The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. 2 Cor 13.14
Trinity Sunday is the time when, not unsurprisingly, preachers often focus on the conundrum of a three in one God, but it seems to me that this is the least important of a number of conundrums our readings give us today. These are conundrums which face everyone, whether they be Christian or not.
We have, in our Old Testament lesson God proclaiming the divine name to Moses, yet the divine name which we render as 'LORD' in fact is not the word. It was a name too sacred to utter. We are told that no one was to approach the holy mountain. So even for the chosen people of God, God was not present and accessible to them in a way denied to others. The Buddhist is in no worse position. Those who follow a theistic religion rationally know that God by whatever name cannot logically differentiate between people.
We also have in this text the conundrum of a gracious God, yet one who punishes the sins of the parents on children in successive generations. To me this has often seemed vindictive, yet when I think about it, the theological perspectives of our parents, the separateness, the desire for children to make up for the deficiencies of parents, all have lasting effects down the generations. This ought to warn us against simply accepting the theologies and prejudices of parents. So another conundrum, the commandment to honour one's parents is put side-by-side with the need for parents to get it right. I have often thought how the mafia – 'the family' – is all that different from the church – in the sense that the family is most important and others are essentially expendable.
So this is a universal problem – how far one conforms to the upbringing one has, and how much one reaches out in faith. The ancient people of God were essentially a nomadic people in the beginning, and it was only later that they settled in the promised land. They were a pilgrim people and this is meant both physically and theologically.
So Jesus did not just cow-tow to the religion of his forebears and suffered the consequences. And we are called to follow Jesus, so we too are called beyond simply complying with what is. Often it seems to me that ‘Christian Education’ spends a lot of time explaining and inculcating what is – when what is – is manifestly divisive.
And even the cornerstone of the faith of the ancient people of God – that God is one and that there is no other, needs to be put alongside the fact that one of the names for the divine – ‘Elohim’ – is a plural word. When God visits Abraham and Sarah to announce that they were to have a son, God is pictured as three strangers. (Genesis 18)
There is something important here about rationality. It is not rational to think that God will differentiate between people, religions or nations. In the history of war, the enemy has often been portrayed as sub-human, and therefore the killing of the enemy is less morally culpable. But soldiers find that when they meet those they are fighting are remarkably similar to themselves. Actually meeting the enemy dispels the fantasy that we are any different. Similarly the church has often been a community trying to be sufficient unto herself. Adherents were not to marry outside the faith so that our faith might not be burdened with explaining the reality that others are no different to us. But it is also not rational to debate the essence of the divine which can be essentially unknowable. And I wonder if we do debate the essence of God to avoid us thinking about the god who cannot and will not differentiate between people and to avoid us meeting others who might disturb our orthodoxy and devotion. It's theological masturbation that makes us blind to the good in others.
In last week’s sermon I spoke about the conundrum of God being both personal and other. I want to follow this by suggesting that all these conundrums exist precisely because God is never the sole possession of a person, group or nation. Yes, God is personal and personal to everyone. But God is ever other to those who want to pretend the divine is theirs alone.
I have been reflecting recently how so many people these days have employment which really helps other people. In times past, in feudal times, the bulk of the people toiled in the fields to feed themselves and their families. But these days we have doctors, nurses, health professionals, teachers, thinkers – people whose calling in life is to really assist others become all of which they are capable. I guess this stems from my time in hospital wards.
But we have only to look around at the society in which we live to see that we have all sorts of other people – shop keepers and manufacturers who bring us goods which advance our civilization. We are marveling in Christchurch at the skills of those who built the cathedrals in the early days. It the reconstruction to come at least we will have cranes and other machines which will make the task rather less protracted.
In our information technology revolution each and every one of us are becoming able to know the needs and thoughts of many, both far and near. We are so blessed to know that our lives are having an effect beyond ourselves. There are a multitude of ways of living life helping others. And I am not sure that the Church has perceived this change. The church has so sanctified what happens on Sunday mornings by those wearing white robes, so that she fails to perceive the real ministries folks have for the forty or so hours in the week of work. The church has so sanctified ‘christian’ theology that she fails to perceive the richness of the scientific and technological endeavor all around – all the while pondering the conundrum of the divine as if this will make any difference to anyone.
For the conundrum cannot be resolved – it is not meant to be. Trying to resolve the conundrum about the essence of the divine is no different to the people building the tower of Babel to reach the heavens. For all their devotion, it is entirely the wrong quest. Trying to resolve the conundrum of the essence of the divine is no different from Elijah fleeing to Mount Horeb protesting his faithfulness to God, only to be told to return to the fray of ordinary life. We are meant to get on with those around us, whoever they are, whatever they do. We are called to get our hands dirty and muck in with those who are making an effort to provide for themselves and those around them, and to rejoice that we are called to be a part of society, not apart from it.
My text for today, so often used down the centuries, talks about the divine in terms of grace, love and communion – yet how often the god that the church (of all denominations) has portrayed is one of criticism, condemnation and excommunication. It seems slightly more important to get the message of grace, love and communion, than criticize, condemn and excommunicate those who perceive the divine differently from ourselves, for I find no warrant in scripture for this.