Sermon preached by The Vicar of the Close, Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 13:11-14
Gospel: Matthew 28: 16-20
My clerical colleagues must have been wonderfully impressed by my sermon from this pulpit last Trinity Sunday; so much so that, by their universal acclaim, I have been selected to preach once more on the Holy Trinity – or so it seems to me, and I am sticking to that interpretation of events, rather than the more mundane one of random coincidence.
There is good reason for that in the subject-matter itself. For at a mundane, pedestrian level, the Holy Trinity seems a nonsense. But let our imagination fly, and we can catch a glimpse of the eternal celestial dance of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – not indeed locked into an everlasting figure of eight with each other, but dancing something much more like the Dashing White Sergeant. For the choreography in that, you may recall, demands that the trio of dancers face outwards, meeting, greeting and joining the dance with each successive trio on the ballroom floor. It is the idea – and the fact – of the Trinity that gives God His dynamic force, that kind of combination of convergence and tension which you find in a string trio. It is exciting, not entirely predictable, creative. And above all, it involves a relationship.
The dancers and the players have their own internal dynamic, each approaching the others from a different point, yet weaving their counterpoint into a mysterious wholeness and unity. The relationship does not stop there, internally, but looks outwards to others – dancers, players, listeners, onlookers. All are involved; all are drawn in. And that is the magic of the Trinity: it is how God draws us in. As Father He reveals to us the divine, the numinous. As Son, we find a historical person with whom we can identify, and who identifies with us. As Spirit He enables us to engage in prayer, to be in communion with Him, and to be fired to do His work.
All of this, of course, depends on our ability – which I would say is innate – to use our spiritual imagination. And here a word of warning. It is easy, but mistaken, to think that if something is
imagined it cannot be real. On the contrary we can easily imagine in our mind’s eye things that actually exist; we do it all the time. The idea of the Trinity is something we can grasp imaginatively (rather than numerically) in our search for God. That does not mean it is purely imaginary. Jesus’ mandate to his disciples in today’s Gospel, to baptize new followers “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” was not some obscure theological construct. It was rooted in the life and experience of those very disciples: they prayed, as Jews, to the Father; they knew Jesus; they became fired with the Holy Spirit.
There has recently been considerable, and predictable, coverage of Richard Dawkin’s remarks at the Cheltenham Literary Festival on the subject not, for once, of religion but of fairy tales. They have come under his critical scrutiny as being at best implausible and often downright impossible, and therefore – like religion – bad for children; and for adults, of course. It has been mischievously pointed out that a belief that the universe was randomly created from a chaotic collision of atoms is also so implausible as to be well-nigh impossible. Leaving that aside, we should note the materialist’s view that only what is tangible, visible or provable is worth considering; all else is (possibly dangerous) fantasy. This is a decidedly impoverished view, which seems to allow little scope for the development of our aesthetic and spiritual imagination – indeed all that makes us essentially human. And part of that humanity is a desire to reach out to something beyond ourselves, to the eternal and the divine.
I am suggesting, and I strongly believe, that for Christians it is the concept of the Holy Trinity which enables us to have a strong, reasonable and developing relationship with God. But St Paul, writing to the rather troublesome Corinthians, in today’s Epistle, points out that communion with God brings with it its own responsibilities. These centre on the need for us to be in proper communion with our neighbours also. If we do not listen to one another we are unlikely to “live in peace”, let alone “agree with one another”. It was a lesson the Corinthians needed to learn; so, I think, do we. When we look at the world’s most troubled places – perhaps, at the moment, Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine, as a preliminary list - we find one of the root problems is that rival factions do not listen to each other. They seek or hope to retain power and control, and close their ears to those they would oppress or dominate. The result is clear to see – discord, civil war, destruction of homes and of innocent lives. That is the extreme; but there is plenty of what might be called ‘impaired communion’ closer to home, possibly in our own lives.
Let us make today’s communion an opportunity for “the God of love and peace” to be with us, as St Paul urges! Then, by the Father’s grace and the Spirit’s enabling power, we may with joy receive the Son’s promise: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”