May 30, 2010
Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2010 (Romans 5,1-5; John 16, 12-15)
Six weeks ago, when I., S. and I were deciding who should do what and when over the next couple of months, I suddenly realised that I had landed myself with preaching on Trinity Sunday for the second year running! And, of course I had failed to follow the advice of my old vicar, John Richardson, later Bishop of Bedford, that ‘the wise preacher always arranges to be away on holiday on Trinity Sunday’.
Belief in God as Trinity is one of the cornerstones of our faith – yet it is something that most preachers find it difficult to preach about. (Almost as difficult as preaching on ‘justification by faith’, which could be an alternative subject for today if I chose to concentrate just on the epistle reading!).
The doctrine of the Trinity was something that developed slowly, out of the experience of the first disciples. As they reflected on their life with Jesus, and as they lived on after the Resurrection, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, they came to realise that both Jesus and the Spirit shared the character of the God of Israel they had been taught about in the Torah. So all three were ‘God’ to them. In the letter to the Romans, from which our epistle reading comes, all three persons of the Trinity are present, but there is no developed doctrine of the Trinity. Paul says that through God, Jesus and the Spirit working together, the believer experiences peace.
In John’s Gospel, written towards the end of the first century AD, the writer reflects the experience of the apostles – that what the Spirit teaches follows on from what Jesus has already taught them about the Father. The Spirit’s role is not to dominate but to point beyond itself to Christ, and so to glorify God. Yet, the way which the Spirit leads them is the same way Jesus led them – so Father, Son and Spirit are one.
This recognition of a divine unity of teaching, action and purpose runs through all the New Testament writings. It was not problematic for those first believers, even though they came from a monotheistic background. It was only when the Christian faith moved out into the Graeco-Roman world, and people who didn’t know the historical Jesus began to speculate on how exactly Jesus and the Spirit could be God; and exactly when Jesus became God; and which bits of him were divine and which bits human; and whether there was a hierarchy of divinity within the Godhead; and when philosophers began to try to define exact answers to these questions, and to insist that everyone had to believe the same things, that the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic. Which is not surprising, because such questions are unanswerable, especially several hundred years after the event.
So, perhaps we are just called to accept that the Trinity is part of the mystery that is God, and simply to live it. And that means working out how to reflect, in our individual and church lives, a God who reveals the divine through the Spirit, through the life of Jesus and through the created world.
But we are not only called to live our faith, but also to preach it. And that means working out how to explain to others why we believe in a God who is ‘Three in One and one in Three’.
Jesus taught his followers to call God ‘Abba’ – Daddy. The New Testament writers followed his lead, and used the metaphor of ‘father’ and ‘son’ to describe the relationship between Jesus and God. They were as similar to each other as family members often are – yet were different beings. The same ‘Spirit’ or breath breathed through them, and was part of them both.
We all have experience of family life, to a greater or lesser extent. And all of us, at different times in our lives, play different roles in a family – though we continue to be in some sense the same person. I have been daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother, aunt, mother-in-law, great aunt. I have now experienced a new role – grandmother – and what a joy that is, especially when my grandchild calls me ‘Grandma’ which she did for the first time last week. It’s a common family pursuit to trace the likenesses (and the differences) between different family members, to ask questions like “Who does she look like?” and “I wonder where she gets that from?”.
So the family metaphor is an easy way of explaining our faith in the Trinity to those who are still outside the community of faith. Just so long as we don’t allow ourselves to take the metaphor too literally, or try to explain exactly how all three ‘persons’ are God.
But all of us have roles outside the family. And most of us are known to different people in different roles: we are friend, colleague, adviser, neighbour, customer; we do particular jobs. Yet we are the same person underneath.
The same is true of God. In the Old Testament, God is much more than creator; other names for the divine include, Lord, King, Shield, Rock, Shepherd, Redeemer, Light to the Nations, The Most High. Jesus is is not just Son; he is Saviour, Bridegroom, Bread of life, Head, Teacher. The Spirit also has many names and roles. The Trinity is just a shorthand for the multitude of ways that Godself is revealed to us and the infinite number of ways through which we may come to know God.
This highlights that what the doctrine of the Trinity is really all about is relationships: the relationships within the Godhead and the relationships between the divine and the human. Within the Godhead there is difference (reflected by the theological language about ‘persons’) but a perfect unity. The icon of The Trinity by Andrei Rublev (reproduced on your service sheets) reflects that beautifully, which is why I am so fond of it as an image of the Trinity.
The three persons of the Trinity are virtually identical, and androgynous, illustrating the truth that God is without gender. They are equal since all three are seated on the same level. Their clothes reflect the differences of function between them – but when you follow their eyes you see each looks away from self towards the others, proclaiming their unity of will and purpose.
They are equal in authority (all three hold staffs of authority), so they are all equally to be treated as God and King. We seek the guidance and obey the prompting of Father, Son and Spirit to the same extent.
And our own contemporary experience gives us another way of understanding that. For the first time in the lives of many of us, we have a coalition government. There are two parties involved (although in the immediate post-election period, there was talk of a ‘rainbow coalition’ of many parties) and in order to exercise authority they have had to put aside their differences and agree on a common policy.
Many commentators obviously find this difficult to cope with, and there has been much media speculation on who has ‘won’ and ‘lost’ in the coalition agreement, and how long it will last.
In the ‘coalition God’ which is the Trinity, there are no winners and losers, because there is no essential difference between the three parties involved. As our passage from John’s Gospel tells us, all that is the Father’s also belongs to Jesus, and the Spirit declares what is true about both.
If we are to live in accordance with our belief in God who is a Trinity of perfect love, unity and co-operation, then we need to find a way of being church that reflects God’s love unity and co-operation. Since we are not divine, we will not be able to mirror exactly the unity of the Godhead. Since we are human, we will never be able be able to understand the infinite mystery of God’s being. Since we are finite corporate beings, living in different environments and with different personalities, we will all experience God in different ways, and will tend to think that our way of knowing God is best.
Trinity Sunday is a yearly reminder to us that if we want to be true to our faith in our lives and our church, then we need to minimise the differences between us and other Christians and concentrate on the relationship with God we share, a relationship of love, of self-sacrifice, of unity of purpose. If we concentrate on that, then perhaps the complicated theological arguments about the doctrine of the Trinity need not worry us too much.
May 9, 2010
Address for Family Communion Service. (John 5, 1-9)
( invite children present to come and join in)
This area on the floor represents a pool. When I say ‘Now!’ everyone jump in the pool. First one on wins.
That’s too easy. Make it more difficult. You’ve got a bad hand. You’ve got one bad leg. You’ve got two legs that don’t work so you have to sit on the ground all the time and can’t stand up.
Let’s try it again. ‘Now’. Ah, that sorted everyone out. But was it fair. No, the person with bad legs had no chance.
How would he have a better chance?- if someone helped him. But no-one around.
Last week the Sunday School were learning about how things are better if we work together. Things would have been fairer for man at the pool in the gospel story if people had worked together and helped him to be healed. Like the paralysed man in the story in Mark’s Gospel whose friends took him to see Jesus.
But when Jesus came along the situation changed. Jesus just asked him if he wanted to get well. He said ‘Yes’, and Jesus told him to get up and walk. And he did. Once Jesus was there, he didn’t need anything or anyone else in order to be well. You don’t need anyone else to make contact with God through Jesus. You can meet him, and ask him to make you better just as you are.
That’s one message we can take from this miracle story. But there are others.
On the surface, this is a simple story of a healing. But it is a story from John’s Gospel, and therefore we have to look much deeper to understand what John is really telling us. In John, more than any of the other Gospels, places and numbers matter. It’s like solving a crossword puzzle clue or following treasure hunt instructions.
So let’s look at the story in more detail to see what the those things are telling us. It takes place by the Sheep Gate – and John’s Gospel says that Jesus tells us he is the gate for the sheep. So it’s contrasting the old sheep-gate with the new. Around the pool are five porticoes – you can see them in the picture on your service sheet. The sick people lie under them. There are 5 books of the law in the Jewish Torah – so is John saying people lie paralysed under the old law?
People compete to be healed by going into the water – in John’s Gospel water again stands for the old covenant with God through the Law – remember the water that was turned to wine at the marriage at Cana? But very few make it and some have no chance at all. The paralysed man had been trying for 38 years, on his own; 38 years is the number of years the Hebrews wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land. Again, John may be drawing a contrast between salvation under the old covenant and the new.
Jesus asks the man ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The Greek word used for ‘healed’ can also mean ‘made whole’ or even ‘be saved’. So John is saying Jesus is offering not just physical healing but also salvation and forgiveness of sins.
All the paralysed man has to do is to say ‘Yes’ to Jesus – he doesn’t have to express faith, he doesn’t have to meet any conditions. All he actually does is make excuses – but still Jesus tells him to get up, take up the symbol of his infirmities and walk – and he does.
This is not just a simple account of a healing miracle. It is expressing the belief of the writer of John’s Gospel that Jesus alone has the power to bring us healing, wholeness and salvation, so long as we are willing to listen to him and follow his instructions, and leave behind all the things that bind us to our infirmities.
And that’s the challenge this story presents us with. Being whole is not just about our bodies. It is also about our minds, and our hearts and our spirits – and our prejudices and our social systems and our world.
We can remain sitting under our old laws – discredited ideas and systems, fear of change, resentment, injustice, selfishness, addiction, secular loyalties or the belief that God’s love is rationed and that we have to compete for it by being certain sorts of people or behaving in certain ways. Or we can meet Jesus and listen to what he says and obey his simple instruction to get up and walk away from all that into new life.
All we have to do is really want to be whole and to become the people God created us to be.
Are we ready to hear that unconditional offer from Jesus? Are we ready to take up our mats and walk with him?