Sermon preached by Fr Tom Hurcombe
on Sunday 16th June 2019 (Trinity Sunday)
Proverbs 8.1–4, 22–31; Psalm 8; Romans 5.1–5; John 16.12–15
For the last two weeks we have looked at Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would come to his disciples. Today we talk about the Trinity, all three of the persons of the Godhead. But on this Trinity Sunday I’m going to focus on the Holy Spirit again. Partly because the Spirit is the often neglected member of the Trinity, but is also the one with whom we have most to do.
When Fr Andrew finished his sermon about Jesus’ promise to the disciples two weeks ago (which you will have noticed is what today’s gospel also talks about), he finished by quoting the wartime Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, who said that “The world can only be saved from political chaos and collapse by one thing, and that is worship.” We need to be ‘orthodox’ in this regard. Orthodoxy doesn’t mean ‘right thinking’ or ‘right theology’, or ‘right doctrine’, it means ‘right worship’; which is why Temple’s words are still so important today. And is why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important. We need to get that right in order to be God’s people in the world today. Our praying, more than our thinking. Perhaps more our experience of God than clever words about God.
Sarah Coakley, in the first volume of what will be her great multi-volume work of systematic theology (which means a theology of everything, more or less) argues that our theology needs to be founded on a profound commitment to contemplative prayer.
Coakley, professor of theology at Princeton, then Cambridge, and now St Andrew’s in Scotland, originates in south-east London – so she must be good (well, Blackheath, actually). She is following the great theologians of the 3rd and 4th centuries (especially Origen and Gregory of Nyssa) when the Church was working out just what it meant by the Trinity.
This was also a time when some Church Fathers begin to use the Song of Solomon (or of Songs); a rather fruity love poem about a girl and her lover. Incidentally, it is not her lover who is the initiator of their relationship and their various meetings for making love. Many mystics and theologians, with the help of Plato of all people, have seen this poem as a metaphor for our relationship with God, with our ‘erotic’ desire for God. But that isn’t quite right, Coakley points out. The primary love, eros, desire, is God’s desire, God’s ‘erotic’ love, God’s longing, for us. Which is like a relationship between lovers. We see this idea powerfully in the Old Testament prophets who talk of God’s relationship with Israel, and her abandoning Yahweh. Most of all in Hosea, who acts out this relationship by marrying a Temple prostitute, who obviously goes with other men. But, she eventually returns to Hosea, and is welcomed and forgiven – which is also promised to Israel.
An important starting place about prayer for Coakley is Paul’s words about prayer and the Holy Spirit in Romans 8. We read a section of it last week: how the Spirit bears ‘witness with our spirit that we are children of God.’ And further in the chapter (v. 26) that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought, [I identify with that] but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.’ And, as in today’s reading, ‘God’s love is poured into our hearts.’
For Coakley, and many others, this is a model for deep prayer, contemplative prayer, meditation (which is what we attempt in our Meditation Groups). That silent prayer in the presence of the unfathomable God allows God the Holy Spirit to pray in us. This is another example of the ‘erotic’ desire for God that I mentioned earlier. And again, though the way in which we ‘long’ for each other in our human sexual relationships can be seen as a model for our relationship with God, the opposite is the case, since it is God’s longing for us that is the model for our relationships with each other. Coakley argues that this has profound implications for our attitudes to gender and sexuality, which, if I had time I would explain to you in great detail. But, I don’t – ‘He said with a certain relief…‘
But, let me suggest that the next time you pray in private you think of these words, that when you pray, God the Holy Spirit is praying in you. What might that mean for your praying?
This kind of relationship, in prayer and meditation, is not just for mystics and saints, but for all of us. It is not something we hope to have, or imagine, or project on to God, it is a real relationship. That God’s presence with us in the Holy Spirit is not just a symbol or a metaphor – it is real. And it’s not our only kind of ‘real’ relationship with God.
Before Fr Andrew begins the words of consecration of the bread and the wine in this Eucharist he will invoke the Holy Spirit: to come down and make the bread and wine the body and blood of Jesus for us (it’s called the ‘epiclesis’). It isn’t a sign, or a symbol or even a metaphor – it is real. Anglican divines (and others) have for five centuries called this bread and wine, now the body and blood of Jesus, the ‘Real Presence’.
Here, then, are two examples of how the Holy Trinity invites us to come into the Trinity, to become one with God in our prayer and Eucharist. In Rublev’s famous icon of the three angels whom Abraham entertained; looking rather gender ambiguous, they sit around what is obviously a Eucharistic table, and they are also the Holy Trinity, and what they do most of all in their Divine Dance (as Richard Rohr calls it, – there is so much movement in the icon) is to invite us in to join them at their table, not just for the ‘Real Presence’ of the Eucharist, but to join them in their dance and to be a real part of the very Trinity we celebrate today.