Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2015
31st May 2015
Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity
Holy Cross Church Cromer Street 2015
The Feast of the Holy Trinity itself forms the latest of great feasts that crown the Church’s year; Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and now Trinity Sunday. Easter focuses on the Resurrection of Christ, Ascension his heavenly glory seated at the right hand of the Father, Pentecost upon the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity upon the godhead itself. Of the four, the Feast of the Trinity, of God’s manifestation as Creator God, as Christ and as Holy Spirit is the hardest to understand because it expresses God as three ‘persons’ but as a single unity. Despite the difficulty, it is more important than ever that we learn to speak about God. To know God as real and to communicate that reality in words as theologians. How then are we to make God real? I want to show you how this has been done by an icon painter, a novelist and a spiritual writer, and then to show three paintings which tell us more about God.
The Holy Trinity has been painted by Andrei Rublev as an icon for a household of love. The icon is based on one of Abraham’s visions in Genesis Chapter 18, in which the elderly Abraham and his wife Sarah entertain three mysterious guests. Rublev’s point was to establish the Trinity as both a concrete reality and as a sublime mystery. At the heart of the mystery is the hospitable God who wishes to invite you to take your place at the heavenly banquet, for the place in front of you is yours. God is depicted as a place to dwell in, or as Henri Nouwen has put it “a household of love”. This is a household where there are no artificial boundaries and where all who honestly seek after the presence of God may find it and be embraced by it. Living in this household is not only a revelation of God’s love but also makes this love apparent and real. This has far-reaching implications for the Church which must both safeguard the integrity of its faith but welcome the strangers in its own midst with the completest hospitality. And this hospitality has to reach deep into its theology and its world-view and into all its own prejudices, known and unknown. The icon for Nouwen’s household of love is also Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ in which loving forgiveness and reconciliation is God’s response to our own longing to find our true destiny.
We live not one life but many lives. Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Bell’ begins with the words “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.” Immediately we are plunged into Dora’s inner life through this novel in a way no other medium allows. Her life is not a simple story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but like the rest of us lived out riddled with contradictions, or with what Murdoch called ‘contingency’. What could be more contradictory than a God who is at one and the same time Creator of Man, Man and Spirit? It is in the tradition of the novel to allow us to accept and incorporate both the limitedness of human understanding with the incompleteness of things. As the hymn “And Can It Be?” puts it: ‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies, who can explore his strange design…?’ It is in life’s radical incompleteness that the God of love comes to meet us. He is the one who, in Jesus Christ offers hope even in and through the gaps of our existence.
Three years’ ago I attended the funeral of a former parishoner who had been living with cancer for some years. I shall call him Michael. He had had many remissions and had fought the disease bravely until finally he died. As his eulogy was read at the funeral service I realised with a start that I had only known him as a sick man, albeit a lovely human being. But here was another man with a rich past, a painter, a diplomat, who had lived in Egypt for twenty years and was fluent in Arabic, and all I seemed to remember were our rather stilted conversations, mostly theological discussions, because he took a keen interest in that. As the service wore on, I nonetheless realised two things; firstly that the life I had encountered in Michael was put a small part of the entirety of his earthly life which spanned times and places I could barely imagine or inhabit. Secondly, I realised that nonetheless all real human encounters are spiritual encounters, and they have a quality that makes the spirit sing for joy. They involve the subtle interplay of lives apparently lived at a distance, but recognised as part of one reality. The funeral became for me a celebration of his life and of mine too. That small part of my life which was spent with him has been transformed for me and is part of my present life, and as I think on these things I know that in the middle of all this is the love of the Trinitarian God.
We can’t begin to fathom the intricacies of the meaning of all this, just as we can’t fathom the intricacies of the Trinity. Masaccio paints the Trinity as older man, younger man and dove but does this in a painting where you are left to wonder about their existence within the realm of time and space and perspective. It is not there to overwhelm you but to place before you the existence of God as both an abiding truth and a sublime mystery. The Holy Trinity does not therefore find us speculative and doubting, but beckons us to enter in and to find God ready to greet us, as we do today; to come and eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Saviour and to come ‘just as we are’, within the household of His abiding and all-embracing love.
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
24th May 2015
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost 2015
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Acts 2.4.
Some say that The Coming of the Holy Spirit marks the Church’s birthday, and in a way this is true, although the Church was really begun as the disciples were called at Galilee. Even so, our dramatic first reading from The Acts of the Apostles describes a signal moment among those who had followed Christ. This Pentecost moment was singular and devastating. The Holy Spirit had come with power and it had rested upon them.
This had emerged out of their long Eastertide. It had been an Eastertide of waiting and of wondering and of bewilderment. Something might emerge out of all this, but what? What is certain among the loose band of followers was this: The teaching of Christ and the experience of the resurrection had been transformative. They now knew that what they had been given was a Gospel of unparalleled spiritual power. Pentecost had come to them in the giving of spiritual gifts. And the Giver was the Giver of all things, God himself. And the gift was the gift of himself as seen and known in His Son Jesus Christ and in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had asked that it be sent. And so it was. The original spirit of God, which had brooded over the face of the waters before the Creation had now become the life giving spirit mediated in and through the life and death of Christ. And the gift was to be both inspirational and practical.
It is most important to the writer of the Acts of the Apostles that this is a Holy Spirit which is not wil o’ the wisp and elusive. It is a Holy Spirit which takes basic form in the life of the emerging Christian community as a gift from God in Jesus Christ. And the primary fact of this gift is three-fold:
Firstly it is a gift which calls us to think differently about the human family in the breakdown of tribal, national and language barriers. The idea of the proliferation of languages with the one singular understanding burns in our minds as the possibilities that lie inherent in the understanding of different worlds of understanding. We are here called to take on the reality of what lies before us as strange and new and embrace it wholeheartedly, for it is when we meet and greet and accept the new and the hitherto unlearned parts of our experience that we truly grow into God’s likeness.
Little Gidding IV
The dove descending breaks the air
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Secondly, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the one which calls the Christian Church to look beyond itself and its own needs and to see the person of Christ in the eyes of the stranger, the visitor, the refugee, the homeless one, the marginalised, the gay person, the drunk, the depressed and the fatalistic. It is inward in that the Spirit is holy and it is a spirit which gives inner nourishment, but its basic life is one which calls us out of ourselves and beyond the level of our normal horizons. God is to be found there : in the other. He is often called ‘The Holy Other’. In this there may come new life, for the Spirit renews us as it draws us out of ourselves, and into the place of illumination and of hope which is the presence of God and the love of God.
Unless the eye catch fire
Finally, the Holy Spirit lives among us in the life of God’s Church, which is the power of God and the influence of God. This Church, in what it is and in what it manages to be for so many different kinds of people, is that place where God is known to dwell and therefore a place of peace. This provides for a pentecostal peace, the peace of God which passes all understanding and yet one which may be known and shared: that peace which may reach into and beyond the barriers of custom and boundaries set by this or that ingathered community… The message of Pentecost is that the Spirit of God has now entered places where doors had formerly been shut and minds closed. In the breaking down of these barriers, in the love of the stranger and in the power and influence of God, The Holy Spirit has now provided the living flame of God’s love for us, whomever and wherever we may be…It has come to bring all things together in the One Love, the one thing needful.
Only connect! Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer!!
Margaret Schelegel (Emma Thompson) From chapter 22, Howards End (1910) E M Forster.
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension 1)
17th May 2015
Easter 7 Sermon Year B
(The Sunday after the Ascension and before Pentecost)
“That they may be one as we are one”.
The words of John Chapter 17 lie at the very heart of John’s teaching. His Gospel tells us that Jesus comes from God and goes back to God. The space in between these two movements is the one which speaks of the fulfilling of a God-given destiny. This morning's words of Jesus form part of what is known as ‘the farewell discourse’, in which the fulfilment of his mission and its final farewell brings with it a prayer for the unity of humankind. The Cole Porter song said ‘every time we say good bye, I die a little’ and in Jesus’s ‘goodbye’ discourse, there is this sense of final farewell as we ready ourselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. His 'farewell' contains the hope which sets human destiny alongside the call to Christian unity. ‘That they may be one’ says Jesus’, ‘…even as the Father and I are one’. On this Sunday, the first after Ascension Day, this Gospel reading truly marks the shift between Christ’s earthly existence and the hope which he carries for us all as he returns to the Father in the heavenly realm.
To speak about unity is not to speak of uniformity or sameness but rather to speak of things which are experienced and held in common. The idea of a global co-dependent common humanity is the one which was been forged out of the two world wars. It took these two devastating world conflagrations for the message of a united nations to make itself truly known. It was formed out of the death, destruction, wounds and ashes of world war as a hope whose time had now come. It was a learning from past history and its mistakes. It emerged out of the tragedy of carpet bombing, civilian death and the Holocaust. It was the creation of what Aldous Huxley had called ‘brave new world’. There is the same sense in St John’s Gospel looks forward to a brave, new world which will be realised as the life of God existent in the life of humankind. Both would, in Christ, live in natural harmony with one another. This was not to be mere ‘wishful thinking’ or an idle and ill-founded hope. This was to be a unity based on experience and upon fact, upon a future hope emerging out of past and present realities and upon an utterly realistic account of the human condition as founded in the life and death, the resurrection and the ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dag Hammarskjold as United Nations Secretary General 1953-1961 spoke these words on the need fora switching over to ‘fighting optimism’:
It is in a sense a switch from the atmosphere of pre-1914 to what I believe is the atmosphere of our generation…—a switch from the, so to say, mechanical optimism of previous generations to what I might call the fighting optimism of this present generation. We have learned it the hard way, and we will certainly have to learn it again and again and again.
The call of Christ is the call to see God in one another and to experience God in and through one another and to learn from one another. The Christian faith is one which is, in human terms, always relational. To see God in one another is to live as a ‘fighting optimists’. It is to accept along the way that we are far from the perfected beings we make ourselves out to be. The plain fact is that I need my neighbour not for what I can get out of him but in order to fulfil my own destiny. I need my neighbour in order to find out what kind of person I am. This is surely what all the words about God and love in the New Testament lead us. This is the outcome of the great commandment to love God with all my heart and soul and to love my neighbour as myself? Now I pledge to involve myself more fully and more deeply in a love of humankind as I find it in my own life’s modest sphere. Now I pledge that I may learn from my neighbour that I, like them, can be weak, fallible and prone to what the Pope has called ‘the spirit of narcissism’. Any real compassion I can show my neghbour awakens me to the life that God has given me. This might turn out to be the true ‘pearl of great price’; the one thing needful for my soul’s salvation.
The spiritual legacy of our ascended Lord is the one which is the prayer for human unity, at the individual, communal national and global levels. This is Jesus’ message of farewell to the world he has loved; the necessary preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; that we should find one another in one another. We are to find our true integrity in and through our life together and in the understanding and forgiveness we can show along the way. In this way we can begin to give answer to the prayer of Christ and to begin to practice that ‘fighting optimism’ for which a great United Nations Secretary General once struggled and died, that we might become what we have been made to become – united as one in Christ.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
3rd May 2015
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B
“I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”.
Those are the words of Dorothy Day. She’s not that well known this side of the Atlantic but she is something of a famous figure for most American Christians. She was originally a Communist but she discovered the faith and was baptized at the age of 30 in 1927. She believed that her ideals of social justice were better lived out as a Christian than as a communist and she set up the “House of Hospitality” to work with the poorest residents of New York’s slums.
She was very scathing of the American Christianity of her time. She saw a lot of supposed faith, a lot of people who claimed to love God. But those same people could be highly judgmental of those living in poverty around them. This was an America of the so-called “New Deal” of Franklin D Roosevelt - the reforms that brought in the kind of welfare system in the United States that was also coming into being across Europe to protect vulnerable people - the unemployed, the sick, the homeless, the elderly. It betokened a new level of active trust between government and people and a challenge to the brutal free market in America where those who couldn’t afford to eat were just viewed as indolent and inferior. Out of these circumstances, Dorothy Day’s statement of faith was also an acknowledgement of the idle promise of love as a broken one: “I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”. She is saying the same thing, of course, as St John in his first letter:
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Dorothy Day reminds us firstly that love is not a feeling so much as a decision. We must love our brothers and sisters, John tells us. The Gospel reminds us that all people are potentially our brothers and sisters, certainly all the baptized as we see in the new bond created between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Both are transformed by the honest acknowledgement of their oneness in Christ. Jesus goes on to say that we should love our enemies. Our culture encourages the idea of love as a feeling, but we are never going to feel love for our enemies. It is impossible to feel love for all people in the way John talks about here. So for the Christian, we are able to love because we decide to love. We decide not to judge because it is our refusal to condemn that makes love possible.
Dorothy Day also reminds us that as well as a decision, love is an action. Love needs to be expressed in concrete form. Dorothy Day really got on with that in practical ways running a soup kitchen and housing the homeless. In a big city like ours with so many different needs, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of inability to make a difference. But there are always things that each one of us can do to make our love for others concrete. Indeed there has to be if we are truly to be Christians and follow this very direct command of Christ. So love is a decision and love is an action.
Our society is threatened, as are others, by its own inequality and fragmentation. It is one of the real challenges that results in more cosmopolitan and diverse elements and the changes and transformations that affect the sense of national identity and personal security. Where there is a period of disenchantment as there is now with the political process, so a gap is opened for the reactionary to voice and practice their reaction in the face of these change. This is more often than not unreflecting, an amalgam of personal grievances. The reactionary mode of being is inconsistent with the New Testament which sees everybody as connected to everybody else. We see this in the wonderful image of life in Christ as life on the vine. All the branches bear their own fruit and the parable clearly implies a personal responsibility, a judgment of our individual actions. But all are woven together and connected to one another in one organic unity. The vine either flourishes as a whole or it withers and dies as a whole. It will flourish when the whole vine is grounded in Christ who is the God of love.
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Those aren’t warm fluffy words for our comfort. Those are challenging, radical words for our time. So let’s be people who stand against condemnation, people for whom love is a decision and an action. Love as transformative of the human condition. Let’s pray that our society might be a fruitful vine where all may flourish and where we all may grow in the love of God.
As Christians, it is our duty, as we approach this week’s General Election as voters, to reflect deeply on what kind of society we envisage. The Christian decision for love and inclusiveness must surely inform where we put our cross on Thursday, for the greatest as to the least of my brothers and sisters, in whom the love of God lives and moves and has its being in their lives as it does in yours.