Readings: Isaiah 6; 1-8, Rom 8:12-17, John 3: 1-17
One of the great monasteries of Europe is the Monastery of Bec in Normandy. That monastery produced no less than three Archbishops of Canterbury – Theodore, Lanfranc, and the greatest of all, Anselm in the eleventh century. We celebrate Trinity Sunday today, and it was Anselm in the eleventh century who introduced this feast into the Christian calendar. This was an example of Anglo-Norman Christianity being ahead of the rest of the church, because Rome didn’t adopt it until three centuries later. Ecumenical deference precludes me, of course, from drawing any parallels with today. So, we thank Anselm and the Monastery of Bec for the Feast of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, which we celebrate today.
When I was first ordained I used to dread being given this short straw of preaching on Trinity Sunday. I think then I was still under the influence of John Robinson who was once asked how he would teach the doctrine of the Trinity to a child. “The question was the easiest one I have been asked,” he wrote “I wouldn’t”. But since then life has moved on, perceptions have changed, and above all, needs have changed. Much recent theological writing is now pointing out the centrality of the Holy Trinity to our thinking and self-identity as a church. The Trinity has become as fashionable as Angels – and visit the Internet if you want to see how popular angels now are. Two books helped me in developing my understanding of the Holy Trinity – both by Robin Greenwood - Transforming Priesthood and Practising Community - I recommend both. Robin Greenwood will be with us in June for a weekend in which we review our work and plan ahead under God. This is the last of the three years he has dedicated to us, so I urge you to come. All can have their say in our priorities for the future which will come out of this weekend of reflection and discussion. Central to his thought, and I would also say, this Parish’s, is the living faith in the Holy Trinity.
The readings for today show how central the Holy Trinity is for all that we do – the readings today can guide us. From the prophet Isaiah “Holy Holy Holy” This speaks of the human response to God in worship and praise to God the Father. All of creation is involved in this response of worship and praise. This worship and praise from the Christian Church involves the whole of life, and there is nothing outside its concern. It was a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who was preaching to deacons about to be ordained priest when he said; “You will remember that nothing that is human and nothing that is created lies outside the compassion of God.” This speaks of God the Father caring for all. This is a very twenty-first century model, especially when we apply it to the environment for which we have responsibility. So it’s right to ask how much we as individuals and as a church collude with lifestyles which damage our environment. Or how much are we addressing the sickness of the prevailing culture in which we are set with the medicine of the Gospel? Robin Greenwood writes this: “In a society which thrives on adversarial competition and the assumption that a few winners will mean a majority of losers, the proclamation of the Gospel is long overdue.” And this is not simply an out of date swipe at the now discredited financial system of our own society. It has direct implications for models of society and how the church impinges on them. In London especially, one of the medicines which the Gospel offers, is community in place of isolation. Recent findings on personal breakdown suggest that those who find themselves in deepest trouble or on the edges of the law will usually have fewer than ten people with whom they have any sort of relationship. And I’m not talking about people who have 5,000 Facebook so called “friends” – I mean real ones. Talking to our Community Payback members week in week out bears this out. Community in place of isolation also addresses what remains of the nuclear family. The point is this – our social God the Father never intended the isolated nuclear family to be the bearer of all human needs. It takes a village to raise a child. Or an aeroplane. In Armenia last week, the only calming effect on a screaming child was to pass the child around the whole of the small plane I was in. It worked. This is a major role of the church, and always has been. Environment, society and individuals are all embraced in the loving Fatherhood of God the Creator.
Now to God the Son. Paul writes to the Romans that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ will be with them if their lives in community model that of the Trinity in relationship. So too our teaching on Jesus, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, is not some abstract piece of theological speculation but has real and practical consequences for the way we live. If you have been to Turkey, you will know all about the churches of Cappadocia and how they produced the greatest outworking of this Trinitarian theology. The Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century spoke of God as complete communion – or persons in relationships. They used a Greek word to define the relationship of the persons of the Trinity to each other, and by extension gave us a model for how relationships ought to be within the church and society. The word they used was pericoresis. In its origin, pericoresis was a sort of dance – but not rave, house or techno trance style – it was a dance of mutual and courtly deference where none takes precedence over or dominates another. The radical thing the Cappadocians said about God and about the human person was this – that outside of relation, we are not. “Your life and your death is with your neighbour.” Our very existence is defined by our capacity for relation. This is the opposite of the medieval Roman view of the church as a Pyramid with the Pope at the top and the peasants at the bottom. It is radical, subversive, stuff. So this then is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And now to God the Spirit. We are reminded in the Gospel set for today that the Spirit of God lives through each one of the baptised. Every baptised believer is thus a God-bearer, a Spirit-bearer, and a Christ-bearer. We are all Christophorus. We are promised that those who wish to obey God can rely on the ever-present Holy Spirit, leading us into all truth. This will lead us as a church and community into new and unfamiliar territory the whole time. Robin Greenwood puts it like this: “Together, under the spirit, God’s new covenant people are empowered, taught how to love, directed, upheld, and given wisdom” Notice Greenwood’s together – for this is a promise to the church, not to individuals. Our job is to discern this will together, and the only way we can do that is by staying in relationship. There are challenges all the time. Like any other organisation, this week we have had to implement the GDPR. I would love to have had some real theological reflection on what Privacy in Community means, but it’s been absent so far in a Church, seemingly fearful and anxious, and hiding behind more and more layers of bureaucracy. Small Parish churches are not Facebook or Cambridge Analytica. So step forward if you would like to write this piece, and we can do it together. Extend this further, and we see that this task of being God’s presence in the world is down to its people, you and me, acting together. This is also a message for political elites around the world, not just in our own country, who are tempted to go down the isolationist, or even the notorious “hostile environment” route. “Your life, and your death, is with your neighbour.”
So be encouraged by the mystery of the Holy Trinity in our life, in our worship, and in all our relationships. near and far. This is the central truth it proclaims- that outside of relation, we are not. So come and join us in June as we act this out and make our plans for the future under God. Whoever you are, whatever your background, whatever your language, whatever your age (as thousands of GDPR messages, which blacken our screens and phones say) “we want to hear from you.” This is all energised by the mysterious reality of the Holy Trinity. And it is with mystery I end, with this powerful poem by John Donne;
“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me,
And bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Amen