It is interesting to note that the order of the stones given for the priestly breastplate here in Exodus is reversed in the book of Revelation. The sardius, or sardine – a deep, brownish red reminiscent of blood – exchanges its first place with the jasper – which can appear opaquely white. How appropriate that in the literary and theological transition from the Old to the New Testament, the first has become last and the last, first. Just so then, the first Adam, by his disobedience, is stained with blood and death. The second Adam, Christ the sinless and unstained one, assumes his place and becomes "the first begotten of the dead" (Rev. 1:5). So the positioning of the stones in these two instances acts as a mirror image of our redemption. Life was exchanged for death, which became life again. As we read in I Corinthians 15:22: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive."
Consider this as well. Dr. Oliver Greene, in an article posted on Philologos.org, says: "In the Old Testament the saints looked forward to the day when the Lamb would come, they looked forward to the cross [cf. Isaiah 53], and therefore saw the Sardius...the blood-red stone...first. They looked beyond that and saw the Jasper, the clear white stone representing His power and His rule at His second coming." (philologos.org/bpr/files/j001.htm) The Lamb having now been offered once for all and the vision of the heavenly liturgy being opened out before him, the Evangelist St. John quite naturally sees things from the other side as it were where the victory of the Resurrection appears to have priority amongst the allegorical imagery. "And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone." (Rev. 4:3a)
There are certainly plenty of other things to consider in today's Epistle. I will, however, limit myself to just two. The Rev. Isaac Williams, in a sermon for Trinity Sunday, had this to say: "The seasons of our sacred year have carried us through the great events of our Redemption, our Lord’s Birth and Temptation, His Passion, His Resurrection and Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Ghost; and now...the mystery of the Blessed Trinity is revealed; and for one half of the year from this time we commemorate by lessons of obedience this doctrine of the Three Persons in One God." (Williams, Sermon 47)
It is clear from this that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not just something that we hold casually and incidentally. When the Rev. Williams speaks of our commemorating this doctrine "by lessons of obedience", that can be seen in at least two instances. First of all, in the liturgical praxis of the Book of Common Prayer and several of the pre-Reformation western rites, every Sunday from now until Advent will be celebrated or commemorated as some ordinal number after Trinity. Thus the life of the Trinity becomes for us the referent in all of our public worship.
Secondly, our Lord Jesus Christ, in His divine nature, is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. In those very lessons from the Gospels that we hear, when He tells a parable, that is the eternal Godhead telling a parable. And here we must pause to bear in mind as well that speech is impossible without both words and the breath that impels them. Thus we are hearkened back to the beginning of creation in Genesis where God speaks His Word Who is moved by the Spirit. "And the Spirit of God [which word in Hebrew, ruach (roó-akh), is synonymous with "breath", "wind" or "spirit"] moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Gen. 1:2b-3) So in every instance where Jesus speaks, there before us is another manifestation of the creative power of the Triune God. Thus it becomes trebly poignant when Jesus preaches, for that is God preaching.When He heals, that is God healing. And when we read in John 11:35 "Jesus wept", in a particular sense that is God weeping. For as the Athanasian creed proclaims, "Who although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ." So it seems pretty clear to me that we are indeed, and greatly privileged that it should be so, "commemorat[ing] by lessons of obedience this doctrine of the Three Persons in One God."
I shall return to Isaac Williams' commentary in a moment, but first a brief aside about the Athanasian Creed. It is a curious thing to me that, while it has been included in every edition of the English Book of Common Prayer from the getgo in 1549, it took until 1979 for it to make an appearance in an American Prayer Book. A variety of theories have been proposed as to why this is the case from it simply being a matter of length to our rather (in some quarters) robust embrace of principles stemming from the Enlightenment which tend to shy away from strong doctrinal statements such as: "Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly." Seemingly, yes, that is a strong doctrinal statement. But it is no more so than what we read in John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Two things about this whole issue. First, some of the squeamishness can be laid directly at the feet of our generically Nominalistic approach to things as a default position. The Nominalist says: I see words such as "catholic" or "perish everlastingly" and I feel that I ought not to like them, therefore they are categorically unlikeable for me. I have named them as such, and that is my truth.
Secondly, this visceral objection to such things as the aforementioned portions of the Athanasian Creed and the Gospel need not have the 'teeth' that we think it does. Philosophically, I am something of a Neoplatonist and that colours my outlook on a lot of things. I tend to think in terms of archetypes and images. Thus, I can quite sincerely both recite the Athanasian creed and mean every word of it, while at the same time not assuming that everyone who has left the practice of Christianity for a variety of reasons is simply destined for hell. It is simply not our place to judge and condemn as we do not know the circumstances. And it's no wonder so many people have been frightened away. Frankly, religion in our day has reached a low ebb. We have become so confused that we now simply apply a "Jesus veneer" to our pet neuroses and anxieties and call it a day. All I'm saying is that things don't have to be what we think they are at first blush.
Back to the business at hand, again from today's Epistle. "[T]he first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things, which must be hereafter." (Rev. 4:1) Isaac Williams continues on: "It was a voice speaking, and yet it was as of a trumpet. This combines together the two great events of Pentecost—the awful trumpet of Mount Sinai on the giving out of the Law, and the living tongues on the descent of the Spirit; the one expressive of fear, the other of love; the fear and love with which we are henceforth to live in the great mystery of Godliness, as revealed to us in the Old and New Testament." (Williams, ibid)
This transition from holy fear alone to that converted and inflamed by the Holy Ghost in the fire of His love is aptly illustrated for us in (appropriately enough) three instances in today's Gospel. Firstly, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under cover of darkness and gives for his opening volley what has, no doubt, become the default "party line" of affirming Jesus' good intentions. And yet, I don't think Nicodemus is being anything but sincere here. In light of the risk to his socio-religious position he is taking in associating with Jesus, certainly an understandable fear, he is being a cautious man. Straightway does Jesus begin to help him see by looking beyond the established way of seeing things. This new birth will take away all that has been holding him back. Jesus not only recognises the position that Nicodemus finds himself in, he offers the way out of it. Such is the goodness of the love of God overcoming the fear that has been engendered via the keeping of the Law and its accretions in the context of living under the watchful eye of the Roman state.
Secondly, Nicodemus takes Jesus too literally, thinking that he is being asked to go back in time, stuff himself back into the womb and do a second take. He is afraid that what he is being told, appealing as it is to him, is impossible. The bit about the wind blowing "where it listeth" is a good follow-on to the rector's sermon on the Sunday after the Ascension when he told us that it doesn't so much matter "how" the Ascension happened as "that" it did. Jesus is comforting Nicodemus out of what must have become an ingrained eye for fine points and details that his experience of interpreting and living the Law must have provided him. The "how" of the operation of grace in being born again of water and the Spirit is not so important as the "that" of being born of water and the Spirit, which administration thereof has been entrusted to the life of the Church.
Finally, poor exasperated Nicodemus just can't take it anymore. "How can these things be?" he asks. And Jesus gives him a brief glimpse of both the necessity of the Incarnation as well as the promise of the Resurrection in terms that Nicodemus could understand via Moses' use of the bronze serpent to heal the people of Israel, who had complained themselves into dire straits once again. Most certainly was this complaining done out of uncertainty and fear, just as the human motives of the Sanhedrin and the secular power under Pontius Pilate for crucifying Jesus were also impelled by uncertainty and fear and just as the commission of Original Sin was also motivated by uncertainty and fear. Yet, thanks be to God, such things no longer need have place among us for, as Isaac Williams says: "[The Spirit] makes present on earth the things of eternity; He reveals to the heart the mysteries of Heaven. "
In conclusion, in all the things we have considered today, the old and new Adams enshrined and foreshadowed on the breastplate of the high priest, the life of the triune God obediently considered in all the Sunday Eucharistic propers in the Prayerbook and the conversion of the stupefying fear of the Old Covenant into the reverential and loving fear of the New by the descent of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Trinity is on display in full force.
It has been said that the longer one preaches on Trinity Sunday, the greater the likelihood of falling into heresy becomes. Thus, in the face of all that is presented to us for consideration on this day, let us then fall silent and take to heart the words of Psalm 95: "O come, let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker. For he is the Lord our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand."