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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Trinity Sunday, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 26, 2013

Psalm 8; Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; John 16:12-15

Loving nature

The first Sunday after Pentecost is the Feast of the Holy Trinity. The liturgical celebration dates back to the twelfth century in England, and was made universal by Pope John XXII in the fourteenth century. On this day, our Bible readings play a supporting role and our doctrine of God takes centre stage. The theme is our understanding of God as Trinity: traditionally expressed as One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or, more precisely, in traditional fourth-century Nicene terms: God is three Persons in one Nature; the three Persons of God are all equally God, and cannot be divided.

While our prayers and our preaching each Sunday are trinitarian in style and structure, today we focus on the Trinity and explore it. The fifteenth-century Russian icon by Andrei Rublev is one orthodox expression of the doctrine – it’s radical beyond religious convention (orthodoxy is radical): God appears as three androgynous figures at a Eucharistic table – each figure holds a sceptre, symbol of sovereignty – God appears as power shared – among three and making space for another. The other is every other. God be with you

I have another artwork here today, a painting from the Julalikari Arts Centre just outside Alice Springs. It’s by an artist named Susan Nakamarra Nelson – who makes her paintings for sharing in services of worship – and is entitled, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. The painting has had pride of place in my kitchen. I’ve been looking forward to sharing it with you today. One clue for interpretation: the circular shapes represent seated figures … We’ll complete the homily today by sharing our readings, perceptions and questions in respect of both the icon and painting …

Firstly, a few historical comments. Trinitarian doctrine draws on scripture but was not fully articulated until the fourth century. It’s helpful to know something of that story.

Tensions between Jewish monotheism and Greco-Roman polytheism – “you seem to be talking about three different gods” – “you seem to be talking about three different experiences of God” – came to a head in the fourth century when the gentile converts from polytheistic backgrounds were starting to outnumber the Jewish Christians and so to have a greater influence on the way the Christian faith was understood. A priest called Arius lit the spark.

Arius argued that Jesus is a subordinate being – a lesser divine being – an intermediary. Jesus the Word was created by Abba God – the first creature, not a co-creator. You can imagine how Arius might have interpreted our reading from Proverbs – Wisdom/Word as the first creature, not a co-creator. For Arius, God is so far above creation that the idea of God enfleshed was an outrage. God, the Most High God, by definition, said Arius, is self-contained, complete. God is exalted, holy, pure, absolute, glorious. For Arius the idea of such a God lowering Godself to become personally involved with creatures was demeaning and blasphemous.

Enter the team for the defence, championed by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius took issue with Arius’ position at its central point. Being self-contained, superior and distant is not the essential feature of God, he said.

Athanasius argued that the essential and defining feature of God is not utter independence, but love, interdependence, a nature that gives and receives. And he argued that this mutual love occurs within the Godhead – that between Abba God, Christ the Beloved and the Spirit there is mutual self-giving. It’s a force that infuses all creation. Self-emptying, costly, life-giving. I’ve thought of this recently in terms of the sun’s rays, at sunrise and sunset, as the streaming blood of Christ.

God is wholly involved with the world, and with us – loving, cherishing, nurturing, longing, desiring our response and our giving in return. God is the Spirit who moves through us with every breath, who whispers into our ear, who prompts and cajoles us towards god-likeness, towards love, in love.

Athanasius accused Arius of having a sterile God who sits in isolated splendour, passionless. The God made known in the Jesus story is dynamic, involved, busy relating, cherishing, shining, revealing, expressing, giving; a God who can know joy and pain, a God who longs for us to return the love we are shown, a God who hurts when we fail to respond and who grieves when we damage ourselves in the process.

Athanasius won the debate and the doctrine of the Trinity was codified. Still, it is interesting how popular Arianism remains. Many Christians profess a belief in the Trinity but confess a God high exalted, distant, uninvolved. Many Christians profess a belief in the Trinity but confess a God unlike the compassionate, non-violent, life-giving Jesus/Wisdom/Word.

Arius would be happy to see us on our knees before God, confessing our sins to God. The exalted One would, of course, be offended by our sin, Arius would say, and crying out for mercy is a fit response. But Arius would not be nearly so happy when we break bread and claim that God – the Most High God – is revealed in brokenness, feeling our pain and offering Holy Spirit to us in intimate solidarity with our vulnerability, and feeding us with God’s own physical body and blood. As Trinitarians, we confess, with Athanasius, that these different parts of our liturgy speak truly of God. God is made known in these relationships, not all identical, and yet all one God.

The implications of this do not stop with liturgical correctness. These different images in the liturgy speak truly of the relationships we are called into, both within and beyond the liturgy, in the whole of our relationship with the one God and with God’s world. We are not expected to spend our entire lives groveling before God, because the God who grieves over our sin is the same God who comes to us in compassion, lifts us to our feet, dries our eyes and says, “Where are your accusers? Neither do I condemn you”. And it is the same God who soothes our hearts when we are anxious and who bursts in like a raging fire when we are arrogant or complacent.

Let’s complete the homily together. How might you “read” the Russian icon by Andrei Rublev or the painting by Susan Nakamarra Nelson? How might your interpretation reflect your experience of God? … Amen.

Draws on a reflection by Nathan Nettleton.