Trinity Sunday, 15 June 2014, St Mary’s, morning

Readings Isaiah 40.12–17, 27–end; Matthew 28.16–20

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

There is a new digital channel, ITV Encore, showing the best of ITVs drama output. It launched last week, and so I was able to catch up with a series I had missed first time round, the multi-garlanded Broadchurch. By staying up a bit too late each evening last week I was able to catch every other episode including the last one. Broadchurch is a nightmarish story brilliantly told, in which a boy called Danny is murdered. It’s set in a friendly seaside town, with schools, a skateboard park, a paper shop – and a church to which people actually go, like they do in real life. Paul is its young and believable vicar. He’s friendly, flawed but seems to be doing a pretty good job; and he has some good lines. When he meets Beth, the boy’s mother, in the supermarket car park, she admits she doesn’t think she believes in God. ‘It’s not compulsory,’ he says.

As the horror bores its way into the town and relationships are turned inside out, passion and anger and longing emerge. The church services, spread through the episodes, act like a Greek chorus as Paul expresses from the pulpit the feelings of his parishioners and, as a reluctant prophet, tries to comments on them. His big problem is how to talk about God, because – whoever it was who done it, God didn’t stop it, as Danny’s father Mark shouts in his face at one point. ‘Why would a benevolent God let this happen?’ asks Paul, ‘Have we been abandoned?’

One answer might be one in the first part of the Isaiah reading: God is the vast, remote, unknowable deity to whom the nations are ‘a drop from a bucket…less than nothing’. What is the death of one child to such a God? Yet by the end there are hints that God has never been far away, and that it’s still true, in 21st century Dorset, as Isaiah says later in the reading, that God gives ‘power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.’

When people picture God, generally they don’t just dream things up casually; it’s for a reason, and often not as a result of cool, impersonal reasoning, but because of what they think they have experienced of God. Isaiah’s words probably come from the period when his nation was in exile in Babylon. Why would a benevolent God let that happen? Had they been abandoned? In this reading, Isaiah gives his answer, in words that have resounded ever since, that God is not mascot but, for those who turn to him, a source of strength that never fails.

Where was God in Manaus last night? You didn’t need to be a lip-reader to see that Daniel Sturridge thought God was involved in the equaliser he scored for England against Italy. Was he right? The theologically correct answer is surely that to God all the World Cup nations are like drops from a bucket. Yet any Bible-reading player would surely be right to hear these words addressed to him and his team (in another sporting context, Ian Charleson read them as Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire):

Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young shall fall exhausted,

but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.

 

People generally picture God not from cool speculation but in the light – and heat – of their experience of God. Take the words of the gospel reading, in which Jesus sends his disciples to baptise everyone ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. We use that phrase every Sunday, it sounds like a formula, official words you have to use, like ‘terms and conditions apply’. But say those words to St Paul and he will tell you they are a matter of life and death.

Read his letter to the Galatians in the New Testament, it’s only five pages long. It isn’t a cool piece of writing; it’s hot with passion and anger and longing, and it reveals a man whose life has been turned inside out. Paul believes in God as the creator, the one from whom all life comes – of course he does, he’s a Jew – but then he meets Jesus; which is odd, because Jesus had been executed some years before. Paul, though, is convinced that this long dead, failed rabbi from Galilee has encountered him: ‘God,’ he says, ‘revealed his Son to me’. And Paul believes that this was no fleeting vision, he believes he has been caught up into the life of this young prophet whom the rest of the world thinks dead and gone – if it thinks about him at all. No, says Paul, it’s not Jesus who’s dead; it’s me: ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.’ How so? Because God has sent ‘the Spirit of his Son’ into Paul’s heart, so that what was characteristic of Jesus – that radical trust in the one he called Father – is becoming characteristic of Paul and his fellow Christians. Paul is still Paul – he’s not turned into Jesus – yet he is conscious of being more than Paul. When he does something it’s Jesus the Son of God working through him; when he prays, it’s the Spirit of God in his heart that prays, offering God back to God (Galatians 1.16, 2.20, 4.6).

Have you ever felt like that? You did something or said something and it was just what was needed; and it was you, yet it wasn’t: it felt like it was ‘given’ to you to do, or the words were spoken ‘through’ you. Such a moment brings a tiny glimpse of what this universe is for. And where is God in that moment? Up in heaven? In your heart? Somewhere between you and that person you helped? Or all three?

Trinity Sunday, this day of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, this festival of the ‘threeness’ of God, can seem like a day when you are asked to vote in a referendum about a thing you don’t understand and which you cannot see affecting your life. It’s not. It is an invitation to see – to feel – that God, the source of all that is, shared our flesh and blood in Jesus, and now dwells in your heart and mine and is the electricity between us, what the Bible calls the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

On the final page of your order of service is a poem by George Herbert. When we come to the giving of Communion, take a few moments to read it. He wrote it for this day, Trinity Sunday. He never mentions Father, Son or Spirit by name – it’s as if he’s anxious not to let us turn today into a puzzle about a formula – but instead he is earthy and visceral and personal:

Lord, who hast form’d me out of mud,

And hast redeem’d me through thy bloud,

And sanctifi’d me to do good…

 

Yet everything about the poem – three verses, each with three lines and so on – is about the threeness of God, which for Herbert (and, he hopes, for us) is not theory to ponder but a life to live

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,

With faith, with hope, with charitie;

That I may runne, rise, rest with thee.

 

George Herbert from The Temple (1633)

 

Notes

Eric Liddell and Isaiah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjF59VB0h6g

George Herbert’s poem

Trinitie Sunday

 

Lord, who hast form’d me out of mud,

And hast redeem’d me through thy bloud,

And sanctifi’d me to do good;

 

Purge all my sinnes done heretofore:

For I confesse my heavie score,

And I will strive to sinne no more.

 

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,

With faith, with hope, with charitie;

That I may runne, rise, rest with thee.

From The Temple (1633)

 

The poem never mentions the Trinity but is Trinitarian throughout: it is comprised of three verses of three lines; the lines in verse 1 refer to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit respectively; verse 2 embraces past, present and future; and in verse 3 each line has three elements.

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