Sermon for the Feast of The Holy Trinity
22nd May 2016
SERMON FOR THE FEAST OF THE HOLY TRINITY
Perichoresis means that whenever one person of the Trinity acts, the other two are involved, that each divine person permeates the other two without being merged into them, and that they dwell in each other and communicate their life and love to One another. The Rublev Icon of The Holy Trinity manages to communicate this very beautifully and simply and invites us to inhabit this sublime truth telling as an invitation into the household of God’s love where a place is reserved for you and beckons you to come and eat at God's table. No one has expressed this mystery better than George Herbert:
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.
The Persons of the Trinity cannot exist or act without relating to one another and by natural extension, to us. The existence of God is a relationship. As the Athanasian Creed puts it, "And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole Three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal." That is why between them, the opening verses of Genesis and John's gospel indicate that creation was the work of the Trinity. And that is why Jesus could tell the disciples that he is in the Father and the Father in him, why he could promise that the Holy Spirit would be with them and in them. And so, as we emerge from six months of hearing and singing about the events in the life of Jesus, we are stopped in our tracks and reminded that our proper response is to worship God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And when we worship we introduce those elements of awe and wonder, and we describe our Christian Faith in the words of poetic utterance, as John Donne memorably wrote,
O Blessed glorious Trinity,
Bones to Philosophy, but milk to faith.
We are confronted with a mystery and we will spend a lifetime not only pondering but living that mystery as a response to the God we experience as a real presence. Our only reasonable response lies in our worship. As John Mason, the seventeenth century poet and hymn writer, put it, “we are best reduced to awed silence in the face of God's holy presence”. And he expresses something of this thinking in his famous hymn ‘How shall I sing that Majesty?’
How great a being, Lord, is thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and ever more,
Thy place is everywhere.
It should not deter us that the things of God remain hidden from mere knowledge and that faith demands of us much courage and staying power. In the face of so-called ‘proofs to the contrary’ by Richard Dawkins and armchair critics, of those who cannot believe in a God who would allow human suffering the response is not to become argumentative but rather to let things be. There is no need for defensiveness. Without God and without an imperfect, complex, diverse, suffering yet beautiful world, where would we be? Life would have us exist as automatons and the environment we lived in would resemble a sanatorium, where our basic freedoms would be denied. There would be no human hope. That hope would be denied humankind because there would be no recourse to the life of the complete person, living not just as a machine but as a soul, as a human being made to live in freedom in the image and the likeness of the Maker, where life is not lived in a simple straight line, but is unpredictable, and ultimately unfathomable without living from its heart, which is God.
If you visit Dublin in Ireland you will want to go and see the great treasure of Ireland, The Book of Kells. It was a treasure even in its own lifetime, made in about the year 800, and is a Book containing the Gospels and Books of the New Testament. This was a book not written but ‘illuminated’ and reveals to us the characteristic endless swirls and twists and turns in the calligraphy, apparently leading nowhere but ending and beginning somewhere. The life of God and the life of humankind is always interrelated, as are all things. These characteristic Celtic swirls also surround and support Christian symbols, and we have a marvellous illustration of Christ as a Celtic Chieftan, an imposing and frightening figure. But the real point is that these Celtic Christians had combined old and new beliefs and their embrace of Christianity was one which did not extinguish the difficult questions that life posed for them. They would have lived harsh, brutal and brief lives in a hostile climate, and yet the illumination of their precious Christian Gospels is a sign of their desire to cling to the Gospel message in all its truth and beauty and at the same time not pretend that life was not like it was and that the people were not as they were. Life was difficult and the human terrain intractable and unbearable. And yet the swirling maze of beautifully and intricately crafted illumination shows an inner joy of spirit, of a knowing and unknowing; of an advanced and intense spirituality. It is a knowledge of God sprung from the human heart and soul; and all this at the end of what we call The Dark Ages. Out of the dark, there emerged illumination; light. This was the light of faith and the one which, burning in human hearts, proved then and now to be a living flame that would never be extinguished. Proof, if you needed proof, of the existence of God in a form not merely spoken or written or conceptualised, but fully realised in the lives of those who trusted in the Mystery.
This is a prayer to the trinity written by an old late friend, Father Harry Smythe, once Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome and great disciple, based on words from John 1.18, "No man has ever seen God. He who is God only begotten, he made him known'. His life's prayer:
O mystery most blessed most holy
Most merciful most loving most mighty
Most true most honourable most beautiful
Unfathomable abyss of peace
Unutterable ocean of love
Fount of blessing
Giver of affection
Father, Son, Holy Spirit,
One God in three perosns
Ever to be worshipped and adored
Be thou to us
Rectitude, fortitude, beatitude,
Refreshment, light, peace,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.