Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’, Cuddesdon on Trinity Sunday, 11th June 2017.
Readings: Isaiah 40:12-17, 27-31 and Matthew 28:16-20.
The fifth book in the Harry Potter series, the Order of the Phoenix, ends with an internal battle for our hero. The book has read like a coming of age novel, as Harry has slowly had to confront his teenage passions and fears as well as the realisation that he, like everyone else, is as capable of doing evil and he is of doing good. Now as he lies writhing on the floor, Harry hears the voice of Lord Voldemort inside his head telling him he is weak and vulnerable. The film version of the book expresses this internal battle beautifully as the isolating images of loss, suffering, death and evil batter him from within, culminating in his own face turning into that of his arch enemy. “It isn’t how you are alike, it’s how you are not”, whispers the wizard Dumbledore. His words do the trick, like all good words of wisdom, and Harry’s mental landscape shifts from the blackest of horror montages to flickering memories of light. He sees his friends enter the room and remembers, remembers his mother’s smile, sharing a laugh with this friends, the hug of love from his late godfather and with gritted teeth he says to He who cannot be named, “You are the weak one as you’ll never know love or friendship and I feel sorry for you”. With these thoughts and words the darkness is dispelled and the black shadow of evil leaves the exhausted Harry.
Harry has conquered his inner darkness by remembering that, despite all the loss and sadness he has suffered, all his vulnerabilities and weakness, he is not alone. He is loved by his family and friends and through their relationship of love and friendship Harry is able to realise he has a greater strength and power than when he thought himself alone. It is a truism which we have seen lived out over the last days and weeks following the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. The attempt to separate and isolate people through fear and violence has backfired, for instead of turning people against each other, those who were at the Anvil have been brought even closer together, even to hug a stranger in love. For those of us who sat at home watching the Love Manchester concert last week, it was not only a spectacle of real courage but an inspiring demonstration of the fact that when we come together into relationship with others we can find a strength that we did not have on our own, a compassionate unity through our shared suffering and a bond of love which can overcome our darkest inner fears.
This Sunday it is Trinity Sunday when we remember and celebrate that God has revealed himself as an essentially relational being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Gospel reading this morning is one of only two places in the New Testament where you will find a clear Trinitarian formula, the other is 2 Corinthians 13:13 ‘the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’, known to us simply as the grace. Given such a limited Scriptural basis, I am in sympathy with those who feel that the doctrine of the Trinity is more a clever contrivance of the eminent Christian fathers of the church than a sound Biblical belief. However, those theologians of the early period did us a great service, for through their sustained and critical reflection on Scripture they recognised a pattern to the divine activity which spoke about the very nature of God himself Within the Old Testament they came to see three distinct personifications of God written within the language and action of the Lord with his people Israel: that of Wisdom which stands alongside the Lord in the very act of creation, the Word of God which emanates from the Lord to confront men and women with the Lord’s will and the spirit of God which refers to God’s presence and renewing power within creation. These of course are all images and ideas, they do not constitute a doctrine. It was the fathers of the church who then needed to formulate a language which could distil their Biblical insights into a simply creedal statement. These creedal statements were honed over time by controversy and debate into the great creeds which we have today.
Later we will be saying one of those creeds, the Nicene Creed that was first set out at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and then adapted at the later Council of Constantinople in 381 to address the controversies at the times. In this creed we find the fruits of many years of discussion and soul searching which witnesses to all who would doubt that the Holy Spirit can and does work through committees. At its heart is the question of the relational nature of God as revealed in Scripture and Tradition. For those who would see Jesus as a secondary creation to the eminent Father, today we will reply that he is ‘begotten, not made, of one being with the father’. And to those who would rank the Spirit as a third rate emanation of God, we state that he ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified’. Each week we affirm the belief that God has revealed through his actions with us that he is essentially relational. He is the Father who has created all things, the incarnate Word who bring humanity within the Godhead and the life-giving Spirit, three persons yet one substance in a perfect community of being or perichoresis. To see the Son is then also to know the Father and receive the Spirit. This community of being does not simply operate in the world in different ways but is ever present to each other. Hence Julian of Norwich, who has a robust Trinitarian theology, states that when we look at Christ on the cross we see the whole Trinity present, but it is the Son alone who suffers.
So what does this doctrine of the Trinity mean for us? Firstly, it tells us something about God’s intention for his creation. If God himself is a relational being who exists in the self-giving community of love then humanity cannot be apart from God. It is God’s nature to give of his love to us unconditionally. This means that we inhabit a place of being loved and accepted, regardless of what we do however good or bad. We are simply united with the Trinity through the Son and in the power of the Spirit. Our place within this community of God is only limited or prevented by our own self-absorption. In order to fully receive the Trinitarian love of God we must therefore enter into the same act of self-giving.
Secondly, the relational nature of God also shows us something about how we are to be with one another.
The rabbi asked his students: “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” One of the rabbis’ students suggested: “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?” “No”, was the answer of the rabbi. “It is when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asked a second student. “No,” the rabbi said. “Please tell us the answer then,” said the students. “It is then,” said the wise teacher, “when you can look into the face of another human being and you have light enough in to recognise your brother or your sister. Until then it is night and darkness is still with us.”
All of us who have been baptised in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit enter not only into a unique relationship with the relational God who comes to make his home within us but also with each other. The community of self-giving forces us to turn and look into another’s eyes, and see ourselves reflected in them: the same fears and wounds, the same hopes and suffering, the same doubts and dreams. The relational nature of God calls us into community with each other, regardless of faith, through forgiving and honouring each as the beloved son or daughter of God. It is when we begin to recognise that we are all of one community of the beloved by God that we will find that strength and support in each other which we will need to dispel not only our own inner chaos and darkness but also the evil which whispers in our world and seeks to isolate and divide us. Let us once more, which courage and determination declare our faith in the Triune God who opens himself to us and calls us into a relationship of love with him and each other. Amen.