A Sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
The Feast of the Holy Trinity
Christ Church St Laurence – 11 June 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
From the conclusion of the Gospel according to Matthew: Jesus said to them, ‘and remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Matthew’s Gospel does not document an account of the Ascension of Our Lord, but only a mountain-top encounter, in which the resurrected Christ is revealed to the 11 remaining apostles. In this divine revelation, Christ promises to be with his disciples until the end of the age. Matthew’s Gospel concludes with Christ’s promise that, although they will inevitably be separated in a physical sense, the love that they share will be ongoing; this love will continue to unite them forever. At 6.50am on the 29 March this year, Wilf Russell, a World War II veteran, died peacefully in a typical English nursing home. A 93-year-old war veteran dying peacefully in an English nursing home is sad, though not really a news-worthy event. What is remarkable is that Mr Russell’s wife, Vera, died in another nursing home 4 minutes later. The couple were married for more than 70 years, and had endured a great deal of anguish and uncertainty in their lives. Engaged as teenagers, and married in their early twenties, the devoted couple were recently separated, owing to the type of health care that they required. Mr Russell died peacefully, and Mrs Russell left this earth 4 minutes later; 6 kilometres away, and without having been told of her husband’s death—a mere coincidence or perhaps something that is destined to remain a mystery. While the deaths of Mr and Mrs Russell were a little unusual, other married couples have left this world in similar ways. Some marriages, perhaps even some extraordinary friendships, grow so close over the course of a lifetime that spouses finish one another’s sentences; they seem to live and breathe as one. Today, on Trinity Sunday, the day that is often described as the preacher’s nightmare, we are not reflecting on two life partners who seemed to become as one. Rather, we struggle with this doctrine of three persons in one God; we might say three persons; still living and breathing as one.
Most of you know that, in my former life, I was a school teacher; and some things never leave us completely. Forgive me if this next part makes you feel like you’ve suddenly been transported back to school. If you’re not already reading the Sunday Notices, I invite to pick up the weekly pewsheet and turn to the back cover. Andrei Rublev’s Icon is perhaps the most common depiction of the Trinity. It is also commonly regarded as the most important example of 15th Century Russian Art. Although this icon is generally interpreted as an image of the Most Holy Trinity, the artist was probably inspired by the three angels who visit Abraham in Genesis Chapter 18. The three angels or the three figures are carefully arranged to form a circle—an unbroken circle of unity, mutual love, peace and humility. 2 If you are still holding your pewsheet, I now invite you to take your index finger and place it on the image of God the Father. Hopefully, you are finding this an impossible task. The beauty of this icon is that the three figures are different, and yet they are the same. I once heard this image described as an offensive piece of modern feminist theology. I don’t think the critic realised that it was 500 years old. The complaint was that, surely God the Father should have a beard, and God the Son, should also have a beard—though perhaps not quite as bushy. In the first century, and indeed in the 15th century, a senior male figure would have suggested superiority and dominance. No figure in this image is subordinate or superior. No person in this icon is obviously male or female. It simply represents an equal and an unbroken circle of love, into which the viewer is invited to join. This theological concept of an unbroken circle dates from much earlier, even than the 15th century. In the seventh century, John of Damascus described the relationship of the Trinity as “peri-cho-resis”, which literally translates as “the circle dance.” (…that’s your second lesson for today. You may put your pewsheets down, or go back to reading the Sunday Notices).
The doctrine of the Trinity is unique to Christianity, and yet it is foreshadowed in the Jewish Scriptures. In the first Scripture Lesson today, Exodus Chapter 34, the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with Moses. This revelation seems to go against the transcendent understanding of Yahweh. However, this experience of Moses on Mt Sinai prepares the way for the Christian understanding of the Trinity: Yahweh is an eternal being, and yet Yahweh reveals the divine presence to a human being; and within the heart of Moses, Yahweh creates a response to this divine revelation. There are three parts to this divine encounter. We are very wrong if we interpret Yahweh merely as God the Father. For the Ancient Israelites, Yahweh was the seamless and complete divine presence, just as the Trinity is for us. When Christ reveals his risen presence to 11 confused and doubtful disciples, it is not intended to be some sort of spectacular party trick. Rather, it is the assurance that the story continues. The love they shared did not end on Calvary. They have been drawn into the circle dance; the complete and ongoing divine relationship; the unbroken circle of mutual love.
Jesus said to them, ‘and remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Although I could be described as a tragic case, I simply delight in reports of elderly couples dying moments apart, and other stories that speak of transcendent love—stories that suggest that, when life ends on this earth, love continues in the next. This is what we affirm whenever an unknowing child is baptised in the name of the Trinity; this is what we affirm whenever we remember our baptism. We affirm our belief that our faith is not a memory of something that happened thousands of years ago. Instead, it is a dance in which we dare to participate; it is ongoing and infinite love. This is the faith that we boldly profess again and again, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.