Sermon at St James, Colwall, Trinity Sunday 2017
Isaiah 40:12-17,27-end; 2 Corinthians 13.11-end; Matthew 28:16-end
To listen to the sermon recording as you read:
As a young student training for priesthood I learned that, if one had to preach on Trinity Sunday, one had drawn the short straw. In those distant days, it was required of clergy and congregations that they say or sing together at the end of Morning Prayer something called the Athanasian Creed. You’ll find it, if you’re interested, in the Book of Common Prayer on the shelves at the back of this church – look to the end of the service of Morning Prayer. It’s an ancient document, translated from Latin and it purports not only to define God as Holy Trinity, but it concludes with the astounding statement “this is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved”! If you are now worrying about where you stand with God, let me assure you that the Athanasian Creed is (1) not a creed; and (2) not by St Athanasius, that great fourth century bishop of Alexandria. It’s a fifth century, probably Gallic-French monastic song called by its first line: Quicunque Vult – whoever wishes. Out of respect for our Christian forefathers and foremothers – who were as intelligent as we, and who probably read or listened to more theology than most of us – we should acknowledge that their strange-sounding words and phrases represent the culmination of an important process that had begun less than a hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. For three centuries there was intense debate about how Christians should think of God. We speak of God as Father, and yet we proclaim Jesus as Lord – one of the titles of God in the Bible – and we also speak of the Holy Spirit, which our forbears identified with the Spirit of God that brooded over the waters in the Genesis stories, and with the Spirit of Jesus, promised or given by Jesus after his resurrection. Were our predecessors to think of three Gods? surely not - that would be anathema to Jewish Christians and also to Gentile Christians, who were familiar with claims to divinity by emperors or by the gods of the Greek myths. No, there can only be one God.
But how to understand that God is God, the creator of the universe, and God is this Holy Spirit, and God is also this Jesus, who lived, died and rose from the dead? Trying to hold together what seems so contradictory is likely to make one’s brain feel very tired. There was, of course, no shortage of ideas about how we might speak of three and yet one, one and yet three. And, if you thought you had an answer as to how one can understand God, if you thought you’d got your little human mind around the infinite mystery of God, then you really haven’t understood the question. Any God that you think you have understood is not God: it’s just an idea in your head, and it is very important to recognise that. People who think they have God taped are dangerous, because they mistake their little idol for the real thing. That kind of God can be used to justify any crazy or wicked thing you choose. “This is for Allah” shouted the murderers at London Bridge. No, it was not. Allah – which is the Arabic word for God – is not the property of a small group of religiously ignorant people whose minds have been corrupted by wicked teachers.
Or think of all those Christian Crusaders, who killed thousands of Muslim men, women and children, or of the public burning alive of Christians in London and Oxford and elsewhere, because their doctrines didn’t match the doctrines of the party in power at the time. What God did they think they worshipped?
Christians do have a record of fighting each other over their religious ideas. In the days when Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria (fourth century), there were enormous arguments about God and Jesus. Some Christian groups, led by a teacher called Arius, said that we can stop worrying about the Holy Trinity, if we acknowledge that Jesus was born into the world and then became God’s Son – adopted as it were. There are records from those times of fish porters in the fish docks at Alexandria, who followed Arius’ teaching. They made up taunt songs – rather like abusive football chants. They would shout and sing these songs whenever they came across colleagues and others who believed that Jesus, the Spirit and the Creator were all One eternal God who exists beyond time and space. So the Arian fish porters would chant “there was a when-he-was-not” about Jesus, God the Son, just to wind up the others, to the point where blows were exchanged, and people and property damaged. Hard to imagine? Not if you think back to street fights and worse in Liverpool, Glasgow or Belfast between members of Christian congregations with relatively minor differences of worship and belief.
I find all this stuff fascinating – perhaps you do too. People lived and died for these ancient arguments. But I don’t think their disputes are as important as how we now are to think of God: what images of God are limited, idolatrous, dangerous even? And what images of God will enable us to show in our lives the fruits of the Spirit, as St Paul put it?
Curiously enough, I think some answers to that question can be found in the writings of bishop Athanasius in the fourth century. How about this one? ‘God became human so that we can become God’ – in one sentence Athanasius tells us that Jesus is God and became a human being – and, in the same short sentence, tells us more: our human nature has been joined to God’s divine nature. You and I are called to be - are in the process of becoming - divine.
That might help us to stop thinking too much and to let our imaginations take over: we are invited to imagine – the Greek word is εικων, ikon, a mental and sometimes physical image, through which we may glimpse something beyond our usual comprehension. We are invited into a process that comes out of eternity and leads into eternity, it transcends space and time, matter and infinity.
One further thought about you and the Holy Trinity. You may be familiar with the phrase ‘three Persons, one God’. Or ‘three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. You may not be familiar with what a Person is. It’s the translation of a Latin word very familiar to bishop Athanasius and his contemporaries. The origins of the word Person referred to a speaking trumpet, sometimes fixed to a theatrical mask. In the days before electronic sound amplification, especially in the big open-air Greek or Roman theatres that you can still see across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, actors needed some means to amplify their speech. So they used these personae / persons. The Latin word means, literally, through-sound – per sona.
That doesn’t mean that God speaks with three voices or has only three voices. Rather it pushes us to think again about the relationship between God the Creator, whom we sometimes call Father, and Jesus who shares our humanity, and the Spirit of God, who permeates the cosmos including, of course, our lives. This deep, and deeply Christian, understanding of Person should give us pause for thought. In our present culture, a person is an individual, an isolated creature who tries more or less to relate to other individuals, to wider human society, to the natural and built environment. Despite the rather mechanical origins of the word Person, our Christian forbears enriched the concept through their understanding of God the Holy Trinity. Down the centuries they offer us an image, and another word, one that cannot easily be translated from the original Greek. That word is perichoresis. Now perichoros can mean simply the country round about here, or the people round about here. But perichoresis takes on new and profound meanings in Christian thinking. It refers not just to people round about, but to a much greater closeness and intimacy, so much so that a medieval theologian, Bernard of Clairvaux, speaks of the Father kissing the Son, the Son receiving the Father’s embrace and kiss, and the Holy Spirit being in that kiss. It’s a remarkable image and one that comes directly from those early centuries of Christians trying to talk about God. A kiss requires movement towards, it denotes intimate contact, it expresses love. Other early theologians use the language of Terpsichore, of delight in dancing, so that our imaginations conjure up images again of closeness and movement and delight. These images of the Persons of God offer us a glimpse of the richness of being people together and with God, that challenge our 21st century notions of human fulfilment, and show up their poverty. The divine energy (another Greek word used by those early Christians) is vast beyond imagining. At its heart is delight, and movement and intimate love and kissing and dancing. And if you let those images fill your mind, flood your inner eye, then you glimpse a mystery that words cannot define or pin down. You glimpse a secret thing (that’s what the word mystery means) that people down the ages have glimpsed of the God who makes everything that is, and whose unimaginably vast energy nevertheless knows you, invites your attention, and for whom our only human response is to be lost in wonder, love and praise.