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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 the Second Sunday of Easter, 27th April 2014
Acts 2:14a, 22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away. [Hughes Mearns, 1899]

I hope that’s not too irreverent a way to introduce some reflections on the story of Doubting Thomas, which is one of my favourite stories in the Bible. I’ve always thought that, if I’d been around at the time, and had been fortunate enough to be one of Jesus’ circle of friends – if not one of the actual disciples – if I’d bumped into the disciples, and they had been saying, ‘We have seen the Lord’, I think my reaction would have been a bit like Thomas’: ‘Unless I can see him, touch him: I couldn’t believe it.’

But then Thomas is put out of his misery, because Jesus does come: Thomas does see, he does touch – and he does believe. But Jesus himself says that the really marvellous thing is if someone doesn’t have Thomas’ good fortune, wasn’t actually there, wasn’t able to see, feel, touch the risen Jesus – but nevertheless still believes – that is the real marvel.

St Peter wrote in his first Letter, Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice …

This is a very important message for all of us Christians. Starting from the disciples on the way to Emmaus, Christians have always had a tendency to be a bit despondent when they haven’t had Jesus right there in front of them. Now 2,000 years further on, there are an awful lot of people, like the Prime Minister, for whom their Christian faith ‘comes and goes’, but clearly doesn’t exactly get him by the throat.

Let’s go back a minute to the man who wasn’t there.

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.

The Jesus that Thomas encountered, the Jesus that all the disciples encountered, was there – and then he wasn’t. He was a man, but he was also God. So in a sense, he was a man who wasn’t there.

The bit that Thomas saw, and felt, and touched, was Jesus the man. But the fact that he saw, and felt, and touched Jesus, the risen Jesus, the man who wasn’t there: the man who had died, shows that this was a revelation, a revelation of God: God showing himself.

You can approach that in all sorts of different ways. If you believe in God as a sort of benevolent old chap with a beard above the clouds, who somehow created everything that there is, that may be fine – and it may indeed be perfectly OK to believe in someone like that, simply because you know that the question, what it is to be God, is actually beyond our comprehension, and therefore a picturesque metaphor, like an ancient Greek god on Mount Olympus or in the heavens – or indeed, all the imagery we have in the Bible, ‘sitting on the right hand of God’, and so on, may be perfectly OK as a way of talking about something which we really can’t comprehend – but which, nevertheless, we can believe in.

The point about the Resurrection is that it was God’s ultimate way of demonstrating, not only that He, God, is there, He exists, but that He is still interested in His creation, and in us in particular.

There have been signs of God’s involvement all down the ages. Moses and the burning bush: Daniel in the lions’ den; all the various miracles that Jesus did, are very difficult to explain, unless they are to some extent revelations, revelations of God at work in the world.

Many of us will be able to say that they have experienced the power of prayer; that prayers are answered. Again, very difficult to analyse this in any way. Why, for example, are some prayers answered, and others aren’t?

The philosophers of the Enlightenment – Spinoza, Locke, Hume – all had difficulty with the idea that God was something, God was a something, something made, when at the same time He was the ultimate cause of everything, the ‘unmoved mover’ as Aristotle called him, or the ‘first mover’, the first cause, in Thomas Aquinas.

The idea of the ultimate cause, the unmoved mover, ‘τι ό ού κινούμενον κινει’ [Aristotle, Metaphysics, Λ 7, 1072a25], could lead you to William Paley’s C18 idea of the ‘divine watchmaker’; that Nature was so marvellous in its construction and operation, that it must have been constructed by, and organised by, a divine craftsman. The most complex mechanism which Paley could think of was a watch – pretty rare in C18 – so God’s skill must be at least that of a watchmaker – he was the Divine Watchmaker.

Charles Darwin is said to have been inspired to start his own researches into evolutionary biology by reading about Paley’s idea of the Divine Watchmaker.

But the problem with those understandings of God – sometimes called ‘deist’ ideas – which were popular in the C18, is that they don’t make sense of Jesus. They imagined a divine watchmaker, a god who set up the world, programmed it, pressed the start button – and then had nothing more to do with it.

It would be fairly difficult to justify worshipping, or having any kind of interaction with, that sort of a god. There wouldn’t be a lot of point in praying to the divine watchmaker, because he wouldn’t be there. He would probably have moved on.

It would be difficult to understand any ideas about ethics, why we should choose to do one thing rather than another, on the basis that some things are good or bad – because the divine watchmaker, having made the mechanism to run at a certain speed, and perhaps in a certain direction, wound it up and set it going, has left it to get on by itself. The world has to evolve by itself. As Richard Dawkins put it, the watchmaker is blind.

There’s nothing that the clock itself can do to change its time or to run in a different direction. So if all there is, is God in the form of an unmoved mover, then we are ultimately pre-programmed, predetermined, and there’s no point in our trying to choose between the good and the bad.

If, on the other hand, we accept that the point about Jesus is that His life, death and resurrection is a revelation, is God showing His hand – then it is the revelation. The divine watchmaker is not blind. He is still there, caring for what He has made and sustaining it. The fact of Jesus, his life, death and above all, his resurrection, is the evidence. How should we respond to it?

Although I’m sure you’ll all realise that I’m mighty tempted to have another dig at our hapless Prime Minister and his lukewarm faith, I don’t think it would be very fair to do that. Let’s concentrate on what we should do. St Peter, in his first letter, suggests that when you have faith in Jesus, ‘you believe in Him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1 Peter 1:8-9).

You, you who have come to church, have faith that God cares for you, and that God will save your soul, will bring you home. I suppose the thing today is that, for many people, there is no sense of being lost in the wilderness and needing to be brought home. There is no sense of being cut off from God – which is what sin is – because people feel that they can get by perfectly adequately without addressing their minds at all to any questions about God. They just don’t engage.

If you’ve got a nice family, if you’re doing reasonably well: if you’ve got a decent job or a decent pension: if you live in a nice place, if you drive a nice car: if you have decent holidays: if you have all that, it’s very tempting to think that there’s nothing really missing in your life.

And yet, of course, very commonly, people experiencing that sort of earthly-paradise prescription, which might even be normal life in Cobham, say – are often the ones who confess to not being entirely fulfilled, to having a sense that there’s something missing in their lives. Perhaps they turn to some New Age philosophies or fads – Yoga or special diets – in the hope that it’ll fill the gap in their lives.

Yoga or special diets. I hope that doesn’t sound impossibly sniffy. What I’m leading up to, is that you don’t need pet rocks or fancy diets. You just have to get your head round what the encounter with Thomas, or the meeting on the road to Emmaus, or the empty tomb, all add up to.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe’ [John 20:29]. That’s the message. It changed people’s lives 2,000 years ago – and it can still do it. We need to think hard about what that revelation can do in our lives, and how we ought to respond to it.