A Sermon for Trinity Sunday
30th May 2021
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.
A Sermon for Ascensiontide
23rd May 2021
Holy Cross Church Cromer Street
A Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension
One of the greatest discoveries in the painting of pictures was not of a paint was oil paint; a paint that glistened and could reveal the effects of light. Before the 1400s paintings were made with egg tempera, a mixture of coloured paint powder bound with egg yolk and mixed with a palette to make a paste. The good thing about the egg yolk was that it dried the paint quickly. The bad thing was that it always dried as matt, and it produced a non-reflective flat painted surface. This made it very difficult to paint light and for the surface of the painting to attract light. And so paintings up to this period are painted on thick cuts of wood and appear very flat. The painter has to work very hard to paint light (done with white streaks) and water (usually with wavy lines). This was sometimes compensated for (if you could afford it!) by the adding of gold leaf so that the painting gave off a bright shine, and this was good for icons but could not produce an image which was what we might call ‘life-like’. It was the discovery of oil paint which changed everything. Oil glistened and made colour shine, and so an eye could twinkle or a drop of water be seen as a reflective globule. You could even paint a mirror and reproduce its effects as in Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 painting, The Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery
As we come to the Feast of the Ascension of Christ a similar problem faces both the artist and the Church. Traditionally the Ascension of Jesus Christ has, as you will see on the illustration to this morning’s new sheet, has been depicted as the group of disciples gaze up to see through the clouds a pair of feet! It always seems rather comic. There were no more means at the disposal of the artist to convey the Ascension. Its truer and deeper meaning is not about what is seen but about the very nature of God and of what lies deep. The real meaning of the Ascension allows us to see that as Christ returns to the Father, so humanity and divinity also find their true meaning in and with one another and not apart from one another. As Jesus returns to the Father Heaven is joined to earth. Humankind is transformed in its slow but increasingly sure understanding of who God is in Jesus Christ.
This mixing and merging is symbolised in a small ceremony embedded in this Eucharist as the priest, preparing the Eucharistic offering, pours a small amount of water into the chalice he has filled with wine. And as he does this he says these words “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”. The water does not dilute. The coming of Christ brings about the meeting point between the divine and human realms, and also the heavenly and the earthly; which have in him mixed and merged; and produced the bright glimmer which we have called GLORY and the influence which is what we have called HOLY. The great prayer of worship sums it all up. It is called the Sanctus:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
Hosanaah in the Highest!
Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord,
Hosannah in the Highest!
This is the glory, that emerges out of Christ’s own humility and obedience to suffering. We are reminded in Ephesians 4.6 that Christ “ascended on high and led captivity captive”. And so in this way we may see the Ascension as the celebration of the glory not only of God but also of humanity and the unlikely possibilities that may emerge out of muddling and struggling lives like ours. God has become like us in Jesus Christ so that we may now share in the divine likeness, which for the first time becomes accessible to us in Him.
Archbishop Michael Ramsay was one who constantly proclaimed the Gospel of Christ in terms of its irradiation of God’s glory, which is the life of man in its fullest potential. He wished that these words, from St Irenaus, 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.
“Where there is no vision; the people perish” says the writer of Proverbs in 29.18. The Ascension grants us that vision, maybe crudely expressed as a pair of feet, but in actual fact opening up for us a new vision of what John the Divine called “New Heavens and a New Earth”. And the coming of this vision is very important in our own times. If we are living in an age where we are defined merely as consumers, sharers of basic information rather than conversationalists; where increasingly we see ourselves as subject to forces and influences beyond our control, and where language is abbreviated and human experience subject to so many mechanical transactions, then we need a new vision which embraces us in all our humanity and which is possessed of radical compassion.. The opening up of the idea of the Christ who ‘leads captivity captive’, the creation of ‘new heavens and a new earth’ brings us to the place where life is no longer seen as pertaining to the old dull flat, two dimensional existence, the egg-bound one, but bright with light and multi- dimensional. It is a life which reaches beyond itself and finds God as Glory: The glory of God is the living Man; The life of Man is the Vision of God”. This is the same God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus
(2 Corinthians 4.6.)
A new dimension is opened up for us; one which has united our earthly existence with our Maker and Redeemer, and which lies before us as our ultimate; our truest potential. The Light of Christ will be able to be seen and known for what it truly is.
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
16th May 2021
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 realized 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 neighbor not for what I can get out of him but in order to fulfil my own destiny. I need my neighbor 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 neighbor 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 neighbor 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 neighbor 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 Easter 5. 2021
2nd May 2021
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 honest 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. Now our culture believes that love is a feeling - most pop songs are all about it. 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 societies and the changes and transformations that affect their sense national identity and personal security. And where there is a period of disenchantment with the political process, so a gap is left for the reactionary to voice and practice their reaction in the face of these challenges. The unreflecting, 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 local elections 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, to 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 pray it does in yours.
Rev'd. Jim Linthicum, Senior Chaplain, Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital.