Trinity: "The Faraway Gospel"

The Revd Robin Sims-Williams

How do you know when you are hungry?

Parents of young children will be familiar with this rather unusual kind of question. Some time ago, having been out, my daughter complained that her stomach hurt. After asking various worried questions about how it hurt, on the inside or the outside - inside. Like you are going to be sick? Like a sharp pain? Like a dull pain? - as if she knew what that meant Like a throbbing pain?

Eventually it clicked, and realising she had taken a dislike to her lunch, she was hungry… she just didn’t know that was what the feeling was. That's the trouble with language, it demands we know what the words represent, we need to belong to an in-group for it to work, for it to be possible to communicate - the same can be true for the word Trinity, but I'll come back to that.

First how do you know when you are hungry?

In reality there are different types of hunger. Sure we are hungry for food, but we can also be hungry for exercise, hungry for success, for recognition, hungry for rest and peace, hungry to be understood, hungry for knowledge, to understand, hungry for love and relationship, hungry to know we aren’t alone. We hunger to communicate, to belong to something, to a family, or a gang, a friendship group, to a club or to some community. Hunger can be what drives us to do more and be better, but it can also be damaging.

Recently we have started reading Enid Blighton’s Faraway Tree books to Iris. It’s typical of Blighton’s books, a small group of children, in this case three, who go off and have adventures, but not until they’ve done their chores (what would you expect from Blighton). The adventures all revolve around the largest, oldest tree in the Enchanted wood - The Faraway Tree. So called because different faraway lands dock with the top of the tree to enable a whole array of adventures in each book, as the children and their companions visit these faraway lands. The tree itself has inhabitants - and certain rituals. Each time a new comer enters the tree they undoubtedly make the mistake of looking in the window of the Angry Pixie’s room, and being splashed with water or covered in porridge by the Angry Pixie who apparently values her privacy… They get warned about Dame Wash-a-lot, who is always throwing her used bowl of washing water down the tree, drenching anybody who doesn’t hide under a large branch, Despite being warned first-time visitors to the tree are always drenched.

These rituals, and secret knowledge, create a sense of being in the know and belonging. We see it on Iris’ face when a newcomer to the tree first notices the Angry Pixie’s window and wonders what is inside, the newcomer doesn’t know, but Iris does - she belongs to the faraway tree. Stories, particularly serialised ones often use this technique of belonging to bring you in, make you a part of the in-group. Sometimes it’s more subtle than the Faraway tree, but not always. They are attempts, however, to cash in on our hunger to belong. Similarly the formal and less formal aspects of initiation ceremonies make use of this same hunger to belong. And having a sense of belonging can be a good and very important thing when somebody is far away from family or friends.

However, if the hunger to belong is being taken advantage of by those who are also hungering power and control, two forms of hunger I reckon are never fully satisfied, then the use of that hunger to belong can become manipulative and destructive. We see examples of this in the Jihadi brides who leave their families and homes because they want to belong. Or perhaps among the women of the Jewish Belz sect we’ve seen in the press this last week, willing to give up driving in order to belong. Accepting the control being wielded over them. You can see the same models in any number of contexts, where charismatic individuals wield great power and those who feel they are the means to get ahead become their puppets, in hopes of being part of the inner-circle, or a node in the network. We see this in our own lives, in our work and elsewhere.

In today’s gospel Nicodemus shows up to ask Jesus something. Nicodemus is hungry, but what is he hungry for? He comes at night, as if in fear of being caught. He wants to know, to understand. Was Nicodemus trying to gain power over the other Pharisees? or just a hunger to know God by knowing this teacher who he recognised to be of God? There is probably a bit of both. Clearly Nicodemus also has a hunger to belong, to be one of Jesus followers - but he is terrified to admit it.

Jesus moves the focus of Nicodemus’ hunger, he transforms it, he shifts it away from any sense that Nicodemus would gain power, he tells him to return to that earliest state of being, before there is any power, when we are totally dependent - to be born again. But it isn’t simply about making Nicodemus obedient or under authority of God or of God’s people, because this new birth is of the Spirit. Which he says ‘blows where it chooses’, nobody knows where it’s coming from, nobody knows where it’s going.

This third element of the Trinity, The Spirit, Equal with the Father and the Son, the spirit circumvents this Paternal and Child model of Authority and obedience. The spirit frees us from conforming to some simple patriarchal image of God. The spirit makes us a part of Christ’s body without turning us into something we aren’t. The spirit is there to help us to become more fully who we are, who we hunger to be.

The Trinity appears to many as a barrier, because it’s an ‘in word’ a concept that some know and others don’t - actually everybody is in the later group really, but anyways. Because the Trinity seems to put a paradox at the centre of a faith that makes claims to be baed on reason. God is surely one thing, how can God be three things and one thing - well quite apart from the fact that God is not a ‘thing’ at all. But we are made in God’s image and we too are in parts in charge of our lives, and in a way we always must be dependent upon others and depend upon others as the Son does, and to fully realise our own selves, we must also have a freedom of spirit like that of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus shifts the hunger for secret knowledge and power to become a hunger for God, a hunger to receive the Spirit afresh and allow it to free us to become who we are created to be. A hunger to belong to the God who we already belong to. It is this hunger which we build up and satisfy in part as we come together here. To feed on God’s word, to eat God’s bread and to build our relationship with each other. The Trinity is intensely inclusive Not just three in one but drawing us all into God to become more fully who we are meant to be. after all... Jesus says, he has come not to be condemned, but to find eternal life.