Eucharist Sermon - 30 May 2021

Trinity Sunday
Isaiah 6:1–8; John 3:1–17
The Reverend Canon Richard Peers, The Sub Dean
‘Glorious complexity’

In the name of the Father …

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.

One of my favourite poems is W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. 

It is just twelve lines in three verses, here’s the first:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

What a lovely thought. 

A life of simplicity.

From the romanticism of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’, to the island idyll of Robinson Crusoe the simple life appeals.

Jesus is sometimes portrayed as living the simple life. An itinerant preacher wandering around Palestine from place to place with a band of friends.

But I don’t think there is anything simple about Jesus at all. He is one of the most complex, interesting, fascinating people I know. I never tire of talking to Jesus when I pray; I never get bored of reading the things he said, the stories he told.

I don’t imagine that Nicodemus thought Jesus was simple either. Quite the opposite.

If you want to see Jesus’ complexity read the gospel we have just heard, the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. It is wonderfully complex.

Light, darkness, world, flesh, spirit, born again, testimony, earthly and heavenly things; Moses and serpents.

Almost any sentence of this gospel could fuel a lifetime of research.

Poor Nicodemus comes off none too well. He is the foil to Jesus; to those who do understand, the believers. 

His ignorance, his not-knowing and not understanding is typical of what is often called John’s irony.

But we should not be too pleased with ourselves if we place ourselves among those who do understand.

For those who compiled the lectionary, the series of readings from Scripture that we use week by week and day by day, Trinity Sunday must have posed a bit of a challenge. The Trinity is present implicitly in Scripture, of course, but nowhere explicitly. 

I don’t know if the compilers chose today’s Gospel ironically, but there is definitely a sardonic quality in reading this passage about not understanding on a day when we celebrate a doctrine that is, to put it mildly, difficult to understand.

Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed in me if I tell you that I won’t be explaining the Trinity to you this morning. You are not going to leave Christ Church Cathedral with a two sentence definition of the nature of God. I will leave that sort of thing to my canon professorial colleagues.

Quite the opposite. I don’t want to give you any explanations or definitions. I want you, us, to live with not knowing, not understanding.

It may be somewhat radical to say this from the heart of an Oxford college but it seems to me that living with not knowing, living with the questions is as important as getting the answers right.

This is at the heart of the spiritual life. To acknowledge that we are not in control, that we cannot know everything.

Simplicity can be attractive just as all fundamentalisms are attractive. They remove complication, ambiguity and complexity. They reduce the complex to standard answers and easy formulas.

We see this over and over again in politics and history. The simple lies that some politicians tell attract votes and supporters. 

We see it too in our labelling of people. People are either saints or sinners, good or bad, heroes or villains. Yet in my 56 years I have never met anyone who was only one of those things. I have never met anyone who is not a sinner, is not capable of doing bad things, of appalling indifference or failings of judgement. I know I am.

Yet we are deeply understanding of our own complexity and deeply unforgiving of anyone else’s.

I think it is better sometimes to stop trying to explain the Trinity but to examine what we can learn from the complexity of God.

There is (inevitably) a theory of complexity. One definition of this complexity that I found describes it in six ways.

Complex things:

  • are dynamic, they are continuously changing
  • are far from equilibrium, have the potential to change and take alternative paths
  • are open systems, that interchange energy and information
  • involve feedback. What happens next depends on what happened previously
  • are systems where the whole is more than the sum of the parts
  • are causal and yet indeterminate

I like these as ways of thinking about how we as Christians can be, if we allow our lives to mirror the life of the Trinity. If we live with complexity. If we become more God-like, more divine.

Having the right answer all the time is deadening. Asking the questions is dynamic.

The Christian life is a life of constant conversion, of changing, of admitting that we got it wrong and need to do something differently.

The church needs to be the least closed system, it must interpret the world to itself and to the world.

The church needs to be receptive to feedback; self-reflective.

The church is always more than any one of us.

The church needs to create change, not simply reacting to the world but proactively creating God’s kingdom of justice, love and peace.

And each of these can be applied to us as individuals too.

Are we dynamic, continually being converted? Are we able to change? Are we open to new information, new energy? Do we receive feedback from others, and reflect on our lives?

Are we able to collaborate effectively with others to bring more justice in the world?

My reading of the gospels makes me think that Jesus was like that. Despite our images of him as somehow simple and straightforward, he is very far from that. Like every other human being he is complex, complicated and fascinating. Over and over again in the gospels he refuses the simple answers. Rather he comes at things at a tangent, unexpectedly. 

He refuses Nicodemus simplistic answers and presents him with a range of ambiguous words:

Light, darkness, world, flesh, spirit, born again, testimony, earthly and heavenly things; Moses and serpents.

So as followers of Jesus, as friends of Jesus, let’s live with complexity. Let’s embrace complex truth and reject the simplistic lie.

And the church gives us a way to rehearse complex living; to practise living with ambiguity, in our life of prayer.

It is infinitely practical, infinitely doable. And it is my challenge to you today to take up this practice if you are serious about Christianity, serious about praying, if you seriously want to embrace complexity.

It is the daily, day by day, praying of the psalms.

Rowan Williams in his book ‘On Augustine’ says this: “The church’s worship … is not accidental or marginal to the church’s very being. … the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”

This is so important. If you want an immediate, routine way of becoming more Christlike it is to take your bible, or your prayer book and open it at the psalms and pray them. If you have a Book of Common Prayer, it gives you a way of doing that over a month. Praying them over and over again until they become part of the fabric of who you are. This is not one pious practice among others, one among a range of ‘spiritualities’, it is the normative way for Christians to pray. The routine way of Christian prayer.

The psalms are wonderfully, deliciously complex and ambiguous. They are never tiring, never dull, you will never be bored by them. Praying them day after day they become good friends, companions on our journey through life with all its ambiguities and complexity.

I love the image from our first reading in Isaiah of the hot coal touched to the prophet’s lips. Nothing could be more complex than coal, formed in the planet’s depths over millennia, the residue of living organisms.

If you pray the psalms daily, get to know and love them, you will see that they are hot coals, burning with divine energy, the result of centuries of formation and reformation. They will touch your lips and you will be burnt.

It is no surprise to me that our complex and ambiguous God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity should give us such complex and ambiguous texts to pray with.

The psalms contain everything. Anger, love, friendship, repentance, light, darkness, war, enemies, violence, depression, despair, delight, ecstasy.

When Frideswide and her community prayed here on this site in the seventh century, they prayed the psalms, when the Augustinian canons prayed, they prayed the psalms, the canons of Christ Church have prayed the psalms for nearly five hundred years as we do day by day now.

For Christians, the psalms, because of their complexity, because they are difficult, contain, as Augustine puts it the whole Christ, the totus Christus. And therefore they contain the whole Trinity. The Creator of the universe in all his majesty, the Messiah-Son who is anointed king and the Spirit, the voice that thunders on the waters and which is the abyss, speaking to abyss.

This is why each time we as Christians, pray the psalms, as we do here at Christ Church, day by day, we end each psalm with the doxology. We embrace and immerse ourselves in the complex, life of God who is Trinity. God who defies all simplistic explanations and all fundamentalisms. God who is so gloriously impossible to explain.

And if you only read one psalm when you get home today or sometime this week. Here is a psalm for the Trinity, Psalm 29, God’s threefold voice echoing the Holy, Holy, Holy of Isaiah.

In Hebrew the Lord’s voice is Kol Adonai. I will never forget singing this in synagogue with Jewish friends, the Lord’s voice Kol Adonai, repeated as we sang:

The Lord’s voice resounding on the waters,
the Lord on the immensity of waters;
the voice of the Lord, full of power,
the voice of the Lord, full of splendour.
The Lord’s voice shattering the cedars,
the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon;
he makes Lebanon leap like a calf
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
(The Lord’s voice flashes flames of fire.)
The Lord’s voice shaking the wilderness,
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh;
the Lord’s voice rending the oak tree
and stripping the forest bare.
The God of glory thunders.
In his temple they all cry: “Glory!” [Grail Psalms]

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
is now,
and ever shall be,
world without end.
Amen.