Sermon for Trinity Sunday
26th May 2013
Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity
Holy Cross Church Cromer Street
The doctrine of the Trinity calls to attention to the fact that God lives in relation to Himself and to us. . The three Persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, ever loving each other, ever sustaining and being sustained, constantly circling and moving around each other, are three persons inseparable and mutually sustaining. The Trinity is what community looks like. Genuine community, which exists for the flourishing of all parts in relation to the whole.
Equality and co-operation lie at the heart of the Trinity, and the flourishing of human society will only come through a combination of equality and diversity, a society in which all people can give from their diversity and share the riches of the common life. The doctrine of the Trinity compels us to work for such a flourishing. This call becomes more important following the murder this week of Drummer Lee Rigby in broad daylight. It is the call to ‘search out and know’ what makes up our own society even as we are ‘searched out and known’ by God. That ‘searching and knowing’ will lead us to examine those parts of the whole which are sick and in need of healing, and for the police forces an ever more sustained and determined searching out of pockets of extremism and blind violence where they are being harboured. This murder has shocked us all and torn away at our natural sense of things. The hope for the Church is that we may renew our life and witness in the light of the God whose love is not coercive or dictatorial but relational and kind. This message will remain unheeded unless it is expressed in churches like this one in the maintenance of a communal life which is radically inclusive, compassionate and spiritual. We must never neglect the Christian gift nor underestimate its needfulness and significance in a pressure cooker society straining under the pressure of both its complexity and, as it were without God, its proneness to self-determinism and unresolved anger.
Conrad Noel, known as the ‘Red’ Vicar of Thaxted in Essex was infamous for raising the red flag over his church. He had certain extreme views as a communist but was also the second son of an Earl and a rabble rouser. But he could write powerfully and sets the Holy Trinity within our very own human being:
Let us consider the Blessed Trinity as the source of our own personal lives, and of the world. Each one of us is a trinity in unity – body, mind, spirit: the disunity between these is not according to the original intention of the Triune God. The world has in it plenty of variety, but the variety is not always healthy, is often antagonistic and discordant, because it is not a variety in unity, and does not express the ‘Three in One and One in Three’. It cannot be said of the world as at present constituted that it contains no differences or inequalities, or that within it ‘none is afore or after other; none is greater or lesser than another’. We look forward to a world of infinite variety in harmony, of living unity, not of dead uniformity; if man is to create so delightful a world he must ‘thus think of the Trinity’, for it is the will of the Trine God to inspire us all to renew the world in such a way as to make it a perfect expression of his Being.
The hymn “I bind unto myself today”, better known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ contains is a statement of Trinitarian faith, coming out of the Celtic tradition. Its text is attributed to St Patrick, and the wonderful hymn has sweeping Gaelic cadences and is difficult to sing. Yet it has its own natural exuberance and is a song which joys in the entire created order set in within its Trinitarian context. It’s a celebration both of life and of the author of life, of God. All life has a divine source. Humans may flourish within the divinely created order in a kind of dance, which draws all together in the recognition of the one humanity. John 15 “…for cut off from me you can do nothing”. The source of this harmony lies in the Triune God, the ‘Three-in-One’ who know and love and are intimate with one other.
The mutual intimacy between the three persons of the Trinity is best captured in the classical icon by Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430). The original title for the icon is, “Three angels at Mamre.” Early Christian writers saw the story of Abraham welcoming the three angels under the tree at Mamre (Gen 18:1-15) as the precursor to the revelation of the Trinity. It is interesting to note that though the story begins with the mention of three men, actually Abraham speaks to ‘them’ as if to the one Lord God – Yahweh. In the course of the story the number also changes again from the plural to the singular. In any case, the reference of the icon to the story of Abraham welcoming Yahweh, reminds us that our belief in the Trinity is about hospitality which calls for faith and personal sacrifice.
The second aspect to focus on in the icon is that the three figures are enclosed within a perfect circle, the centre of the circle falls where the two fingers of the central figure lay on the table. Representation of the Trinity in a circle, rather than as a triangle or the leaf of the shamrock, is very interesting. The unbroken band of a ring, without beginning or end, is the perfect symbol of the love that exists between the persons of the Trinity. In a sense, we ourselves cannot grasp the mystery of the Trinity without entering into that circle of love.
Among the three figures, our attention first falls on the figure on the right of the icon – the Holy Spirit – dressed in blue and green: the symbols of water and vegetation – the symbols of life. The inclining posture of the Holy Spirit moves our attention to the two others in the icon. That is the action of the Spirit: He directs us and draws us to the Father and the Son in a dynamic yet graceful movement.
The second figure, seated in the middle, dominates the centre of the icon. His voluminous robes – covered in royal blue – gives Him an irresistible prominence among the figures. The second person of the Trinity has His two fingers at the centre of the circle suggesting the two natures of Christ, the divine and the human. Yes, without incarnation there would be no human knowledge of the Trinity. The two fingers might also suggest the two roles of the Messiah: the priest and the king. Yet, despite his majestic posture the glance of the Son are so tenderly and intimately focussed on the Father. Christ the king is our mediator and the way to the Father.
The Father is seated in a receptive, welcoming posture, as if accepting the attention of the other two persons. However, the father is not cast in the role of an authoritative figure but as an anxious Father who waits and longs for our home coming. One cannot avoid being reminded of the father in the story of the prodigal son (Lk 15:20).
At the foreground of the picture, there is an empty stool. A space that is crying out to be filled. Now if you had a second look at the three persons, you might notice that somehow the three persons are also expectantly looking at that empty space. The more one sits meditatively before the icon the more one feels attracted to occupy that empty place at table and be part of the communion of and with God. This then is the depth of the mystery that we contemplate today: God, who is a communion of three persons, invites me to be part of that communion. Am I ready to take that seat? Am I ready to trust the God whose gentle and understanding agency stands against the forces of self-destruction?
Now is as good a time as any to realize these things. It is more important than ever that we respond...
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
19th May 2013
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost 2013
Those of you who are observant may have noticed a distinct change in the appearance of the church this morning. I do not mean the obvious change from the liturgical colour white for Eastertide to that of red for Pentecost. No, you will notice that the great Paschal Candle, which has been lit on the Sundays of Eastertide, is now extinguished and placed not at this end of the church, in the sanctuary, but at the back of church next to the font. This symbolic moving of the candle tells us that Eastertide, the time of Resurrection, is for the time being, ended. In the yearly liturgical cycle of the church, however, there is never a complete ending. One season gives way to yet another. And in this way the moving of the paschal candle tells us of the great shift that has now occurred in the Church as she receives at Pentecost The Holy Spirit, which the life and death and resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ has made possible.
For the followers of Jesus the moment of the coming of the Holy Spirit was both singular and devastating. For these men and women, many of whom had been with him in his travails, the teaching and the example of Jesus Christ had provided a Gospel and a witness of unparalleled spiritual power. Works of healing flowed naturally from this power as did the inspiration to preach, testify and to witness conversion. Pentecost had come to them in the giving of spiritual gifts. And the giver was the Giver of all things, God himself. The Christian witness developed out of this same Holy Spirit, which had been given to refresh, establish, sustain, re-invigorate, deepen and enlarge the Christian witness. This witness had hitherto been essentially a responsive one. Responsive in the presence of Jesus Christ himself, whether in the flesh or as He appeared to them as their resurrected Lord. The Pentecost moment rendered the witness as essentially responsive and expressive. The Christian Church came into being not as an act of human will, but as a gift from God, freely given in His Son Jesus Christ. It was given, moreover, to be re-imagined, re-given, re-expressed and continually restored in his likeness. The description of the proliferation of languages is the one which establishes the scope and the scale of Pentecost. It is a breakthrough moment in the lives and fortunes of the early Christian witness. But the important fact is this: that the initiative and the providence always remains with God and not with men and women. They have been overtaken, as it were by the generosity of the God who has in Jesus Christ, gone before them, and who now lives with them in an utterly transformed way. The Holy Spirit has been gifted and it will remain. In John’s Gospel there is no doubt, but that this gift has transformed the consciousness of who God is and what God does:
God is a Spirit, and they that worship him, must worship him in spirit, and in trueth.
King James Version (1611)
The term ‘Spirit’ or ‘Spiritual’ is of course not an easy one to define. People talk about the 'spiritual' in a loose way and it can refer to the atmosphere of a church like this one. It is used in many different ways. On the one hand, people say that they do not believe in God but they are nonetheless ‘spiritual’. On the other hand, there is a whole level of Christian understanding which comes to us as ‘spirituality’ as indicating depth of knowledge and of prayer. It has been of vital importance for the Church to anchor this term ‘spiritual’ in terms which make it legible and which establishes a preventative against its misapplication. In the sacraments of Confirmation and Ordination, a central place is established for the formal summoning of the Holy Spirit by the Bishop, movingly expressed in the ancient hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost our Souls Inspire and Lighten With Celestial Fire’, written in the ninth century and translated by Bishop John Cosin in the 1640s.
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our blinded sight.
Anoint and cheer our soiled face
with the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far from foes, give peace at home:
where thou art guide, no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along,
this may be our endless song:
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Church’s dilemma lies in the idea of the ‘anchoring’ of the Holy Spirit to perform specific functions and as a Holy Spirit which must be discerned. But this is not complete. There is another, proper sense in which the influence of the Holy Spirit lies beyond human control. The images of fire, of the dove descending and of the Spirit’s blasting through the barriers of language and culture remind us that its nature is to challenge the Church to look beyond itself. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the one which calls the Church to look beyond herself 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, the impossible and the despised and the fatalistic as well as my church friends! My own Bishop has reminded me that achurch like Holy Cross is only as effective in Christian terms in its ability to minister to its most trying and difficult members. The Spirit is holy and gives nourishment, and it can console. But it also calls us out of ourselves and beyond the level of our natural complacencies. It settles and it disturbs, it enlightens and confounds at the same time. God is to be found in the other. He is often called ‘The Holy Other’. In this, in the wisdom of God, there may come new life, for the Spirit renews us as it draws us out of ourselves. So- let us be alive and awakened to its presence! Let us wait on this same Holy Spirit which came upon the followers at Pentecost. May it enlighten and strengthen and re-awaken in us to a truer and braver sense of God’s purposes for us and for our world,
Unless the eye catch fire
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire
The God will not be known.
From 'Pentecost' by William Blake.
Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Day and before The Feast of Pentecost
12th May 2013
Easter 7 Sermon Year C
(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 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.
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
5th May 2013
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C
“Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up”. John 5.7
The Easter Sundays remind us that the Resurrection of Jesus was not an isolated event, stranded in time. When Jesus rose from the tomb, a dam had burst. Out of that dam flowed the love of God in the outpouring of resurrection grace. It flowed into the life of the world for its own revival and for the re-shaping of its destiny.
On each of these successive Easter Sundays our Gospel readings have allowed us to share in the Resurrection and to recall its significance for the reinstatement and the transformation of human lives. We have been sharing the resurrection with those who were the first witnesses. We have been recalling ‘doubting’ Thomas and the finger entering the wound at the side of Christ, and have been sharing breakfast with Him as we have recognised the Christ in our midst. We have understood the Easter message as a renewal of our hopes and intentions and as the proclamation of a renewed and transformed ‘divine society’. Easter has surely come to us in the continued outpouring of grace in the life and death and resurrection of Christ, expressed beautifully and succinctly in the conclusion of the Angelus prayer:
Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord,
thy Grace into our hearts;
that as we have known the incarnation of Christ
thy Son by the message of an angel,
so by His cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of His Resurrection.
Through the same Christ, our Lord.
I want you to see that pouring forth not like trickling water, out of a jug, but as a powerful ‘pouring forth’ which has (finally) escaped from the massive unyielding, age old dam as the roaring of mighty waters possessed of phenomenal baptismal energy. We catch a glimpse of these things in the Revelation of John:
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
To compliment this powerful theological symbolism this morning’s Gospel reading replies in different kind. In St John’s Gospel, we witness in the intense quiet of a Jerusalem portico the terrible staying power of a crippled old man who has for thirty-eight years been waiting for his healing. We have a vivid description of this patient man waiting beside a small water spring, the pool of Bethesda; the ‘house of mercy’. There he waits for the deliverance which has never come. He is never able to get to the water when it springs up. He signifies the type of person who finds themself waiting on the fact of life as unreconciled; waiting for a healing or a resolution that never seems to come, grappling with questions which remain unanswered and of past conflict which never remains unresolved, waiting in pain. We know that in Deuteronomy 2.14 his thirty-eight years corresponds to the fruitless wandering in the desert of the people of Israel. The old man has spent years and years with his own incapacity as a kind of living doom. And perhaps he is resigned and perhaps he is apathetic or hopeful; we don’t know...
The stirring of the waters comes to us as a quintessential Easter figure. It beckons us toward the healing grace which God is offering us in His Son. Jesus is identified as the same living water which feeds the tree of life in The Revelation of John. In this way we speak about the healing of the ‘whole’ person, the person in their complete humanity, the struggle with a life which perhaps feels only too real and yet in another sense, an exile. Scripture speaks to us today of the healing waters of God's grace which flows over and into this crevice.
The call to believe in Jesus is the one which advances the desire we have, whether we realise it or not, for the healing of our lives at their deepest level, and for that reconciliation with God which is our life’s true purpose. We are not as Christians to be either stoic or casual about these things. The resurrection is God’s promise for our healing. It stands for the inflowing of the divine gift, given to us now as a summons to faith in Him in response to his quesion 'Do you wish to be healed?' And we are to respond, as best we can, open-heartedly:
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.
Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith was built in the early 1980s and the planners and architect provided generously for what they called a ‘Chaplaincy Suite’. In my time as chaplain, it was situated between the hydrotherapy pool and the genito-urinary clinic: the modern day equivalent of the Pool of Bethesda. It is a pleasing situation because placed where it is both set apart and yet also very accessible, on the ground floor. But it is also pleasing for the quality of the natural light, and for two great works of art, each of them modern stain glass windows, which stand in the sanctuary of the round chapel. The windows were designed and made by John Piper, and renowned for the directness of their viewpoint and for the amazing depth of their colours. The two windows are named ‘The Waters of Life’ and ‘The Tree of Life’. They are there in that light-filled chapel. They are there to speak to the distressed or quietened patient, or to the one who says in their prayer of pain “Sir, Jesus, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up”. I feel helpless now. I am in a desert. From where is my life to come now?
The windows stand as a vivid reminder of the source of life and the means of Resurrection grace. In the setting of a busy hospital, they offer a vision for the healing of the person alongside the usual forms of medical care and yet pointing to the source of healing lying beyond them.
The Easter message repeats itself and this is the refrain :
That in all that makes life intractable, difficult and painful, and for all those things which demand our patient waiting,
Jesus comes to meet us.
Unfathomed love divine
Reign thou within my heart;
From thee nor depth nor height,
Nor life nor death can part;
Our life is hid with God in thee,
Now and through all eternity.