Quiet Day – 17th May 2008 – Trinity and Unity

Despite the fact that my team are playing in the FA Cup Final, I am slaving away over a quiet day at the Sisters of Bethany in Southsea. Of course, when I promised to do this, there was no way that Pompey could get into the final, but that’s devotion for you…

As it is the day before the Most Holy Trinity, I am concentrating on the Trinity and the Body of Christ in two separate talks as models of Christian Unity.

Address 1

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let us pray:

Come Lord Jesus, in the fullness of your grace, and open our hearts to your will, our minds to your word, and your love to our whole being. May we each find in today what we came to search for, and amid what we search for, may we find you amongst us. O Lord and King, we strive towards you: our goal, our capstone, our eternal high priest, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen

Well, we would appear to be the only ones in Pompey not glued to a television set today, as we play in the FA Cup Final. However, this is a quiet day, and I promise that if you wish to be insulated from the football, then this house is probably the best place for it!

Tomorrow, of course is Trinity Sunday, and so it would be most appropriate for us today to consider some aspects of the most holy trinity, and consider the trinity not only in itself, but as a symbol of unity. It would seem appropriate, in the house of a religious order which prays daily for the Unity of All Christians, to consider during the two addresses of this Quiet Day, the nature of Unity, to consider what Unity means, what Unity costs, and above all, with whom we actually seek to have Unity; using the Trinity and other scriptural models of unity to discern it.

Before Priesthood, I worked extensively in the National Health Service, first as a Registered Nurse and latterly as a Manager. In one hospital I worked in, there was a newly built modern chapel, and it had a single Aumbrey: the box in the wall in which the Reserved Sacrament – the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ used for administration to the sick – was kept. Both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic Chaplains shared the same Aumbrey, within which was a very tasteful little glass partition, separating the sacrament consecrated by the Church of England and the sacrament consecrated by the Church of Rome. One morning, they found taped to the little glass partition the words: “IN CASE OF UNITY – BREAK GLASS!”

But is it indeed that simple? Can we simply sort out of differences and our arguments, simply break the glass so that all would be one? I would like to take you today, therefore, on a journey through unity and give us all something to meditate on during today’s quiet day; and as we think of unity, we think of all that it asks of the church, all that it asks of us, as individual Christians.

If we are to properly meditate on unity, then we should perhaps look first and foremost to the model of the most perfect unity: the Trinity. It is through the Trinity that we see a unity most perfectly formed – perfect elements combined in a single indivisible one. However, we should recognise that much ink and even much blood has been spilt over the doctrine of the Holy Trinity over the centuries. It is ironic that there should be so much schism, so much heresy and anathema on the fount of all unity.

The Trinity is a perfect model of unity, for the Three are One and the One is Three. They form a single Godhead, and yet they are most definitely distinguishable and differentiated charisms.

A Story:

the Lord High Bishop (clearly of a different generation to our own) imperiously sailed into the Sunday School room to have the children presented to him “I would like to ask you all some things… what is the Trinity” – and little Johnny’s hand shot up “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” he replied. Trying to engage the children, the Bishop tried to lead him on a little further “I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean, my young man” “You’re not supposed to, your Grace, it’s a mystery”.

The mystery, then, is how to apply something of the perfect to our imperfection; to take that which has no division and use it to unite that which has so much division. The key problem is this: we cannot ever fully conceive the nature of God, we can only understand that which is revealed to us. The nature of God has never been fully revealed, and so the Trinity must be seen as Karl Barth describes it as, a ‘revelation-in-progress’, the finality of which we shall not see until the Kingdom comes here on earth – an event called the Parousia.

The Trinity first came to our notice around 180AD, in the writings of Theophilus of Antioch. The Trinity is not seen explicitly in the Holy Scriptures. However, strongly Trinitarian themes can be seen throughout the Old and New Testaments, and more specifically the actions and interventions of different elements of the Trinity throughout history.

The Father is clearly the Creator of us all: the one who spoke and it then was. The Father is most clearly identified with the sacred name Yahweh, which was, until the new covenant, blasphemous to repeat, so a number of euphemisms arose: each time a line in the scroll containing the name ‘Yahweh’ was encountered, the reader aloud would substitute “THE LORD”, which is why a number of translations, such as the Authorised Version keep it in capital letters to signify it is a substitution. THE LORD, or Adonai in Hebrew was translated into Kryios in the Septuatgint – the widely used Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. You are probably most familiar with the petition “Kyrie Eleison” “Lord Have Mercy”. It is Yahweh-Kyrios who appears to Moses in the Burning Bush.

The Father has other names in the Hebrew Scriptures, many of them considerably older than the revealed name of Yahweh. Eloihim is responsible for the older creation narrative of Genesis 2, whereas the 7 day creation is attributed to Yahweh. As a wholly monotheistic faith, the Jews have no problem in identifying that Yahweh and Eloihim are one and the same.

The Son also clearly has a clear role in Scripture, for the Prophets predicted his coming and the Gospel proclaims the life and continued existence of a man fully human and fully divine: two natures and three persons, as revealed in Orthodox Iconography.

The Son, even while on earth was fully human and fully divine. We would not wish to fall into the trap of subordinationism, which places Father and Son in a hierarchy within the Trinity. In the same way, Christ was Christ before, during and after the incarnation. He was not a human being who was graced with divinity at some later stage (Adoptionism), nor was he a God which just ‘appeared’ to be in human form for our benefit, and therefore did not actually suffer on the cross (Docetism). It must be of some comfort to us, as humanity, to realise that the Trinity envelops our humanity as it envelops the personage of the Son.

“The Spirit of God which moved over the water” of Genesis 1 (Gen 1:2) and the Word or Logos which was in the beginning with God in the Prologue of the Gospel of John (John 1:1) is the same Spirit which Paul says leads us to confess that “Jesus is Lord” in his First letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:4). In later Hebrew writings, much is written of Wisdom, a feminine noun just like Rauch the spirit which moved over the water, and her actions, motivation and sustaining work can be seen to be directly analogous with New Testament descriptions of the work of the Holy Spirit.

We should not be too caught up in the application of gender to these issues, for English is a language poorly equipped to deal with the masculines, feminines and neuters of classical languages: God is all genders, God has no gender. Some languages even have a separate pronoun for God: he, she, it and God to emphasise this point. Our labels of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are those used through antiquity to describe this other, and no more.

Of the Trinity as a combined entity, the three men who appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18 are seen by many as an early indication of the Trinity. Trinitarian Scripture culminates in the great commission of Matthew 28:19 where the disciples are told to go and baptise all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Note that it is in the singular name of the three and not the plural names: for our God is a God of singularity, a monotheism and not a random selection of the pagan pantheon which was the prevailing religious climate of the Greek diaspora.

The source of much thinking about the nature of the Trinity comes from three Greeks known as the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus and Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, the latter of whom wrote a work the thrust of which is given away by its title: “On Not Three Gods”. We should not be intimidated by the sound of such austere Fathers, for much of their writing is an illumination on the Scriptures in which they were entirely pickled, and an application of classical Greek logic.

Our prevailing view is that which we know from the Creeds formulated by the Councils of Nicea (325AD) and Constantinople (381AD), which coalesced the Cappadocian’s ideas. We recite them each Sunday: that the Trinity is One, and that one is Three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is an eternal and co-equal partnership, “I am the Alpha and the Omega says the Lord, who was and is, and is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8)

It is not really their individual charisms which need interest us at this point, but the interplay between them.

But what does the Trinity say about our Christian lives? Clearly the Trinity can be differentiated: the personae have different actions on the world, as creator, redeemer and sustainer. They can at times operate individually – during for example the Incarnation, but never alone, for the Son continually referred to the Father and to the Spirit (especially in the Gospel of John). In the same way, the Spirit sustains faith today in the hearts of believers, but can only do so with the presence of the Son in a living relationship with that individual, blessed by the Father.

In the same way, our lives as individual Christians and as Churches need to mirror this diversity within a pattern of interdependence. It is simply impossible to be a Christian alone, for even the eremitic Fathers lived alone, together. This is why Communities such as the Sisters of Bethany exist: to provide a framework of Community in work and worship. In our daily lives, our faith is worked out in its interrelationship with others – how we act towards our neighbour (thinking especially of Christ’s Parable of the Good Samaritan) and how we share the Gospel Commission we have all been given, for Matthew 28:20 applies to all of us. Too often, as individuals and magnified as Churches, we believe that we are the only ones who are able to solve an issue: evangelise a new housing estate, work with young people in the inner city, befriend the elderly and lonely, and we allow our pride to get in the way of our mission as Christians. Collaboration and interoperation are at the heart of this model of unity.

The mutual relationship between the persons of the Trinity is described as perichoresis – mutual interpenetration – an idea with its roots in the Cappadocian Fathers. Perichoresis allows individuality to be maintained whilst insisting on sharing with others. It describes (literally) a divine dance between the persons and is best summed up in the words of Christ himself from the Gospel of John (Jn 14:10-11):

“Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;”

Trinitarian perichoresis allows us to both hold on to the individual gifts of the Churches and acts as an imperative for us to share together in common lives grounded in Christ. I am reminded of the Scriptural example of Luke 5:2-11:

When the disciples tried to haul the catch of fish into the boat – Peter had to call the others to help – this could be an example for us of perichoresis – a mutual interdependence. When a task needs assistance, we work together, dance together, share the workload and share the rewards.

None of this perichoretic unity calls for a negation of our individuality, but is a call to dance together, in the literal sense of perichoresis. We seldom dance to the same tune, even within our own Churches, and we seldom even have much idea within our own hearts what the tune actually is; but if we were to forget self for a short time, then we could still be able to dance our own tunes, to live our lives as separate and diverse elements of a not-quite-holy Trinity and yet still appear as part of a choreographed set-piece. The choreographer, of course, being the Holy Spirit, herself.

But unlike the dance of God, we stumble and fall, falter in our steps and get our timing wrong. This stumbling is the sin that ever confront us, and limits our participation in this perichoretic dance, no matter how much we are welcome.

To close this address, I would like to bring us some more of the visual. For here I have a copy of that most famous ikon: Andrei Rublev’s Trinity. It was painted around 1410 in Russia.

Let us just examine this ikon for a moment and explore what truths the iconographer is trying to express to us.

In the icon there are three angels, representing the three persons of the Trinity. They are seated around a table. There is a striking stillness, as if the three persons were frozen in time. At the same time, there is in the picture a sense of warmth and life that circulates among the persons of this Trinity, extending out to include the person at prayer.

The three are seated to the left and right of the table, and one in the back who faces the person at prayer. There is a place for one more at the table. There is a place for us. We are welcome here. We are wanted. We have been thought of. We are being drawn into this mysterious relationship.

The Son and the Spirit have their heads slightly bent toward the Father, their gaze fixed on him. The Son receives his being from the Father, from all eternity and with no beginning. The Spirit is this loving bond between Father and Son. In the reverent gesture of the Son and the Spirit, one becomes profoundly aware that all life has sprung from the Father’s giving. This concept is hard to wrap our minds around, and will remain forever the greatest of mysteries. But springing from the mystery of the Trinity, like a fountain, is the truth that the Father is a Person, initiating personal relationships and expressing personal love. The love that exists between Father and Son is so real and profound that it also exists, proceeds as a person, the Spirit.

To guide your meditations this morning, I would like to encourage you to visit this ikon at some point, and to engage with it yourself, to gaze upon the three and the empty place and to reflect on how you might dance with the Deity in the perichoresis of the Trinity.


Address 2

This morning we considered the Holy Trinity, and its dance which sweeps up the participants into a Trinity of mutual interdependence, not by sacrificing individuality, but by active engagement with others. The ultimate in active engagement is the interpenetration or perichoresis of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, recognising that we fall by nature of our sinfulness short of such deep mutuality with God. In this second address, I want us to consider another model of unity known to the Church: the analogy of the Body of Christ. It is through this essentially Pauline model that we see how even our imperfect humanity can function in a model of Godly, Trinitarian unity.

St Paul said:

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
(1 Cor 12:11-13)

In Paul’s letter to the ill-tempered, factional and in-fighting Corinthians, he speaks at length of the need for unity in diversity. His imagery of the body in disunity was well known within political circles, for Livy quotes the following in his History of Rome (2.32:9-12):

The senate decided, therefore, to send as their spokesman Menenius Agrippa, an eloquent man, and acceptable to the plebs as being himself of plebeian origin. He was admitted into the camp, and it is reported that he simply told them the following fable in primitive and uncouth fashion.

“In the days when all the parts of the human body were not as now agreeing together, but each member took its own course and spoke its own speech, the other members, indignant at seeing that everything acquired by their care and labour and ministry went to the belly, whilst it, undisturbed in the middle of them all, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures provided for it, entered into a conspiracy; the hands were not to bring food to the mouth, the mouth was not to accept it when offered, the teeth were not to masticate it. Whilst, in their resentment, they were anxious to coerce the belly by starving it, the members themselves wasted away, and the whole body was reduced to the last stage of exhaustion. Then it became evident that the belly rendered no idle service, and the nourishment it received was no greater than that which it bestowed by returning to all parts of the body this blood by which we live and are strong, equally distributed into the veins, after being matured by the digestion of the food.”

By using this comparison, and showing how the internal disaffection amongst the parts of the body resembled the animosity of the plebeians against the patricians, he succeeded in winning over his audience.

Compare it to the key passage on this topic from 1 Corinthians 12:14-31. Paul astutely takes a political idiom (mixing politics with religion – whatever next!), well known in an educated city like Corinth and adapts it to the situation of the body of faith; he writes:

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts.

Paul’s desire to emphasise both unity and diversity is a record of the situation of the time. If we read Paul’s letters to the different early Churches, and read some of the debates in Acts, we see not one single coherent ekklesia or church, but a number of quite different entities which had grown up around the different missionary activities of the apostles and their own individual charisms. Clearly, there were considerable differences in understanding, teaching and theology between the Churches, which the letters of Paul only partially helped to calm. Even within a location, different meetings of Christians, most of which were partially clandestine because of oppression and persecution, were still referred to by Paul as “the Church”.

Paul is keen to emphasise that the range of charismatic gifts which have been rained down upon the Churches have not been universal, and recognises that we each have our individual gifts to offer: prophet, teacher, worker of miracles, speaker in tongues. No individual should be tempted to look down upon another’s paucity of charismatic gifts, nor at the same time look jealously at another’s overabundance. I am sure we have all sinned at some time in this way, for that is frail humanity. It is worthwhile to remind ourselves, that this limitation in charism also applies to your clergy, who are not all equally talented at some things: quiet days being one of them.

Another clue of the diversity in the early church is shown in the book of the Revelation to St John the Divine, where seven churches in Asia Minor are identified: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, each with specific problems unique to themselves. John the Divine sees this apocalyptic writing as serving as a warning to these churches, but for different reasons. They operate differently, they have their own episcope, and they have no real central authority – the Christians were in this earliest stage, a missionary faith, and devoted more energy to spreading the gospel than to centralising it: Rome was a mere outpost of believers, with or without the episcopacy of Peter, by 110AD when the apocalypse was written. Working in isolation, with poor communications between them and with an emphasis on mission, which is always contextualised to those to whom you are speaking, it is no wonder that the churches were independent, isolated, different and troubled.

So, we recognise that like the early churches, we are too all different, and that our own charisms, and those of our churches, both within and without the Anglican communion are all different. If this is to become a truly workable recognition of truth, then we need to examine the cost of such diversity.

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) has been a long process of dialogue between two strands of Church. It has been an engagement on the basis of theology and ecclesiology, rather than the desperate need to merge because of the threatened implosion of a church, which is never equal or fair as seen in the case of reunion with the Methodists.

At the heart of the ARCIC dialogue is the issue of authority, and the statements ex-cathedra of that authority: for instance, since the 1896 Rome has taught that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and void”. It takes great internal courage to come back from such a position, especially when made from the position of infallibility. Although we are not in the position of making such sweeping statements, at such a level, we each often find ourselves in positions where it is difficult to back away from. Losing face is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do, but must be at the heart of being prepared to offer the other cheek.

We need also to accept that as we share the path of faith with others, there will sometimes be convergence and sometimes parting. This requires us to take a wider view of the road of faith than our own narrow practices of it, and to validate and affirm the faith journeys of others.

For example: I worked for many years with a young man called Carl. I recognised his vocation and was overjoyed by his growth in faith. When he went to work on a pastoral scheme, he went to a very different kind of church to the one we were previously associated with, and he became a hardcore conservative evangelical. I had to recognise that this was God’s path for him, and that he would still make a good priest, but not of the model I perhaps envisaged; but another part of the body of Christ nevertheless. At the same time, someone from that conservative evangelical church started to become more interested in more Catholic worship, and also grew in faith. She was essentially rejected by her old faith community who saw her as some form of apostate, and she was forced to leave that church and her friends behind because she had chosen a different path. Some parts of the body find it more difficult to accept that they are a hand or foot, rather than the whole body.

It would appear appropriate that the body of Christ is fed, and the table around which the body is fed is that of the altar. This may be a somewhat simplistic statement, for there is much diversity of interpretation of the significance of this most special act. As a matter of unity, we only need remind ourselves that one of the principle Anglican terms used for this joyful celebration (or Eu-Charis ) is Communion – a coming together, an intermingling.

As Paul said once again to the Corinthians (1 Cor 10:16-17):

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

Recent writers have written about the Eucharist as one of the essential legacies of Our Lord: a narrative and an action which has been preserved from within Scripture and to which has become imbued so much significance and portent. However, even within the most basic language of speaking of the Eucharist, it becomes clear that there are many different interpretations of its role and purpose within the Christian journey.

Some would argue that it is a memorial gathering – the wake of Christ, where the faithful gather to remember his final night and to effectively drink and eat to his memory. Others would focus on the meaning of Christ’s words in Greek in the Upper Room, doing this in anemnesis of him which is not about turning to the past in memorial, but bringing the past into the present, remembering his promise that “he would be with us always” (Matthew 28:20).

So when Christ said, as the priest repeats during the Mass “This is my body, this is my blood”, Christians ask themselves whether he was speaking literally, spiritually or metaphorically, and whether there is a real presence in those elements which transform the everyday – the bread and wine – into the extraordinary. One often finds it so ironic that those often quickest to deny the real presence of Christ at the Eucharist are those who are quickest to embrace the all-powerful action of the Holy Spirit moving within the faithful: the two are not incompatible and the Spirit which transforms us is the same Spirit which is made known through the breaking of the bread.

But setting those finer points of Eucharistic theology apart, we need to take a step back and ask what the effect of the Eucharist is, regardless of the signification we give to it.

The Eucharist is quite rightly spoken of as the well-spring of faith. In a recent book called “Mass Culture”, writers from across the churches have spoken of the Eucharist as the overarching narrative which feeds and sustains faith – through its combination of Word and Sacrament. Most people come away from that encounter with some form of spiritual fulfilment, which may range from a sense of calm, a sense of unity with God (of all things!), a sense of encounter, either in a real sense or in a memorial sense.

Few would deny, therefore, that the bread and wine have some significance; some sense of being set apart. The word used for those things set apart is Holy. It is through an encounter with holy things, therefore, that God can be encountered. It is not the only way – I am the first to emphasise that, but it is an almost universal way.

Gathering around the Lord’s Table is an act of unity which is fraught with problems. We must accept that when the priest raises the sacraments and shows them to the people (if he does that at all), the people may have quite different understandings of what is being shown to them. If we are to be truly honest, this is what happens even within a single congregation, and two individuals who have sat next to one another (usually towards the back) for years may have no idea of what the other thinks, knows, understands or feels; let alone what someone from another parish, church faction or denomination is experiencing. In fact, it is not their concern. It is not my concern either, as their Parish Priest. That is a matter for God alone, who looks into the hearts of us all, and takes us for what we are and what we would be.

You may recall at the beginning of my first address, I recalled the Hospital Chaplaincy Aumbrey, with the glass partition and the words “in case of unity – break glass”. My suggestion at the beginning was perhaps that we needed Unity first, before the glass was broken between the Anglican and Roman reserved sacraments. Perhaps, as we conclude today, it would rather better be that we should break the glass first, come together in the presence of the living God, share his holy sacraments, and then, perhaps, from that unity will flow.

On one level, Paul’s writing on the body of Christ, the body of the Church would appear to be divisive, factional, ununified, and at odds with our model of perfect unity in Trinity, and yet, the mechanism for that mystical union is very much in our presence, in that aumbrey and at this holy altar. When we eat of normal food, it becomes a part of us, is absorbed into us and excreted when we are done with it; when we eat of Christ, we become a part of him, and we are absorbed into the mystical union of the trinity, and our place at that table is laid.

To guide your meditations this afternoon, I would encourage you to revisit St Paul’s exploration of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, and to reflect on the words of the Eucharistic prayer, especially the dominical words: the words Jesus himself used at the last supper and reflect on your own response to this act of redemption.