Monday, 27 May 2013

Trinity Sunday Sermon

From the Sunday, May 26, 2013 regional service, by Rev'd Elizabeth Mathers.

So, Trinity Sunday.  A day for celebration of the community and the creativity that lie at the heart of God - good things to celebrate as we gather for our fifth annual deanery worship.
The Trinity is, of course, a mystery to us; the Godhead is hidden from our sight.  But rather than approach it, as we might, as a theological puzzle - an intellectual wrestling with the concept of Three Persons and One God, or as an abstraction - something far removed from our daily life, I'd like to invite us to consider the Trinity as a gift that's offered to us to reflect on and live into, relationally and creatively, that draws us deeper into life as God's beloved daughters and sons,  whom Jesus calls friends, and who are enlivened by the Spirit's breathing into us.

You'll know that in the scriptures, the idea of the Trinity is alluded to, mentioned now and again - but it's not systematically set out.  Trinitarian doctrine was developed by the early church, arising from the ferment of theological argument and counter-argument that gave rise to the fourth-century creeds.
My sense is that, were I to follow the fine tradition of previous preachers at this service and asked you to turn to your neighbour for a few minutes' conversation on your understanding of the Trinity - and it's okay, I'm not going to do that - but if I did, there would be about as many answers as there are people in the church.  But we don't have to be theologically uniform in order to live into the relationship and creativity we're invited into, as individuals, as worshipping communities, and as a region.

So, our gospel reading.  It's part of John's account of Jesus' words to his friends on the night before his death - his farewell discourse; we've been hearing from it over the past few Sundays.  It's the most sustained expression of trinitarian thought in any of the gospels.  And making an extract, as the lectionary has done, is challenging, because the discourse forms a seamless whole, over several chapters, a meditation on the relationship between Jesus, the one whom he calls Father, the Spirit, and Jesus' companions, those whom he loves - not only the ones present with him at supper, but all those to whom they will pass on the good news - those who will believe in Jesus through their word (17:20).

And whenever a word is spoken about Jesus, the Spirit indwells that word, speaks, declares, guides, glorifies - those active verbs we've just heard in the gospel.  The Spirit is the great communicator, who listens to the ongoing conversation of mutual love between Jesus and his Father, and speaks that to us, guiding us into the truth, and for John the Truth is not a philosophical concept or moral standard, but a person, Jesus.

There are two words that weave in and out of John's meditation:  love, and abide, or dwell.  The three persons of the Trinity are bound together in mutual love, they indwell each other in a dynamic relationship.  They make themselves at home in each other's love, as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message.

As I've reflected on John's words, I've found it helpful to set a couple of visual images alongside them, which give us non-verbal ways of entering into the same mystery of the life of the Trinity.  One is a mediaeval icon; the other is an imaginative take on current scientific knowledge.
The icon, which is reproduced on the front of the order of service, is, as many of you will recognise, the Rublev Trinity; the work of a fifteenth-century Russian monk, about whom we know nothing, but who had clearly meditated deeply on the nature of the Trinity.  The subject of the icon is the three angels who appeared in Genesis to Sarah and Abraham with the news that they would have a son in their old age.  Rublev drew on the tradition which had grown up in the church - from very early times - of understanding the angels to represent the three persons of the Trinity.

When we look at them, we notice that each of the three resembles the others - they're not typical western representations of the three-person God.  They have an androgynous quality; they are neither strongly masculine nor strongly feminine.  They are sitting in tender attentiveness and openness to each other.  A gracious, life-giving image.

And the other image is one I came across in reading the Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson; she calls it the triple helix.  All biological life carries the double helix of DNA in each cell; Johnson says the strands of the double helix "do not originate from each other, but are simply there together, not statically but moving in a dance of separation and recombination, which creates new persons".  She goes on:  "the image of a triple helix - triple for the Trinity - intensifies this life-giving movement".1
Although the language Elizabeth Johnson uses is new, this is not a new insight; her triple helix draws on a concept developed in the early years of the church, called perichoresis - which is a Greek word that means a cyclical movement, interweaving together, spiralling like a helix.  Johnson says:  "perichore(sis) ... summons up the idea of all three distinct persons existing in each other in an exuberant movement of equal relations, community in diversity:  an excellent model for human interaction ... ".2  And if you want to know a Greek pun, it's very close to another word that means to dance together - the Trinity dancing.

Before we move on to that human interaction, I'd like us to turn to the Proverbs reading the children read for us - a creative reading of a passage about creation.

Proverbs is a book we don't often hear from in the lectionary - it's not as familiar to us as the Psalms, or the prophets, or some of the history that we encounter in our cyclical readings of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The first chapters of Proverbs centre on the figure of Wisdom, who is the personification of God's activity and presence in the world.

Today's passage opens with Wisdom speaking - she calls, raises her voice, cries out; like the Spirit in the gospel reading, she communicates, reaching out to all who live.  And Wisdom communicates openly, in the public places where people meet and travel; she doesn't hide away and wait for someone to come and find her.  Wisdom wants to get our attention - she's out there, at the crossroads, at the city gates, crying out, making herself heard.

Then, the scene shifts - like Google Earth moving from a closeup on say, Edgemont Village, outside Delaney's - panning out and back to take in the whole planet, at the dawn of creation, when God is bringing the universe into being, establishing the heavens, assigning to the sea its limit, marking out the foundations of the earth.

Wisdom is by God's side.  And the language here may be setting up echoes in your recent memory, as it's very similar to the part of Psalm 104 we read last week, on Pentecost Sunday - the great creation psalm:  O Lord, how manifold are your works!  in Wisdom you have made them all.
In today's passage, and in our translation, Wisdom is like a master worker - a colleague - who delights in, and is delightful to God, rejoices in all that God makes.  The Hebrew of the last couple of verses can be translated differently, but equally delightfully - the Revised English Bible has:  Then I was at God's side each day, God's darling and delight, playing in God's presence continually, playing over the whole world, while my delight was in humankind.  The sense shifts from Wisdom as architect and co-creator to Wisdom as beloved child, playing in the creation, watched over by God.  The play of happy, loved children is probably the most unselfconscious and interactive way that human beings have to relate to the world - open and trusting, exploring possibilities, finding potential in unexpected places.  So, it's a lovely image for us to play with as we listen to this ancient text, and reflect on how it and the gospel invite us into community and creativity.

So, how do these texts speak to us, as worshipping communities, as a region?  What encouragement and insights do they offer us as we continue to grow into community together and reach out into our neighbourhoods?  How might they challenge us?  They are such rich readings; there is so much that we can take away from them.  But, as I've reflected on them, it's occurred to me that they show us one thing which grounds us, and one thing which releases us - one way the Spirit breathes us in, and one way the Spirit breathes us out.

The Spirit listens to the conversation at the heart of the Trinity.  And it seems to me that listening is the first thing we are called to - to listen to God, in whatever ways God speaks to us, and to listen to each other, and to the world.

You know that we are doing something in our region that hasn't been done before - we're exploring ways of being community that there's no blueprint for, either in our diocese or, as far as I'm aware, in the wider church.  One of the things we do bring to our explorations is a long history of working together in the deanery.  But we also have a longer history as individual parishes, all with pretty distinct characteristics - that's part of our heritage as Lutherans and Anglicans, that's built into our ways of being church.

Over the time since we began MAP, we've done some listening to each other that's been difficult, we've done some listening to the diocese that's been challenging, and always, when we listen to the world - the local community, the global community, the voice of the creation itself, that's likely to be hard listening.

But we also listen to the love that moves the stars, we also listen to the good news that we are God's beloved children, that God is working in ways beyond our imagination, to bring about the reconcilation of all things.  We listen - drawn in to community, breathed in by the Spirit.
And we are breathed out into the world, released into community, service and praise.  I'd like to end by returning to the image of Wisdom playing - at God's side each day, God's darling and delight, playing in God's presence continually, playing over the whole world, while my delight was in humankind.  And Wisdom invites us to live in that same sense of possibility, not to be afraid to explore new ways of being, to bring the God-given creativity - and playfulness - we have all been blessed with to our God-given purpose of being the church in the world.

Thanks be to God.

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