Monday, May 31, 2010

The Most Holy Trinity - Ian Boxall

The Senior Tutor, Ian Boxall, preached at the Mass on the Most Holy Trinity. The gospel was John 16:12-15:

One of the many advantages of spending my childhood holidays in Croydon, is that I have very vivid and happy memories of long summer daytrips to London. Normally my aunt came with us, and one of my earliest memories is of her stern warning about watching our step as we walked the London streets. ‘Make sure you tread carefully in the middle of the paving stones,’ she would say. ‘Under no circumstances step on the lines, otherwise the bears might get you.’ She, of course, was of that generation which had absorbed the verse of A.A. Milne, best known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh, and Milne provided the mantra as we made our way very gingerly along the pavements:

Whenever I walk in a London street,

I'm ever so careful to watch my feet;

And I keep in the squares,

And the masses of bears,

Who wait at the corners all ready to eat

The sillies who tread on the lines of the street

Go back to their lairs,

And I say to them, "Bears,

Just look how I'm walking in all the squares!" (A.A. Milne, Lines and Squares).

Now it is possible to treat the doctrine of the Trinity in a similar way, as a perilous journey down the assault course of a London street. Stray a little too far to the left, and you might find yourself crossing the line into Modalism; go too far to the right, and you could step over the border into Monarchianism. Go a bit too fast, and your foot might slip into Adoptionism; trip up on a loose paving-stone, and your whole body might topple over into Macedonianism. If we keep on the street too long, there is a strong danger that we might be exposed as Unitarians or Tritheists. All around us, meanwhile, there are threatening bears waiting to gobble us up: with names like Arianism, Sabellianism, and Apollinarianism. Apparently, the only way to get through is to keep your head down, watch out for the lines, and keep repeating the mantra: ‘Not three eternals but one eternal’; ‘not three uncreated but one uncreated’; ‘not three incomprehensibles but one incomprehensible’.

Yet Christian faith in God as Trinity is perhaps not best imagined as a set of military manoeuvres designed to provoke anxiety. On the contrary, the precise definitions and rules about what can and can’t be said about God are there to make the journey easier for us; to free us from the trap of worshipping a God who is just too small, or too remote, too unfit for purpose and ultimately unable to save us.

This is underscored when we turn to today’s scripture readings, and learn that the doctrine of the Trinity is cause not for anxiety but rather for delight. Our first reading from the book of Proverbs offers us a highly poetic alternative to the account of Creation at the beginning of Genesis. Wisdom calls out, describing how she was present with the LORD in the beginning, as a master-builder, intimately involved in the construction as the wisely-planned creation began to unfold. Or alternatively (to read the Hebrew a somewhat different way), Wisdom is depicted as the creator’s child, playing with the creation like a new toy of which she thoroughly approves. Whatever the translation, we hear this passage on Trinity Sunday in recognition that, as early as the New Testament itself, Christians have seen in this figure of Wisdom a vision of Christ: present with the Father before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills were formed, when the heavens were established and he drew the lines between the land and the sea (Prov. 8:22-29). Far from the vision of an unmoved mover, we see a God who delights in what he has made, who draws circles as well as lines between squares as he brings order out of the chaos of the deep. More importantly, however, the Father delights in Wisdom, and Wisdom in turn delights in the world that is coming to be, and especially delights in the human race which has emerged as the pinnacle of that creation. It is a vision of mutual delight which issues forth into delightful creativity.

Then, in St John’s Gospel, we hear that the Spirit of Truth is also intimately involved in this divine delightfulness. ‘He will glorify me,’ says Jesus, ‘because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ The Spirit doesn’t take away honour from the Son, anymore than he offers some new revelation which upstages that provided by Jesus. The Spirit glorifies the Son just as the Son has glorified the Father, and as the Father is about to glorify the Son in the hour of his death and resurrection. All that the Spirit does and says is to enhance the Son’s reputation. Picking up on the language of Proverbs, which John has already exploited in the Prologue to his Gospel, we might even say that the Spirit is that delight which the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father.

What about us? What implications might this divine delightfulness have for our own lives together in this place, centred on the worship of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Timothy Radcliffe puts it this way:

‘The persons of the Trinity are not three ‘imaginary friends’, in the words of Dawkins, three people with whom I can have fantasy conversations. Rather friendship with the Triune God reshapes my perception of the world. Believing in the Father, the creator of heaven and earth, I see everything with gratitude. Believing in the Son, I delight in its intelligibility and seek understanding. Believing in the Holy Spirit, I am thrown beyond myself in love’ (Timothy Radcliffe OP, Why Go To Church? London and New York: Continuum, 2008, p. 72).

There is perhaps a certain irony for those of us in this community, that we celebrate Trinity Sunday at this time of the year, when our leavers are about to depart and a new community formed. For in St John’s Gospel, from which we heard today, it is precisely in the context of a departure that we are given the most explicit glimpse into the life of Trinity. In the Upper Room, as Jesus takes leave of his disciples and prepare them for what lies ahead, he opens up as it were the heart of God. In the dynamic relationship between Father, Son and Spirit that Jesus reveals, we see an overabundance of delight, with no hint of self-absorption or selfishness, nor rivalry or jealousy or one-upmanship. At the very point of departure, albeit in a scene tinged with sadness and apprehension, John invites us to listen into a dialogue at the heart of God: the God who is love, who so loves the world that he gives his only Son, whose parting gift to us is the love between them which is the Spirit. And bound up with this glimpse into the God who is love, is the new commandment, that ‘just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ (Jn 13:34).