Homily for Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016 – The Ven. Grant Rodgers
I pray in the Name of the One who gave birth to creation, who gave birth to Jesus, who gave birth to the life of the Church, and who is with us always, birthing, reconciling and guiding, and inviting us into the dance of life.
I want to say emphatically that we celebrate Trinity Sunday today, perhaps in contrast to the way you may have observed this Sunday in the past. It is also being called Anglican Communion Sunday, to celebrate our connections with Anglicans in over 160 countries around the world.
Reading the Bible as a young adult I encountered this passage: “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1: 26) – “our image … our likeness.” I had read enough English to know about the “royal we,” as in Queen Victoria’s alleged comment, “We are not amused,” but here was something which seemed to say more, which seemed to be saying that God could not be understood in terms of simple personality, not just someone like we are writ large, but that God is complex, multi-faceted, not just a being but a community of being, necessitating speaking in plural.
When I learned more about the doctrine of the Trinity it made some sense to me. No single image defines what God is, but Trinity is a way of saying that we experience and understand God in distinct and separate ways, or modes of being, and yet we know that God is not divisible, but one. Christians have traditionally asserted that the primary ways in which we relate to God are as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are not merely random and inconsequential terms or merely metaphorical, but as theologian Dr. Sally McFague suggests, we could just as easily use terms like “Mother, Lover and Friend” (Models of God p. 181). Or perhaps Lover, Beloved and Love. Or Creator, Reconciler and Sustainer. One consistent thing is that, for Christians, Jesus stands at the centre of any attempt to name or understand or relate to God.
Typically the readings for this Sunday are ones which seem to suggest and support this triune understanding: of God in three distinct aspects or personas. Jesus is quoted as speaking of God as being like a father or a parental figure, rather than as some remote and unknowable entity; and he spoke of a coming age of the Spirit in which people would be inspired and empowered to worship God in spirit and in truth, an age that would fulfil and validate ancient Israel’s prophetic hopes and dreams. Also, of course, the Church came to see Jesus as God’s Son, in a unique sense, as having been an embodiment and expression (Word) of the divine. These understandings all developed over many years (centuries) as the early Church clarified and solidified its beliefs and requirements for membership. Hence, the Holy Trinity.
But note that whatever the Trinity may be called, clearly God is being described as communal social, relational – not just a solitary being.
At Pentecost we remember that a new kind of community began to manifest that had roots in Judaism, but seemed capable of incorporating every kind of race and religion on the planet. It was the community in which the ministry of Jesus would be able to continue and expand; the personality and spirit of Jesus were at the heart of it and its life was intensely relational and personal. “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” People were not only invited to embrace it 100%, they were expected to. It’s never much of a community or family or parish when people are merely dabbling.
I said last week that we have tended to attempt to institutionalize things that cannot be institutionalized, in this case the Holy Spirit. As Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas says: “The Church is not simply an institution. She is a ‘mode of existence,’ a way of being. The mystery of the Church is deeply bound to the being of humankind, to the being of the world and to the very being of God. From the fact that a human being is a member of the Church, he [/she] becomes an ‘image of God’, he [/she] exists as God exists, takes on God’s way of being. This way of being is not a moral attainment, something that human beings accomplish. It is a way of relationship with the world, with other people and with God, as an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as the achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact” (Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church).
To emphasize this aspect of the communal, John Wesley said “there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.” In the sense that John Zizioulas proposes, “a person’s identity and self are deeply constituted by their relationships, such that a person could not be the same person were it not for the relationship – the relationship, in some sense at least, precedes … the person rather than the person preceding the relationship” (Patricia Fox, God as Communion, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2001).
As an expression of this, Anglicans do not celebrate private masses; in fact, for a Eucharist to be valid, a priest must also have at least one lay person present, and at events like weddings and funerals, a critical consideration is whether enough people will feel able to participate for the Eucharist to be what it is meant to be in such settings, i.e. it should be a symbol and sacrament of unity not division. It is never about individual and private gratification. Communion is about feeding and building up the community and that community is rooted in the very nature of God.
We are the somewhat unfortunate inheritors of a tradition which embraced Rene Descartes’ famous comment: “I think, therefore I am.” So we tend to live in our heads, and be somewhat disparaging toward certain ways of knowing and undersanding.
A more Christian way of expressing our truth would suggest a phrase like: “I love, therefore I am.” God is love, and it is when we enter into relationships based on love that we begin to dwell in God and God in us. As St Paul says, we are justified by faith rather than by how much we know. We don’t get into the kingdom because we understand God, because the key criterion of the kingdom is love.
As St Augustine said: “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you think you understand, you have failed.” Or, as another thinker suggested, no one was ever argued into the Kingdom of God! We don’t get into the kingdom because we understand God but because God loves us – because God IS love. We are invited into the kingdom as the people of a community are invited to a wedding celebration, an event in the ancient world where everyone was welcome and expected to be there, because in God life is about relationships and community.
A famous depiction of the Trinity by a Russian icon writer by the name of Andrei Rublev depicts three rather feminine-looking figures sitting round a table, obviously sharing some kind of meal and/or ritual. For Christians, the table, the meal, the agape, the fellowship, the communion, became absolutely central to its way of life.
You may have noticed that every time you enter an Anglican Church, the altar or table is absolutely central. Usually you have to go through the font to get there, which suggests the homely process of washing up for dinner – Baptism being a preparation for Communion or the meal, and the meal being a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.
We learn Christianity in a context – by relating – by being with people in a real and not token way — by seeing the living examples of others. It seems logical to suggest that we live it the same way – by relating, by being in community, except that as time goes on, we ourselves become the living examples that teach others what Christian life, and indeed God, are about.
What if the members were to make the choice to put the community first, to see the integrity of their relationships with others as the key to their salvation? How would that change things for you? For our church?
The Trinity is often pictured in the image of dance. An ancient Greek term, Perichoresis, describes the way the three persons of the Trinity connect and relate to each other, but it is also a metaphor suggesting dance — God’s dance of passion and creativity and love – God’s dance of communion.
One of the unfortunate aspects of our society is that we have lost or abandoned the communal dimension of dance. We’ve taken dance away from ordinary people and the community as a whole and put it up on stage, so dance become performance, sometimes as relics of cultures, sometimes as expressions of art, sometimes just as opportunities to show off, but we have lost the sense that dance has to be participatory in order to have real value. Something happens to us when we dance; when we enter the dance, some kind of transformation occurs, on a different level than when we simply talk about it or watch someone else do it.
Does Perichoresis – the Dance of the Blessed Trinity – describe or influence the liturgy of the Anglican Church as you have known it? Do the members truly connect – are they joined to each other? Is the Body of Christ connected and coordinated? One of the key things about dance is that it typically involves a partner or partners, to make it happen.
What would church look like if we really took that image to heart? What would neighbourhoods and communities look like if people could heeded God’s call to enter the dance?
You may have noticed that, when they hear music, children often start dancing quite spontaneously. I would suggest that is because it is something innate and an aspect of the image of the dancing God that is already within us. Jesus described children of his day complaining about the lack of response in the adults around them, saying “We piped for you and you didn’t dance!” How do you think the children of our day would respond if we danced more and talked less?
Think for a moment about the last time you danced for joy, for fun, for love. It might have been a very long time ago, but we know that when we really dance we experience a wonderful kind of freedom and fulfillment. When was the last time you danced in church? My liberation came at a clergy conference in Dallas, Texas 33 years ago. We were hearing all kinds of great, inspiring stuff, when this African-American woman came out on to the stage in the auditorium and began to sing. She sang “When the Saints Go Marching In” and insisted that we get up and move around the auditorium. Which we did. It was amazing. Virtually everybody, some 800 people – clergy no less, many dressed up in clericals — moving around in a sort of conga line singing our hearts out and loving it. The conference was transformed in the space of a few minutes. I did that to my last parish one Sunday when the heat failed to come on. After a couple of rounds of the Saints Marchin’ nobody was complaining about being cold any more.
For Jesus, it was obvious that keeping the community together was central to his plan. There is a reason why some have referred to him as the Lord of the Dance. Describing Pentecost, Luke says significantly: “They were all together in one place.” Sticking together, being together, not giving way to selfishness or individualistic tendencies, enables God to knit us together.
The Gospel is all about people who were alienated, separated, being re-connected, brought together – it is all about the dividing walls coming down – about people learning to relate to and even love their neighbour as themselves – discovering that somehow the whole human community is one immense self being manifested, the ultimate Self being God.
“There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” Jesus said. In this case the sin is the sin of separation, the rejection of the rhythm of others, the lack of trust, the denial of communion, the dismissal of the invitation to come to the wedding, the refusal to enter the dance of the Blessed Trinity.
Can we imagine God dancing in joy as we decide to let go of our myths of separateness and envy and fearful scarcity and begin to live in communion – in the dance around God’s table of plenty – the dance around the promise of God’s living, animating, inspiring presence?
King David had it right – to dance is to worship and to be a reflection of the jubilation that exists in the kingdom. How have we traditionally expressed our sense of who God is? Typically by standing ramrod straight and rather mechanically reciting the Creed – propositions about God. Stephen Freeman wrote: “Regarding the formulation of truth in dogmas, the aim of definition and anathema was to preserve “Eucharistic communion.” Zizioulas goes on: “Thus it may be said that the credal definitions carry no relationship with truth in themselves, but only in their being doxological acclamations of the worshiping community.”
What if we were required to dance our understanding of our relationship with God? What if dance became our language? I am betting the children would like it. Today, at least we sing it.
The Spirit is the go-between that lifts us out of the lethargy of dis-connection, and pulls us into fellowship – into communion – into something much greater than ourselves, so we see come to see life holistically, as a great expression of the unity which is God’s essential nature. God is Communion, and so it is when we are in Communion that we are revealing the image of God in us and those around us, because the Dance of the Trinity is never about us alone, it is about becoming one as the Holy Three are one.
May our celebration of Holy Trinity invite us out of separation into fellowship, out of sadness and into joy, out of gloom and into the light, out of our heads and into our hearts, where we feel God, embody God, and know God as love, in Holy Communion.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth — when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then 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.
Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
John 16:12-15 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.