Sunday 22nd

1ST SERMON

MORNING HOLY COMMUNION                  Trinity Sunday                           Preacher: Rev Lynn McKeon

John 16:12-15  

Trinity Sunday is a special time in the church year when we remember who God is, Father Son and Holy Spirit, The Holy Trinity. This is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian and yet it is very difficult to believe that God can be one and three. Of course it is beyond human understanding, God is a mystery to us and it would be a remarkable thing if we were able to capture God within the measure of our human mind.

The Christian teaching about the Trinity is not meant to be an explanation of God, rather it is a way of describing what we know about God, even though we know that humanly speaking it is beyond our reason.

Close your eyes and think about God. What did you see? Which part of the Trinity did you visualize?

Did you think about the image of God described in Isaiah, seated on a throne surrounded by Angels? Did you imagine the God of the Old Testament who walked with Adam in the cool of the evening in a garden? Did you see God the Father as the angry God who sent the flood, who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah?   Did you think of Jesus? And how did you see Him? As a baby, as the child in the Temple? As the young preacher of fire and zeal, as the gentle healer? As the friend, as the Crucified God. As the exalted Judge over all?   Did you think of the Holy Spirit, as flame as wind, as flood tide?

I have a friend who has in the past interviewed clergy for chaplaincy jobs and one of his favourite interview questions is “Which member of the Holy Trinity do you most relate to? Father, Son or Holy Spirit. I asked fearfully, “What is the right answer?” “Ah”, he replied smugly, "there isn’t a right answer, but you get some interesting replies.”   

So I am asking you - which part of the Trinity most appeals to you? When you pray, do you envisage a wise Father God, perhaps bearded and kindly? When you pray do you speak to Jesus, and in which form, as the earthly friend of fisherman, full of love and compassion or the Heavenly Jesus enthroned in majesty and splendour? Do you think of the Holy Spirit, mysterious and intangible but powerful? There isn’t a right answer, not one which will make you a better or a worse Christian.

I will let you into a trade secret. Lots of clergy find preaching on the subject of the Trinity really daunting. I suppose that I could have launched into a long historical description of how the concept of the Trinity evolved from just the briefest hints in the Bible. I could go on at length and because you are so polite and nice to me, you would listen while I described to you the various Councils of the early church and theologians which honed the idea into the concepts we say we believe in in the words of the Creed. But, you will be relieved to hear, I am not going to do that, instead you can stop Cliff or Fran afterwards and they will fill in these background matters. Instead I am going to ask you to think about this very fundamental question – how does the idea of the Trinity help me, know God? How does the Trinity help us know God?

There is a profoundly moving painting by Massaccio in Florence which shows the Trinity. It is painted to look as though you were looking up into a barrel vaulted side chapel. Jesus is set high above the viewer, stretched out upon the Cross. God is shown as a tall straight figure gazing out high above the heads of the viewer. His appearance has become familiar to us, since he is shown as a white haired bearded wise figure, like a calm dispassionate judge or prophet. Between the heads of the two male figures, almost missable is the Holy Spirit, in the familiar form of a dove.  A bird seems to me a good visual symbol for something which has no form. Birds are the least substantial of all creatures which breathe. They are here and gone in a twinkling of an eye. They are constantly moving and always mysterious. At the Baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove. The painting shows the way the three forms of the one God are intertwined and interlocking. God’s arms support the Cross on which Jesus offers Himself for us. The three parts of God therefore are joined in offering Jesus to the world for our redemption.

The arms of God the Father are outstretched and they mimic those of God the Son. The dove similarly stretches his wings all symbolising the way God reaches generously out to us. They are seeking to join with the world rather than remain above it. The interlocking nature of the One God, its mutual dependence are summed up in this simple but highly sophisticated painting.                             

God the Father is that part of God which creates and originates. God the Son is that part of God which is fully at one with us: fully in love with us human beings, God the Holy Spirit is that part of God which activates and moves through our world changing and transforming. For some people the notion of the Trinity is not helpful because they already have an understanding of God which is so mature and integrated that they keep all these functions of God going in their spiritual mind at once. But most of us can’t.

I am going to suggest then that the concept of the Trinitarian threefold God helps us because we find it hard to conceive of a loving God who is at once human and is also formless and activating. That as we move and change through our lives one or the other aspect of God gains in importance. That is God’s gift to us, but the belief in the threefold form of God is a useful corrective to imbalance. If you get deeply involved with the distant concept of God as the Creator, it is possible to lose sight of God as the personal saviour, the suffering human who is fully one with our humanity. It is perhaps possible that we might so immerse our self with the human Jesus as our friend that we screen out the energising transforming aspect of God, which sweeps away our complacency and false security. And so on. The concept of the Trinity holds out to us a way of knowing the Unknowable. Whenever we think of the Trinity we can hold together in our minds the interlocking aspects of God the Creator, God the Son and God the Spirit, without the perfect balance they provide our spiritual lives can become unbalanced or stale. In the painting the removal of one aspect would skew  the  harmony  and  balance, without  their  mutual  dependence  the  Cross would fall.

It is also important to remember that the Trinity does not actually attempt to explain God. It only explains what we know about God, that which he has revealed to us in a very elementary way. So we Christians affirm the Trinity, not as an explanation of God, but simply as a way of describing what we currently know about God. This is honest and it should not make us frightened. In 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 it says where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;'     

Knowledge will pass away. Human knowledge will be revealed to be a lot less important than some might care to believe. As Christians we need to have the honesty to say that we see but a poor reflection of God as in a mirror, we see through a glass darkly. Our knowledge of God is imperfect, we know in part and the rest is guesswork. Moreover we will never know all the answers until we see God face to face.

 

 

2ND SERMON               

EVENING PRAYER             Trinity Sunday          Preacher:  Rev Lynn McKeon

Exodus 3: 1-15

John 3: 1-17

 

Trinity Sunday is traditionally given to visiting preachers, who have a previously prepared sermon written, or to curates who need the experience, because the Trinity is a concept of peculiar difficulty, trying to explain how God can be three and one and moreover, can be three and one at the same time. We know that this is so, because at Jesus’ baptism, Jesus is present in the flesh, being baptised by John, there is the voice from heaven stating that Jesus is the beloved and there is the Holy Spirit, the dove, flying over the scene. That’s how it is described and that’s how many works of art show it. Preachers describe the Trinity like a three-leaved clover or like water, ice and steam or like a musician, the instrument and the sound. When I did my theological training, I used a triangle for the trinity.

But there is a place where all of these fail because none of them is quite right, none of them come really to the heart of the mystery of the perfect Trinity that is God. It is something that cannot be understood by the intellect, it’s way beyond reason, which upsets all the scientists. The Trinity is pure emotion, it’s something understood by the body. When someone is teaching you in a dancing class or how to play football or dive into a swimming pool, first you learn what it is with your head and you watch them do it and it seems quite easy, but when you try it, it’s not right and you tread on people’s toes or miss the ball or belly flop. It’s all very discouraging. Then, suddenly, you get it: it flows, everything goes right and you whirl about the floor or score a goal or swallow dive into the pool. It’s like a joke that doesn’t work and the person telling it says, “well, you really should have been there.”

            I was sufficiently concerned about talking about the Holy Spirit that I resorted to desperate measures and opened one of my theological books, to discover one of the reasons I had not used it much was that all the religious words were in Greek and I had several moments of revelation of my own spelling over the letters and working out the word (I only did a few sessions on Greek).

When we talk about the Trinity, we run into all sorts of problems. We say in the Creed, I believe in God the Father, fine, God the son, OK with that and God the Holy Ghost, or the updated version Holy Spirit.  Err, well spirits and ghosts are a bit tricky. There are language problems. “Person” in English carries baggage with it, associations with self-consciousness, so that “three persons” ought to mean three separate and distinct forms of consciousness. In Greek and Latin, that is not the case, so we import all sorts of meaning into the translation that the writer did not know about or intend.

Don’t even get me started on gender. God is neither male or female and although Jesus was male, since he brought about our salvation, that somehow also meant women and if you think that is obvious, that Jesus also saved women, is it any more perplexing than the question of whether priests can only be men because Jesus was a man and the apostles were men?

There are historical problems. The language the church uses about the Trinity comes from a later age than when the Gospels and the letters in the Bible were written. To some degree, therefore, when we talk about the Trinity we are using terms that Bible authors may not have thought about or used and which were imposed by the church fathers when they were trying to sort out who was a heretic and who was not.

There are textual problems. A lot of our ideas about the Holy Spirit come from Paul and it is not always clear that what he is talking about is the same as what the Gospel writers are talking about or indeed Jesus is talking about. Paul is not commenting on the Gospels. It is not at all likely that there were any gospels in written form when he was on his journeys. He relied on word of mouth, sometimes from the apostles themselves, sometimes from others. It is very rare indeed that he is commenting on what we would recognise as gospel stories or gospel imagery. In a way, Paul is talking about oranges by describing apples.

So we come to our Gospel passage for this evening. It is very, very difficult to understand. The only real anchor point is verse 16, which everyone knows and is pretty clear. Jesus has a knack at times of being terribly clear. This is not one of them and Nicodemus does not understand a word. It’s partly because they are talking about different things, oranges and apples.

Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. He comes not only for himself, but also as the leader of his community. He is confronting the leader of a different  community: the Christians led by Jesus. As Gamaliel will say to the Sanhedrin after him when Peter and John were arrested after talking to the crowd at Pentecost, the leaders needed to be careful. If this was a breakaway religion but not from God, it would be suppressed and fade away. If it was from God,                Nicodemus ran the risk of going against God. So he begins carefully. However, when Jesus says to him “you must be born from above” he is speaking to the whole community. The “you” is plural. Nicodemus does not understand and is reduced to the helpless question, “how can these things be?” The conversation centres around the impossible. Those born of the spirit and those born of the flesh cannot understand one another, it’s like apples and oranges. There are two spheres of existence, the spiritual and the physical and the one does not understand the other. The heavenly things are the new life in Christ, where faith and hope and trust come from, the things we understand with our bodies, our emotions. The earthly things are different. Of course there is a place for reason and science in religion, but love, that simply can’t be rationalised can it, some would say just like the Trinity!

It is also important to remember that the Trinity does not actually attempt to explain God. It only explains what we know about God, that which he has revealed to us in a very elementary way. So we Christians affirm the Trinity, not as an explanation of God, but simply as a way of describing what we currently know about God. This is honest and it should not make us frightened. In 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 it says where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;'     

Knowledge will pass away. Human knowledge will be revealed to be a lot less important than some might care to believe. As Christians we need to have the honesty to say that we see but a poor reflection of God as in a mirror, we see through a glass darkly. Our knowledge of God is imperfect, we know in part and the rest is guesswork. Moreover we will never know all the answers until we see God face to face.