Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity 2018
27th May 2018
Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity
Holy Cross Church Cromer Street 2018
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 mysterious than a God who is at one and the same time Creator of Man, Man himself and Holy 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 2018
20th May 2018
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Acts 2.4.
The Coming of the Holy Spirit marks the Church’s real birthday, though 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. For the moment of Pentecost was singular and devastating. The Holy Spirit had come with power and it had rested upon them. It was the power which declared God to be not only real in the lives of men and women everywhere, but whose presence and Holy Spirit was to lie at the heart of all that might be fulfilled in His Name.
This Pentecost moment 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 apparent mess, but what? What is most certain among the loose band of followers was this: The teaching of Christ and the experience of the resurrection had been transformative for their lives. They now knew that what they had been given by Jesus was a living 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 foretold its coming. 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 for the disciples was to be both inspirational and practical and future providing.
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.
God’s love must lead us where it wills, for the Holy Spirit and its life and operation must have us acknowledge that as a Church we do not get carried away with our own self-sufficiency. God is ever provident and the existence of the Holy Spirit reminds us that what we do we do in His name, in His Way and in His time.
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 marginalized, the gay person, the drunk, the depressed and the fatalistic. To look also to the perhaps unseen and unheeded suffering and need going on in our own midst. The Holy 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 a place of 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; a tough peace, if you know what I mean… The message of Pentecost is that the Spirit of God has now entered places where doors had formerly been shut and minds closed, and where the windows of our seeing and knowing have grown opaque with wear. In the breaking down of barriers, in the love of the stranger and in the power and influence of God, The Holy Spirit is forever 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.
Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension (Easter 7)
13th May 2018
Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven
“The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God”.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
After the six Sundays of Easter, in which we have encountered the risen Lord with the disciples in so many ways, our observance of this Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord takes us in another direction. Actually, it takes us to another dimension – heavenward. And for The Church this heavenly dimension is a quite natural way of regarding the life of God the Creator in relation to us his creatures. This dimension is expressed most fully in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ life is the one which has come from God and goes back to God. And again for the Church, to speak of Christ is to speak of the holiness and the glory of that freedom of movement he has brought about between the heavenly and the earthly places. We have, over past weeks witnessed the trial, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the weeks following Easter we have witnessed the Christ who comes to the disciples to reassure them and point their lives and their faltering faith every forward. He provides hope in the present and the promise of glory for the future. He promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. And now he goes back to the Father as he ascends into heaven. One of the Psalms express this poetically and joyfully – (Psalm 19.1-4):
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun…
In this meeting and mixing of the heavenly and the earthly there is the hope that is held out for us in Christ. Why is a belief in heaven so much a part of Christian Faith? How are we to believe in heaven in a way that is not as has been said cynically “pie in the sky when you die”? To speak of the Ascension of Jesus is to speak of the glory which emerges out of his own self offering, which is one of humility and self-giving, even unto death. It is best expressed in the 1662 Prayer Book’s Eucharistic Rite:
O God our Heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world, and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again…
We are reminded in Ephesians 4.6 that Jesus “ascended on high and led captivity captive”. And we, who are on this earth as captives, are also as Christians those who follow where Jesus Christ has gone before. And we are promised that what emerges out of the pattern of his and our own struggle and in his life is the glory which is the hope of heaven to come. Like him we come from God and go back to God. Christianity is above all else a hopeful and heaven directed faith. Our living out of this life in the pattern and likeness of Christ is a kind of suffering unto self, but again, after the pattern of Christ’s own being, the promise made to us is to the glory which is yet to be revealed to us:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:18.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey was one who constantly proclaimed the Christian glory in terms of the life of Man to its fullest potential. He wishes that these words, from Irenaeus, a Second Century Theologian and Saint be placed on his gravestone:
The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God.
Some time ago I was in Salisbury Cathedral. It is perhaps the finest example of a complete Medieval Gothic Cathedral that we have, with its spire rising to over 400’ the tallest spire in England, and the inside the vaulting which carries you mind and heart heavenward. Heavenward not just because the vaults are high and beautiful but because they speak to the heart and the souI. The architecture is spiritual architecture. I attended Evensong at which Psalm 18 was sung “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” and I began to see the cathedral around me in a new light and even a new dimension. It was no longer just a glorious great church building but a piece of living sculpture, full of space and light, and arches and shapes which took the eye in this or that direction. And then, too, the music and the choir themselves declared further this glory of which the psalmist wrote and of the many ways in which the Glory of God may be expressed in the lives of us all. The glory of God lies all around us and the Christian is the one who has open eyes to express this same glory in all we are and in all we do for God’s sake…
And this is where we come down from heaven and into this earth. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, his coming to birth as both Man and Son of God is one complete action. It is one which gifts the glory of God to each one of us in our own lives. It is the promise of his presence and of the potential in our own existences in the promise of glory gifted to us by the One Lord Jesus Christ who has ascended to that place where God is. This is the place where we are headed, too, and there is glory in that, too.
As we give our lives more fully to God, and as we dedicate ourselves in the service of Christ, let us then declare not only in our lips but with our hearts:
“The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God”.
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
6th May 2018
6th Sunday of Easter Year B Sermon
As we come to the end of the Easter Season our readings draw us to the final outcome of the Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead. It was for the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim their risen Lord not just as a phenomenon but in an understanding of what constituted ‘human being’. And for the Church this was straightforward. God, the God of the Old Testament, the God of history, the ‘abba’; the Father of Jesus was love. The outworking of human love was the defining characteristic of the Christian Church as it emerged like a butterfly out of its chrysalis. But this was to be a love that was expressive and timeless.
This teaching on love, though, was not just ‘pie in the sky’. It was forged in the life of the Gospel writer John in relation to the early history of the Church from 90-110 AD. It was at this time that the Christian Church had begun to identify itself quite distinctly from its Jewish inheritance. This identity emerged out of the wisdom on the part of the great Apostles Peter and Paul that Baptism be offered to those known as gentiles - the general population; the great mass of people ‘out there’, ‘the great unwashed’. This radical decision was acted upon out of a sense of Christ and of the radical demands of the love of Christ. There was to be no partiality shown. The Christian community was no longer a slave to religious convention, but now a community of love whose members held a relationship in common. Jesus had called them ‘friends’ and this embrace of friendship cut across and undermined the old religions and the claim to many so many little exclusivenesses. It cut across the cultural norms and the weight of rank and privilege set against the Christian claim to an interrelated society with a common and shared destiny. It gained ground and lasted because its vision was realistic and expansive. It spoke about what was real, and what is real in us. Jesus had come not to proclaim a religiosity for its own sake but to speak for the truth of our human condition at its very heart. John reminds us of Jesus’ words ‘This is my commandment, ‘love one another as I have loved you’. Another John, John Lennon was to say, nineteen hundred and sixty years later,
Love is the answer, and you know that for sure; Love is a flower, you've got to let it grow.
You're just left with yourself all the time, whatever you do anyway. You've got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It's all down to you, mate.
John Lennon is all very well… but he was mistaken. The Church was and does never speak of ‘your own God in your own temple’. Lennon’s idea of love was a love without God. That’s not what we know to be true. Our three readings this morning tell us differently. They assume before anything else that the sole referent for the showing of human love is the existence of God, who has loved us before time began and who sent his Son to show us that love. Through our Baptism we have been provided with the patterning for that love. John is sure as he waits upon God that God is saying ’You did not choose me, I chose you’. This expression is written into an icon at my old theological college, Westcott House in Cambridge.
Rowan Williams, in his book, "The Dwelling of Light: Praying with Icons of Christ" (Canterbury Press, 2003) bases his chapter on the Westcott icon, writing, "the icon of the Christ Pantocrator in the chapel of Westcott House, Cambridge, was and is for me and many others a profoundly significant image." Of its meaning he writes,
"The point is simple: face to face with Jesus, there and only there, do we find who we are. We have been created to mirror his life, the eternal life of the one turned always toward the overflowing love of the Father; but our human existence constantly turns away. When we look at Jesus, we see in some measure what he sees, and are drawn to where his eyes lead us... we look at him looking at us, and try to understand that as he looks at us he looks at the Father. In other words, when he looks at us, he sees the love that is his own source and life, despite all we have done to obscure it in ourselves. When we look at him looking at us, we see both what we were made to be, bearers of the divine image and likeness, and what we have made of ourselves."
If love is to be anything at all it must speak for our human condition as it is found. This Eastertide stands for the proclamation of that love not just for its own sake but for the life of the world and the fulfilment of human destiny. Anything else is fake. It is in this sense, and only in this sense that St Augustine’s order has been understood:
Love, and do what you will…