage refers to one subject in relation to other subjects.

The Christian Church has never taught that its God is a committee!  St Augustine speaks of the Trinity as one mind, UNA MENS.  And the invitatory antiphon for this day reminds us of this unity:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, ONE GOD:  O come let us adore him.  (Not adore them!!)  It is one God whom we worship.

The three-fold nature of God is not simply a matter of abstract theology.  It is, in fact, taken for granted in our bungling attempts to relate to God.  C.S. Lewis, e.g., suggests that the three-fold nature of God underlies every attempt at prayer, however stumbling and inadequate.  For it is the Father himself to whom our prayer is directed; it is Christ Jesus who taught us to pray and in whose name our prayer is offered; and it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to pray and who prays through us when our hearts are open.

St Augustine says that we speak of the three persons of the Trinity "not because that was what we wanted to say, but so as not to be reduced to silence."  And yet, in the end, we are reduced to silence, or at least to an adoration that goes beyond all that words can express.


I'd like to close this morning with a prayer to the Holy Trinity borrowed from the Newsletter of the American Province of the Society of St Francis.        

Holy God the Absolute; the Ultimate Reality;

Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End;

Creator and Sustainer of all that is.

We praise and adore you.


Jesus, Lover, Savior, and Lord,

Son of God, Son of Mary, Word made flesh,

Nailed to the Cross, Risen from the Dead, Reigning in Glory,

We praise and adore you.


Holy Spirit, Life-giver, Sanctifier,

Strengthener and Guide, Healer of division,

Source of breath to all things living,

We praise and adore you


Holy Trinity, One God

In Glory everlasting,  

We praise and adore you.  Amen.





Rev. Assisting Priest John H. Loving
Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd,
Austin, Texas
E-Mail: [jloving3@austin.rr.com]