A Sermon from Sherborne
Let’s have a good gossip about the Trinity
A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Trinity Sunday, 27 May 2018, by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Gossip, officially, has a bad press. Here’s a typical quote: ‘Be warned: A person content to sit with you and criticise others will start criticising you as soon as you are out of earshot.’ And we know it’s true.
I love the story of the Anglican Vicar, the Roman Catholic priest, the Methodist minister and the local rabbi who agreed that their relationship would never deepen until they shared with each other their own secret vices. The Methodist minister began, and admitted that he was very partial to a large gin, usually disguised inside orange juice. The Roman Catholic priest confessed that he was rather too partial to the ladies, and had once or twice gone astray. The rabbi admitted to a secret passion for bacon sandwiches. The Vicar just smiled and said nothing. His colleagues pressed him to admit to his most besetting secret vice. ‘Well’, he said. ‘I can never resist a good gossip. And I just can’t wait to get out of this room.’
As Bertrand Russell said long ago, ‘No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.’
But gossip is not all bad. We have been discussing how to boost the numbers at our monthly, child-friendly, Short Abbey Service, which takes place on the third Sunday of each month at 11.15 am. It started really well, but numbers have gone down. Should we simplify the service even more? I don’t think so. Should we turn it into a mini-gang show with songs? I’m determined not. I want it gossiped abroad, all over town, as the best thing that families can do on a Sunday morning. Just half an hour. Once a month. Punchy and direct. A great introduction to ‘church’ for their children. And older folk who find the 9.30 Parish Eucharist too early or too long will enjoy it too. Gossip it all over town. Better still – add a personal invitation and bring people with you.
But go back to the last quarter of the 4th century, and you will find a bishop who thoroughly disapproved of gossip. St. Gregory, Bishop of a rural diocese called Nyssa, to the east of Constantinople in modern-day Turkey, sometimes had to travel to the capital. Back home after one such occasion he complained in a sermon that everybody in the city was talking about the Trinity:
Constantinople is full of mechanics and slaves, who are all of them profound theologians, preaching in the shops and in the streets. If you want a man to change a piece of silver, he informs you wherein the Son differs from the Father; if you ask the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you enquire whether the bath is ready, the answer is that the Son was made out of nothing.
Well, you and I, I think, will never encounter anything quite like that in Sainsbury’s or Waitrose. Ours is not a generation which has much time for what Martin Luther called ‘the mathematics of the Godhead’, about what is at once Three in One and One in Three. It all seems to reduce the essence of Christianity to an arid and unintelligible formula, talk about which should be left to consenting theologians in private. So where does that leave us today, as we peer gloomily at the Athanasian Creed in the Book of Common Prayer? ‘The Father incomprehensible’, we read, ‘the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible [but] not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible.’ ‘The whole lot incomprehensible’ we mutter in disgust, and throw the book into the corner.
But suppose that, instead of doctrinal definitions couched in the language of the Greek philosophical tradition of the early centuries AD, we instead do the Biblical thing, the Hebrew thing, and try to understand this mystery by the use of vigorous image and metaphor. Take, for example, the young man who loves a girl but finds that his love is not returned but rejected. Unrequited love is perhaps the loneliest, the most solitary, thing in the world. It leads to heartbreak and tragedy. Love, true love, cannot be solitary. It must be offered and received and returned, in equal measure, really to be love. And in the same way God, the God of love, cannot be solitary. There must be within God the interchange of love, the offering and receiving and returning of love. The Christian way of understanding this comes from Jesus’ own understanding of the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s corresponding love for the Father: ‘I and my Father are one’.
But when we see a young couple head over heels in love, with eyes for no-one else but each other, we realise that they have not yet reached the maturity of love, the fullness of love, which needs constantly to replenish and renew itself by overflowing to others: children, friends, neighbours, those in need. And in the same way within God there has to be a constant overflowing of the love the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father, and that love overflows to us in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s love overflowing to you and to me, as we are brought into the reality of the Holy Trinity of love.
Or think of a woman who is loved by her parents and loves them in return, loves her husband and is loved in return, loves her children and is loved in return. She is known in different ways by different people: her parents know her only as daughter, her husband as wife, her children as mother. She is simultaneously these three things – daughter, wife, mother – and this makes her who and what she is, and if she loses (say) her parents, then she is diminished, as we are always diminished by the death of someone close to us. But she is not three people, only one. She is a trinity, a trinity of love.
Or imagine yourself out in the mountains, or deep in the countryside, or down by the sea. There it is not hard to be aware of God the Creator, the Father of us all, who made the world so beautifully and so well. We become aware of God above us, over us. But as we read the pages of the Gospels, we become aware of God the Son, Jesus Christ, the friend and brother to whom we can talk as easily and familiarly as we talk to one another, and to whom we can bring our joys and our sorrows, to whom we can turn in the sad times and the glad times. Here is God, not over us but with us, alongside us. And then, as we open ourselves to this God and allow him to enter into our hearts and lives, so we discover God working within us. And this is God’s Spirit entering into heart and mind and soul, to comfort, to encourage, to strengthen and to guide us. The Holy Spirit is God in his nearness to us, God in us. Deep answers to deep. When the Spirit moves us to pray to our Father, and prompts us to say ‘Jesus is Lord’, there is God within responding to God beyond. We are caught up in the great interchange of love within God himself – and that is what the Trinity is all about.