HOMILY at the 19h SUNG MASS for the FEAST of the MOST HOLY TRINITY (A) 2017
Today is something of a strange Feast in the life of the Church – a kind of ‘God Sunday’. Years ago, when I first ordained, if you were allotted the task of preaching on this Sunday it was regarded as the short straw. The great Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner had not long previously said that were it to be announced from the pulpit that the doctrine had been abolished, it would make no difference whatsoever to the mythical ‘man in the pew’.
Actually, things have changed, and the doctrine of the Trinity has become a much more lively and productive area of theology during those years. I went to a three day Conference in Oxford last year not long after this time on the subject of the Trinity. But I still notice that eyes tend to glaze over when we begin to speak about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There just always seem to be too many qualifications – once one begins to speak about the unspeakable mystery of God.
In the good old days, on Trinity Sunday, we used to recite the Athanasian Creed at the Office of Prime – which was supposed to be said at 6 a.m. to greet the dawn. The prospect of wrestling with the complicated language and warnings of the Athanasian Creed at that hour of the day just isn’t worth thinking about now – and in fact it has long been dropped from the Office, although the Prayer Book still directs that it be sung or said at Morning or Evening Prayer on this day.
In the days when we had large confirmation classes, I used to speak to the children about water being the same stuff whether it is ice, liquid or invisible gas, and sometimes they got the point that God is the same even though he may take on different actions as Creator, or Redeemer, or the One who makes Holy. (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
But then my theological air raid warning would go off. If I say that, then what about the heresy of…..? And I had a whole string of them waiting to get me. Oh dear.
Except that my instinct about all this is quite right. As soon as we say anything about God (even something about God’s basic nature) then we have to be very careful that we do not limit ourselves (and worse limit our vision of God) by what we say, by what we tentatively suggest. Which is why the mystical tradition within the life of the Church is so important – we come to know God by knowing what God isn’t as much as by what God is. Apophatic theology as it is technically described – rather like the kind of knowledge that we get about the universe by studying black holes, or about matter through studying anti-matter. So there is a place for the theological air raid siren!
But what does lie irrevocably at the very heart of our understanding of God as Trinity is the fact that God exists in relationship. That in the Godhead, we see relationship at infinity. And we are made in God’s image. We are fulfilled as human beings when that image finds a home in us. So we are made for relationship – well, no great surprise there. We celebrate that regularly enough in all sorts of different ways – for example in Christian marriage. And again, in the good old days, we used to marry one another in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Though nowadays that’s regarded as being far too complicated for people.
The difference that our faith in God as Trinity makes is that our relationships are not just any old relationship. They are relationships in God’s image. And in the Trinity we see relationship without domination, obedience without coercion, delight without the need to possess, love without limit. We see all this, not in some invisible spiritual realm, but in the event of Jesus dying on the Cross and rising again, sending the Spirit which makes possible our sharing in God’s own life. And that’s why this day is an important one – not because like Alice we are expected to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but rather because our belief in this kind of God will colour all that we are, all that we do and every single relationship that we enter.
For us here in Geneva, this day is also our Feast of Title – a special day when we contemplate our particular mission here. And a day which we devote also to supporting that mission through a Gift given to support it.
Tomorrow, we keep the feast of S. Barnabas. He was born Joseph. But when he came to join the apostles in Jerusalem, he gave away all he had. As a result, the apostles gave him a new name – Barnabas, or Son of consolation, son of encouragement.
He did that effectively alongside S. Paul for a while at Antioch, then later back in his native Cyprus. We don’t have much in the way of his recorded sayings. Perhaps like many of us, he struggled for words when it came to speaking about the ultimate realities of our lives and of our faith – though there have been some apocryphal writings – notably the Epistle of Barnabas – which bear his name, though almost certainly were after his time and not by him.
What we do know, however, is that he and Paul fell out with each other around the time that John Mark went back to Jerusalem from Perga in Pamphylia. There was clearly a dispute of considerable magnitude about the place that the Jewish Law should have within the Christian community. If one was into taking sides, I suspect that I might well have agreed with Barnabas, who looked for a diplomatic compromise. Paul, however, took more persuading, though ultimately they all reached agreement. And again the two of them worked together, motivated by their love of the Gospel, and – I believe – in Barnabas’ case, a generosity of heart that came from the contemplation of God as Trinity. A generosity which enabled him to give up his possessions, and also that enabled him to open his heart widely and wisely to those with whom he found himself at variance.
We have a presence here in the centre of Geneva in honour of God the Holy Trinity. It is important that we maintain it – but as a place of inclusive love.
Like the God in whose honour we are dedicated.