Saturday, May 17, 2008

Trinity

I’m a little bit worried about Dot.  Now I’m not talking about either of our Dots here at St Michael’s, I’m not worried about either of them.  I’m talking about Dot the character on Eastenders – the whole episode I saw on Friday night consisted of Dot talking to herself – more precisely she was reminiscing about her life into a cassette recorder for her husband, Jim, who’s in a coma.  If it sounds a bit like a plot for a soap opera that’s because it is.  I’m a bit worried about Dot because it seems to me the writers of Eastenders are hardly likely to devote a whole episode to her unless they plan to bump her off.

For anyone who doesn’t know the Eastenders, Dot is the Christian one, the one who makes you cringe a bit because she’s always going on about Baby Jesus, and generally quoting the Bible at people – she does a good job of making Christianity look a bit corny – but she’s also the one who manages to see the good in other people when everybody else is ready to write them off, Dot is the one who gets made fun of a lot, the one who gets left out a lot, but she’s also the one who helps other people out when they’re in trouble, the one who forgives people no matter what they do.  So I hope the writers think again about doing something dastardly to her.

But what struck me as particularly poignant about Friday night’s episode is that, as she talked to her husband who might or might not ever get to hear what she is saying Dot tells him that she can only ever remember being happy once, for a short time during the war, when she was evacuated from London and billeted with an elderly couple in the country.  ‘All the other children cried when they left London on the train’, Dot tells us, ‘but not me.  I knew I wasn’t wanted anyway.  But Aunty Gwen and Uncle Joe, they wanted me.  I remember sitting between them, on the couch, while they talked to each other, one on each side of me, and I was ever so happy because I knew I wasn’t in the way’.  The point is that Dot hasn’t had a very happy life.  But she knows what happiness is.  It’s to be with people who love you, people who love each other enough to let that love stretch out a little bit at the edges and wrap it around you too.

And that reminded me of the Trinity.  It reminded me of some other stuff as well, like Jesus telling us as he has been these last few weeks in St John’s gospel, ‘abide in my love – love one another just as I have loved you, and I will abide with you’, or the succinct-est ever definition of God that we get in the first epistle of John, ‘God is love’.  Not, ‘God loves a lot’, or ‘God is loveable’, but an actual definition of what God is, ‘God is love’.  And that’s the basic truth of God, God’s love that spills over in the act of creation, God’s love for human beings made in God’s own image, and it’s also the central and most important theme of holy scripture.  Theologians sometimes make it sound more complicated than that.

And I think that the ancient belief in God as a Trinity is most importantly a statement about the experience of God as love.  We need to understand God as a community, because it’s in community that we come to understand what love is about.  So belief in the holy Trinity of Creator, Redeemer and Spirit is a claim that God has created us in God’s own image, as creatures both of earth and of heaven, and has given us the breath of life.  And it’s the confidence that God loves us enough to share the reality of our lives, both the joy and the suffering of human life, so that we can be joined together in love forever.  And it’s the belief and experience that God loves us enough to be the Spirit at work in us disturbing our complacency, inspiring out creativity, igniting our love and illuminating our lives.

We come across the doctrine of the Trinity in all the ancient creeds of the Church, but I must admit I particularly like the Creed of St Athanasius, that mouthful up at the very end of the Prayer Book that refers to, ‘the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible’.  To which theologian Dorothy Sayers added, ‘the whole thing, incomprehensible’.  Of course theologians have grappled with the concept down through the ages – some creatively and helpfully, others less so.  But I think the basic gist of Trinitarian faith is not an academic exercise at all, it belongs just as much to all of us who have ever tried to work out what it means to belong, to be loved, to be welcome.  What it means to abide in love in the community of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is exactly what Dot is telling us about on the Eastenders, as she sits there with a fag in one hand and a cuppa in the other, and she remembers the warmth of sitting there in between Aunty Gwen and Uncle Joe and being included in their conversation and the unspoken embrace of their love  To stand up in church, as we do every week, and say, ‘I believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit’, is the same thing as saying, ‘God is love.  God loves the world that God has created.  God loves everyone, everywhere, no matter what, and welcomes us into the flow of God’s own life’.  To think of God as Father/Creator, as Redeemer and as Spirit reminds us that God above all, is a God of relationship, that God’s own self is relational, that God is known to us most fully in relationship.

God is not static and remote, but intimately interconnected and breathing with the life of all creation.  And that means God is not only in relationship with us but is present to and moving within our relationships with one another.  Just think of that childhood memory, the little girl sitting between two old people, listening to their conversation and feeling the warmth of their love for one another and for her, too.  This is a family relationship but more than that, it’s an experience of God’s own life experienced and interwoven into our family, personal and human relationships.

The belief and description of God as Trinity means something deep and profound in our own lives, and it also means something deep and profound in the life and mission of the Church.  Because when we see God as a community of love – as Father, Son and Spirit – then we begin to understand the whole purpose of the Church is to incarnate that love – to give it a concrete, human shape - and to proclaim the welcome to that love..to everyone, everywhere, and always.  The understanding of God as a Trinity of persons reminds the Church that loving relationship is both at the heart of God and at the heart of the identity and call of the Body of Christ.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus himself articulates the call and mission given by the God who is Trinity. "Go, teach, proclaim, baptise..." These are the action-oriented ‘Trinity verbs’ found at the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. They grow directly out of our experience of God’s love that we have seen fleshed out in Jesus, and they suggest – to me, at any rate - that the whole purpose of us being the church is to announce that love broadly and hopefully – not just in what we say about it, but in how we enact it, how we give it flesh and blood.

In my last parish, at Belmont, my sister in law Chris used to come fairly regularly with all six of her children – my little nephew Peter who was just going on nine used to sit as still as he possibly could whenever he had to sit through one of his uncle’s sermons but clearly thought there were better ways of spending a Sunday morning.  So I was a bit surprised once when Chris told me she had asked Peter what I had talked about that morning.  ‘Oh, the same thing he always talks about’, Peter told his mum.   ‘He just goes, blah, blah, bah, blah, God loves you, so you’ve got to love each other’.

And that’s about it, really.

Amen.