Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Trinity Sunday 2013
26 May 2013 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
In four weeks or so, the summer solstice and Midsummer Day will see an end to the lengthening of days; the nights will begin to draw in as the year begins its downward journey towards another winter. It seems too soon. But it will come. We approach a turning point in the yearly cycle: a time for reflection.
In the Church’s Year, we are also at a turning point. We have enjoyed, since the Church’s Year began last Advent, the two great cycles of Christmas and Easter with their weeks of preparation beforehand and weeks of celebration afterwards. The Easter cycle finished last Sunday with the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the apostles and on the Church. Now, as we embark on the downward turn towards the cycles beginning again, the Church offers us on Trinity Sunday a moment of contemplation, when we turn our attention away from the details of our Lord’s life and ministry to ask the fundamental question, the most fundamental question of all: Who is God?
T S Eliot’s Choruses from ‘The Rock’ seem to offer us little hope or comfort. Eliot sees both the cycle of life – the perpetual revolution of times and seasons – and also for each of us the inexorable march towards our own inevitable death.
‘The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying.
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.’
Eliot sees the object of nearness to God not being achieved by the ‘endless cycle of idea and action, endless invention, endless experiment.’ To be near to God, knowledge of words is no use, he suggests, if we are ignorant of the Word. The only way of being near to God is by knowing our Lord Jesus Christ, the self-revelation of God.
This being near God, we have to face it, is obviously not easy. We cannot see God; we cannot hear God, touch God, smell God, taste God. God is not accessible to any of our bodily senses. We cannot even remotely imagine God, conjure up God in our mind’s eye. We may have glorious images in our mind derived from biblical texts of the ancient of days seated on a high throne surrounded by angels, but we know these whilst glorious are no more than images.
St Augustine in a sermon asked, ‘What then are we to say of God? For if you have grasped what you wish to say, it is not God. If you have been able to comprehend it, you would have comprehended something else in the place of God. If you had been almost able to comprehend it, your mind has deceived you. That then is not God if you have understood it. But if it is God, you have not understood it.’ So we are warned not to think we can have any real idea of God.
A German theologian Martin Buber, who was later to become a professor at the Hebrew university in Jerusalem, in the 1920s wrote a little book called Ich-Du, I-You, sometimes translated I-Thou. He wrote of two attitudes: I-It and I-You. The I-It attitude to the world, to animate or inanimate objects and persons, an attitude that perceives and understands them, recognises their existence as it were on a map or grid of objects, lays them out like dead butterflies pinned to a board. And he contrasted I-It with an I-You approach that is entirely relational, that recognises a person or indeed a thing as having a particular meaning for me. To stay with the butterfly image, I-It has a butterfly laid out on the board and allows the viewer to analyse its size, make-up, colour etc. I-You is startled by the beauty of a butterfly fluttering in a lavender bush by the garden path or in the rampant wild buddleia.
Applying this analysis to the question how we can be near God, we might recognise, with Martin Buber, that an I-It understanding of God is impossible, since we cannot truly know about God, or as St Augustine said, comprehend or grasp God, but we can have an I-You or I-Thou relationship with God: we cannot know about God, but we can know God.
In fact Jew and Christian alike believe that God has spoken and therefore revealed himself through the Law and the Prophets. As Christians we further believe that God has fully revealed himself through his Word, our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is true because God is relational, is indeed a relationship of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And God reaches out to share the love he enjoys both in the Creation itself and in the supremely loving act of sharing our life on earth through the Incarnation of his Son and through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection overcoming death and sin so that we might live for ever with him.
We have heard all this in today’s lessons. In the book of Proverbs, God’s Wisdom, which the Church has understood to mean the Holy Spirit, is seen as there from the beginning. ‘When God established the heavens, I was there, I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.’ Note the mutual delight and rejoicing, even in the human race.
And St Paul is clear that ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,’ just as our Lord promised to his apostles before his Passion and Death, ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’ Our Lord also spoke several times about the intimate relationship between him and his Father: ‘I and the Father are one.’ And in today’s gospel reading, ‘All that the Father has is mine.’
Through Christ, the revelation of God, we can know God. Moreover we can know that God invites us into a relationship with himself. A true relationship with God is possible for us.
There is a wonderful Greek term for the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit that we celebrate today: the term is perichoresis, which means that the three Persons which together make one God are distinct but – how can I put it? – interpenetrated. There is an English version of the term: coinherence.
In that same sermon from which I quoted earlier St Augustine spoke of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as separate but inseparable; like a person’s memory, intelligence and will, separate but inseparable. They coinhere. A Latinate term derives from the Greek: circumincession. This is sometimes taken to mean engaging in a beautiful mutual dance together. And God calls us to join the dance, to dance with him.
If we do join the dance, our inexorable journey to death will be a journey towards the full delightful revelation of the One with whom we have already begun richly to share our lives, and whom we enjoy. Our chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Although in this life we see through a glass darkly, as St Paul recognised, one day, we are promised, when this life is over, we shall see God as God sees us, and know God as God knows us, which is better than we know ourselves.
And the bliss of that realisation will bring the cycle of times and seasons to an end and that moment – a moment of stillness, a moment of silence, a moment of the most profound joy and peace – that moment will be eternal.