Metaphors for God

May 26, 2013

Rublev_OT_Trinity(Proverbs 8, 1-4, 22-31; Romans 5, 1-5; John 16, 12-15)

Today we mark the one festival in the Church’s year which celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person. 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. So much so that JHR, a previous Vicar of mine, later a Bishop, once told me ‘the wise preacher always arranges to be away on holiday on Trinity Sunday’; and someone else advised the preacher on Trinity Sunday to “say nothing and just show pictures of kittens” to make everyone feel good.

heresykitten

Why are preachers so reluctant to preach on Trinity Sunday? Because it is almost impossible to do so without falling into explaining it in a way that has been denounced as heretical at some time in church history. Belief in the Trinity is set out in the three Creeds – the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and most comprehensively, in the Athanasian Creed (which Anglicans are supposed to use on Trinity Sunday, but rarely do nowadays!) But these are felt to be too complicated for ordinary folk in the pews to understand. So preachers resort to metaphors to try to explain it more simply.

I’m sure we’ve all heard them at some time or other: God the Trinity is like a shamrock, one plant with three leaves; God the Trinity is like a person who plays different roles in their life (mother, daughter, sister), but is the same person; God the Trinity is like water, which can exist as solid, liquid and gas but is still H20; God the Trinity is like an egg, shell, yolk and white, which together make up a complete egg; God the Trinity is like an electric cable,which consists of positive, negative and earth cable; and so on. But all of these fall into the trap of committing one heresy or another. If you can find it, there is a funny cartoon film on the internet  called ‘St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” in which St Patrick tries to draw simple analogies to explain the Trinity to two Irish peasants, only to be told they are all heretical; so he gives up and quotes the Athanasian Creed to them instead!

So how did we end up with a central doctrine so difficult to explain?

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.

As the New Testament was written, its authors drew on images from the Hebrew Scriptures (and later also from contemporary Greek philosophy) to try to express their experiences. Our Old Testament reading, from Proverbs, speaks of Wisdom, as something which is of God and from God, but is somehow distinct from God, working alongside God in the creation of the world. Wisdom came to be identified in Christian thought with Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel as the Logos or Word; and with the Holy Spirit.

Though a developed doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere spelt out in the New Testament, there are hints of it. In the letter to the Romans, from which our epistle reading comes, all three persons of the Trinity are present. 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.

The doctrine of the Trinity uses a metaphor to try to encapsulate the disciples’ experience of God, which is also the experience of those who lived the faith after them.

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.

The Greek speaking fathers of the church used the term ‘hypostasis’ which means being or manifestation, or underlying reality to refer to each part of God the Trinity. When the creeds and other theological documents were translated into Latin, the word used was ‘persona’, which originally meant a mask worn by an actor, and then came to mean the role played by an actor. Translated into English, the word became ‘person’, which means a human being. Hence our tendency to imagine the Trinity as three people, or two people and a bird, which can be a severe limitation on our concept of God, who is beyond all our  imagination, and not to be limited by human concepts of what a person is and can do.

The language we use about the Trinity is metaphorical. Metaphors point beyond themselves to something that is incomprehensible. That is why to explain the Trinity (a metaphor about God) with other metaphors simply makes a bigger muddle. A metaphor is not an explanation, it is something which helps us to explore, which cannot grasp the whole truth, but which encourages us to keep engaging with the mystery.

But metaphors are limited. The metaphor of the Trinity imagines  God as three – persons, identities, modes of being or whatever. But the Bible, and Christian spiritual writing since speak of God in many more ways than just Father, Son, Spirit, or even Creator, Redeemer, Comforter.

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, High Priest, 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.

There is also a tendency for people to confuse the metaphor with the reality. So, because we speak of two of the persons of the Trinity as Father and Son, some people imagine that they can only be spoken of in masculine terms, and represented by males. To speak of God or Jesus as Mother, and feeding us with milk from herself, makes some people uncomfortable, as does referring to any part of the Trinity as ‘she’. But God is not a being, and so is beyond gender, so it should not do.

Perhaps it might be better not to use words, but to use pictures or diagrams. In some churches you will find triangles, representing the Trinity. I like the Rublev icon, known as the Hospitality of Abraham, which represents the Trinity as three androgynous figures, gazing at each other; but it perhaps falls into the trap of making God seem like three human persons. Another representation I find it helpful to meditate on is this ancient Irish symbol, where a continuous line unites the three parts, without ever ending, so illustrating unity in eternity.

IMG

The Greek fathers spoke of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as ‘perichoresis’ or indwelling – a relationship of perfect unity of will and harmony of action. Some modern scholars have proposed a social doctrine of the Trinity, which reflects perichoresis, saying that that the unity of the Trinity consists in loving relationships. This implies that the doctrine of the Trinity is really all about 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. It speaks against the individualism of our culture for the importance to human flourishing of life in community.

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.

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.  We are finite corporate beings, living in different environments and with different personalities, so we will all experience God in different ways, and will tend to think that our way of knowing God is best. Living in love and unity will mean not insisting on that.

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 neither the  complicated theological arguments about the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the inadequate metaphors which try to help us understand the doctrine need worry us too much.

And wouldn’t that be a relief?

Loving the Other

February 3, 2013

 

(Jeremiah 1, 4-10; 1 Corinthians 13, 1-13; Luke 4, 21-30.)

Sometimes St Paul gets things wrong, as he does when he engages in obscure Rabbinic arguments to try to make his point; or when he forgets that being in Christ is about grace, and tries to set up rules and regulations about who God accepts and what different people may or may not do.

But sometimes he gets things gloriously, spectacularly, wonderfully right, so right that it takes your breath away! And today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians is one of those moments.

Wordle_1Cor13-758388

The hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the best known and best loved passages of the whole Bible. Any of us could probably quote bits of it, and so could a good many other people, even those with little church connection. Even Richard Dawkins quoted a bit in his debate with Rowan Williams in the Cambridge Union last week!

It is a favourite to be read at services which celebrate family events, especially weddings. Yet how many of those who hear it read realise that it is not really talking about married love, or the love within a family at all; it is not, as it sounds,  a celebration of a loving situation that already exists. It is a sharp reminder to people who are failing of just how far short they fall of the ideal they should be aspiring to. This is not written to a dewy eyed couple, talking about the sort of love that is celebrated by red roses, teddy bears and candlelit dinners. It is written to a community riven with differences about the love  that is faithful to death, even death on a cross.

Corinth was a major city of the Roman Empire, a crossroads of trade between north and south, east and west. It had many extremely wealthy people, some of them among the Christian community. It had people of many races, including Jews like Paul, Prisca and Aquila. There were very poor people and slaves and former slaves. It contained adherents of many different religions and philosophies. They had been drawn to the Christian faith for a number of different reasons, and by a number of missionaries apart from Paul.

After Paul left Corinth and travelled to Ephesus, he received disturbing news about how the community was being broken apart by arguments about all sorts of things, which he details in the previous chapters of this letter. The passage about love comes as a climax, contrasting their quarrelsome behaviour with that which should spring from true Christian love for one another.

He reminds them that they should be kind to those who differ from them, and patient with different ways of doing and seeing things; that they should not envy others their good fortune, or make a great fuss about their own. He reminds them not to think themselves better than others and that nothing excuses rudeness. He reminds them that their way is not necessarily the only, or the right way, and they shouldn’t insist on it, or become irritated or resentful if others don’t fall in with their understanding. He reminds them not to be constantly on the look-out for others doing wrong, but  to be ready to celebrate what is good. He reminds them to take difficulties on themselves, rather than pushing them onto others to bear, and to persist however difficult that may seem.

Many commentators see the hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 as a pen picture of the Jesus that Paul believed in, the Jesus he had seen in a vision and which had converted him from adherence to the rule-keeping religion of the Pharisees to what he described as ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ We see Jesus proclaiming that liberty in the passages from St Luke’s Gospel we heard read last week and this. Luke shows us that the people who heard it in the synagogue at Nazareth at first found it as attractive as Paul did, and as we do; but then they turned against Jesus, even to the extent of plotting to kill him. Why?

After all, hey saw him as one of their own. They were proud of his preaching ability and his healing powers. They rejoiced at his proclamation of the time of God’s favour, of healing for the lame and the blind,  of liberty to the captives and good news for the poor. What they weren’t pleased about was that Jesus said all this wasn’t just for them, just for the Jewish nation, just for the good, just for the believers. Jesus, like Jeremiah, like Paul, was sent as an apostle to the nations; the good news he brought, he told them  was not just for US – it was for THEM, for the OTHER, too. And because they found this message unacceptable, they rejected him. “He came to his own and his own would not receive him.”

Opponents of religious faith very often say that religions cause most wars. That’s not true, but what is true is that religion is one of those things, like race and class and wealth, which is often used to draw lines in societies between US and THEM, between those with whom we co-operate and to whom we do good, and those who we believe are wrong, or even evil, and with whom we are prepared to fight and even to kill. Why is this so?

Why does a religion which starts out preaching the unconditional love of God for all humankind, end up urging its adherents to fight and kill members of other paths to God, and even members of its own faith who see things differently? Why have the conflicts of Corinth been played out again and again through history? Why is it that we seem only to be able to have a strong religious identity of our own at the cost of hostility to those of other faiths?

Book cover

I have recently been reading an inspiring book by Brian D McLaren called “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed cross the road?” Its title, of course is based on the old joke about the chicken, but McLaren uses it to bring us up sharp before an image of the great religious leaders of the world doing something as ordinary as crossing a road together, and making us ask ourselves whether they would do so in an atmosphere of respect and friendliness; and if, as he thinks, they would, then why is it that their followers, and particularly so many Christians, seem incapable of doing the same. From this he goes on to argue for a new vision of Christianity as both strong and confident in its faith, but also benevolent, respectful and cooperative to other faiths.

All of this is based on acceptance that the core message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of Heaven is for everyone, that God made all human beings in the divine image and loves them without exception, and that the only commandments that really matter are the commandments to love – to love God, and to love our neighbour, who is everyone made is God’s image, whether like us or not, whether Christian or not.

To work for this reformed vision of Christianity is not an easy task. As Jesus and Paul and so many of the prophets found, to stand up for the ‘other’ means risking being identified with the other and suffering the same hostility as they suffer. Jesus sided with the outsiders – so eventually, he suffered the fate of an outsider: But the more Christian strength is build on hostility to those who are different, McLaren believes, the less it reflects the message of Christ.

If we follow McLaren’s vision, it will require us as Christians to look honestly at our history, and see how much our faith has become distorted by being bound up with the dominance of secular empires, first of all Constantine’s, but many others since.

It will require us to look carefully at what our core doctrines really say about creation, about original sin, about the uniqueness of Christ, about the Trinity, about election and predestination and about the Holy Spirit, to see how they can be expressed as healing doctrines, which create harmony and allow for difference, rather than as weapons to divide and exclude.

To arrive at this reformed and benevolent Christianity will also involve looking carefully at the Bible, and recognising that is speaks with many diverse voices. It will need Christian leaders to take up the authority Jesus gave them to bind and loose, and  to proclaim the strands that portray God’s universal love as more authentic to Jesus’s message, and therefore more binding on us who follow him, than others which preach a God of vengeance and war. McClaren points out that both Jesus and Paul quote selectively from the Bible – Jesus even does so in the passage from Isaiah quoted in Luke 4 – so there is no reason why modern Christians should not also do the same.

As we struggle to free Christianity from its toxic elements, those which engender and perpetuate hostility between us and  those of other faiths, we may also have to look again at our liturgy, our hymns, the way we frame our missionary activity and our sacraments, to check that they too are helping us to walk alongside those of other faiths, to listen to them and to appreciate their treasures, rather than perpetuating hostility.

world-religion

Of course, this is not just something for Christians to do, if religious faith is to become something which brings peace and harmony to the world, rather than war and hostility.  It will need brave people of other faiths who are prepared to look with unprejudiced eyes at current expressions of their own faith, and criticise where they see it has departed from its original ideals; and who will be open enough to listen to those of a different faith, and appreciate where it is good, and reflects their experience of God. It will need people of goodwill and deep faith from all religions to be prepared to cross the road to talk and listen to each other, convinced that is the way to meet more deeply with the God who is wholly Other but in whose image we are all created. It will need people who are prepared to witness what to what they believe in without needing to be hostile to what others believe in, in the faith that the Spirit of God is not bound by our human limitations and categories.

I have never been able to believe in a God of love who condemns others to eternal torment simply because they didn’t believe the right things (which is so often simply the result of being born in the wrong place or the wrong time).

I could never say, as some Christians do, that Gandhi must be in Hell, because he was not a Christian.  I appreciate the beauties and insights of other faiths as well as my own, while being only too aware of the evils done the names of all of them. In the vision of renewed strong, benevolent Christianity reaching out in witness and friendship to other faiths that McLaren sketches out, I see the possibility or faith becoming the blessing to the world that it ought to be. And that’s the sort of faith I want to be part of.

When I hear the words of 1 Corinthians 13, I don’t picture the love of married couple, or a family, or a national group, or even a church for those who think and worship like themselves. I see the love of Jesus, as he strides out from the synagogue in Nazareth, transcending in God’s name the limitations of loving only people like himself, in order to offer God’s new covenant of love to anyone who is willing to accept it. That is what he was chosen before his birth to do. That is what I believe we have pledged ourselves to do in our new life in Christ. That is what we come to re-inspire ourselves to do each time we come to worship God. Amen.

God Save the Queen.

June 3, 2012

Sermon for Queen’s Diamond Jubilee .   Trinity Sunday 03.06.12

This weekend, and all this year, we are celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But what exactly is it we are celebrating?

On the simplest level, we are marking 60 years since the Queen’s accession to the throne. We are simply following what seems to be a strong human instinct to mark the passage of time, and the passage of lives, by celebrating anniversaries, and particularly those which occur after 25, 50, 60 and 100 years. But this is not an anniversary for us personally, nor for a member of our family or our local community – so why do we celebrate?

There has in the past been a tradition of seeing the character of the nation embodied in the person of the monarch. This why a royal jubilee is a national occasion. But what precisely is this ‘national character’ that the Queen embodies?

One hundred or so years ago, at the time of the golden and diamond jubilees of Queen Victoria, those questions simply would not have been asked. It was quite clear what the Queen embodied. She was the Queen Empress, head of a nation which ruled over half the earth. The jubilees celebrated our position as ‘Top Nation’,  the one on which God’s favour clearly rested. Much the same sentiments would have characterised the Silver Jubilee of King George V – but things have changed a great deal in the last 60 years.

Ian Bradley, in his book, ‘God Save the Queen’ comments that the monarchy has been struggling to find a new role since our Queen came to the throne. It has been shorn of most of its military, political and constitutional significance over the last two centuries. Kings no longer lead the nation’s armies into battle – that is a job for experts. We are a democracy, and our governments are chosen by popular ballot, not by heredity or royal favour. The monarch retains only the right to advise, and even that must be done in secret.

Bradley summarises four broad directions in which the 21st century monarchy could develop:

– ceremonial splendour and public show, (the monarchy as tourist attraction, part of the heritage theme park of Merrie England, along with stately homes and mock mediaeval banquets);

– subject matter for gossip columns and paparazzi (the monarch as part of the nation’s longest running soap opera);

– encouragement and active involvement in ‘good works’ (the so called ‘welfare monarchy’);

– and the embodiment of a mixture of metaphysical, magical and moral elements which go to make up the spiritual dimension of monarchy.

Bradley sees the monarchy as an outward and visible sign of the royalty and majesty of God, the sort of picture our Old Testament reading gives.  The spiritual dimension of monarchy is one that has its roots in the Old Testament, and perhaps even before, in the priest/kings of ancient civilisations. There, the person of the monarch represented order over chaos; the monarch was the person who was able to commune with God, who enjoyed God’s special favour, sometimes even being given the title of ‘God’s son’. The monarch was charged with carrying out God’s purpose. While the monarch found favour with the divinity, so also did the nation.

This is a dimension of monarchy that is highlighted in the Coronation service, set in the context of Holy Communion, with its musical settings of passages from the Bible describing the coronations of David and Solomon and use of the royal psalms. It was highlighted 59 years ago, in the media coverage of the coronation, with its variety of preparatory religious services for the nation.

It seems to be the dimension of the monarchical role that appeals most to the present Queen, and to the heir to the throne. The Queen, since her earliest public pronouncements, has spoken about her role in terms of a religious duty. And the Prince of Wales has spoken of his desire to be ‘Defender of Faith’, and has set up a forum of faiths to promote communication between the leaders of the different religious groups in this country. Bradley suggests, in the sub-title to his book, that the spiritual dimension of monarchy is the one which our nation needs, and which the jubilee ought to be celebrating.

However, the idea of ‘sacred monarchy’ is less easily acceptable in the modern world than it might once have been, for two reasons.

The first is that we are now irreversibly a multifaith nation. We no longer enjoy the unity of religious belief that nations did in the days when the idea of sacred monarchy was current. Christian churchgoing has declined to the extent that many of the newer religious groups in the country, particularly Islam, have more active members than many Christian denominations.

Yet our country is not as secular as some people make out. There is a deep residue of religious feeling in the country at large; many people are engaged in a spiritual search and claim to pray regularly, while never attending church; and people of faith are finding that they have much in common, and share many values, in spite of their differing creeds.

The monarch could build on all this, and come to stand for belief in the spiritual and sacred over against the increasing secularism and materialism of modern life; represent order, and the best of tradition against  chaos; and embody tolerance and unity against prejudice and the fragmentation of our contemporary society. Such a role could help to integrate ethnic and religious minorities into society around loyalty to the person of the sovereign and the institution of monarchy. The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, spoke about this in an article in The Times on Thursday, when he said  the Queen is Defender of all Britain’s faiths. He added that the fact she is Supreme Governor of the Church of England does not prevent that. “Oddly enough, the religious dimension of the throne makes it better placed than secular institutions to value and unite the many faiths of Britain.” Perhaps there could be changes to the coronation ceremonial, to reflect this, and the  part which other Christian denominations, and other faiths, play in national life.

But even if this were to happen, there would still be problems about a monarch being the embodiment of spiritual values. These days, we find it difficult to accept that a person symbolises values unless they live them. Once upon a time it was possible to accept a monarch as the embodiment of Christian virtues, because the general public knew very little about their personal lives. That is no longer so. The “monarchy as long-running soap opera” has brought the personal failings of some of the royals very much into the public realm. So far as we know, the Queen has tried to live by the Christian moral standards she proclaims; the same cannot be said of the next generation.

But, leaving aside moral values (for we all fall short of the ideal which Christ set before us) there are other standards which the monarch would need to embrace if she or he is to stand for the deepest Christian values, many of which are shared with other faiths.

In the Church Times last week, an article by Tim Jones of the Jubilee Debt Campaign reminds us that the term ‘jubilee’ comes from the Bible, and refers to a time every 50 years, when prisoners and slaves were to be freed, debts cancelled, and land returned to its original owners , shared on a basis of equality. He reminds us that a call to celebrate jubilee is a call for economic justice. The Jubilee Debt Campaign is calling for a debt Jubilee for impoverished Third World countries in 2012,  a Jubilee for Justice involving:

Cancel the unjust debts of the most indebted nations

Promote just and progressive taxation rather than excessive borrowing

Stop harmful lending which forces countries into debt

While the monarch remains one of the richest people in the country, and while the royal family associates itself with a very narrow class of people and pursuits; and while her family are able to insulate themselves from the problems which beset ordinary people, the monarch cannot authentically be a symbol of the spirituality of the one who came to serve rather than to be served and to share the lives of those he came to save.

In his book, Bradley points out that our National Anthem is almost unique in the world in focussing on a person rather than a country or political principle, and in asserting its ultimate reference is to the divine, rather than to secular politics.

So, when we sing ‘God save the Queen’ during these Golden Jubilee celebrations, may we be asking God to save her from the temptation (which we all share !) to preserve our own privileges of wealth and position and comfort, so that she (and we) may more truly be the symbol and agent of those values of community loyalty, religious tolerance and the importance of the spiritual and sacred over the material and secular that make up the spiritual dimensions of the monarchy.

And may this royal jubilee be an opportunity for all of us who call ourselves Christians, to pledge ourselves not just to  uphold the best interests of the United Kingdom that our Queen rules over, but also  to do all we can to build the kingdom of God on earth, a kingdom in which the last shall be first, and the poor and disadvantaged are its first concern.

Living the Word

October 23, 2011

Sermon for Bible Sunday 2011 (Nehemiah 8, 1-12; Matthew 24, 30-35)

I’m going to read you some bits of the Bible.

En archê ên ho logos kai ho logos ên pros ton theon kai theos ên ho logos.

houtos ên en arche pros ton theon. Panta di autou egeneto kai choris autou ou di hen.

And here’s another bit.

In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum.

Omnia per ipsum facta sunt et sine ipso factum est nihil quod factum est.

Did that make any sense to you? Well, that was the first three verses in the Gospel of John – “In the beginning was the Word” etc. first in NT Greek, and then in Latin.

And if it didn’t make any sense to you, you now know something of how the Jews assembled in the square before the  Water Gate in post-exile Jerusalem felt. They had been in exile in Babylon for between 50 and 150 years.  Many of them had lost the ability to understand Hebrew, and were unfamiliar with the traditional Jewish Law. So, when Ezra the scribe read the Law to them, they needed the other scribes to explain what it said in a language they understood, probably Aramaic, which was the common language of Babylon. Following on from this initial reading of the Torah, Aramaic translations were written, called Targums, so that those who never regained fluency in Hebrew, were able to understand what was read.

Although Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, the literature of the New Testament was written in Greek, and most of the early Christians would have understood some of that. Later it was translated into Latin for the Western Church, and most people would have understood a little of that, at least until the fall of the Roman Empire. But from then on, until the Reformation and the translation of the Bible into the languages people actually spoke, most members of the congregation were in exactly the same position as many of you were when I read those passages at the beginning – hearing something they really didn’t understand.

You may think we’re in a much better position than those ancient Jews, or pre-Reformation Christians in this country, since we have the Bible in the language we speak, and freely available in a number of forms. But understanding a written document is not just about understanding the words. You also need to understand the sort of writing you are dealing with and the context in which it was written if you are really to get the message. Many Christians don’t have that knowledge and their understanding of the Bible and how to use it is weakened because of this.

Much of the Bible in its present form was put together around 2000 years ago; some of it was written down about 1000 years before that, and much of that contains oral traditions that were in circulation for many hundreds of years previously. We need to understand that, if we are to judge how applicable the actions and attitudes they advocate are to our 21st century world. Added to this is the fact that the words of the Bible are all translated from the original language in which they were spoken or written, sometimes many times, and each translation will be subtly affected by the assumptions of the translators. I have put some copies of a passage from the New Testament in Greek as it was originally written at the back for you to see – all in capitals with no punctuation and no spaces between the words. So think how difficult that makes it to understand what was being said and to recapture the original meaning of the text.

In primary school, our children are now taught to recognise different genres of writing, so that they can better understand what they read. We believers need to do the same with the different genres of writing in the Bible. It contains many different sorts of literature – stories, legal documents, history, prophecy, poetry, myths, letters, philosophical questioning – and we are failing to show it proper respect, and in danger of misusing it, if we don’t recognise this.

So, on this Bible Sunday, I would urge you to take every opportunity of getting to know the Bible better; not just the text, but also the background and the genre and the context of each of the books, and especially of the books of the New Testament. You will not truly be able to hear God’s Word speaking though its pages unless you do this.

One common mistake is to treat everything in the Bible as if it is direct instruction from God, as if it was all preceded by the words: “Thus saith the Lord”. In fact, very little of the Bible is written as direct words from God.  Most of it is human reflection on the mystery of God, or accounts of people trying to understand and communicate God to their contemporaries. They do this both by their words and their actions. Some groups of Christians say only the words matter; in the presentation at Deanery Synod on Women Bishops, one of the speakers said his group in the church would always take a direct command in the Bible as more authoritative for our conduct than an action, even when the action was by Jesus. I can’t understand that. Would we judge by what a person said, rather than by what they did? I don’t think so.

Another common mistake is to take single sentences or passages out of context, and demand that they be applied to quite different circumstances. Whole theologies have been based on this sort of selective reading of texts. For instance, one of the ‘proof texts’ for those who says the whole Bible is literally true, inspired and infallible is 2 Timothy 3, verse 15. This says (depending on how you translate the original Greek) either ‘all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching etc.’ or ‘every Scripture inspired by God is useful for teaching the truth and rebuking error, etc.’. This passage is someone (probably not the Apostle Paul) writing to Timothy to give him advice about how (in his opinion) to use the Jewish Scriptures in his teaching and pastoral work. It is not making an authoritative statement about everything contained in the Christian Bible, some of which probably hadn’t even been written at the time the letters to Timothy were being circulated. Other passages, which are more definitely written by the Apostle Paul, criticise the written Scriptures, saying only faith in Christ brings life, whereas the Torah brings death. Jesus himself challenged those who followed the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Which of these is the example for us to follow?

The Bible is not so much a text book or a code of conduct for us to slavishly follow, as a continuing conversation between human beings and the divine. Like all conversations, things can be misunderstood, and misheard, particularly when we are listening in to someone else’s conversation from some distance away. And people may express different opinions at different times ( that certainly happens with the Bible).

When we read the Bible, we need to think of it as like a conversation with a group of trusted friends, whose advice and experience may inform our decisions about important things. We will need to think about which friend we ask about different problems – some may have something valid to say to us; others, we know, may not have any experience at all of what concerns us. On some issues we may have to consult other people outside this circle, who have more expertise in the subject of concern. Finally, we will need to weigh up all the advice before we make our decision, based on all we know about God’s will for us from many different sources.

On this Bible Sunday, we honour the Bible and the insights of previous generations that it shares with us. At the same time we remember that we are not, as Jews and Muslims are, ‘People of the Book’. The Bible is not the Word of God for us: the Word of God is embodied in a person, Jesus of Nazareth. That person is part of God the Trinity, the God who continues to be revealed to us through the Holy Spirit, day by day and in our own time. We need to recognise that some passages in the Bible most definitely do not reflect the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ.

Anglican theology is not based on ‘sola scriptura’, Scripture alone. It is based on scripture, reason and tradition. This is often spoken of as ‘a three-legged stool’, which is a useful analogy to keep in mind, since a three-legged stool is no use at all if one of the legs is a different length to the other two. Only if all three are equal is it stable enough to bear the weight of what is placed on it!

So, when we read the Bible, we need to take account of the tradition of the Christian church, which is still evolving, and use our God given reason when we interpret it.

We need to remember that we are called to live the Word of God, but that Word is a person, not words on a page.

Jesus Christ, the Word of God

Coalition God.

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.


(Isaiah 6,1-8; John 3,1-17 )

In  an edition of The Reader magazine a few years back there was a page of suggestions to help the unfortunate ones among us who have been assigned to preach today, Trinity Sunday, to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.

There were the usual suggestions that we’ve all used sometimes, especially when we have had a Family Service on Trinity Sunday: water, ice and steam, three different forms of the same substance H2O; one person who is known in different relationships ( father, son, brother ) or different roles (teacher, churchwarden, golf cub secretary). And others that I’ve not come across before: three parts of an egg – yolk, shell and white ( though that falls short because none of the three is in itself a complete egg, while each of the three persons of the Trinity is fully God );  or one that appeals to me: a blend of three different varieties  which make up a particular tea ( though this was criticised on the basis that although each variety is completely ‘tea’, they each have different flavours and are thus essentially different from each other, whereas the three persons of the Trinity are not.)

Today I came across another suggestion in the Bishop of Huntingdon’s blog – a power cable which has three leads in it. I am afraid I am not a physicist, so I don’t know whether his explanation of the cable showing us we must be earthed in the love of God, come alive in Christ and complete the circuit with the Holy Spirit works or not!

Some people say  that maybe it is better not to try to explain the Trinity in words, but to use pictures. So, some people find Andrei Rublev’s icon called ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’ a helpful representation of the Trinity – three figures seated around a cup – of wine or of blood? – heads and hands inclined to one another. rublevtrinity

trinity

A more abstract representation is the Trinity shield – a triangle of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each joined to the word ‘God’ in the centre by the word ‘is’, and joined to each other by arcs of a circle on which are the words ‘is not’.

Another pictorial representation which people find helpful is a shamrock, and I have found that this ancient Celtic symbol speaks to me of a unity of three parts endlessly interacting.

IMG

But perhaps the real problem is that we are trying to explain God the Trinity, or to represent it, when what we really need to do is to experience it. As Paul explains in Romans, we are justified by faith – and that is not faith in a set of abstract propositions, but faith in the validity of our experience of God, made known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Belief in God as Trinity grew out of the experience of the first Christians. They were Jews and monotheists, who believed in one  unseen God. Their God spoke to them through major figures in their past – prophets and kings. They saw God’s activity in nature and history, and believed him to be the god of both. They saw him, as our reading from Isaiah illustrates, as a mighty, otherworldly ruler. They used many names and titles to describe God’s being and activity – Yahweh, El, King, Lord, Shield, Shepherd, Ancient of Days.  And they spoke of certain aspects of God almost as separate beings, but still wholly God; the  Spirit, active in the creation of the world and in the inspiration of the prophets; and Wisdom, also at God’s side during the process of creation, and speaking directly to human beings on behalf of God.

Then the disciples encountered Jesus, and in him they came to believe that they were experiencing God incarnate in a human being – someone who reflected so closely the God of their history, their Law and their Wisdom, that they could only describe him as ‘Son of God’. And Jesus spoke of God as his Father. But these were  not terms which spoke of physical parentage, but of spiritual.

After Jesus’ death, the disciples experienced a time when this feeling of being in the living presence of God was lost – but then it returned again with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again, the disciple’s experience was that the Spirit had the character of both the God of their history and their scriptures, and of Jesus.

When the first Christians came to speak and write about their experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they drew on the language used in their Scriptures about God. But they didn’t at first go into exact definitions of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Those sorts of definitions came later, when the Gospel was taken out into a different cultural world, that of  Greek and Roman philosophy. In particular, they  came as the experience of a direct encounter with the living Jesus retreated  further into the past, and people began speaking of him in ways that did not ring true to the accounts of those who had that direct experience. The definitions came about in opposition to what was defined as heresy, and that affected the way the doctrines were expressed.

One of the essays that almost all people training for ministry have to write at some time in their training is entitled something like ‘Describe the steps in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity that led to the formulation of what we now know as the Nicene Creed’. That Creed was put together in its first form about the beginning of the 4th century AD for the Council of Nicaea and in its final form in the middle of the 5th century for the Council of Chalcedon.

So, our creeds, or definitions of faith, were drawn up four centuries after the experiences they were trying to define. What is more, they were drawn up in a very different cultural milieu from that in which the first disciples lived. Another complication, for us, is that they were drawn up in a different language from the one which Jesus and his disciples spoke, and from that which we speak. The technical terms in which the relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were defined  – persons and substance – meant very different things to the ancient Greek theologians who drew up the Creeds from what they mean to us – and hence our problems with the doctrine of the Trinity which they defined.

Religious experience – the experience which the doctrine of the Trinity attempts to encapsulate – is  akin to the experience of viewing art or listening to music or reading poetry. Sometimes, attempting to analyse the experience can help us to a deeper experience; but very often, the analysis simply destroys the experience all together. How many of us have been put off Shakespeare, or the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, or a splendid piece of opera or orchestral music  by being force to pick it to pieces and define why it has the effect on us that it does have?

Should we then abandon the observation of Trinity Sunday all together. A good many preachers would answer yes!

But I think Trinity Sunday is a useful corrective to our all too human tendency to make our God too small. It reminds us that God has been made known to us through many forms of revelation, and yet is still beyond our understanding.

It reminds us that  our faith is not just in the God of the Old Testament, nor in the incarnate Son, nor in the Holy Spirit, but in God revealed as all three. It reminds us that the persons of the Godhead are in relationship, and that a relationship is a living, growing, constantly changing thing. So we cannot limit our faith to belief in the God revealed through the Scriptures; nor to the God we experience in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; nor to a God who inspires us through the Spirit. A complete faith needs to encompass all three, and needs to be open to new experiences and interpretations of all three, while being faithful to the revelation of Scripture.

In our reading from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that entering the Kingdom of Heaven is likely to be a transforming experience, akin to being born a second time into a completely new life. Elsewhere in the Gospel he tells his disciples that his Spirit will be sent to guide us into new truth and to reveal things that could not be understood in previous ages. Trinity Sunday reminds us to remain open to those new truths and new experiences of God.

Trinity Sunday also has important things to say to us about how we live and work as God’s Church. Our Christian life  should reflect the character of God. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that we cannot be Christians on our own. We can only truly reflect the character of God when we are in relationship with others – respecting their differences from us, but acknowledging their essential oneness with us, as we believe the persons of the godhead do.  And that is something which both our world and our churches  need to be reminded of, not just once a year but constantly.