Tuesday, 25 May 2021

The Dance of the Trinity

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, 30th June 2021
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

Listen to this sermon here: 

Genesis 1.26-2:4a
 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."
 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
 29 God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.
 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so.
 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.
 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.
 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
2 Corinthians 13.11-13
 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
 13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

John Donne once famously claimed
            that no-one is an island;
and in a seventeenth century metaphorical precursor to the Brexit debate,
            went on to suggest that Europe is the less,
                        if even one clod of earth be washed away,
            let alone an island or promontory.
His famous sonnet concluded that any person’s death diminished him,
            because he is involved in humankind.
More recently, in the context of rebuilding relationships in South Africa
            in the wake of the abolition of apartheid,
Desmond Tutu spoke of the African concept of Ubuntu:
            the idea that we are all interconnected through our common humanity.
And every once in a while, in the course of our lives,
            there come along those defining moments,
            which bring home to us once again
                        the truth that life is not something
                        that can ever be truly lived in isolation.
            It is these defining moments
                        which remind us of the fact
                        that we are created to be in relationship
These defining moments tend to be times
            of great happiness, of great joy
Think about the birth of a new child…
            - something which, by it’s very nature,
            necessitates the involvement of at least three people:
                        There has to be a mother,
                        There has to be a child,
                        and there has to have been a father involved
                                    at least biologically speaking, somewhere along the line
Of course, normally the birth of a child
            involves far more than three people:
there are all the extended family,
            grandparents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts
            - all of whose lives are affected by the new arrival.
And then there are all the friends of the family
            - a network which can spread far and wide,
            spanning many countries.
So many people with a stake in the birth of one new child,
            all concerned for the family’s wellbeing,
            all caught up in the gift of new life.
And what about a wedding?
            the marriage of two people
            - binding themselves to each other
                        to create a new relationship.
My own wedding was nearly three decades ago,
            but I can still remember the build-up to it
            as if it was only yesterday.
In theory, of course, a wedding can be reduced down
            to the couple, the witnesses, and the registrar,
But even at this minimal level
            it is in essence still a community event.
After all, two people making promises to each other
            on their own in the privacy of their own home
            is not actually a wedding.
However, casting my mind back,
            I seem to remember that our wedding
                        went rather to the opposite extreme
            - with so many different people wanting a stake in the special day.
Our respective (and respected) parents
            had very different ideas to both each other and to us
            about what the wedding should be like,
and the negotiations we had to enter into
            would have been a test for any professional diplomat.
So much so that, on occasions, we started to wonder
            whose wedding it really was?
But actually, I think the answer to that question is important,
            because a wedding is not solely the property of the couple.
A wedding is always a community event,
            with the newly married couple
            taking their place in society, in a new way.
And so births and weddings
            point us to a universal truth,
which is that that life can never be truly lived
            apart from relationships with others.
But of course, sometimes it’s the sadnesses in life
            which remind us of our need of one another.
This last year of pandemic has been a time when many have faced grief and loss,
            and have often had to do so in isolation from the communities of support
            which normally rally around at such times.
And it seems to me that there is no escaping it
            - life, in both good times and bad
            involves, demands, relationships with other people
                        if it is going to be life in all its fullness.
A life lived in perpetual isolation
            with no participation in relationship,
is a life which, in a significant way, never truly finds completion.
Of course, not everyone’s life path includes marriage,
            and not everyone has to have children.
But we do all need other people.
Simply by virtue of being human,
            of being who we are created to be,
we exist and define ourselves
            through relationship with, and in relation to, others.
The passage we read earlier from Genesis
            represents an Israelite attempt from the time of the Babylonian Exile,
at understanding the world,
            and its relationship with the God who made it.
Let’s listen again to how this creation story
            seeks to express the relationship between God and humanity:
    [26] Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…"
    [27] So God created humankind in his image,
        in the image of God he created them;
        male and female he created them.
The amazing thing about these verses
            is that God uses the self-referential plural:
God speaks of “us” and “our”, not ‘me’ and ‘my’.
And it is clear from this
            that the relational aspect of humanity
            - that part of us which needs another to be complete,
was seen by the Israelites
            as being a reflection of the relationship which exists
            within the very being of God.
And just as God was understood as existing in an eternal state of relationship,
            so too humanity was seen as having been created
            to exist in relationship.
And it is this ancient insight,
            that both God and humanity
            are relational in their very essence,
which finds its expression in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The Old Testament has a number of other places,
            apart from the reference in Genesis which we’ve just looked at,
where it hints at the fact that the ancient Israelites
            understood their God as existing in relationship
            (Gen. 1:1,2,26; 3:22; 6:3; 11:6,7; 20:13; 48:15; Is. 6:8).
And this understanding found its way from the Hebrew Bible
                        into the Christian tradition,
            as the followers of Jesus
                        attempted to understand the implications
            of their experience of Jesus as God on earth,
                        and their experience of the Holy Spirit
                        as the power of God with them.
And so Christians speak of the Trinity
            - of God existing in three persons: Parent, Son, and Spirit.
we have an understanding of a Trinitarian God
            existing in eternal relationship.
Today is the day in the Christian year
            known as Trinity Sunday,
And it’s the day when we consider what it means
            to be the people of a God who, in very nature, exists in relationship.
Here, of course, we start to hit against the limits of human language,
            because we don’t have the right pronouns in English
            to speak of God in Trinity.
And just as the debates over he, his, her, and hers
            can be helped by using the plural to speak of the singular,
so I think it is also appropriate
            for us to speak of God as they and theirs,
            because God is one God, but they are also Trinity.
Contrary to popular belief
            the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it today
            is not actually found in the Bible:
It’s the product of many discussions in the early church -
            and scholars down the centuries to the present day
            have devoted much time and effort
                        to trying to find the language
            to express what it means
                        to have one God, in three persons,
A famous example of this ongoing attempt is that of St Patrick,
            who used the Shamrock
            to explain the Trinity to the Irish.
As with all analogies, it is an imperfect illustration,
            but his basic point was that the shamrock
            has one leaf split into three parts
            just as God is one God in three persons.
Whatever it’s inadequacies, this illustration provides the setting
            for a great comedy moment in the film Nuns on the Run.
The gangster characters played by Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane
            find themselves dressed as nuns
            and hiding from the police in a convent school.
Robbie Coltrane’s character finds himself having to lead a class
            in which he is expected to explain the doctrine of the Trinity
                        to the students.
He stutters for a while, and then half-remembers the story of St Patrick
            which leads him to utter the immortal line:
“God is like a shamrock. Small, green, and split three ways”
And so, from the sublime to the ridiculous,
            theologians of varying abilities have sought
            to explain God in three persons.
But I don’t think this process of ongoing development and thought
            in seeking to understand the nature of God
            is anything to be concerned about.
After all, if God really is God
            then they are so far beyond our comprehension,
that even our most eloquent and scholarly attempts at describing them
            will only scratch the surface of all that could be said…
Now, it may be true that our understanding and words
                        are incomplete and inadequate,
            but nevertheless the task is not in vain.
The task of trying to understand and describe God
            as God is revealed to us,
is one of the great tasks of the Christian church
            because it shows us more of the God we worship and relate to.
And this task finds its beginnings in the New Testament,
            where we see the early Christians
trying to understand how it might be that the man Jesus
            could also be the almighty God.
How it might be that one who died a human death.
            could also be seated enthroned in the heavens?
How it might be that God in heaven
            is nevertheless present with people on earth,
            changing, transforming, renewing and empowering them
                        for world-changing acts…
These are the questions
            which drove the early stages of Trinitarian theology,
and they are still questions which require an answer today
            as we continue to experience God as Parent, Son and Spirit.
Paul Fiddes, the former Principal of Regent’s Park College in Oxford,
            has said that the doctrine of the Trinity
            is a concept which was invented to express an experience.
He suggests that talk about the Trinity is not speculative theologising,
            it is instead an attempt to put into words
            an experience of the living, loving, relational God.
Just as the early Israelites sought to express their experience
            of human and divine relationships
            in the creation story from Genesis 1,
so the Christian doctrine of the Trinity
            is an expression of the Christian experience of God
            as God is encountered as divine parent, incarnate son, and ever-present spirit.
At the end of 2 Corinthians,
            Paul gives us a glimpse of how,
                        in the middle of the first century,
                        some twenty five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection,
            he sought to put into words his experience of God.
He concludes his letter with the now-famous blessing:
‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.’
And here we see that, for Paul,
            God’s Trinitarian nature is directly related
            to the experience of God in the life of the Christian believer.
When Paul speaks of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit
            he directly relates these three persons
                        to three aspects of the human experience of God
                        grace, love, and fellowship.
It is God experienced through the Son, who lived, died and rose again,
            which speaks of the grace of God
                        reaching out to sinful humans
                        with the promise of forgiveness and new life.
It is God experienced as divine parent,
            which speaks of a love that is, from the beginning,
                        a love for the world that was created,
            and which transcends all time and activity.
And it is God experienced through the Holy Spirit
            which speaks of the ongoing presence of God with people,
                        binding them to one another and to God
                        in a fellowship of love and a communion of grace.
Paul may not have articulated the doctrine of the Trinity
            as the classical theologians understood it,
but his experience of the relational God
            at work in his own life, and in the lives of those in his congregations,
was such that his language pointed to God in three persons
            - a gracious, loving, communal God.
The Gospel of Matthew,
            written some years after Paul’s letter to the Corinthians,
provides us with another glimpse
            of how the early Christians
            sought to express their experience of God.
Let’s listen to it together now:
Matthew 28:16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.
When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
This passage is often referred to as “The Great Commission”
            because it contains the command to the disciples of Jesus
            that they should go to all the nations of the world,
                        inviting people into a relationship with God through Christ.
And right at the heart of this commission,
            we find a recognition that entry into the Christian faith
            involves an entry into a relationship with the God
                        who exists already in eternal relationship .
In many ways, this command to baptise new believers
            in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
is Genesis 1 come full circle…
Where Genesis 1 shows a relational God
            creating a relational humanity
Here in Matthew we see a relational God
            inviting humanity back into the eternal divine relationship.
The human need for deep, meaningful relationships,
            which is part of who we are created to be,
is seen in Matthew as finding its ultimate fulfilment
            in the invitation that God issues
            for us to enter into the life of the Trinitarian God.
The practise of baptism by immersion
            speaks powerfully of this invitation:
Picture a baptism now in your mind’s eye…
As the person being baptised goes down into the water
            symbolically they are plunging down into the grave
Just as the Son went from the Father
            to be plunged into the bitterness and alienation of death,
            and to identify with mortal humanity through his death on the cross,,
so the believer, in baptism, identifies with the Son in death.
But then as the person comes up from the water
            they are being symbolically raised to new life in Christ,
and the hold of death on their life is seen to be broken,
            as the power of the resurrection of the Son is made known.
Then as they are able to start breathing again,
            having been under the water,
so the breath of the Spirit of God,
            opens up new life and possibilities,
turning the water of death into the water of life,
            so that the baptised person
            is seen to be born again of both water and Spirit.
In this way, the command in Matthew
            to baptise in the name of the Trinitarian God,
becomes an invitation from God to all people,
            inviting them to enter into the relationships that already exist
            within the very person of God.
And those who accept this invitation,
            who enter into relationship with the relational God,
Find themselves in a new life of eternal relationship.
We aren’t talking here about the banishing of normal human loneliness
            - of the kind experienced after the death of a loved one
                        or the ending of a relationship.
The pain of human separation
            remains a feature of human experience.
But what is banished, is the deep existential distance
            - the fear of being utterly alone in the universe.
Jesus says to his disciples, right at the end of the Gospel:
            “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”.
And so we have, here at the end of Matthew’s gospel,
            not just the great commission,
            but the great promise.
And it is on the promise that the commission hangs.
The promise is a promise of invitation
            it is an outstretched hand extended from within the Trinity,
inviting us to enter into the eternal relationship that exists within God.
Paul Fiddes uses the image of a divine dance,
            between the three persons of the Trinity,
            to express this invitation for us to join that dance..
And he says in his excellent book on the Trinity
‘In this dance the partners not only encircle each other and weave in and out between each other as in human dancing; in the divine dance, so intimate is the communion that they move in and through each other so that the pattern is all-inclusive… ‘
(Participating in God, 72)
And so we meet the God who exists as three in one
            as Parent, Son, and Spirit
            as creator, redeemer, and sustainer
            as love, grace, and communion
            as eternal relationship,
            as a divine dance of movement.
This God invites us to join the movement,
            to enter the dance
            to become part of the eternal divine relationship,
            and in doing so, to become truly human.

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