The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
Beginnings are important. It’s thought that investing more in a project at the beginning of it’s development can save significant risks, not to mention costs, later on. The reasons are obvious, investing in studies at the beginning of the project gave a clear picture of the situation you were starting with and the solution or desired outcome. So for an aircraft, for example, you might have a better understanding of whether the material you were starting with was appropriate. And, you would have a better understanding of whether an aeroplane was the best end product, rather than, for example, an airship.
Of course the commercial world demands decisions are made before we have all the evidence, and without investing in a study into every possible material and every possible solution. So, in reality, a project, be it a building project, an aircraft project, any kind of project, tends to be started with a limited understanding of either the starting point or the end point. Gut feeling has to play a role.
It is, perhaps, appropriate that my last sermon before being ordained priest next week is on Trinity Sunday. Considered by many the best opportunity to demonstrate heretical belief. As if this was some kind of test, Margaret may be smiling - but perhaps she has a recorder which she will courier to the Bishop for his scrutiny.
Trinity Sunday will be marked up and down the country by preachers trying to make allegories of the Trinity from eggs, to a book, to water in three states of liquid, solid and vapour. Each of them provides some help in understanding what we mean when we say that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three in one. Each of them also fails to grasp the wonder and enormity of God. So rather than treating this as some test, and reading to you an essay on the Trinity, I will talk not of what the Trinity tells us about God, but what the Trinity tells us about ourselves.
Today’s passage comes at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel. It is one of only two references so directly to the Trinity. (the other we heard in our New Testament reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians). But there are other references to the Trinity in Matthew, most obviously - at Jesus Baptism. When, the heaven’s open and the Spirit of the Lord is seen descending on him like a Dove. And a voice is heard saying: ‘This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ This is different from John the Baptists ritual of repentance, this is a baptism, as we have it today, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is with this baptism that the story of Jesus’ ministry begins and that it ends.
But as we all know, each ending is a new beginning. Even the most painful endings are the beginning of something new. Jesus may be ascended into Heaven, but his disciples are starting a new beginning, being sent out to baptise all nations.
As a gift for my ordination my parents have given me a new stole, not a traditional one like these, which can be used day to day, but a more creative one which we were able to help design. On it, instead of crosses are two trees. The stole is green, which is what we wear from next Sunday through to Advent at the end of November. So appropriately one of the two trees has a flourish of leaves and flowers that we have at this time of the year. The other tree has colourful leaves, though most of them are at the bottom of the stole.
It reflects the seasons we are in, but it also recognises that cyclical nature of life, that death in the autumn leads to new life and possibility in the spring. But on a more theological note, these autumn and summer trees recognise that God is The Beginning and The End. God is the starting point and God is the final objective.
This is where knowing something about God is helpful. This is also where Trinity Sunday becomes an important corrective to the way we receive the Gospel story the rest of the year. We get told about the Jewish people, having a special relationship with God their father, waiting for a messiah, then Jesus, the Son of God comes along, only he dies and rises from the dead, so really he can’t stick about on earth too long, it’s just not done to have people who’ve risen from the dead wandering about, so as we found out at Pentecost last week, he sends the Holy Spirit, to take care of us lot until some unknown time in the future… The narrative suggests, as narratives tend to, a kind of sequence.
Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit. Father and Son here find themselves to be misleading, not least of all because they are frustratingly masculine, therefore failing to reflect the true enormity of the nature of God, But because they too suggest a sequence, as if there was a time when Father existed and not Son.
They are better understood as representing a relationship. And that is the crucial point, God is one, but by our understanding of Trinity, there is a relationship between the three personalities of the Trinity. That Trinity, and therefore that relationship is both the starting and end and is understood to be love as God is love. Our existence, the existence of everything that is, comes from that Triune God, from Love. We are created, therefore, in relationship to God, and to each other, in the image of God.
I am fascinated by the recent prayer meeting in the Vatican, at the invitation of Pope Francis, with Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. Not because I necessarily think the ends are agreed, but at least this new beginning to their ongoing relationship isn’t simply founded in argument, but also in commonality - as created beings.
Where we start from is important for understanding who we are. So being created in relationship, tells us we are meant to be in relationship. With God, with each other. A monk once tried to describe this relationship, the relationship between God and us and between us. He said we each stand on an enormous circle and God is at the centre. As we move closer to God we move closer to each other.
Jesus’ command to go out to every nation certainly rings true with this - boundaries between ethnic groups and nations are not impassable by the Love of God, nor should they obstruct our relationships with one another. That is why being a welcoming place, where people of different walks of life come together, like they do at St John’s, is exactly what being created by a Trinitarian God tells us we should be doing.
But what then of the end? According to Christ’s resurrection, by Jesus’ being sent to reconcile us to God, the end is when that goal is achieved. In a way John Lennon’s famous quote: ‘Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.’ is a simple statement of faith. The end is defined as being the time when everything is okay, when we are reconciled to God, by God.
Going back to my analogy of an airplane vs an airship - what is the best solution. How do we become like a people reconciled to God? Fundamentally, we become a people closer to God by becoming more fully who we are. That is, in effect, what I believe is happening to me next week. I believe that to become more fully myself, I need to become a priest. It is by becoming more ourselves that we can flourish, that we can thrive. Each of us has a potential to flourish, and for each of us it is different. Those differences are what make creation begin to reflect the enormity of God which cannot be described in any simple analogy to the Trinity. What it is which will make each of us thrive is, of course, difficult to predict. It takes some discernment, some personal reflection, a certain amount of courage and following our gut. Sometimes it requires us to transform ourselves, sometimes it requires us to transform the environment we live in. It can feel like you’re letting others down, when they expect us to live a certain way or have a certain career, or a particular partner, or simply to BE a certain way. The challenge is, in this relational image of God that we are, we must be seeking to flourish in such a way that encourages and enables others to flourish at the same time.
So I’ll give you one image of the Trinity, that of a dance. It’s dynamic, it recognises the relationship between each part of the Trinity, and the joy taken in both each other and the act of dancing. Made in the image of God we dance together, building our relationship to each other and encouraging one another to flourish.
Jesus tell his disciples to tell others to do as he has commanded them. The command is to love one another as I have loved you. To love your neighbour as yourself. We are to go and do likewise, helping others to thrive.