Holy, Holy, Holy: Trinity Sunday (June 4, 2023)

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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
For too many Christians today, the Trinity is an abstract truth that has little to no bearing on their day-to-day life. In fact, American Christians don’t seem to have a good understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity at all. Ligonier Ministries puts out a survey every few years called the State of Theology. In 2022, only 54% of American Christians could strongly agree with the statement “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Further, a whopping 40% agreed with the statement “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God” and 31% agreed with the statement “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God” while nearly 59% believe that “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.” So, for many people, the Trinity at best has little-to-no impact on how they think or, worse, they have a warped view of the Trinity that contradicts the Scriptures and what the Church teaches. And this is a problem because how we pray and how we think are interrelated phenomena.
The Trinity is divinely revealed language that the Church has given us so that we can make sense of our human encounter with the divine. The beautiful picture of three-in-one and one-in-three encapsulates two poles of religious experience: transcendence and immanence. When we talk about about transcendence, we’re talking about God as virtually unreachable because he “dwells in light inaccessible” (1 Tim 6:16). Yet, we also have experiences that tell us God is immanent, that he’s closer to us than we are to ourselves. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, we end up gravitating towards one of these poles at the expense of the other. So, if we emphasize only the immanent aspect of God, which in Christian thought is typically emphasized in the person of the Holy Ghost, then we tend to come up with a religion that’s explicitly ethical (like Confucianism). But if we only have God as transcendent, which is typically personified by the Father, then we begin to gravitate towards the extreme asceticism of religions that would have us reject the goodness of God’s creation in pursuit of exclusively spiritual realities. The Christian Trinity has another person, the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, who bridges the gap between immanent and transcendent, reminding us that God is with us and that we can commune with God.
And it’s on this note that I want to spend some time in our reading from Isaiah 6 this morning. The prophet Isaiah receives a vision from God in the year that Uzziah died. Uzziah was a King of Israel who was known as a righteous king until he developed the vice of pride later in his life and, according to 2 Chronicles 26, offered incense to God, usurping the office of priest. The Hebrew tradition is that God’s punishment of Uzziah’s actions involved divine silence; no prophetic messages or visions. And so as soon as Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah is divinely ordained to restart communication from God to the people. And this commissioning occurs in the heavenly throne room where Isaiah gets to see God.
In heaven, Isaiah gets to witness a truly spectacular scene of the angels and saints in heaven worshipping. There are two seraphim above the throne constantly crying to the other: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” For us Anglicans, this is a common refrain. It’s said at Morning Prayer in the Te Deum canticle after the first lesson and it’s said at Holy Communion during the preface to the Mass. It’s such an important hymn that it is taught not only to Isaiah but also to St. John the Divine who sees the Four Beasts around the throne singing a related refrain: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.” The thrice repeated refrain of “Holy” is a Trinitarian statement: holy is the Father, the Fountain of Being; holy is Jesus Christ the Son who is of One Substance with the Father; holy is the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. And so when we get to that part of Morning Prayer or of the Holy Communion service, our adoration is being explicitly directed at the Blessed Trinity.
Now you will notice that there is a slight difference between what we say at Holy Communion and what Isaiah hears. Isaiah hears, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” During Holy Communion, we say “heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” 19th-century Anglican priest John Keble explains that this is because in heaven, Isaiah the prophet was being shown the future reality of the Incarnation and suffering of Jesus here on earth but, as the post-Easter Church, we now see Jesus reigning in heaven as a result of the Ascension; we have the more complete picture than the foreshadow Isaiah was granted.
This hymn that we sing week after week is a gem. our weekly recitation of it means we all probably have it memorized, but our frequent repetition may mean we fail to fully appreciate just how beautiful it is. This is the hymn of heaven; the great saints in Scripture and the history of the Church are singing it constantly. Our loved ones who have died and gone before us are singing it constantly. And not only do we have it recorded in Scripture, but it comes alive for us weekly as we are lifted up into heaven for our divine worship. This constant refrain beckons us as an invitation, giving us a window into eternity, showing us our destiny. This hymn is the way to happiness because it’s what we were made for. And so how do we respond? Do we turn away from it? Jesus beckons us, “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden.” Hopefully, we heed the voice of the Good Shepherd and listen to this heavenly music with every fiber of our being, shutting out the noise of a world that is desperately trying to tie us down with its heavy burdens. The liturgy is our guide to the ascent to heaven: first, we humble ourselves through confession and receive absolution, the constant rhythm of the Christian life. And then, only after we are returned to a state of grace, can we lift our hearts to the Lord, away from the things that pull us down. And it’s only then, in the liturgy, that we offer him our praise using the celestial hymn of “Holy, holy, holy.”
And it’s not by accident that the word God chooses to be sung here is “holy” because it is one the clearest distillations of who he is. His holiness encourages us to prepare ourselves, and warns us not to draw near while unclean. The angels and saints in heaven offer their worship flawlessly because they dwell in a state of glorification; but those of us here on earth, laden down as we are need his help. And so we have to take seriously what God told Moses in Exodus 33:20, “no man shall see the Lord and live.” If we’re in a state of sin, we can adore Christ in the Eucharist, we can ask him to give us true repentance, and we can come confess our sins, but we shouldn’t receive Communion in such a state, remembering that Paul warns us against unworthy reception in 1 Corinthians 11, a warning we will hear elaborated on in a few moments when I read the Exhortation.
When we sing the Preface, we’re called to hope, to remember, and to resolve. We hope by looking forward to the day when we will, Lord willing, take our place in the empyrean choir alongside angels and saints in the Throne Room at the divine altar where we will perpetually adore him. We remember the seal of our Baptism which was done “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” And we are called to resolve, knowing that the heavenly picture we read in Isaiah and Revelation is the model for the Church, heaven on earth (or maybe we should say that it’s earth transfigured into heaven). The constancy of heavenly worship should serve as the impetus for us to resolve never to give up to the vice of sloth or inattentiveness.
Another 19th century Anglican, John Henry Newman, once said “Learn to do thy part and leave the rest to Heaven.” In the grand symphony of the Church’s self-offering to God, there are now small parts. The beautiful picture of the Trinity-in-unity, of unity in diversity, paints a picture of the ideal towards which the Church strives for. Each of us have different backgrounds, different struggles, different gifts, and whatever part you are called to play in this, it’s indispensable. Together, as the Church, with our various giftings and vantage points, we can more fully “comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Eph 3:18-19). Opening our eyes and seeing that today, we worship not just with the people here at St. Paul’s this morning, or even just with all Christians who are living, but with all Christians ever and the whole assembly of Angels, helps us play our part better. Don’t get preoccupied with the things here, with the news or entertainment or wealth or other lesser pursuits; look up into the very heart of reality: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. “I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go” (Song of Songs 3:4).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
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