Sermon for High Mass – Trinity Sunday Sunday 11 June 2017
TRINITY SUNDAY, 2017
“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
Let me begin with a general election: No, not that one! In 2007 a Roman Catholic missionary priest was in Nairobi to lead a retreat for members of his order. His visit turned out to be a good deal less peaceful than he and the retreatants had expected. There was a general election going on and this erupted into horrific violence. 1200 people died and the homes of many were destroyed. A number of people fled from their homes and took refuge with his community. When it was finally safe to leave,
an old lady spoke on behalf of them all:
“Here have I found God living among human beings. How is it that your people coming from all over the world are able to live with each other in peace, love and joy? Why do we Kenyans fail to see each other face-to-face because of our tribal affiliations? However, living with you here for more than a week I have come to understand that your peace, love, and joy come from your prayer together.”
This woman had read no theology, but she had seen that liturgy and that mission to all peoples which today’s Gospel speaks of are inseparable. Theology, worship and mission all belong together.
We are reminded of that by our readings today which include two forms of words which we use in worship and prayer.
We became Christians when we were baptized “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We use those same words when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist whose name and at the beginning of a sermon to remind us in whose name and power we do these things. Our worship and prayer is offered to the Father, through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Trinitarian benediction with which Paul ends his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” is often used by Christians as a greeting or a final blessing.
The starting point is that God is the source of genuine human communion and that worship contributes much to building this communion and even more to offering it to the “real world”. Human communion built from worship witnesses to our participation in the unity and activity of the triune God. This unity and activity of God is the source of our living-in-grace with one another and the foundation and goal of mission.
In our worship, we both imitate and participate in God’s life in which we share through our union in and with Jesus Christ in the Spirit. Liturgy itself is mission. Liturgy and mission (authentic Christian living) are inseparable, for both respond to our being united to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and, through him, to the Father.
The Church’s one foundation is in the self-communication of a triune God. Its source is in the life-giving activity of the Trinity, wrought in the mission of the Son, born of a woman, and the Holy Spirit who is the source of the incarnation, visibly manifested at Jesus’ baptism and communicated, as we heard last Sunday, by the risen Lord at Pentecost to a praying assembly of apostles, Mary and the women. Worship is the church’s response in praise and thanksgiving to the activity of the Trinity. Worship and mission which have their source in the outflowing, creative, reconciling and restoring love of the God who is Father, Son and Spirit, has, at the same time its goal and end in the triune God with whom we are called to communion.
So, in response to this divine operation, the duty of the liturgy is lead the celebrating assembly back to the life and work of the Trinity.
“Human beings were created in order to live forever in the personal communion of the Holy Trinity. The explicit revelation of the transcendent goal of man’s existence was given in and through the history of Jesus of Nazareth and the history of the special mission of the Holy Spirit that followed upon his death, resurrection and glorification. With the sending of the Holy Spirit from the Father through the risen Lord to bind believers to the beloved Son, and to bring them into personal communion with the Father of all, the ecclesial body of Christ was born.”
The liturgical response in praise and thanksgiving of the church to the Trinity’s activity has great implications for mission because “the Church of the Trinity is a Church in a state of mission.”
The Church is a place where, by virtue of the Spirit, Christ is made present to fulfill his saving mission. In the Eucharist, the dynamic activity of the Trinity flows into the activity of the Church and vice-versa`. As the sacrifice of praise to the Father, the memorial of the Son and the invocation of the Spirit, the Eucharist models the Church’s mission after that of the Trinity as a mission of love, vividly expressed by the gathered assembly in prayer and thereafter in service to the world. We are called and gathered together in Christ by the Spirit, then sent out into the world.
Christian mission can only be a response to the human transformation that happens through the Holy Spirit when people like us hear the word. Our ideas and practice of mission reflect the richness of Scripture only if they reflect the life of churches that are places of celebration of the gospel, of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which give life.
This understanding should guard us from reducing Christ and the church and Christians to the role of problem solvers, from conceiving Christ primarily in functional or terms: one who will make us or other people better. So, the primary role of mission is of unveiling the truth of the Gospel, where symbolic liturgical action complements and deepens verbal teaching and draws us deeper into the mystery of God’s promise than words alone can do. The celebration of the Eucharist is the celebration of the Gospel as God’s great promise in which we participate for our own transformation and that of others into a life of blessedness.
We know, don’t we, and all too well, that the experience of peace, love and joy which that old lady experience and recognized when that missionary community gave her sanctuary, is not always what people see or experience in the life of churches.
The fractious Church in Corinth had hardly demonstrated a model of living together in peace. Paul’s second letter to them has been aimed at putting things in order. His final exhortation makes clear the need for corporate action to counter the existing quarrelsomeness. The members of a divided church must learn to act together.
Since they cannot do this for themselves, Paul promises them that the God of love and peace will be with them to help. No more can we, so we need to hear that promise just as much; to pray as he does for grace, love and fellowship. Our usual translation of the Greek word koinonia as “fellowship” hides its link with what we do this morning. “Fellowship” has often reduced to a sort of human matiness. In fact it is the “Communion” of the Holy Spirit.
In the Trinitarian blessing with which he ends, grace, love and fellowship are emphasized: three things, three aspects of Christian life, for which he prays.
From Christ comes the “grace” by which people become Christians: something which no virtue or accomplishment of our own can make us. Something our baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit signifies and which we are reminded of when we begin our worship in the triune name of God or recite the creed.
Behind that grace stands the “love of God” from which all creation and redemption begins and ends. Christ and the Father are active in creating grace and love.
The Holy Spirit is active in creating “fellowship, communion.” This can mean Christians entering into a fellowship with one another created for us by the Holy Spirit – a message for a divided church. It can also mean Christians participating in the Spirit. Paul is praying for a deepening of their experience of the Spirit. The two are not so very different, since to share in the Spirit is always to participate with other people. It is of its very nature a communal experience.
In our worship, and especially in the Eucharist, we are drawn into the triune activity of God. The Christ who has come from the Father draws us into his relationship, his perfect communion of love with the Father. The God who is revealed in the scriptures, the God in whose image we are made, is no solitary monad, but he perfect communion of a love between three persons; a love which cannot but be outgoing to the world in creation and redemption.
The other evening a young woman in Muslim dress came into church. She asked if it was alright to be there. I said, of course it was – God’s house is for all people. It would have been culturally inappropriate to greet her with “a holy kiss,” but I said “A Salaam aleikum – Peace be with you.” We talked for a little while – and she told me that she and her father, who had died recently, were refugees from Iraq. As we stood near the statue of the Our Lady, she told of how the Koran spoke of Issa, Jesus, as a prophet, and of Mary as “always in the church,” and I said that was why she was always in our church.
The great dividing line between Christianity and Islam is of course the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. For Islam, the oneness of God, a belief inherited from Judaism and Christianity, is absolute. For Christians God is not a solitary monad demanding submission but a communion of perfect love which we are invited to share.
We could simply use that difference as a weapon to attack Muslims, a dividing line between us – or we can see our belief as a challenge and a support in reaching out to build community which embraces not only those who are like us but those who are unlike – and to demonstrate in a living manner something of what that old lady in Nairobi saw in that missionary community.
Paul’s letter would have been read out in the assembly of the Christians in Corinth, much as we have heard it read this morning. They would hear his injunctions to “put things in order,….agree with one another, live in peace.” Then to “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” expecting them to do so literally as the reading concluded.
We too will greet one another with a holy kiss as the liturgy of the word concludes and we prepare for the liturgy of the sacrament. The greeting of peace is not, as some who think of Holy Communion as a relationship between them and God, with no one else involved, a piece of 1960s trendiness – but an ancient Christian practice; it is there in St. Paul.
It was how members of a family greeted one another. It is how we greet one another because we recognize in one another brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ; made in the image and likeness of the triune God; made to live and grow into that likeness as beings in communion with God and with one another.
At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus promises to be with his disciples to the end of the ages. In this Church and countless others a lamp burns to signal the abiding presence of Christ in the reserved sacrament: a sign of that abiding presence which brings comfort to many – but we should not think that presence is merely a static one. No, it is a dynamic and transforming one. We are given and receive Holy Communion so that we and others might become a Holy Communion.