The Trinity – invitation not explanation?

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The Trinity – invitation not explanation?

Sermon for Adel Parish Church – Trinity Sunday 2021

Once – on holiday in the Scottish borders – we had the excitement of visiting ‘Hutton’s unconformity’. A fold of rock sticking out into the sea, it’s perhaps one of Scotland’s lesser-known attractions!

Actually, it’s one of the foundations of modern geology. The rocks tell an amazing story of land formation by sedimentation, geological forces, erosion. The point being that it represents millions of years’ worth of creation before human history began; vital evidence for a changing view of creation and history.

One of the first people to recognise this evidence for an ancient earth said…’the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time’. We’d turned stories about God into a literal account of 6 day creation, 6000 years ago. That piece of rock showed how wrong we were.

Hutton’s unconformity doesn’t tell us much about the earth…but it shows what it’s not – it’s not new, not created as it is now all in one go. It was the possibilities this opened up that induced dizziness.

Today is Trinity Sunday – I think this should be an occasion for ‘growing giddy’, as we look not back in time, but out into the vastness the Trinity hints at.

Instead, we tend to try to reduce ‘the Trinity’ to a literal ‘explanation of God. God’s like a shamrock; a triangle; ice, water and steam. All attempts to make a complex idea accessible – but in trying to explain, I think they miss something about this foundation of our faith.

The Trinity isn’t set out in the bible…but there are different truths about God that are difficult to hold together. Not surprisingly, as people tried, wrong ideas developed…

…Father, Son and Holy Spirit are 3 separate beings.

…God was first Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit…and so on.

So our creeds, setting out the Trinity, developed to say what God is not. They try to put the mystery of God into words – because words are what we have. But I think we should remember that words are inadequate – they only give us an outline.

As a scientist, I sometimes look on the Trinity like a well-established scientific theory. It fits with what we know, or experience about God. It’s been developed by throwing out things we know aren’t true. But it’s not necessarily the last word…it invites exploration rather than closing it down.

So what? Have I just replaced ‘the Trinity’s like a shamrock’ with, ‘the Trinity’s like a scientific theory’? I hope not – because science is always ready for the new and surprising. The latest theory is what fits the evidence we have so far…but scientists are always prepared for something else to come along and make us change the picture a bit.

Science is about truth but scientific theories aren’t assumed to have the whole truth. They invite further wonder and exploration. That’s what the Trinity does for me.

This week I’ve been re-reading ‘The Shack’. Not a book I particularly enjoyed, but it has an intriguing picture of the Trinity.

In it, Jesus is a young, middle-eastern carpenter; the Father (called Papa) is shown as a joyful, exuberant black woman; the Holy Spirit as a mysterious Asian woman. Clearly no more accurate than that shamrock…but it’s not meant to be a description of God – rather one man’s experience of God. And it made me think!

First there’s the obvious but important reminder that Jesus was not blond, blue-eyed, English looking. He was a young, middle eastern carpenter.

Then we have the Holy Spirit as more than dove, or flame. We sing about ‘God in three persons’; here’s an attempt to explore what the third person might be like. Obviously, the Holy Spirit is no more an Asian woman, than a dove – but the picture of the Spirit as compassionate, creative, mysterious, intangible, empowering, and always moving brought the Trinity to life.

God the Father as plump, almost brash, black woman, was quite difficult to cope with. But it too gives a new perspective. The main character in the book had an abusive father. So when he meets God – at a really low point in his life – God reckons a white, male authority figure is the last thing he needs.

Is God a black woman? I doubt it. But the idea that God relates to us in ways we can engage with does hold some truth. And as the book says, it’s probably no less accurate than our vague idea of God ‘as a large white grandfather figure with a flowing Gandalf beard.’ I heard a black priest say recently that reading this book was the first time she could imagine herself ‘made in the image of God.’

There’s a scene in the book where the three persons of the Trinity prepare a meal: laughing, joking and singing together. I found this really hard…far too human. But it helped me think about the love, the community which is the Trinity.

The God figure says, ‘If I were simply one God, one person, I wouldn’t be love. All love and relationship is possible for you, only, because it already exists within me, within God myself.’

That takes me beyond trying to explain how God can be three, yet one – to an exploration of what it means that God is somehow a community of love…that love exists within God.

I think the Trinity should make us giddy with excitement. I’m not particularly suggesting you read ‘The Shack’ – but there’s a world of poetry, art, literature, theology out there exploring this wondrous life-giving mystery. And these days we can just google ‘Trinity’ to find it! The creeds and scripture are there to help us decide what’s not true…but they’re surely not the whole truth about God…so get exploring!

And in those fantastic words from today’s collect…

we pray

Holy God, faithful and unchanging: enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love.

‘I call you friends’ Sermon for Adel Parish Church – Easter 6

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‘I call you friends’ – Sermon for Adel Parish Church – Easter 6

John 15: 9 – 17

Much of the best literature, whatever the surface story, is really about friendships: Holmes and Watson; Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione; Sam and Frodo; Winnie the Pooh and Piglet…

Or, if your taste in literature is a little more mature: Hamlet and Horatio; Elizabeth Bennett and Charlotte Collins…

Friendships make good literature, because it’s in our relationships with true friends that we grow and become ourselves. With friends at our side, we often achieve things we couldn’t imagine tackling alone.

If we’re lucky – we all have someone we recognise as a true friend; perhaps you can picture yours now. On the surface they may look very different – a family member, a school friend, someone we came across much later in life…but all good friendships have things in common.

They will be relationships that have changed both of us. A true friend will know all about us, the good and the bad, but still want to be our friend. And we’ll know their secrets too. With our friends we won’t always feel the need to talk. They’ll sympathise with our failures, and celebrate our successes. They won’t be afraid to tell us the things about ourselves we need to hear. And when we’re struggling, and perhaps have nothing to bring to the friendship…a true friend will be there anyway, expecting nothing in return, because they love us.

Yes – if we’re lucky we know about friendships. But today we hear Jesus say, “You are my friends…I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.”

That’s quite something to take in. Imagine the relationship you have with your best friend – and put Jesus into that picture. We know Jesus loves us – the cross shows us that – but to really accept, ‘I do not call you servants, but friends’, is quite a challenge.

A challenge, but for me important. A servant might love a good master – but there’s always something of compulsion, of power, in that relationship. The point about true friendship is that it’s freely given – on both sides. And it seems this is the relationship God wants with us, through Jesus.

There’s a poem by Adrian Plass that grapples with this idea…in the first verse God describes how he could, with the smallest movement, destroy us…in the second of how he brought the dead back to life and could do so again…the third lists all the ways God can be known, ‘Father, brother, Shepherd, friend, Alpha and Omega, King of Kings…

Each verse ends…

But I cannot make you love me        

I cannot make you, will not make you, cannot make you love me

God in Jesus cannot make us love him, because if it’s forced, it isn’t love; he will not make us love him – because it’s our love, freely given, that he wants, before our obedience.

So, I go back to the example of my best friend…and try to picture Jesus inhabiting my life in the same way. Knowing the worst of me, not just because he’s God but because I feel able to share it, and loving me anyway. Being someone it’s ok to question; or to just sit in silence with. Sympathising with my failures and celebrating my successes. And, when I have nothing to bring to the relationship…perhaps not even faith…being there anyway, loving me and asking nothing in return.

It’s very different to many pictures of Jesus, but I think it’s important to hear Jesus calling us friends, because it helps us grow up as Christians. Good friends help us mature into better people because they dare to point out our faults, and show us a better way.

It’s said we’re known by the company we keep – but more than that, we tend to become the company we keep. Friends take on each other’s characteristics. Through friendship with Christ, far more than attempting obedience, we will become more Christlike.

Friends of course are equals. They learn from each other and change each other for the better. Can we really have that sort of relationship with Christ? There are stories in the bible of people who challenge God into apparently changing his mind…Moses and Abraham who plead on behalf of people God has said he will destroy; Jesus’ mother who asked him to ‘do something’ at the wedding in Cana; the Canaanite woman who persuades him to heal her child.

I don’t understand how Jesus could be changed by our friendship…but I do think we are encouraged to question, to wrestle…even to disagree…as we try to grow as Christians.

And even if it is only we who are changed by the friendship, the changes for the better in us may affect how Christ is seen in the world. In some mysterious way, the body of Christ here on earth may be changed by our friendship with Christ.

And as he said, Jesus calls us friends, calls us into that unique relationship with him so that we love one another as he has loved us. The friendship Jesus offers gives us choice and dignity. The invitation to question allows us to discover what faith means in good times and bad. His love gives us the confidence to fail but try again.

Only by being loved as friends will we develop into people who can love others in this way. Not just those we count as dear friends, but everyone who is part of this church.

If we at Adel St John begin to love one another as Jesus loves us, then we will be a church people want to join. And then the love of God will spill over into the community around, and others will discover its power to transform their lives.

Pruning with love…sermon for Easter 5, Adel Parish church.

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Pruning with love…sermon for Adel Parish church, Easter 5, 2021.

John 15: 1 – 10

I’m not a great wine drinker, and know little about vineyards, vintages or grapes…so I was amazed last month to see French vine growers lighting candles and fires under each vine in a desperate attempt to protect them from frost.

This is their livelihood of course, but I found the level of care for each individual vine quite moving. It also gave me a new perspective on God as vine grower in today’s gospel.

Clearly, for the vine grower, the point of vines is to produce grapes. In this passage, Jesus likens his followers to branches on a vine…reminding us we should be producing fruit.

Jesus doesn’t tell us what this fruit is…but we might suppose it consists of lives becoming more Christlike; of acts of love and compassion; of more evidence of the fruits of the Spirit named by St Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.

From this gospel reading, it’s easy to end up with a picture of fruitful Christians going to heaven…unfruitful ones cast into the fire. Like many bible passages, this one can be used to judge others…they don’t show this or that fruit…they aren’t proper Christians; or ourselves…what if I’m not producing enough fruit? How do I know?

As usual though, if we dig a little deeper, we find there are other ways to look at it. Since the first hearers will have been very familiar with grape production…a foray onto the internet seemed a good starting point.

And d’you know…I didn’t find any suggestion the grower shout at their vines, ”Produce more fruit or else!”, or that vines can prune themselves. Ridiculous ideas of course…but perhaps worth remembering as we picture God as vinedresser as some translations put it.

The first advice I found for would be vine dressers said, ‘No matter where you grow your grape vines, you’ll need some sort of support system.’

Grape vines apparently grow naturally in woodlands, climbing up trees. Left to themselves in open places they grow across the ground, producing bushy growth, many roots, but little fruit. So, vine dressers lift them and fasten them to supports.

I struggle a bit with verse 2 in today’s reading: ‘God removes every branch in Jesus that bears no fruit.’ But the word translated as ‘removes’, can also mean ‘lifts up’. So which do we use? Well vine dressers, it seems, focus on the lifting up of branches, so they reach the sun, take what they need from the main vine, and produce grapes.

This fits with what I’ve experienced of God. God for me has been the one who knows how by ourselves we struggle to do what’s right; who tenderly cares for each one of us; who through Jesus offers his grace time and time again. I think the God who does that will also lift us up when we’re unfruitful, into a place where we might begin to bear fruit.

The rest of the advice I found involved pruning. Being cut back, it seems, is the main way vines become fruitful.

And I learned 3 interesting things.

No grapes are allowed to grow on a vine in its first 2 years. The branches must grow strong and healthy before they’re ready to bear fruit.

Grapes only grow on new wood, and vines produce far more wood than they need. So even fruiting branches have up to 90% of their wood removed each year before they produce grapes.

I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t intend us to get bogged down in tiny details of vineyard management…but these ideas will have been very familiar to his first hearers.

They would know that growing grapes is a long-term project; Jesus’ use of this metaphor suggests that discipleship is too. I’m not suggesting that new Christians don’t bear any fruit, but that following Jesus is a life-long adventure, and bearing the fruits of a Christian life doesn’t always come easily.

Jesus’ hearers will also have known that pruning isn’t just a cosmetic affair, but deep and apparently brutal cutting away of dead wood, and disorganised growth.

Left to ourselves, like vines, we grow randomly, following new ideas and people. We get seduced into putting things other than Christ in the centre of our lives. We accumulate the dead wood of bad habits and grudges we harbour. These things need pruning, sometimes quite severely, if we’re to be fruitful Christians, bringing life to ourselves and to others.

And this pruning isn’t something that happens once…Jesus is very clear that fruitful branches are still pruned.

Sometimes, like grape vines, I think we also need surplus good wood cutting away. Sometimes what needs stripping out of our lives is the one good thing too many. Sometimes we need to learn to say no (even to the Rector!); or ‘I’ll take that on, but need to give this up’, so that we can flourish as the people God intends us to be, putting our energy into bearing the fruit of Christian lives.

My foray into the intricacies of grape production has reminded me of the obvious. Vine dressers spend much time and energy nurturing vines so they produce the best grapes. They don’t expect vines to do it all themselves!

It’s given me a picture of God the vinedresser caring tenderly and patiently for each disciple, gently encouraging us to bear fruit. It’s also reminded me that left to myself I bear less fruit, and that I’m not very good at pruning myself.

But how do I let God prune the unwanted stuff out of my life? Jesus suggests I abide in him. He is the vine; we are only the branches – without him we cannot grow or produce fruit. Christian discipleship starts in spending time with Christ – in prayer, worship and study.

Fruit might not immediately appear – but we will begin to recognise what it is that God the patient, loving vinedresser needs to prune from our lives.