St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, All Saints’ Sunday, 2nd November, 2014
Do we ever pause to consider how utterly absurd the Beatitudes of Jesus must sound to people whose focus is directed entirely to what they like to call the ‘real’ world?
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” In the so-called ‘real’ world, countless numbers of bereaved people spend the remainder of their days deprived of any comfort that can dissolve away their desperate sense of loss. This past week has brought the tragic news of the early death of the father whose young daughter Sarah Payne was brutally murdered by a paedophile. For that father in his protracted mourning there was no lasting comfort. God rest his soul.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Into whose laps fall the material riches that constitute the wealth of the so-called ‘real’ world? Not the laps of the humble, the submissive, the self-effacing, but those of the selfish, the pushy, the ruthless. Imagine a business academy advertising a course in meekness! Success in the so-called ‘real’ world requires the very opposite of meekness.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The Greek word here translated as ‘righteousness’ can equally well, and perhaps more usefully in this context, be translated as ‘justice’. Is everyone who hungers and thirsts after justice rewarded with his or her heart’s desire? Not in the so-called ‘real’ world!
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Margaret Hassan, Ken Bigley, Alan Henning, David Haines – what mercy did these workers of mercy receive at the hands of despicable Islamists? To be merciful is to make yourself vulnerable, and to make yourself vulnerable in the ‘real’ world is, at worst, to run the risk of death.
And what of the other Beatitudes? To the “poor in spirit” and those “persecuted for righteousness” belongs, we are told, “the kingdom of heaven”. “[T]he pure in heart…. will see God.” Those who make peace “will be called children of God.” The reviled, the persecuted, the slandered will have a great reward in heaven. But what is the kingdom of heaven as far as the so-called ‘real’ world is concerned? When in the so-called ‘real’ world is it considered possible to see God? And for those, like most of us, who do believe in God, but prefer to be thought of as theological liberals, isn’t it an axiom of our faith that we consider all people to be children of God? Why would such a privilege be restricted to peacemakers? And why embark upon a life of self-sacrifice and ridicule in the hope of some kind of heavenly reward that in the ears of the so-called ‘real’ world sounds like nothing more than the vacuous promise of ‘pie in the sky when you die’?
It worries me that the Beatitudes of Jesus are so often read on occasions when they are liable to make no sense whatsoever to many of those present. In how many of next Sunday’s Remembrance Services will these words from today’s Gospel be heard? Very many! What sense are the uninitiated to make of them? On top of the historic horrors of two world wars, we are reminded day after day of the brutal and barbarous conflicts that mar our contemporary world. The blessings promised in the Beatitudes of Jesus can very easily be made to sound as nothing more than ‘pie in the sky’.
How are we to make sense of the Beatitudes? The first thing we need to do is view them in their context in Matthew’s Gospel. One of the underlying motifs in Matthew is Jesus portrayed as the New Moses. Central to the Old Testament portrait of Moses is the giving of God’s Law, through Moses, to the people of God, and right at the head of God’s Law, as recorded in the Book of Exodus, stand the Ten Commandments. All the subsequent chapters devoted to the Law constitute a detailed development of the basic principles enshrined in those Ten Commandments. In the same way, the Beatitudes stand at the head of the section of Matthew’s Gospel which we commonly refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. If you work your way through the so-called Sermon on the Mount, you will discover how each of its sections can be understood as illustrating one or more of the basic principles set out in the Beatitudes. This is their context in Matthew’s Gospel.
The next thing we need to do is face up to the utter impossibility of living out perfectly both the Beatitudes and their expanded content in the Sermon on the Mount. But what’s wrong with grounding our lives in a set of moral principles that we find impossible fully to observe? Think of the Highway Code. How many of us could swear that in our every moment behind the wheel we do exactly what the Highway Code requires of us? Would it not be more realistic, for example, if the speed limits on our roads were to reflect the actual speed at which the average responsible driver travels? But what would happen if the 30 miles per hour limit were raised to something approaching 40? The actual speed even of responsible drivers would rise accordingly, and our roads would be even more unsafe than they are at present.
What would be the point of a moral law that served as no more than a description of how the average person behaves? Just as the impossible requirement that we drive at or below 30 miles per hour ensures that most of us at don’t drive dangerously in excess of that speed, so the impossible requirements of the Beatitudes and the entire Sermon on the Mount set before us a standard that continually challenges us to do the best we can, even if our circumstances make it impracticable to construct our lives entirely around the perfect fulfilment of the New Law given us by Jesus, our New Moses.
So the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are our New Law, and it has been given to us by Jesus, not because he expects us fully to meet its every demand, but because he wants us to use this New Law as a perpetual challenge to strive towards the kind of perfection that is found in God alone. Thus it is that the author of the First Letter of John, from which we also heard this morning, urges us to “purify ourselves, just as [God] is pure.”
Just as a few of us (myself not included!) are far better drivers than most, so some of God’s people, down through the centuries, have been far more successful than most in living according to the very high standard set by Christ. In the New Testament the word ‘saint’ is often used to refer to the ordinary Christian believers of that time, but increasingly it came to be reserved for the heroic few in every generation who are recognised as having attained a level of excellence that far surpasses what for most of us proves practicable. In this Season of All Saints we honour these outstanding women and men, and seek God’s help to rise to the challenge of exemplifying at least some of their virtues in our own daily lives.
So it’s by their very absurdity in the eyes of the so-called ‘real’ world that the Beatitudes are to us of enormous value. In pointing us to unattainable perfection, they set us free from complacency and self-satisfaction, and whenever we are, with God’s help, able even if only approximately to live by these high standards, we can experience a little of the blessedness that was enjoyed in this life by the greatest of God’s saints, and that in the hereafter we shall know in all its perfection. And of that glorious hereafter, when every promise contained in the Beatitudes will be honoured in the lives of all God’s children, we will join with all the saints, great and humble, in proclaiming, along the lines of our reading in the Book of Revelation: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever!”
I still must insist on how utterly absurd the Beatitudes of Jesus must sound to people whose focus is directed entirely to what they like to call the ‘real’ world? Our business as Christians, however, isn’t primarily with the ‘real’ world as it is, but with the heavenly world, and every time we mirror even a little of the perfection found in the Beatitudes, we enable the light of heaven to shine in the midst of the ‘real’ world, and in so shining to encourage in our fellow human beings the hope of something far better than they and we are experiencing in these difficult and, for some, desperate times.
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St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, Sunday 28th September 2014
Today’s Gospel highlights the contrast between saying and doing. A father asks his two sons to go and work in the family vineyard. The first son says ‘no’, but later changes his mind and does what his father has asked of him. The second son says he will go, but he doesn’t. “Which of the two”, asks Jesus, “did the will of his father?” The answer is obvious. It wasn’t what they said that mattered, but what they did. Only the first son carried out their father’s will.
Like that father, I have two sons, Alastair and Kenny, and from each of them, during this past week, I received a truly heart-warming message. Alastair had the misfortune of losing his job during the recession, and for him the past year and more has been the heart-breaking experience of sending out endless applications, being invited to no more than two or three interviews, and getting absolutely nowhere. Applications and interviews are all about saying. Work, on the other hand, is all about doing. Last Wednesday Alastair attended an interview, and a couple of hours later he sent me a text message. He got the job! For him the doing starts tomorrow morning.
Kenny, my younger son, is an accomplished cross-country runner. Last Tuesday he sent me an email to say that he’s doing his first marathon. Even as I speak he should be well into the Loch Ness Marathon. He’s aiming for 2 hours 50 minutes, so offer up a little prayer for him. For Kenny, at ten o’clock this morning the saying ended and the doing began. [Kenny’s time was a superb 2:51:50!]
The contrast between saying and doing pops up again and again in our individual lives and in the life of the world around us. The recent referendum campaign, for example, was all about saying, but now that the voting is over, and the result declared, the doing has to begin, and that will be no easy task.
In the same way, last Friday there were major debates at Westminster, in which the politicians had their say on what our country should be doing about the unspeakably evil situation in Iraq. The decision was taken to intervene militarily, and with the time for saying now past, the doing has already begun. But how and where will it end? No one can know at this stage. We’re living through profoundly disturbing times, but while we have the privilege of living, countless numbers of innocent men, women and children are dying at the genocidal hands of Isil. If the depraved doing of the Jihadists were only to be countered by saying on the part of everyone else, our whole world would eventually be engulfed in a flood-tide of barbarism.
An interesting detail in the Parable of the Two Sons is that the one who said ‘no’ definitely meant ‘no’ when he said it, but later changed his mind. For lots of good reasons I don’t envy our politicians. One of these good reasons is the enormous difficulty they sometimes experience whenever they feel it necessary to change their mind. For most of us the ability and willingness to change our mind is usually regarded as a virtue. And, indeed, the freedom to change our mind regarding who we want to run our country is the bedrock of our democracy. But look at the kind of things we sometimes say to our politicians, and that our politicians sometimes say to one another: ‘That’s not what you were saying five years ago (or even five days ago.)’ What in the rest of us is often counted a virtue, in the case of our politicians is all-too-frequently counted a vice. But show me a politician who has never changed his or her mind about anything, and you will show me someone who is either a slave of blinkered ideology, or brain dead. Our world is constantly changing, and so we must allow ourselves and one another, and allow even our politicians, the freedom to change our minds regarding what should be done in this changing world.
So as well as highlighting the supreme importance of doing, Jesus’ Parable of the Two Sons teaches us that it’s perfectly right and proper, where the circumstances warrant this, to change our minds. And, of course, there’s no point in changing our minds unless that change is reflected in the things we then do.
Sometimes people can have a very incomplete understanding of Jesus. There’s a constant danger that they see him almost exclusively as a teacher of ethics – someone whose primary importance lies in the things that he is reported as having said regarding how we should live. The trouble with viewing Jesus mainly or only as a teacher of ethics is that when you strip his teaching down to its essential components, very little of it is unique to Jesus.
I’ve probably mentioned from this pulpit on a previous occasion that during my earlier years at university I went through a deep crisis of faith. One of the contributory factors to that crisis was a second-hand book I found called ‘Chinese Philosophy in Classical Times’. One chapter of this book is devoted to the sayings of Confucius, who lived approximately five hundred years before the time of Jesus. To my utter consternation, way back in 1965, I found this teaching of Confucius: “The treatment you would not have for yourself, do not hand out to other people.” This, I realised, was what is called the Golden Rule, and in my youthful ignorance I had always assumed that it was Jesus who first taught it. But the Golden Rule isn’t original to Jesus, and the simple fact is that like most of his ethical teaching it’s little more than enlightened common sense. If Jesus is for us, as he was for me at that time, someone whose importance resides exclusively in the things he said regarding how we should live, then the disturbing conclusion to be drawn is that his was a life of no special importance.
The full importance of Jesus is found, however, not in the things that he said, but in the things that he did. This is where we need to set the Parable of the Two Sons in its context. Matthew’s Gospel chapter 20 concludes with one of Jesus’ healing miracles, in which he gave two blind men back their sight. Here is Jesus the doer of things using his divine power, as he so often did, to heal the sick. Then we read on to chapter 21. It begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. Here is Jesus, the man of action, proclaiming his divine Kingship, not by what he says, for Matthew doesn’t report him as having said anything, but by what he does. Jesus did Kingship!
Then, says Matthew, Jesus headed for the temple. What happened next? He didn’t get up on the first century equivalent of a soap box, and politely ask of the merchants and money-changers, ‘Would you mind awfully if I shared a few words with you?’ No! He dived into the midst of them and physically drove them out of the sacred space that they were polluting with their exploitative commercialism. He proceeded to turn all their tables and chairs upside down, and only then did he say what he had to say, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” Here again is Jesus the man of action. This is the background to today’s Gospel reading, in which we find Jesus being challenged by the chief priests and the elders, not because of what he was saying, but because of what he was doing: “By what authority,” they ask, “are you doing these things…..” The uniqueness of Jesus resides, not in the things that he said, but in the things that he did.
Jesus calls us, not just to listen to his ethical teaching, not even simply to pass on to others his teaching, but to do his teaching, making his own earthly life a model for our own. Is Jesus calling us to a change of mind regarding how we should live? If so, then that change of mind will be a pointless exercise unless it leads us to do the kind of things we have perhaps never done in our life before. In whatever sense is appropriate for you, is he asking you to be a healer? Do it! Is he asking you actively to demonstrate his Kingship in your life? Do it! Is he asking you to confront the godless materialism of our present time? Do it! Jesus is calling us, not just to be ‘sayers’, but to be doers.
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St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, Sunday 17th August 2014
In the Currie Kirk of my childhood years there was a gentle, gracious, very refined woman called Mrs Macdonald. A loyal and well-liked member of the local branch of the Woman’s Guild, she was invited to become its President. Poor Mrs Macdonald’s presidency of the Guild lasted just one meeting, after which she was discreetly removed from office. What was the problem? Well! – in her opening prayer she addressed a petition to ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God’. All the other women, my mother included, were shaken to the roots of their Protestantism. It turned out that Mrs Macdonald, though now a member of the Church of Scotland, had been brought up a devout Roman Catholic. It had obviously seemed to her the most natural thing to address a prayer to Mary. I must have been about ten or eleven years of age when Mrs Macdonald met her nemesis, and, of course, I had no awareness then that my own spiritual pilgrimage would eventually lead me in the opposite direction – from the Church of Scotland to the Roman Catholic Church.
Quite a number of us in the Cathedral family have discovered a welcoming home in the Anglican Communion after finding ourselves no longer able to continue in the Roman Catholic Church. In the Anglican Communion there are ultra-Protestants, for whom the merest mention of Mary is a red flag to the proverbial bull. There are also ultra-Catholics, for whom even the most exotic developments of Marian thought and practice are deeply-held articles of faith. For most of us, however, who feel content to belong within the Anglican Middle Way, there is a quiet acceptance that Mary had, and still has, a profound significance for Christian faith and life.
Why has Protestantism traditionally been so hostile towards Mary? Let me share with you an illustration from my own family background. My parents tried to be fairly strict with me and my young brother, but he and I knew that if we approached our grandmother, she would be much more likely to give us what we wanted. Some devout Marians quite openly profess the view that if you really want something, you are much more likely to get it if you ask Mary rather than Jesus or God. It’s little wonder that Protestants find such an attitude quite appalling.
Then there’s a plain silliness that can creep into the talk and behaviour of some Marian enthusiasts. I was present once at a small gathering of Roman Catholics. We had all been asked to bring along something to eat, and one member of the group said, “Oh, I had no idea what to bring, so I just asked Our Lady, and she told me to make some ham sandwiches.” Apart from the fact that Mary, as a devout Jew, would not have approved of ham sandwiches, there’s surely something childish at best, and narcissistic at worst, about imagining that Mary wants us to consult her over every little decision facing us day by day. Has God not equipped us to decide such things for ourselves? Again, it’s little wonder that Protestants are appalled.
But let’s dig deeper into the legitimate concerns of Protestants. Last week Canon Hugh explained to us how the Church’s understanding of the person of Jesus developed over the decades and centuries that followed his earthly life and ministry. The same thing happened regarding the Church’s understanding of Mary. There’s nothing sinister about such developments. It sometimes takes many years for the full significance of a historical figure to be appreciated. “An empty taxi,” quipped Winston Churchill, “drove up to 10 Downing Street, and out of it stepped Mr Attlee.” But decades later even Margaret Thatcher was prepared to rank Clement Attlee among the greatest and the best of our prime ministers. With the benefit of hindsight, succeeding generations of Christians were increasingly able better to appreciate and express the full significance of Jesus and Mary.
In the case of Mary, however, we find that she came eventually to be invested with semi-divine honours and titles, so that she resembled far more a pagan goddess than the humble servant woman portrayed in today’s Gospel. And this hyping-up of Mary proved very convenient as far as the Church hierarchy was concerned. Let me explain what I mean with another example from the world of politics. How does a prime minister cope with a powerful colleague who refuses to be silenced and continually threatens to subvert his or her authority? A subtle tactic has sometimes been to kick such a colleague upstairs, in other words, to elevate him or her to the House of Lords. The theory is that by getting rid of your awkward colleagues by showering them with titles and honours, you’ll be left unchallenged on the floor of the House of Commons, where, of course, the real power lies.
The refusal of the Roman Catholic Church even to discuss the admission of women to the priesthood is one reason why some of us had to leave it. ‘But how can you accuse us of being against women,’ we are asked, ‘when you see the high place we give to Mary?’ Yes, but it’s a high place in heaven, and like a prime minister whose troublesome colleagues have been kicked upstairs to the House of Lords, the all-male Church hierarchy remains free to run the whole show here on earth. When Roman Catholic women protest that they are excluded from real power in the Church, they are slapped down on the basis that their highly honoured role is to be meek and submissive, just like Mary was during her earthly life. It isn’t just Protestants who find themselves appalled by this attitude.
The fact remains, however, that Mary is a uniquely significant individual in the story of our salvation. There are three brief points I would like to make before I close.
Firstly, the more we come to recognize the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as being the most important events in the whole of human history, the more we should recognize the role of Mary in making these events possible through her willingness to be his mother. If Jesus Christ is the fullest possible expression and embodiment of the Love who is God, then surely we should acknowledge and honour Mary as the one who mothered that unique presence of God into our world. It is in this sense, and this sense alone, that we may legitimately refer to Mary as the Mother of God, or, as our Orthodox sisters and brothers describe her, the ‘Theotokos’ – the God-bearer. Has any mere mortal, in the whole of human history, done a greater task for God than she?
Secondly, the role and mission of Mary is always to point us away from herself and towards the Son whom she bore. This is why I feel far more comfortable with representations of the Madonna and Child, than I do with representations of the Madonna alone. The more we view Mary apart from Jesus, the greater the danger that we slip into the Marian excesses and absurdities that Protestants rightly find so offensive. But when Mary is depicted as holding the infant Jesus in her arms, she is saying to us, in effect, ‘Here is my Son; you must worship him, not me.’
Thirdly, Mary’s commission to us is made clear in her command to the servants at the Wedding in Cana: “Do whatever [Jesus] tells you.” How can we best express and embody the Love who is God? There is no more powerful way in which we can make real the presence of God in our world, than by doing what Jesus tells us, for what he tells us is that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. In loving our neighbours, we become for them mothers of God. So we best honour Mary through sharing with others the Love who is God. God is mothered for them through us.
Last week we sang an old Catholic favourite, ‘Sweet sacrament divine’. Today, at my request, we will sing an old Evangelical favourite, ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine’. Many years ago it suddenly struck me that Frances van Alstyne (Fanny Crosby), its very Protestant author, has given us here a hymn that perfectly expresses the love for Jesus that filled the heart of Mary. Sing it as though you yourself were Mary, and this will further inspire you to mother for your neighbour the Love who is God.
Only Mary was the Mother of Jesus, but any one of us can be a mother of God.
St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, 27th July 2014
An old-time hellfire preacher was ranting his way through the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. His fearful congregation were squirming in their seats, except for a couple of disreputable-looking characters down at the front, who were clearly regarding the whole performance as a bit of a joke. “If you do not repent of your sins,” fulminated the preacher, wagging his finger in their direction, “you will find yourselves thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” “Gnashing of teeth?” replied one of them. “That’s no a problem fur us. We’ve no got ony teeth!” “Teeth,” thundered the preacher, “teeth will be provided!”
The author of Matthew’s Gospel paints a grim picture regarding what the afterlife will be for some: “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Canon Hugh found himself having to deal with these awkward sentiments last Sunday, and here they are before us again today. I can only endorse what Hugh said last week. The fact that words are attributed to Jesus in the gospels does not mean that he actually spoke them. Indeed, some of the things Jesus is reported as saying are the opposite of everything he sought to teach us.
Apart from one place in Luke’s Gospel, ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ is an expression found only in Matthew’s Gospel. There it is attributed to Jesus six times. Was Jesus a hellfire preacher? If you cobble together every word attributed to Jesus in the four gospels, then you do end up with a Jesus who preached hellfire. But you also end up with a Jesus whose overall teaching is full of contradictions. There is, however, a too-simplistic way of dealing with those contradictions, and that too-simplistic way consists in taking a blue pencil and crossing out everything attributed to Jesus that grates against the prissy and stifling political correctness that characterises our contemporary Western culture. In this way we end up with a sanitized and wishy-washy Jesus who, as the Scots saying goes, ‘widnae say boo tae a moose’! (If you want this translated, speak to me afterwards!) The real Jesus, on the contrary, said some very challenging things. But where do we find the real Jesus? We don’t find him by cobbling together a literary amalgamation of the four gospels and all that they contain.
I’ve been reading a biography of George MacDonald, the 19th century preacher and novelist who had a great influence on C S Lewis. MacDonald was repelled by the hellfire preaching of his upbringing in the North East of Scotland. But he didn’t counter that narrow, Calvinistic mindset by taking a blue pencil to every individual verse of Scripture that he found not to his liking. He did something far more subtle and immeasurably more rewarding. He immersed himself in the gospels as a whole, not allowing himself to be distracted by the occasional hard saying like today’s “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. And the more he immersed himself in the gospels as a whole, the more there emerged for MacDonald a real Jesus whose personal being transcended the written text of the gospels. The discovery of that real Jesus empowered him to evaluate the gospels and conduct the kind of sifting process characterised for us last week by the separation of the wheat and the weeds, and this week by the separation of the good fish from the bad. It isn’t a case of striking out what we don’t like, and then trying to make sense of what remains. It’s a case of meeting the real Jesus as he shines out to us through the gospels, embracing us in his unconditional love and challenging our own frequent failure to love as he loved. And when we do find ourselves wanting to reject a particular saying attributed to Jesus, we do so, not because we don’t like it, or because it isn’t politically correct, but because it isn’t redolent of the real Jesus whom we have grown to know and love.
I began by picturing an old-time hellfire preacher ranting before his congregation as they squirmed in their seats. I want to modify that picture now by describing some of the congregation, not as squirming, but as preening themselves in complacent self-satisfaction. The reference to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” was of no concern to them, not because they didn’t have any teeth, but because they saw themselves alone as basking eternally in God’s favour. Self-righteous people like these might have found themselves inappropriately praying in the words attributed to King Solomon in our first reading: ‘“[Y]our servant” (by which they would mean their revered hellfire preacher) “is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen…”, and of all those present in this church today, we alone are your chosen people.’
This brings us to our second reading. “Who,” asks St Paul, “will bring any charge against God’s elect?” As the followers of John Calvin carried to its ruthlessly logical conclusion the more restrained tone of their founder’s teachings, there grew up, in Scotland and elsewhere, a terrible complacency, a terrible self-satisfaction: ‘We are the chosen people of God, we are God’s elect. Nothing we could ever do or say or think could deprive us of our predestined place in heaven.’ This complacency, this self-satisfaction, is savagely portrayed in Robert Burns’ famous poem, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, which was based on a real-life Ayrshire character:
O thou that in the Heavens does dwell,
Wha, as it pleases best Thysel,
Sends one to Heaven, and ten to Hell,
A’ for Thy glory,…..
I bless and praise thy matchless might,
That I am here before Thy sight,….
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.
These lines of Burns are no caricature. They are a realistic and brutal indictment of the more self-righteous among the churchgoers of his time. But isn’t it St Paul who assures us that “neither death nor life…, nor things present, nor things to come…, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”? Rightly understood, these words of St Paul are wonderfully reassuring. But in the wrong hands – in the hands of the rigidly predestinarian Calvinists whom Burns so deplored – this glorious declaration of God’s universal and unconditional love is transformed into a badge of superiority and exclusivism. The ‘us’ whom nothing in all creation can separate from the love of God are viewed as being, not the entire human race, but the predestined and elect few, who alone are regarded as being the inheritors of eternal life. This gross perversion of the Christian Gospel is what hardline Calvinism described as ‘limited atonement’, and what that perversion of the Gospel would mean for us in practice, is that we could never raise aloft the body and blood of Christ and with confidence proclaim, as we do at every Eucharist: “Come, all people; this is Christ’s table to which all are invited.” If the Calvinist hardliners are right, and the salvation won by Christ is for a chosen few alone, then all are not invited to Christ’s table.
Over these past two weeks we have been looking at a number of Jesus’ parables. On the basis of what we understand of the real Jesus who shines out to us through the gospels, we can see that already some of his parables have been misunderstood. They have come to be viewed as teaching the salvation only of a privileged few. On the contrary, the mustard tree offers sanctuary to all the birds that would nest in its branches; the yeast empowers all the dough to rise to its full potential; the treasure hidden in the field, and the pearl of great price, bring joy to all who discover them. On the lips of the real Jesus, these parables proclaim a universal love that embraces all and excludes none.
The One whom we call Jesus became a human being in an act of self-identification and solidarity with all people, not just with a chosen few. The expression ‘God’s elect’ is a dangerous one, unless we understand the elect of God to be the whole human race united in Christ. But as long as by the word ‘us’ we mean ‘everyone’, we can affirm, with St Paul, that “[nothing] in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
St Paul’s Cathedral, Trinity Sunday, 15th June 2014
“Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28, 19) These familiar words attributed to Jesus by the author of Matthew’s Gospel are the closest the New Testament writers come to expressing what eventually would be known in the Christian Church as the Doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity – a doctrine to which all of us who count ourselves as being members of the Christian Church are presumed to subscribe. Did I just hear a ‘Who are you kidding?’
What’s the problem? Why is Trinity Sunday arguably the most unpopular in the entire Christian Year – dreaded by preachers and congregations alike? The reason for its unpopularity lies not in the triple reference to Father, Son and Holy Spirit that we heard in today’s Gospel, but in the desperate and convoluted attempts of theologians down through the long centuries to explain how as Christians (and together with Jews and Muslims) we believe in One God, and yet insist (to the consternation of Jews and Muslims) that we believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
It’s probably the case that in some of the Birmingham schools that have come under official criticism this past week, just about the only thing that many of their predominantly Muslim pupils with have been told about Christianity is the falsehood that Christians believe in three gods, not One, and as such are not just ‘kafirs’ (unbelievers), but also blasphemers. It’s a misconception that we Christians believe in three gods, but when you look at what I described as the desperate and convoluted attempts of the theologians to explain what came to be known as the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, it’s not hard to understand why some Jews and Muslims think of us the way they do.
As an example of that desperation and convolution on the part of the theologians, hear from the Thirty-Nine Articles that form the 16th century doctrinal basis of our Anglican Communion. I quote: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions…. And in [the] unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, etc, etc….” I’m sure you get the picture. What in the New Testament seems relatively simple was turned into something fiendishly complex by succeeding generations of Christian theologians. And not only is the full expression of the Doctrine of the Trinity fiendishly complex, but we non-theologians are expected to affirm that we believe it! Who is kidding whom?
Let me share with you what for me is the basic principle on which all religious and spiritual thinking should be based. It’s this: We can only be expected to accept as true what we have experienced for ourselves or what we are convinced other people have experienced for themselves. How does the Doctrine of the Trinity fare in the light of this principle? As the fully-developed theory that it eventually became, the Doctrine of the Trinity fares very badly indeed. No one could ever experience as true the Doctrine of the Trinity as it came to be formulated in all its bewildering complexity over the early centuries of Christianity. Should this doctrine, therefore, be ditched, especially if this might help to assuage the sometimes murderous hatred of Christianity exercised by militant Islamists? That would be a step too far, for behind all the complex theology lies the experience of the earliest Christians as recorded in the New Testament.
Let me explain: As Jews the first Christians believed passionately in the oneness of God. But along came Jesus, and the more they came to know him, the more they discovered that to experience Jesus was nothing less than to encounter the reality of God. Jesus, in their experience, wasn’t just someone who happened to be extraordinarily like God. To experience the human Jesus was to experience the actual presence of God. But when Jesus was physically present in their midst, heaven wasn’t, so to speak, ‘empty’, for even the human Jesus said his prayers to the One whom he addressed metaphorically as his Father in heaven. (I said ‘metaphorically’, because the word ‘Father’, used of God, is a metaphor that not everyone finds helpful. This is why, in our liturgy, we often use the words ‘Creator’ or ‘Source’. And today, of course, is Father’s Day.)
Then after Jesus had departed in the physical sense, there came upon the first Christians, from the Day of Pentecost onwards, an awesome Power that wasn’t just something sent by God, but the personal reality of God present in their midst, a reality they described as the Holy Spirit. It was in the attempt to be faithful to the experience of the first Christians that the theologians of the succeeding centuries landed us with the fiendish complexity of the full-blown Doctrine of the Trinity.
In my estimation, the full-blown Doctrine of the Trinity is a glorious failure, because it attempts to express in words what mere words never can adequately express. It’s as though, instead of playing one of Bach’s magnificent Preludes and Fugues at the close of our service, Stuart were to deliver a long lecture describing in words its every detail. A few well-chosen words might help us better to understand its structure, but very soon we would find ourselves pleading with him, ‘For goodness sake, Stuart, stop talking, get back to the organ console, and let us experience the music for ourselves.’ What the first Christians experienced when they experienced, as God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, all the subsequent theorising of generations of theologians could never fully express.
We have right here a perhaps more helpful representation of God. Our beautiful Cathedral was intended by Bishop Forbes to express, as mere words can never express, the majesty of God. The more I think of what it is to experience our Cathedral, the more I see that experience as a metaphor of the Holy Trinity. Built high upon the Castle Rock, the Cathedral is only accessible to us because it rolls itself out before us in a flight of steps that for us are the way to its interior. Jesus Christ is our God-given Way into the heart of God. In the company of the risen Jesus we ascend with God into God. But more than this, is it your experience – I know it’s mine – that in ascending the Cathedral steps it’s as though an unseen power is both pushing us from behind and pulling us upwards? We hope, of course, soon to provide a disabled access for those who really need it, but for the rest of us long may the experience continue of that unseen power drawing us upwards into the splendour of the Cathedral. The Cathedral, through its beauty and mystery, draws us into itself, and that drawing power is a metaphor of the Holy Spirit – God in us so that we can find ourselves forever in God.
For the first Christians the Most Holy Trinity wasn’t a verbal theory, but a living experience. That’s how it can be for us as well. Jesus Christ is for us the Way into God. The Holy Spirit is the Power of God propelling and sustaining us on our journey with Jesus into the fullness of God’s presence. The One whom metaphorically we describe as Father awaits and greets us as we enter. And the totality of the One God, experienced as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with ourselves enfolded in their midst, is the only ultimate reality.
God alone is the really real – God alone and all, including ourselves, that is found in God. We can begin to experience God even in the midst of the illusion that is the universe of time and space. The fullness of God awaits us when time and space have returned to the nothingness from which they emerged at the dawn of creation. For us to be really real is to find ourselves in God. And because God is God with us, with us as the risen Jesus, with us as the Holy Spirit, what we shall be is what already we are. Let’s remember this glorious truth every time we enter its metaphorical expression in this beautiful Cathedral of ours.
In the words of St Paul in today’s second reading, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.” (2 Corinthians 13, 13)