As Christians we are all ‘called’ (and I use a vocational word) to show in our lives the love of God (which is not an attribute of or adjective for God but the essence, the very identity of God). And we occasionally succeed in this showing the love, but mostly we fail. Indeed, to be a Christian is to be a failure, to be incompetent, in this calling to embody the love that is the pulse of life, and resuscitation for the hope-depleted. A successful Christian is an oxymoron.
To name this failure is not to dwell in negativity or some state of ongoing breast-beating and penance. It is simply to admit what is obvious, that given our high calling we are a community of failures, and therefore need to be gentle towards others, as we wish others to be gentle towards us. Gentle is the only way. Grace always comes to us gently.
Today is Trinity Sunday - a Sunday set aside to reflect on the unique nature of Christianity’s God, and a day that many clergy seem to try to avoid preaching on. This is I guess because the 3rd century debates on Trinity - reflecting the intersection of cultures (Hebrew, Greek, Latin), not to mention the intrusion of Caesar’s political agenda, is felt to be best left to those times long ago. The days of arguing that our notion of the ineffable and transcendent is the superior one seems not only dated arrogance but somewhat obscene when we look at the life-threatening issues before us. On the streets who cares if God is one, two, or three, or one in three, or three in one? Who cares about arithmetic when there is suffering and oppression?
Here I’m reminded of the Russian Orthodox Church locked in serious and earnest debate the night before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Their debate wasn’t about poverty in their land, or the failure of the Russian variety of feudalism, but about liturgical garments. I wonder what the church assemblies and synods in Hong Kong are presently discussing. Does it, will it, make sense on the streets?
As for Trinitarian debates and the Creeds they produced (the latter becoming, tragically, a head-level litmus test for belonging), my prayer is may the days of religious tribal competitiveness end and may we find a global cooperation and selflessness - the undergirding needed for the crises on our doorstep.
Or put another way we need a Trinity ethic rather than a Trinity doctrine.
I have a friend, an Anglican priest, who earlier this year announced his conversion to Islam by publicly refuting Trinitarian doctrine. Both sides of the argument that followed his announcement had a very literal understanding of Trinity. I engaged with him in private: respecting his journey, respecting there are many ways to climb the maunga of God, hearing that it was the communal discipline of prayer that drew him, and sympathising with him that there were many aspects of his new faith he found unpalatable. Like most Christians do with our faith tradition he was picking the bits he liked. We agreed that in the end it’s what we do, how we love, or try to love, in helping others that matters.
In the Irish Times this last week there has been considerable comment on the release of a document from the Vatican titled “Male & Female (God) Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education’. The document has such pearlers as ‘gender fluidity is a symptom of the confused concept of freedom’. It also rejects terms like intersex and transgender, and instead talks about the purpose of the biological ‘complementarity’ of male and female sex organs.
The worry in Ireland of course is that given the large number of Catholic schools this document could be widely taught. Much of the document’s criticism in the newspaper was coming from Irish Catholic clergy.
The Church, and here I also include our own denomination, need to when faced with something beyond the experience or comfort zones of the majority just put your tongues on pause and allow the love that reflects our best selves be our guide. It’s what we do, it’s how we love, which matters.
Trinity is known in the heart, rather than in the mind. It’s a heart-song.
I would like to suggest this morning that a Trinitarian ethic could be the relationship sung between love and suffering, and the hope that might arise from this.
Encapsulated in the word ‘love’ is the compassion, kindness and hospitality that shines through the best of our tradition and practice. Encapsulated in the word ‘suffering’ is all that we try to avoid: loss, pain, abuse, manipulation, greed... And encapsulated in the word ‘hope’ are the small glimpses, those fleeting moments of transcendence, when suffering and love touch and both cannot remain the same. In those moments of transformation hope is born again.
Whilst in Sligo, as one does, I read poems of W.B. Yeats:
The old priest Peter Gilligan
Was weary night and day
For half his flock were in their beds
Or under green sods lay.
Once, while he nodded in a chair
At the moth-hour of the eve
Another poor man sent for him,
And he began to grieve.
‘I have no rest, nor joy, nor peace,
For people die and die;
And after cried he, ‘God forgive!
My body spake not I!’
He knelt, and leaning on the chair
He prayed and fell asleep;
And the moth-hour went from the fields,
And stars began to peep.
They slowly into millions grew,
And leaves shook in the wind
And God covered the world with shade
And whispered to hum’kind.
Upon the time of sparrow chirp
When the moths came once more,
The old priest Peter Gilligan
Stood upright on the floor.
‘Mavrone, mavrone! The man has died
While I slept in the chair.’
He roused his horse out of its sleep
And rode with little care.
He rode now as he never rode,
By rocky lane and fen;
The sick man’s wife opened the door,
‘Father! you come again!’
‘And is the poor man dead?’ he cried
‘He died an hour ago.’
The old priest Peter Gilligan
In grief swayed to and fro.
‘When you were gone, he turned and died,
As merry as a bird.’
The old priest Peter Gilligan
He knelt him at that word.
‘He Who hath made the night of stars
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of this great angels down,
To help me in my need.
‘He Who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.’
Peter Gilligan was trying to be faithful to his vocation (to embody the love called God), yet his Sunday adherents were declining and his people were aging and dying. This was written in 1892 and yet is describing the reality for 90% (maybe more) of ministers and priests in Western countries today. And like most of that 90% Gilligan is exhausting himself physically and spiritually in trying to make a difference. And so, one night, after determining to visit a dying parishioner and his suffering wife, he falls asleep.
When he awakens ‘at the time of sparrow chirp’, he has that OMG moment and rushes with haste to rectify his failure. But somehow, mysteriously, in the land of thin places and lyrical stories, a minister/an angel in Gilligan’s guise came that night, and gave the solace needed. The last two lines of the poem observe that the omnipotent God cares for planets but also attends to the needs of an exhausted priest, striving and failing, and to his dying flock. There is love here. And there is suffering here. And, miraculously, in that mix hope too is found. This ballad is a song for the heart.
Trinity is about the heart, rather than the mind.
In most of the memorable stories of Jesus you can find this swirling musical interplay. Luke 10: The love hospitality of the parable’s Samaritan reaches out to the bruised and suffering man, and hope – challenging the audience’s racism - arises. John 4: As love and suffering swirl around the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus [both of whom I would suggest exhibit love and suffering], hope – a template even for interfaith cooperation – arises.
Even the traditional reading for Trinity Sunday - one of the few instances in the Bible where Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mentioned in the same sentence - can take on a different hue if we consider that the apostolic commission was to live an ethic, to sing a song, rather than proclaim a doctrine. Imagine they were going out to love, to care, to show forth – however inadequately - the love of God, to live compassion (compassion literally meaning to ‘suffer with’), and in the swirl of all that some hope, some grace might come.
I close with a little bit of Celtic wisdom adapted from Robert Van De Weyer:
You cannot grasp water in your hand.
It drops through your fingers.
You cannot grasp love in your mind.
It drops through your thoughts.
You can only possess water by drinking it,
Taking it into your body.
You can only possess love by living it,
Taking it into your heart.
And so it is with God.