Saturday, 6 June 2009

'God is a Sputnik'... and other Trinitarian musings

A sermon for Trinity Sunday...

About ten years ago, I remember sitting in a church one Trinity Sunday. It came to that time in the service for the all age address. The minister was a great guy, with a wonderful beard which he'd stroke thoughtfully during services. He came to the front, looked at the children looking at him and asked them:
'Today is a very special day in the church year...does anyone know what it is?'
Fifteen little faces continued to look up at him...
blankly. Eventually a small child squeaked, somewhat hesitantly 'Sunday?'
whilst correct in one way, clearly this was not the answer the minister was looking for. Cue stroke of the beard and the [very hearty and enthusiastic] statement: 'It's Trinity Sunday!' Cue more blank looks from the children. I began to sit up and watch with interest, to see just how the minister was going to explain the mysteries of the Holy Trinity to the children. It went something like this:
Thoughtful stroke of beard....
'What's the big bit of water sitting next to Edinburgh?'
... more blank looks.
'That's right, the Firth of Forth. Imagine that's a bit like God. Then, if you were to go up to the mountains, right to the source of the Forth, imagine that's also a bit like God.
...yet more blank looks, accompanied by stroking of beard as well as the whirring of the grown ups minds imagining the scenario being proposed.
'Well, if you went to the other end, where the Forth comes out to the sea, well... that's a bit like God too.' By this time the whole congregation was doing an imaginary exercise in the geography of the Forth.
'Well, they all look different, but... er, um, really, they're the same. If you were standing on the shore, you wouldn't really notice. If you went up in a hot air balloon, you might see how all the different bits connect... in fact, imagine you were in a sputnik [cue strange 'pop' sound], well, that's a bit like God!!'
He ended on that note, exhausted from his exertions... to utter silence, as the entire congregation sat there, puzzled, thinking: 'God is a sputnik??'

So here we are: Trinity Sunday. Nick Fawcett calls it 'a day which perhaps captures the imagination less than any other in the Christian year.' To a point, that's understandable, for rather than historical events, this date in the church calendar is concerned with abstract doctrine which has perplexed theologians and everyday beleivers alike for centuries.

For 2 000 years we, as the church, have tried to do the impossible: to describe God, who is ... essentially indescribable. To put into finite, limited words the infinite, unlimited God. After lots of huge theological debates, the church came up with various formulae such as the Nicene Creed and the Athenasian Creed. The Athenasian Creed describes God as Trinity in this way:
God the Father: incomprehensible.
God the Son: incomprehensible.
God the Holy Spirit: incomprehensible.
Someone once said that when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, 'we're like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina!'
Perhaps, at this point, we could all possibly just pack up and go home, muttering under our breath 'okay, got it, God's incomprehensible. Time for a cuppa then.'
Or, we could try to tease out a way that we can begin to comprehend the incomprehensible - well, at least a little.

One way of trying to sort through this incomprehensible doctrine of the Trinity, and our infinite, unlimited, incomprehensible God, is thinking within the context of something we do understand in part: relationship. A chap called Robert Watson said of creeds and formulas that 'the formula doesn't save us: love does.' The power at the heart of the universe is love. Christ is the most complete form of love who ever walked the earth, and the Holy Spirit is Christ's love among us at Pentecost. The essence of the Trinity is love...relational: community love.

An earlier version of the Iona Community's morning office had the words: 'God in perfect community.' And one way that might help get us thinking about this perfect community of our God who is one and yet three, is by looking at Rublev's icon, painted about 1410. It depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at Mamre - but is often interpreted as a depiction of the Trinity. As is usual in icons, the image is full of symbolism, designed to take the viewer into the mystery of the Trinity. And the way it's presented, the way the figures in the picture are portrayed, imply that each of these figures is in relationship to the other. Let's have a closer look at the picture.

First, let's look at the faces of the three figures: they're identical, indicating their 'one-ness'. Their unity - the nature of their relationship - is indicated by the way their heads incline one to the other, almost making an outline of a circle. This shows how they're bound together as one by a common will and mutual love: love unites them.
Look at their clothing: each wears something that speaks of their own identity:
the Spirit is shown wearing green, symbolising new life and growth;
in the middle, the Son is clothed in brown, symbolising the earth - his humanity... while the gold stripe speaks of his kingship;
on the left, the Father wears a shimmering ethereal robe: the One who is Creator can never be fully seen by his human creatures...
yet... common to all is the colour blue - the colour of the heavens, symbolising divinity, and their unity.

As we look at this particular representation of God as Trinity, can you sense the movement, the the Father gives to the Son, the Son is constantly returning praise and glory to the Father, and the Father and the son give to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit constantly draws everything back to the Father and the Son. Rublev's icon shows a relationship of mutuality, of equality, of love which is non-hierarchical, and which works cooperatively and in harmony.

As we continue looking at the icon, we can see the three figures sitting around a table. Look closer: in the foreground there is an open space. The Spirit points to this place, inviting us to sit at the table, to complete the circle. What is suggested by this composition is that God is not turned in on Godself, endlessly contemplating divine perfection, but God turns outwards, in love towards the world, and towards us. It's like the nature of God's love spills beyond the relationship within God's self: God reaches out to us and invites us in to a relationship of love - with God. As with God's love spilling beyond the relationship within the Trinity to each one of us, that love spills beyond each one of us, building relationships with others, and with the world - the whole of creation.

As we think about this icon of God, God who is in harmonious relationship with Godself, God who is united in a common will and in mutual love, what implications does that have for us? Because in Genesis we're reminded that we are created in the image of God. And in our readings, and in Andrei Rublev's attempt at describing God, what we see revealed is an image of God in relationship - Father, Son, Holy Spirit... of God who is the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer... of God the Beloved, the Lover and the Love.
However we name those different aspects of God's nature, the stress, the emphasis, is on shared equality.

In a world that seems to thrive on a divide and conquer way of being, in a world that thrives on hierarchy and power at any cost - which you see in microcosm if you watch 'The Apprentice' - the One in whose image we are made calls us to reflect in the world and to the world something totally other, something completely subversive and radical:
to build relationships not founded on the need to dominate, but to build relationships of mutuality, respect and love - which intrinsically understand that all human beings are made in the image of love, in the image of God.

So, when we see situations where people are denied the opportunity to reflect God's image because of situations of oppressive, crushing poverty...
when we see situations where the image of God is veiled because of hunger, lack of clean drinking water, lack of shelter - in a world that has the resources to feed and shelter every one of us...
when we see situations where those who are created in God's image are beaten,
raped, tortured, unjustly imprisoned... what is it that we should do?
What can we do?

Our calling - and as Christians we are a called people - our calling is to go into the world, whether it's somewhere beyond our borders, or in our own backyards...
our calling is to go to the dark places where the reflection of humans created in God's image has been concealed, or diminished or in some way obscured... and and in and with and through the power of the One who calls us...
to break down the structures of injustice,
to bring light into the darkness,
to bring life, new life, in situations that seem to be a living death,
to bring love into those barren landscapes where love is sorely lacking.

We are a called people, God's people in the world, called to do all of this so that God's image - God's likeness - in human beings is once again revealed and reflected and restored... and brought into harmonious relationship:
with each other,
with the world,
and with God, One-yet Three who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.
As we look at the icon once more, we're reminded of God:
who is Trinity,
who is in relationship,
who offers us a model of mutual love and common will - a model on which to build our lives as God's people in the world, committed to living in relationships that have at their heart love, mutuality, service:
a love that is modelled on God's overspilling love which creates a place at the table for all.

And thinking back to childrens talks on God as Trinity...
I have a strong hunch that God is probably not a sputnik...
But I have an equally strong hunch that as we are immeasurably loved by the God who is in perfect community, so we are to reflect God's love - God's image - and be a community of love, because:
we believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirity,
the Three-in-One and One-in-Three,
God in three persons,
Blessed Trinity.


JohnO said...

Good thoughts.
I seem to recall McDowall using that image in one of the ST2B lectures. He kept going on about the Trinity being about 'grace' and I just couldn't get my head around what he was on about until I asked what he meant by 'grace'. We get so hung-up on the simplisitic Sunday school definition of "God's Riches At Christ's Expense" that we forget the real nature of grace.
I remember him describing it as ever-giving, ever-loving, selfless relationship.
A lot of things dropped into place at that point and implications of such a description still challenge me, and will always do so.

Kate said...

I'm disappointed at the lack of heresy in your sermon! :) But found it beautifully written and challenging nontheless.

Hope it goes down well today. Happy Trinity Sunday!