A God of relationship

This is the text of a sermon for Trinity Sunday, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 6:1-8.

Last year the vicar was criticised on Facebook for letting me (or should I say making me?) preach on Trinity Sunday, because some people felt it was a “wasted opportunity” for a mere curate to preach on such an important topic. I shall do my best to make sure that this morning’s sermon exceeds their expectations and is not a wasted opportunity.

But it is a problem, this question of the Trinity. In holding on to the idea, we are alienated from the faiths which are otherwise closest to our own, we grapple over whether to accept some church groups as properly Christian, and we remember a history of long and bitter struggle – even martyrdom – over what can seem like a very abstract idea. It’s hardly surprising that teachers in the church can struggle to explain why it’s been such a central issue.

There’s a temptation, I think, when confronted with the idea of the Trinity – especially if, like me, you don’t find it an easy thing to get your head around – a temptation to decide that what we think about the Trinity doesn’t really matter. But I think it does, and I want to focus on just one aspect of that this morning.

If you think of God as being not a Trinity, but One person, there is one thing that that God does not have which the Trinity does; and that is relationship as part of God’s very nature and eternal reality. A God which is not a Trinity must create others – the physical world, angels, human beings – with whom to experience that relationship, and those relationships are always profoundly unequal; the worshippers and the worshipped. I think this morning’s reading from Isaiah conveyed the depth of that gulf beautifully.

In contrast, if we believe in a God who is a Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all uncreated, each eternal – we believe in a God who is intrinsically and eternally in God’s very nature a relational God. In the relationships within the Trinity – says the Creed of Athanasius – “none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another.” But these three are united in purpose and perfectly cooperative in action, each contributing their part in submission to their shared dream for creation.

And here’s the important bit about that, for us in our everyday lives. If this is how God relates within Godself, then this is the model for ideal human relationships. Within the home, within society, and within the church, we are given a model for relating to one another in which position and hierarchy are suspect; in which power is relativized, and in which the importance of shared vision, shared purpose, and mutuality in taking up the work involved are set forth as the highest possible example, and we are shown our opportunity to reflect and even participate in the divine glory.

This way of relating to one another is important because people are important. The Trinity – like the home, like society, like the church – is comprised of persons in relationship. True healthy, Godly relationship will build one another up, creating unity which celebrates our diversity, never impoverishing us all by marginalising or reducing to silence or stillness people who are an integral part of who we are.

Here we have a stark judgement of our continuous failings; because in the light of the Trinity, we have no excuse for any domination of one human being by another, or of one group of human beings by another. No excuse for war; no excuse for economic exploitation; no excuse for leadership structures which silence the voices of the powerless; no excuse for patriarchy; no excuse for racism; no excuse.

In particular, an understanding of the Trinity as a perfect relationship of equals undermines the patriarchal view of marriage put out by some Christians as reflecting eternal submission of the Son to the Father. If Jesus’ submission was not eternally of his nature, but an outworking of the cooperation of all the persons of the Trinity to achieve their will for creation, then we cannot use belief in the Trinity to argue for wifely submission, but have to acknowledge that the ideal set before us is one of unity, cooperation and mutuality.

I’m not saying that there will never be leadership and authority exercised by some, that’s a necessary part of our human relationships; but it’s about how that is exercised, with reciprocity, consensus and concord, in a spirit of mutuality and service.

This understanding of God also calls into judgement our individualism and our consumerism; our belief that fundamentally, we stand alone in this life, and our tendency to relate to one another for what we can get out of it, rather than who we can be to, for and with one another.   How we relate to one another shows clearly how deeply we have been shaped by the worship of a God of perfect relationship. This vision of God as Trinity challenges directly each of us when we, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuates division within ourselves, and between ourselves and others. We all have our share in the making and the perpetuating of these wounds. There is a need for the healing of these rifts; a healing which for us, lies in our Lord and God whose inner life of loving relationship overflows into and renews the life of the church.

All of us are here today because something about God has been attractive to us. The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us. Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy. God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

The Lord be with you.

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10,000 views

Today, I note that I have had a total of 10,000 views of my blog.  For a blog I started for my own interest, and haven’t really promoted, that seems a fair number over the last couple of years.

I can see where some of those viewers have come from, in terms of other places on the web, but it seemed like a good time to pause and ask some questions about you, my readers.

If you’re visiting my blog, how have you found it?  What interests you about it?

What would you like to read more of?  And what do you dislike about what you’ve read?

If there’s anything about this blog that’s disappointed me it’s that relatively few of the posts attract much comment, so I’d be really grateful to hear from you all.

Two ways

This is the text of a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is Psalm 1.

“Happy are they who refuse the way of evil…” The psalm this morning wrapped some lovely imagery – of fruitful green trees by clear flowing waters, with unfading leaves, and so forth – around what seems like quite a stark division of the world’s possibilities into just and righteous on one hand, and evil on the other.

If that seems troubling to you – that we might be encouraged to see the world in terms of black and white, right and wrong, and to overlook the complexity of human reality – then today I want to encourage you to get beneath the surface of that a little bit and examine the implications of this kind of thinking.

This psalm is one example among many – both within and outside the Bible – of what is called the “two ways” approach to ethics or morality. Think of Jesus telling his followers, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the gathered people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” and so on.

There are many other examples, and this way of thinking, which – with some variation – was important in ancient Jewish, Christian and Pagan ethical thinking, was prominent in the writings of the early church, and continues to be expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. In his spiritual exercises St. Ignatius included a “meditation on two standards,” in which the person undertaking the exercise is invited to imagine the army of Christ and the army of Satan, drawn up to do battle, and to choose to seek a place under the standard of Christ.

So what’s the appeal? Is it just that we all like a bit of certainty? That there’s some comfort in the idea that there are right answers to life’s puzzles, and that I can know what they are? Superficially, perhaps, that’s part of why this sort of approach has persisted for so long. But I think there’s something deeper to it as well.

You see, if someone tells you that there are two paths in front of you, and tells you about the blessings of one and the dangers of the other, even if that person doesn’t say so explicitly, he or she is setting before you a choice. And in doing so, that person – the author of the Psalm, in this case – is affirming your ability to make a choice. This is an approach to ethics which has at its roots a conviction that a human person is, in a meaningful sense, a moral agent, and that the will and choices of people actually matter.

This view of human beings skirts around the pessimism of the Calvinists, who will tell you that the only choice many humans can make is which sin to commit, without going to the other extreme and saying that since we are justified by grace, all options are open to us and equally good.

No. A “two ways” approach to ethics says to us first, that we are able to choose, and second, that our choices matter. It affirms our dignity as moral agents, neither puppets of greater forces nor completely bound in oppressions that we cannot transcend, and impresses on us our responsibility to choose well; because our own individual happiness, the flourishing of our community, and the healthy functioning of wider society, all are shaped by the choices which we make.

There is, however, a twist to this, particularly in the context of Christian thinking. All too often, people have made the easy identification of the right way – the way of the just and righteous – as simply being part of the church. So the dualism of right and wrong gets carried over into thinking in terms of insiders and outsiders; we the green trees drinking deep from the waters of the Spirit, and outside, the sinners, the mockers, the evil doers. Us and them. And God on our side, of course.

But I don’t think it’s that simple. Christians can make bad choices. We do it all the time. And those outside the church – even if they don’t recognize God in terms we can easily affirm – can and do bear fruit in due season. So if we have meaningful choices in front of us, they have to be more than just the choice to express some sort of party loyalty. The church is a good thing – don’t misunderstand me, if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have committed my life to it! – but in ethical terms, at least, it’s not an end in itself.

So what is the end? Although the psalm says that the righteous prosper, this is not an encouragement to a kind of prosperity ethics, one which says that if we make the right choices God will bless us by giving us all that our hearts desire. The image of green trees growing by flowing waters is not, ultimately, just about how lovely it is for the trees. Instead, throughout Scripture large, shady and fruitful trees are a symbol of God’s blessing for others.

Think about the parable of the mustard seed; so often what we focus on in that parable is the growth of a great shrub with large branches from the smallest of all seeds, and of the glory of God in bringing about that growth. But remember how that parable ends: “…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The smallest of all seeds becomes a source of shelter and security, a place of blessing, a place through which God works to provide good things for his creatures.

I wonder what it might be like to consider your own ethical questions – your own moments in which you are confronted with real choices – and to make your choice in trust that if your heart follows the heart of God well enough, even your very small choices might become opportunities for God to bless others, providing for their real needs through your integrity?

It’s a very high view of human potential. But not, I think – looking out at all of you – too high. We are capable of real and meaningful choices. We are capable of taking delight in the knowledge of God’s way. We are capable of being like green trees, made fruitful by God for the blessing of the world.   And in this, if we choose it, may our joy be made complete.

The Lord be with you.

Getting botanical

This is the text of a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is John 15:1-8.

One of my small regrets – I have very few – about going into ministry is that I get very little opportunity to draw on my background in science. So I’m really pleased to be preaching this morning, because this reading gives me the opportunity to get a little bit botanical, as I reflect with you about the life of plants, and what it might mean to live as part of a vine.

Jesus said, “I am the vine.”  He also said, “You are the branches.  Abide” – that is, remain – “in me.”  That picture of Jesus as the vine made me think about how plants live and grow; what role in the life of the plant the different parts of the vine have, and what it might mean for us to be a branch of the grapevine.

It also made me think about how we remain in him.  Christ is risen and ascended.  While I don’t want, in any way, to imply that we don’t each have a personal relationship with Jesus, we participate most fully in that relationship by being part of the community of believers, part of what Paul tells us is the body of Christ.  We are the body of Christ; we affirm it week by week; and we need to understand that in that sense, this community is the vine.

But let us take a few minutes to consider the life of a grapevine, and how it functions and stays healthy – starting at the bottom.

The roots of a plant are often not obvious or even visible at a casual glance, and yet as anyone who’s done some weeding will remember, they can be surprisingly big and resilient.  If the body of Christ is the vine, then it follows that he is at the roots of our faith.  And roots do a couple of really important things for a plant.  One is that they draw water and nutrients up from the ground to the rest of the plant – to the branches.

Here we have, I think, no very surprising ideas about Christ.  Earlier in John’s gospel, he promised the woman at the well springs of living water, gushing up to eternal life.  And he taught the crowds who followed him that he is the bread of life.  Water and nourishment – in abundance – are to be found in Christ.  Remaining in him, then, as branches of the vine will mean that we look to him for that nourishment.  That is serious encouragement to us to consider our lives of prayer and reading, and how we nourish our spiritual lives.

The other thing that roots are really important for, and this function they share also with the trunk or main stem, is support, structure and balance.  Without this part of the vine, it would be prostrate on the ground, sort of the plant equivalent of a jellyfish.  Not really able to grow or live well.  And it occurs to me that we each need these supports in our lives of faith as well – unless we are happy to be the spiritual equivalent of jellyfish!  Developing some discipline, and allowing ourselves to be accountable to others in the church, gives us some structure when life is confusing and overwhelming.  Carrying one another’s burdens, caring, and being willing to share our own gifts and stories helps to provide the support and balance that a healthy community needs.  These are things which we cannot experience if we try to live a life of faith on our own.

But what then of the branches?  I think there are two things to say about us as branches.  One is that we are the growing edges of the vine.  It is the very tips of the branches which stretch out to new areas. And I would suggest that one of the things we should look for in ourselves, as healthy branches, is whether we are being stretched and reaching out.  This stretching can be in the interior life, in the stretching of our personal response to God.  And also, at the same time, this stretching means paying attention to the people around us, and looking for the ways to build connections with them.

The other key thing about branches is energy production.  It’s in the leaves – on the branches – that the plant produces all the energy that it needs to survive and thrive.  Without wanting to bore you all to tears with the chemical details, the water drawn up from the roots, with the help of the energy of light, goes into making the sugar that every cell in the plant needs.  I think it is very helpful to recognise that something vital happens in us when the light of God in our lives, and the nourishment he provides us, meet.  There is energy for us, there is something which keeps each of us going, keeps the church going, keeps the kingdom of God real and manifest in this world, in this meeting of elements, in us.  That is, none of it would be realised without us.

Which brings us, finally, to the fruit.  It is the energy produced in the leaves which is needed for a plant to produce fruit.  The fruits of the plant are its reproductive bodies; they hold the seeds of new life.  And again, a bit like the growing edges of the branches, this is true for us both in our interior lives – we remember the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace and so on – but also in the new life that comes about as new people are drawn into and become part of this community, this vine which ultimately is Christ.  This is another thing that simply can’t happen in the church without us functioning as we should.

But what, you might ask – and it’s an important question – what about that bit about pruning, withering and burning?  That doesn’t sound so positive.  It sounds somehow like punishment for failing to reach a high enough production level.  But look carefully at what Jesus says.  His comments about the branches which whither and are burnt come after his instruction to “Abide in me.”

If we remain in him, we will remain healthy, able to bear fruit, able to be the people we are created and called to be.  If we remove ourselves from him, if we deprive ourselves of all that the vine offers – the water, the support, and so on – we should not be surprised to find that we are dried out, lifeless, fruitless, and not able to continue.  I suspect that Jesus is simply pointing out the obvious; a branch away from the vine dies, and there its possibilities end.

I hope that by now, you’re starting to see some of the potential that we have as a branch.  In this community, joined to Christ by our baptism, joined to him in his death and resurrection, the new life we celebrated not so long ago at Easter invigorates us, filling us with possibility, even to the smallest growing bud.  Nourished, watered, given structure and support, able to be a people of dynamism and growth, able to produce fruit, in Christ we abide indeed.  Alleluia!