HOMILY at the 10h30 MASS for the FEAST of the MOST HOLY TRINITY (A) 2017
There is a lovely story which I am inclined to remember when Trinity Sunday comes round – though I don’t think that I have ever shared it with you before. It’s about the American Archbishop of Boston from 1944-1970, Richard Cardinal Cushing. When he was a parish priest, Cushing had apparently been called to minister to a man dying in a department store. Arriving by the man’s side, Cushing began Do you believe in God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? To which the dying man opened one eye, and addressing the surrounding folk replied Here I am dying and this man is asking me riddles!
Another American bishop in the 1960s used this story as a possible justification for dropping the traditional Trinitarian formula in speaking of God altogether. Though such cries have now largely evaporated and the doctrine of God as Trinity has gained new life and interest amongst theologians during the past 30 years or so – more on that in a moment.
It is true that speaking about God as Three and God as One can be a challenge to the human intellect! I have watched many pairs of eyes glaze over when I have tried to unpack this doctrine a little, and other more daring attempts involving boiling kettles, packs of ice and buckets of water or even collecting clover leaves, have not always led to greater success either. And almost anything that one can say on this subject is likely to be just a hair’s breadth from heresy!
So, when it comes to the life-or-death matter of faith in God, what is it that we are saying in speaking of God as Three and God as One? Might we not be better to give up on the doctrine?
Part of the problem for us comes from the Greek philosophy in which the doctrine is expressed. Talk of three persons in one substance means something quite different for most of us these days than it did in the 4th century! Indeed, perhaps using the very word substance when speaking of God is now totally inappropriate to an age where the common language is a scientific language. Substances, in scientific parlance, can be analysed, measured, have physical and chemical properties. God doesn’t and cannot.
So we come to the first thing that the doctrine speaks to us – the utter mystery of God’s being.
Yet immediately, the doctrine of God as Trinity expresses something else too. God may be mysterious, but he is knowable in Jesus, and we are brought close to that knowledge by the transcendent power of the Holy Spirit.
We come very rapidly to the third thing that this doctrine teaches us. That there is something in the very heart and being of God that is expressive of perfect community.
Sometimes I feel that we spend so much time thinking about God as Three, that we forget about the unity of God, the utter one-ness of God. That is expressed in God as perfect community – with, in faith we believe, God the Creator of all eternally begetting God the Word, and the two linked together in the perfection of God’s Love (or Holy Spirit). But there in the heart of God is a unity of purpose too. A unity of purpose expressed in an unfailing covenant with humanity and with all that is, a unity of purpose which can be expressed as salvation, the ever-deepening well-being and flourishing of creation as it accepts God’s sovereign rule, of justice and love.
Now we believe that humanity is created in the image of God. As we think about the way God is as God has revealed Godself to us, as we contemplate God’s being in prayer and worship, we discover that we too are made for unity. Unity of purpose, in which we are drawn into the unity of God, and into unity with one another.
Understanding God as Trinity is not intended to be a riddle. Rather it is a way of expressing the way in which we experience God. God is Being in communion. And so for us, to be truly human and fully human, sharing that life means being in communion too. With God. With one another.
Now that goes a little way towards explaining something else which has always puzzled me about this feast. The Collect – and I have just probably bored the socks off the 9h congregation wrestling with that! Why do we pray that God, having admitted us to a true faith, would by it keep us safe from all adversities?
Ironically, as it happens, those words were born out of a conflict amongst Christian people – the conflict of orthodoxy with heresy.
But just as we can be transformed in this building when the sun shines through the stained glass and lands on us and other objects giving them a new appearance, so the passage of time can allow new and more significant meanings to shine through old words.
So we could pray those words in an exclusivist way. Keep our faith true, Lord. Keep the heretics out of the church and build a wall of security for us. Maybe when Alcuin of York lifted those words from the Visigoth service books of the 4th century he thought like that, I don’t know. Certainly those words have been prayed like that.
But what about in 21st century Geneva? How do we pray those words?
May I share with you how I have come to use them now? Not in the exclusive way but rather in an inclusive way. A way that sees true security for our world when all people, contemplating the mysterious being of God, the God who reveals Godself to Christian people as a perfect community of respectful love, when all people may live out their calling to be in God’s image.
God’s unity is expressed in loving relationship. God’s one covenant with creation is that we may find salvation from those ills that divide and separate us from one another and from God. Sadly, even those who have religious faith are capable of using faith to alienate and separate. We have seen much of this throughout the history of faith. Contemplating God as Being in Communion we learn not only a better way of dealing with differences within the household of faith, but also between the households of faiths too.
And yes – in the face of terror, much of it supported by evil abuse of religious faith, such contemplation of God’s being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will indeed protect us from such adversities.
Today is our Feast of Title – a special time for us to consider our life as members of this community set here in Geneva. One dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity. It is our special responsibility to keep alight a saving vision of this God here in this place. Not always easy. But ultimately what really matters and counts. And what has the potential to bring the most enormous blessing.