Robert Letham in The Holy Trinity (2004) commented on the impact of postmodernism on society: ‘In terms of instability and diversity, he said, ‘the postmodern world of constant flux is seeing insecurity, breakdown, and the rise of various forms of terrorism… As diversity rules, subgroups are divided against each other… A cult of the victim develops, and responsibility declines. This is a recipe for social breakdown, instability, and the unravelling of any cohesion that once existed’, he said (p.453).
Let me touch on some key words in Paul the Apostle’s prayer of thanksgiving for the church in Colossae. In Colossians 1:3 we read: In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,…
Paul begins by thanking God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Significantly, the sentence construction tells us that Jesus Christ is just as much God as God the Father.
Let’s think about this: The essential nature of a perfect father is to love and give life. Paul’s understanding is that God the Father delights to love and give life. From eternity God the Father has given life to a Son.
A water fountain, whose very nature is to pour out water, helps us with this idea. For Paul’s words are consistent with what we read in the opening line of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And in Jeremiah 2:13, the Lord says of himself that he is the ‘spring of living water’. From eternity, before the creation of the universe, God the Father was loving and begetting his Son. God did not become a father at some point.
In the same way that a fountain is not a fountain if it doesn’t pour out water, so God the Father would not be who he is, unless he was giving life to his Son. God the Father and God the Son are distinct persons, but they are inseparable from one another. They always love one another, and they always work together in perfect harmony.
This is important, for it tells us that Paul is giving thanks to the God whose existence is not simply as a powerful intelligence behind the observable universe, but to God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Colossians’ faith in Christ Jesus was real and personal, expressing itself in their love and care for one another. The Colossian church was a place where there was genuine community. People accepted one another, treated one another as equals across the social and racial divide. Their love for one another led to compassion and practical care for those in need.
Significantly, Paul goes on to tell us that the faith and love the Colossians enjoyed, was inspired by a third Person of the Godhead – the Holy Spirit. In verse 8 he writes that Epaphras had told him of the Colossians’ love in the Spirit.
In John chapter 14 we learn that on the eve of his arrest, Jesus promised his disciples he would send the Holy Spirit to comfort and equip them. And in John 16:8 we learn that the Holy Spirit would also convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment:… An important part of the Spirit’s work is to convict our consciences of our failure to honor and love Jesus as Lord. One day God will ask us all: ‘What did you do with my Son?’
In The Bondage of the Will Martin Luther addressed what he saw as the fundamental question regarding salvation. He pointed out that so distorted and flawed is the human heart, that no one has a free will when it comes to our relationship with God. The desires of our hearts lock us into self-worship and vainglory, rather than the rightful worship and glory of the one true God who is Lord of heaven and earth.
Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of canterbury in the reign of Henry VIII, held a similar view of humanity. Dr. Ashley Null sums up Cranmer’s anthropology this way: ‘What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies… For Cranmer the mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants’.
So how are hearts changed? From his rich understanding of Scripture Cranmer’s prayer books stress the need for God to intervene in our minds and hearts. And so, the 1552 Service of the Lord’s Supper begins with a Prayer for Purity: Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is a prayer for the outpouring, the coming down of the Spirit of God, significantly not on the bread and wine on the Holy Table, but on the minds and hearts of everyone present. As Ashley Null points out, the prayer is saying that we cannot truly love God unless God supernaturally changes our hearts.
A careful reading of Cranmer’s liturgies reveals that his prayer is that the Holy Spirit will work through the Scripture to change the hearts of the worshippers. For Cranmer, with all the English Reformers, believed in a living God whose delight is to answer prayer.
To return to Paul the Apostle’s prayer of thanksgiving in his Letter to the Colossians, we see the One God who exists in Three Persons, delighting to give life to his people.
Our broken world needs to hear afresh the good news of this Triune God. If we grieve for our world, we need to pray that God will act with compassion and send his Spirit to soften hearts, turning them, as they hear the gospel, to Jesus Christ as Lord.
(c) John G. Mason
A Prayer for Trinity Sunday: Almighty and everlasting God, you have given us your servants grace by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and by your divine power to worship you as One: we pray that you would keep us steadfast in this faith and evermore defend us from all adversities; through Christ our Lord. Amen.