Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Farrer on the Holy Trinity...

Two quotes from Austin Farrer on the Holy Trinity:

From The End of Man p.70–71
"The heart of being, the blessed Trinity above all worlds, is not a mystery by which the knowledge of Godhead is withheld from our inquiring minds. It is a pattern of life into which we ourselves, by an unspeakable mercy, are taken up. For Christ joins us with himself in the continual , practical, daily choice of his Father as our father. Why, he makes us part of himself, he calls us his members, his eyes, and tongue, his hands and feet. He puts us where he is, in Sonship to his Father, and opens to us the inexhaustible and all–quickening fountain, the Spirit of Sonship, the river of life, the Holy Ghost."

From Saving Belief p.65–66
"The grand rule of theology is this: nothing can be denied of God which we see to be the highest and best in creaturely existence. Now in us, personal relationship is as valuable as personality itself. Friendship, mutual discourse, common action —these things are as valuable as the power to think and to feel; without them, we might scarcely care whether we could think and feel, or not. How can we deny mutual relation in the Godhead? God is love; not only loving to ants like us, but related by relations of love on his own level. The doctrine of the Trinity does not pretend to make God intelligible. It lays down certain requirements. It says that if God is to be God, the Godhead must be at once more perfectly one than any one of us, and allow also for a mutual love more outgoing than is found in any two of us. We do not know how these seemingly opposed requirements are fulfilled and reconciled in the Godhead; we only know they must be. If we wish, we may define the divine level of being as that level, above all our conceiving, where unity of life and discourse of mutual love most perfectly combine. I hope you will see that this is not an empty speculation, a pretence of knowing what cannot be known. God is whom we worship; we worship the sovereign unity, we worship the infinite love; nor do we worship two realities, we worship one God who is both."

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Holy, Holy, Holy...

Trinity Sunday, with a little help from Richard of St Victor...

Trinity Sunday. Many preachers are scared of it, I’m sure mainly because we spend so little time talking about God the rest of the year, as opposed to what we ought to do for God or what God has done for us. But this is one Sunday on which a preacher can’t avoid talking about God without looking silly! Most congregations dread the yearly dose of peculiar maths and tortured logic (unless they get a particular kick out of watching preachers squirm). Personally, I relish it. I relish it because, despite the strangeness of the idea, despite the headache it can sometimes bring on, I need to think about who God is, and not just about what God does or how I can serve God. So who is God? God is one sovereign, all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent,  gracious, merciful divine nature existing wholly and without remainder in three divine persons. Now that is a mind-bender.

The important thing to remember though, is that the Trinity isn’t a maths problem which can be solved by considering shamrocks or eggs or H2O. Neither is the Trinity a way of describing the different things God does, which is why substituting ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ for ‘Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier’ is not really all that helpful. After all, is the Son not also the creator and the sanctifier of his people? What about the Spirit? Veni Creator Spiritus? Does the Father not also redeem and sanctify? The ways we often think about the Trinity are generally not that helpful after all. So should we just give up, or is there a better way of understanding what we mean when we say that God is ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’?

Hold in your mind for a moment the belief that ‘God is love’. That’s an uncontroversial starting point. Generally, if we believe in God at all, we believe that the most significant thing we can say about God is that God is love. In fact, some of you might be thinking that we would be better off if we just left it at that! But what is love? I suppose a very basic definition is that love is the deep affection one person has for another. Love gives itself to the beloved. We might say that a particularly vain person ‘loves themselves’, but I don’t think we would see that as a positive trait. So ‘God is love’, must mean that God is the most supremely loving being, which in turn means that God must love another.

Now here comes the tougher bit. Imagine the time before the universe existed. Before the Big Bang 13.7 Billion years ago, before the rapid expansion in which electrons were formed, before gas began to condense into nebulae and stars, before suns exploded and formed planets, long before life ever evolved. Before we ever existed for God to love us. Imagine, if you can, the time before time itself existed, the moment where all there is, is God, the God who we call love. How can God be love if, in that moment before anything else exists, God is all alone, with no one else to love? If we really think that the greatest thing we can say about God is that God is love, then there must be another: a lover and a beloved. You must have at least two in a relationship of self-giving love.

Now that’s pretty cool. God is love, so there must be plurality in God! But wait a minute, you’ve said that there must be a lover and a beloved. That makes two. But this is Trinity Sunday? What about the third? What about the Holy Spirit? Think about the best human relationships you have ever seen, think of a family, for instance, which is truly beautiful, whose door is always open, whose table always has a spare seat for a guest. Think of the Weasley family from Harry Potter; a family in which the love between its members expresses itself in love for other people, and isn't diminished by that sharing, but is beautified even more. A family which has such strong love that it overflows and gives love and life to others. I'm sure we've all met families like that. The love can't just be contained among its members. If that’s true for human beings, how much more so for God, in whom we see supremely perfect love. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father and together, from the perfection of their love, love goes out to a third, the Holy Spirit. 

So when we think about the Holy Tinity, we are not thinking about a maths problem. We are thinking about a set of relationships. The Father is the source of divine life, the Son is begotten and beloved by the Father, the Spirit is the eternal object of their mutual love. One God, a community of perfect love. The truth is that as Christians, we don’t just worship ‘God’. We worship this relationship of eternal love which the Father, the Son and the Spirit have. And just like the beautiful family we thought about a moment ago, that eternal community of love draws us into its love, bids us sit at its table, offers its life to us. Why not just one God, all alone? Because only this community of love can draw us into God's own life.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Stay in the city...

Luke 24.44–53

One of the more peculiar aspects of my job is that I am expected to go away on a kind of spiritual holiday, every year at the expense of my parish! I have sometimes wondered what the PCC treasurer would think if I told him I was going to spend my retreat in Barbados. I hope he would be supportive. I usually end up somewhere much less exotic, like Sussex. This three day spiritual vacation, known as a ‘retreat’ by those in the know, is something that any other member of my congregation would need to use their annual holiday, and hard earned cash for… not me, not only is paid for me, I get it in addition to my annual leave! Three days, in the countryside, I suppose you might say that it is one of the few perks of a clergyman’s job! Retreats are fairly commonplace. Anyone who is due to be ordained in the Church of England will probably be expected to go on a retreat immediately before their ordination: a time of peace and quiet, a time of prayer in which you can think deep thoughts about your impending ordination. We probably all hanker after something like this, particularly when we face a big change or challenge. We  want to draw back, to take stock and to recharge our batteries and prepare ourselves.

Now you would think that, as Jesus was about to leave his disciples with one of the most daunting of tasks – taking the message of Jesus to the whole world – he would urge them to go on retreat to a quiet place, wouldn’t you? Surely, the conventional wisdom would say, ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, so go off to the countryside, spend some time praying and relaxing, some time in silence, waiting for God to guide you, because it is going to be hard work.’ But that isn’t what Jesus says: ‘so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Not, ‘Go back to Galilee’, but stay in the city. The same place where forty days earlier, Jesus had been arrested, beaten and executed. 'Stay there'. The same place that was so dangerous for the disciples that they fled and hid for fear of their lives. ‘Stay there’, Jesus says, and wait for God’s power.

The city, a place where the church is weak, powerless, threatened; the place where the church must wait for God to provide what she cannot produce for herself: the desire and the strength to take the good news of Jesus to the world. Our culture likes to tell us that there is nothing we cannot do. If someone is weak, they need to become strong; if someone is unemployed they need to get a job; if you aren’t good at something you need to work harder until you are good at it. Everything is down to us.

We can be guilty of thinking that way in Church too. We have to work harder, be more persuasive, have the right kind of worship, preach amazing sermons, and if we do that, the church will stop shrinking and everything will be alright. But as Jesus prepares the church for his absence, he wants them to know that they aren’t powerful. He wants them to stay in the place that reminds them of their weakness, and to wait for God’s presence, God’s strength to come to them. 

Perhaps we need to stop running and hiding from our weakness, stop trying to find havens to retreat to which make us feel strong, and stay for a while in the place where our weakness is obvious and wait there for God’s strength.