Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Trinity Sunday 2017
Start Date 11th Jun 2017 11:15am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian

So—yet more political uncertainty for the UK, following Thursday’s election; piled high on other uncertainties about Europe, the USA, global terror. The news, it seems, brings nothing but a continued confection of bewildering, disconcerting events. But that’s not where we’re immediately directed to look this morning. Trinity Sunday directs us, more simply, just to look at God.

The trouble is that’s not easy either. You may know the ancient story which tells of the visit of an Emperor to a Jewish Rabbi: ‘I should like to see thy God, said the Emperor; Impossible, said the Rabbi; But I will see Him! insisted the Emperor’; so the Rabbi led him out into the bright sunshine and pointed upwards; the Emperor tried to look into the sun but could not: its brightness blinded him; he bowed his head.

And it’s true—we cannot fully see God. It’s a moral and intellectual impossibility for flawed, finite creatures. How could we ever see the beauty of absolute holiness? How could we ever fully fathom the mystery of supreme being? As our first reading reminded us, an infinite creator God is beyond finite reach, so our vision, words, understanding, pictures, concepts, of God are all bound to fail. ‘Our little systems are but broken lights of thee…thou O Lord art more than they.’ warned Tennyson.

Our vision will fall short in various ways. Sometimes our words reduce God, scale Him down to our size, subject Her to the indignity of being patronized; the piety of much homespun prayer—‘Dear Father, I just want you to know I praise you, you’re so great, so please help me today’—for all the world as though God is a fickle father who needs to told things, has to be flattered and cajoled into action.

Or we may complicate, codify, abstract God, wrapping Him in the riddles in technical language, impossible concepts of scholastic philosophy: God as ultimate essence and existence, absolute being in three different but mysterious modes, ‘the Father incomprehensible, Son incomprehensible, Holy Ghost incomprehensible’, as the Athanasian creed has it (the whole damned thing incomprehensible as one famously commentator put it!) The intention is to pay God some sort of metaphysical compliment, but the effect is merely to subject Her to another indignity: that of being addressed more like a mathematical theorem which is constantly tested by theologians to see whether it adds up.

Or else our words and vision fail simply by slipping into vacuous generalities, and we do God perhaps the greatest injustice of all: we dissolve Him into nonentity, just a sort of spiritual ether of the universe, everywhere in general, nowhere and nothing in particular; the prayer of much contemporary spirituality: ‘O life force, O Spirit of all things’

All this—being too naïve, too abstract, or just too vague—is a consequence of trying to look into the sun, and failing. So perhaps there is much to be said for reverent reticence: the sort of reticence of much Jewish and christian religion where God has no proper name, where all we can presume is to touch the outskirts of Her ways, indirectly; just through the metaphors of ceremony and symbol, or the medium of music.

And yet—Christians are also born of something else. The reality of revelation. The conviction that the unknowable God has also made Himself ;knowable, uniquely knowable, in the human, historical, public event of the life of Jesus Christ—where God deliberately filtered Her strong bright light so that we can gaze at Him, speak of Him, understand at least a little of Him, in human terms. That’s what revelation means: it’s not complete knowledge; nor is it special private insight earned only by a few with special spirituality; but in Christ it is a public gift to anyone, a gift of as much as we can grasp of God in human terms.

By giving Himself away, showing Herself to us like this, God did indeed risk being patronized, abstracted, generalized, misunderstood—as surely as He risked being physically maltreated when He came among us in person. But He took that risk, He did not stand on His own dignity, because it seems He wanted us know Him; talk to Him, speak of Him; He wants our prayers, even our theology, even when it falls short—as surely as human parents want their children to stutter their way into any sort of conversation, however poor. Why? Because like any parent, what God wants more than anything else is real relationship with His children, which in turn can only come from real mutual communication.

What we also saw in Christ is how deep-rooted all this is in God. For to look into the sun like this, through the lens of Christ, was to see that this divine movement of self-giving for us is also embedded in the very structure of God’s own being. For what we saw in Christ was God in constant conversation with God, God relating to God; we saw God in human terms (the ‘son’) in profound mutual self-giving relationship with God the Father, enabled by the Spirit. In short, we saw God not just as a buffered self-contained individual but as an eternal self-giving relationship within His own being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each giving themselves to each other, as well as overflowing to us. And that is what Trinity means. It means God is love.

It is an extraordinary revelation. And, surely, a revelation which uniquely compels us to respond. For in the light of this how can we stay reticent, even for the best of motives? How can we not risk opening up ourselves, risk at least trying to relate to God and others in response? It is the only thing to do once we have seen that this business of self-giving love, real relationship, communication, isn’t just an option but the very structure of ultimate reality, the deepest grain of the universe to which everything must tend - just as surely as the arc of the universe must ultimately bend to justice—because this is what God is!

I admit, I still prefer reticence. I prefer to keep myself to myself, not give myself away. Keep whatever shreds of dignity I think I may have. I am English after all! But I know it cannot be, when I look at God: ultimately we must all join in this divine movement of self-giving in some way (even if we do it in a reserved, reverent way according to our own temperament and culture! ).

None of this changes the daily news. The uncertainties and contingencies of daily life remain, even after we’ve looked into the sun and seen all this. But we will see those uncertainties differently. They will not rule us. They cannot rule us when we have gazed the sun, dared to look into eternal truths, when we have seen that the way of self-giving love, real relationship, real communication ;is what God is, so only that way can prevail, in the end…

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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