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Sermon for Evensong on Trinity Sunday, 27th May 2018

Ezekiel 1:4-10, 22-28; Revelation 4

‘WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity..’

I turned to the Book of Common Prayer for guidance about Trinity Sunday. Near the beginning is the Creed of Saint Athanasius, also known by its Latin name, Quicunque Vult, which means ‘whoever wishes’ or, as it says in the Prayer Book, ‘whosoever will’; whosoever will, whosoever wishes, that he be saved, he must hold the ‘Catholick Faith’. And that faith is that we worship ‘one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity’.

We worship one God, in three persons, as the hymn, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty’ says. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tonight’s lessons, from Ezekiel and Revelation, aren’t really relevant to Trinity Sunday, except insofar as they are pictures of the divine, of God and heaven – or perhaps more accurately, they are visions of the divine, as the the prophet Ezekiel and as St John the Divine portrayed their visions of God.

Ezekiel had a vision of fire, and of living creatures, and a throne above them upon which was seated ‘the appearance of a man’. The heavenly figures, the living creatures, had, according to Ezekiel, ‘the appearance of a man’. Some man! I’m not sure what sort of a man has four faces – including the faces of lions, oxen and eagles – or wings, or which every one had four, four wings. I was going to say that perhaps this image is one that got people thinking of God as a superhuman being living in heaven above the clouds, but actually Ezekiel’s vision isn’t tied to a particular place, up or down. The vision was of a whirlwind, and fire ‘infolding itself’ in the whirlwind, with a bright light in the middle, where God and the four creatures – his angels – were to be seen.

In St John the Divine’s vision, he was ‘in the spirit’, and saw into heaven, where there was a throne with someone sitting on it who looked like he was made of jewels – ‘to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone’; there were 24 ‘elders’, and around the throne was a sea of glass, with four ‘beasts full of eyes before and behind.’ These beasts had the look, respectively, of a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle. There is clearly a reminiscence of the living creatures in Ezekiel. Here there are four creatures, looking like a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle: there were also four creatures, but each one had multiple aspects, each one had four faces, looking like a lion, a calf, a man and an eagle respectively.

The other day I was talking to someone about saying our prayers. I think it may have been in the context of the recent ‘novena’, nine days of prayer, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which all the churches were encouraged to join, so as to create a worldwide wave of prayer. A sort of Mexican wave of prayer round the world.

My question to my friend was, ‘Who are you praying to?’ My friend said, ‘I’m praying to God’. Without going into too much detail, what worried me was that I wasn’t sure that the god which he was thinking about was the same as the one I thought of.

There’s a new book, by the philosopher John Gray, The Seven Types of Atheism, which I want to read. [John Gray, 2018, Seven Types of Atheism, London, Allen Lane] So far I’ve just learned about it from the Church Times and Guardian reviews. But the reason I’m mentioning it is that in a sense, it helps to understand better what something is, if you think about what it isn’t. We understand what it is to be good, partly by contrast with what it is to be bad. Similarly with black and white, and so on.

So when you meet an atheist, one thing that can be quite illuminating is to ask what this god is, that they don’t believe in. The atheist has to say what the putative god, say, the god he wants to rubbish, looks like, or acts like. That’s what John Gray is setting out to do in his book, identifying seven types of atheists. He doesn’t, according to the reports, end up saying who is right, atheists or believers. But he does ask pertinent questions of the atheists, which, he suggests, leave them looking either like believers in disguise or else they are very simplistic in a way in which believers aren’t.

I won’t spoil your anticipation, but we’re going to sing ‘Immortal, Invisible,’ as our last hymn. When we sing that hymn, we are, I think, being properly cautious about what God is. He is ‘hid from our eyes’. This is not a creator, omnipotent, omniscient, who is somehow ‘my God’, in the sense of being my boon companion. It is still a matter of awe and ultimate respect, I would suggest, for us to come before the Almighty.

One atheistic understanding, Richard Dawkins’, puts up a god who is a ‘blind watchmaker’, a creator who may indeed have made the world, but has just set it ticking and left it to its own devices. That kind of god has no continuing interest in what, or whom, he has created. Strictly speaking, that’s not atheism so much as ‘deism’ – a belief in a sort of god which might as well not be there, or who has, as some philosophers have argued, died, or simply disappeared. God is dead, they say. Just like children who have lost a parent, we have to do without the absent god.

I could see the force of that, see the attraction of it, if we had not come to know about Jesus. God has another aspect, another face. If we believe that Jesus was both human and divine, then we believe in the second part of the Trinity. ‘The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate’; uncreate, which means, not created. Because if the Son were created, were one of God’s creatures, then He could not be an ultimate creator, creator ex nihilo, from nothing – which is the most basic, stripped-down understanding of what it is to be God.

The Nicene Creed was adopted in order to nail down the controversy that Arius, who was a theologian in Alexandria in the fourth century, who, perhaps influenced by Plato and Aristotle, suggested that Jesus as ‘son’ of God was not ‘uncreate’, but was by his very sonship lesser than God. A great controversy broke out in the early church, and the Roman emperor Constantine convened a great conference at Nicaea in the year 325, at which it was decided that Father and Son were ‘of one substance’. The theological opponent of Arius was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius: and the Creed which is called ‘Quicunque Vult’ is also known as the Creed of Athanasius. In Athanasius’ creed, ‘The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.’ We say the Nicene Creed in the Communion service, which reflects Athanasius’ interpretation:

I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father…’,

and when it gets to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Nicene Creed says:

‘And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.’

‘… who proceedeth from the Father and the Son’. Now even today, in the Common Worship service book – at page 140, there is an alternative text of the Nicene Creed, which, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, says,

‘We believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father,..’

Not, ‘from the Father and the Son’. This is so that it may be said ‘on suitable ecumenical occasions’, that is, when you are holding a service with other Christians who don’t accept the outcome of the Council of Nicaea – as for instance the Orthodox churches don’t.

At Evensong we use the Apostles’ Creed, which is simpler, and doesn’t get into whether Jesus was created or not:

‘I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary,… ‘

The Apostles’ Creed really emphasises the dual nature of Jesus, as god and as man. God: ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost’; man: ‘born of the Virgin Mary’.

Now, you may think that this is all impossibly complicated. It is surely part of our understanding of theology that we don’t fully understand: that the nature of God is beyond human understanding. But that doesn’t stop us from trying, from trying to get a better understanding.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s what Christians believe in. The father, the creator, the heart of being: the creator in person, Jesus: and the creative force, the love force, the Comforter, as the Holy Spirit is called in John 15:26, for instance. Three ways of seeing God.

That’s all quite difficult to deny, actually. As a lawyer, I knew that one of the most difficult things is to prove the absence of something. Relatively easy to show that something happened, but not the other way round. So I would say that you needn’t be coy about saying you believe in God, even ‘God in three persons’. It’s perfectly respectable philosophically – indeed, if John Gray is right, the ‘new atheists’ are intellectual lightweights by comparison. So you could say, ‘ What is this god you don’t believe in? Bring it on!

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Here is the text of the Creed of St Athanasius.

Upon these Feasts; Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Saint Matthias, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Saint John Baptist, Saint James, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Matthew, Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Saint Andrew, and upon Trinity Sunday, shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing.

QUICUNQUE VULT

WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost.

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost.

The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.

The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal.

And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal.

As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.

So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty: and the Holy Ghost Almighty.

And yet they are not three Almighties: but one Almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God.

And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord: and the Holy Ghost Lord.

And yet not three Lords: but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity: to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;

So are we forbidden by the Catholick Religion: to say there be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another;

But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal.

So that in all things, as is aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;

God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;

Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;

Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.

Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;

One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God;

One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.

For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ.

Who suffered for our salvation: descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.

He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty: from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works.

And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Text from The Book of Common Prayer, the rights in which are vested in the Crown,

is reproduced by permission of the Crown’s Patentee, Cambridge University Press.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent, 24th February 2013
Jeremiah 22:13 – Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.

A friend of mine asked me the other day whether I have any difficulty thinking up things to preach sermons about. I explained to him that I usually use as a starting point for my sermons the Bible lessons which we read at the service. Those lessons are from a ‘lectionary’ published by an ecumenical group of liturgists representing all the English-speaking churches in the world. It is called the Revised Common Lectionary and was most recently published in 1992.

It’s quite exciting that, in the English-speaking churches round the world, Catholic and Protestant, if they use the common lectionary – and most of them do – wherever you go, you will find people using the same Bible readings each Sunday. The general idea is to read through the whole of the Bible, over a period, relating the readings to the Christian year.

So today there are lessons laid down for a ‘principal service’, in the morning, which is a piece from Genesis, Psalm 27, an epistle reading from Philippians chapter 3, and finally a gospel, Luke chapter 13. The ‘second service’, which, in Lectionary terms, is what Evensong is, has the lessons from Jeremiah and Luke which we have heard tonight, and our Psalm, 135.

So we’ve joined in with English-speaking Christians all over the world in using those Bible readings. I find that quite compelling, and so I usually base my sermon on one or other of the Bible readings for the day. There is of course the alternative that my preaching should be related first and foremost to our life today, relating to it the teaching of Jesus Christ. Rather than taking those teachings first, in the form of Bible readings, instead I could look at what’s been happening, and then try to discern what the will of God in relation to those events would be.

That’s sometimes known as ‘preaching from the newspaper’, as opposed to preaching from the lectionary. When I did read the lessons for today, I decided indeed to preach from the newspaper. I came across these words in Jeremiah, ‘Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages’, and I was tempted not to give you a detailed exposition of the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, and history of the people of Israel, and in particular of the exile in Babylon, the fall of Jerusalem in the late C6 BC, which is the background to our OT lesson today.

Instead I thought that it was very striking that the prophet was writing about a bad king – in this case, King Zedekiah of Judah, and this passage is really a prophecy directed at the whole house of David, saying what a good ruler should do. What struck me about this passage was the way in which it reminded me of a number of the debates which I have listened to recently, concerning what the government should be doing today, here in the UK. For example, on Question Time there was a lively debate between Canon Giles Fraser and the MP Dianne Abbott on the one side, and Michael Heseltine the Conservative grandee on the other. They were arguing about the government’s austerity programme, and in particular whether the burden of the various government cuts is falling disproportionately on poor people.

When I read the lesson in Jeremiah, I immediately thought about the government programme to try to get people back to work, where apparently, young people are being compelled to work in menial jobs for no pay in order, so the government says, to gain ‘work experience’.

Now I’m not going to debate the rights and wrongs of the government workfare programme, although ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ has always struck me as a good start in this area. The point I’d like to make is that, in all the debates in which this came up, for example on Question Time, even when Giles Fraser was there, nobody mentioned God.

I should say that this was perhaps even more strange, because the programme was being broadcast from St Paul’s Cathedral. There were a couple of delightful things – one was in the credits, where the ‘set designer’ was listed as Sir Christopher Wren, and the other was when Michael Heseltine’s mobile phone rang, and it was his wife, no doubt wondering when he was going to be home for his tea. But there they were, in God’s house, and no-one mentioned God.

Nobody said, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And that was a big contrast, so far as I was concerned, to some of the other things that I encountered this week. I’ve had rather a cultural week. I started off by going to the Young Vic (which you might smile about!) to see a wonderful play called ‘Feast’ about the Yoruba people from Nigeria, and their diaspora from Nigeria to the UK, to Cuba, to Venezuela and to Brazil, which of course had a lot to do with the slave trade.

Wherever they went, the Yorubas took their distinctive culture with them, including their old gods, the Orishas, even though Nigerians are mostly Christians and Moslems nowadays. The Orishas are the emissaries – I suppose they are a bit like angels – of one supreme god. It is true that Yoruba people, even today, see the Orishas at work in all sorts of everyday circumstances. One Orisha is a an Orisha of motherhood and child-bearing, another one of beauty and love, another one is a warrior, and ‘Esu is a trickster and a shape-shifter. He is the Orisha of crossroads, the threshold, chaos and fertility, the divine middle-man’ [Programme for Feast, 2013, London, The Young Vic, p11].

So everywhere that a Yoruba goes, even today – and I was accompanied by a dear friend from St Andrew’s who is a Yoruba – she was saying that they still know about these ancient angels. They are aware of God’s presence all the time.

Then on Friday I went to the Coliseum to see the very wonderful production of Charpentier’s ‘Medea’, a 17th century opera based on the ancient Greek myth of Medea the witch, daughter of gods, who married Jason, Jason of the Argonauts. Jason was unfaithful to her. She ended up killing their children. A real tragedy, from Euripides.

Again it was very noticeable that whatever happened in the play, all the actors would refer to God – or in the Greek context, the gods. ‘Did something represent the will of the gods?’, they always asked themselves.

Earlier in the week we had our first sessions of the Lent course. This year we are looking at the Beatitudes, the ‘Blessed are they’ sayings of Jesus at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. [Matt.5 and Luke 6]. In the first session we were looking at the saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. We were reflecting, among other things, on the way in which, when these sayings are repeated in St Luke’s gospel, there is no mention of the ‘in spirit’ bit, but it’s simply, ‘Blessed are you who are poor’.

So back to Jeremiah and to the warning to the kings of the house of David. Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages, who says, I will build myself a spacious house, with large upper rooms…’ This is uncomfortably close to home. A footballer’s house, perhaps.

And what do we think about the masses of people who are out of work, who are being forced to work for nothing in menial jobs? Whatever we do think, do you think we should at least consult our Bibles? Think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard in St Matthew’s gospel chapter 20. Even though the vineyard owner paid a flat rate of a day’s pay, a denarius, irrespective whether the worker worked for one hour or eight hours, there was no question of working for nothing.

My point is this: that in this time of Lent we should look again at our lives, in the light of the gospel. We say, ‘The Lord is here. His spirit is with us’: and then we forget about him. I’m sure that at least some of you are going to tackle me on the door afterwards and explain how important it is that young people should get work experience, and that it doesn’t matter that they work for nothing, provided, of course, all the usual safeguards are in place.

You may be right. My point is not that: my point is, that in all the discussions about the rights and wrongs of it, nobody mentions God, nobody mentions what Jesus would do. Remember what the epistle of James says, in chapter 5. ‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. … Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of The Lord of hosts’.

The Bible is absolutely clear: it’s not a good thing not to pay people for their work. Funny that nobody mentions it.