Reflection for Trinity Sunday
We have reached Trinity Sunday. I had hoped that by now we would be able to gather again for worship that still seems some time off. We’ve passed through the great cycles and festivals that occur in the first part of the church year and move into summer and what is called ordinary time.
The standard advice for Trinity Sunday is not to try and preach on the Trinity. The advice not to do something is often an encouragement to have a go so to speak. But I thought today that I would resist the temptation. While we think of the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that that represents our understanding and experience of God, today I want to reflect a little on one person of the Trinity and to make some tentative suggestions as to how that aspect of God relates to us, his creatures.
If I had a text would be, “I can’t breathe”, I probably don’t need to remind you that these were the last words of George Floyd.
Last Sunday we celebrated the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. How do we think of the Holy Spirit?. In Hebrew the Holy Spirit is linked to the ruach of God, the spirit that hovers over the deep at creation, the spirit that God breathes in to the dry bones in Ezekiel’s great vision of the valley of bones. In the new Testament and in Greek it is pveumatos. Both these ideas of spirit are linked to wind to the movement of air, the wind that breeds over the deep or the mighty wind bursts in on the disciples in the upper room.
But in the Old Testament there is another word which is difficult to pin down in translation. Nephesh. In Genesis God breathes nephesh into the dust giving life to Adam. In Hebrew nephesh can mean breath, it can mean the soul, it can mean life, it can be associated with an individual, the self and everything that makes us who we are but perhaps strangely and most significantly for what I want to say, it can be the windpipe, the trachea, the very way in which we suck in the air, the oxygen that gives us life and ultimately allows us to be who we are, ourselves.
I can’t breathe.
What does it feel like not to be able to draw in the very substance that makes us live, that makes us who we are?
To have that spirit, that breath taken away from us is to have seized from us, not just our life but our very identity.
It is true that nephesh isn’t quite the same as the spirit of God as the Holy Spirit but it is closely connected – it is the gift of breath breathed into us to give us life as God breathes life into dust in the garden of Eden – in that sense it is the spirit of God that infuses us and makes us who we are.
I can’t breathe – what can we be without our identity (our nephesh ) ?
We pray on this Trinity Sunday –
Come Holy Spirit breathe on us, breathe into us, give us the spirit that makes us who we are, help us to respond in our spirits through the very air we breathe, the very air we suck through our gullets, our windpipes; to your Holy and life giving Spirit.
We pray that all things to which you have given breath may breathe, that those imprisoned by society, by war, by injustice, by prejudice by ignorance may freely breathe – Amen.
Today’s Reflection is spoken and included in Part II of the service.
God, who as at this time
taught the hearts of your faithful people
by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit:
grant us by the same Spirit
to have a right judgement in all things
and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort;
through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Although not printed on your sheets there is an alternative first reading for today from the Old Testament. It comes from the prophet Ezekiel.
“I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people and I will be your God.” Ezekiel 36, verses 24-28.
We are in that strange interlude between the Ascension of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As at least one person commented to me on Ascension Day, that disciples must have felt bereft when the risen Jesus, whom they had thought would be with them for all time rose to the heavens and left them; a kind of double bereavement. Perhaps that is how some of us feel in this present crisis; as if God has deserted us. As the reading from Acts reminds us these nine days are a time for prayer. Bishop Martin is leading prayer online at midday each day in the run-up to Pentecost. (There are details beneath this on the website). But although we feel lost we should not despair. God promises to pour out his Holy Spirit. The Spirit that binds us to the Father and the Son.
The passage from Ezekiel has a majestic, elemental appeal. God promises to clean us from our uncleannesses and from all our idols. To me this is an important lesson for today. In the modern world we have many idols. There are many things that distract us from our spiritual core. Our spiritual core needs renewal; that is the new heart Ezekiel tells us God will give us. A new orientation and renewed desire to be the people of God.
Rightly government has striven to support our National Health Service at this time. But we must remember that nothing can protect us from our mortality even though life can and should be sustained in the short term. We need to prepare for our eternal home. There is an idolatry in modern life that allows people to believe there is a solution to everything; it is always someone else’s fault. But in the end we are not always in control, we never have been, we are in the hands of God.
Let us pray for the gift of God’s spirit at Pentecost. A spirit that will strengthen and renew us, encourage us, embolden us and allow us to overcome our fears in the certain knowledge of his eternal presence, both on earth and in heaven.
“ A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you”.
The lectionary for Morning Prayer over the past two or three weeks has been the story of Moses and the children of Israel. The empty church has echoed with my voice telling of the call of Moses, his struggle with Pharaoh, the plagues of Egypt, culminating in the dreadful death of each first-born male whether human or beast and the trials faced by the wanderings of ancient refugees through the desert. Much of the story tells of their dissatisfaction, whether they are complaining about the discomfort travelling through the desert or the lack of a varied diet. Not Manna again! They are constantly holding Moses and God to account. Moses spends a few days communing with God and returns to find them bowing down to the golden calf. The narrative has just reached the point at which they have arrived at the borders of the promised land. They are about to enjoy the fruits of their prolonged struggle and discomfort.
It has to be admitted that God’s role is often vengeful and seemingly unreasonable. Moses is constantly pleading with the Lord to soften his judgement. While this formative narrative for Judaism is a compelling and powerful symbol for growth and suffering, in the modern world we tend not to see God as deliberately inflicting suffering on his people.
Over the past month, I have seen a number of poems which contribute the coronavirus directly to the Lord, inflicted upon us as a kind of warning to turn again. Personally I do not feel that God works quite like this. It is not so much that suffering is carefully planned and meted out but simply that it is part of the way life is. We have to accept it, to learn to overcome it and to learn to grow from it. Jesus comes into a world where what is good often suppressed and resisted; he is not the only good man to have suffered an unjust death. But it is through his suffering and resurrection that he transforms the world.
What I do believe we can take from the story of the Exodus and indeed from all accounts of biblical suffering is that it can be a stimulus for growth. A means to a way in which we can re-examine our lives. The epistle of Peter reminders us this,
“who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”
St Paul in his preaching to the Athenians recognises something of their humility and wisdom in the way in which they honour an unknown God; as if to say that God is beyond knowledge. Howver he takes this idea further. Although God cannot be fathomed in himself, we can recognise him in creation, but more importantly, we can recognise that his presence does not reside in empty statues of gold or bronze but within us and our humanity and within those around us.
Just at the Israelites complained of their journey and felt they were suffering the injustice of a an angry God, we may feel the same but there is nothing new in pestilence and plague. It is a facet of the world we live in. On our journey through this corona virus let us pray that we receive the grace to recognise our faults and as the spirit is poured out upon us, in the coming weeks that we may grow in strength, faith and compassion.
Revelations of Divine Love – Julian of Norwich
“It is not God’s will that we follow the feeling of pains in sorrow and mourning for them”
And after this He shewed a sovereign ghostly pleasance in my soul. I was fulfilled with the everlasting sureness, mightily sustained without any painful dread. This feeling was so glad and so ghostly that I was in all peace and in rest, that there was nothing in earth that should have grieved me.
This lasted but a while, and I was turned and left to myself in heaviness, and weariness of my life, and irksomeness of myself, that scarcely I could have patience to live. There was no comfort nor none ease to me but faith, hope, and charity; and these I had in truth, but little in feeling.
And anon after this our blessed Lord gave me again the comfort and the rest in soul, in satisfying and sureness so blissful and so mighty that no dread, no sorrow, no pain bodily that might be suffered should have distressed me. And then the pain shewed again to my feeling, and then the joy and the pleasing, and now that one, and now that other, divers times—I suppose about twenty times. And in the time of joy I might have said with Saint Paul: Nothing shall dispart me from the charity of Christ; and in the pain I might have said with Peter: Lord, save me: I perish!
This Vision was shewed me, according to mine understanding, [for] that it is speedful to some souls to feel on this wise: sometime to be in comfort, and sometime to fail and to be left to themselves. God willeth that we know that He keepeth us even alike secure in woe and in weal. And for profit of man’s soul, a man is sometime left to himself; although sin is not always the cause: for in this time I sinned not wherefore I should be left to myself—for it was so sudden. Also I deserved not to have this blessed feeling. But freely our Lord giveth when He will; and suffereth us [to be] in woe sometime. And both is one love.
For it is God’s will that we hold us in comfort with all our might: for bliss is lasting without end, and pain is passing and shall be brought to nought for them that shall be saved. And therefore it is not God’s will that we follow the feelings of pain in sorrow and mourning for them, but that we suddenly pass over, and hold us in endless enjoyment.
The last few weeks have been rather extraordinary in so many ways. Our lives seem to have been turned upside down and yet strangely I think many of us are now beginning to settle into some kind of routine. I have just written a short piece for what will be an electronic version of the Winchelsea magazine. I’ve tried to give some idea of what I have been able to do over the past few weeks. One of the great benefits for me is that I have had time to go into church each day, light a candle and offer daily prayer. As there has been no pressure of time this has been rather liberating and I pray I may have the discipline to carry on in a similar manner when life turns to some kind of normality.
During the Easter season the lectionary stipulates that we should always have the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is an account written by St Luke telling of the early church. In some ways it is a rather chaotic story, there are disagreements and different approaches, (although today’s reading gives us a sense of harmony.) There is certainly some tension between the way St Paul preaches and operates and those remaining in Jerusalem, initially St Peter himself. Above all it is an account of adapting to a new reality; the reality of the risen Christ, who changes and releases us. It struck me that there are some parallels with the situation in which we find ourselves. In the short-term we have all had to rethink our lives. Many can see potential positive developments from this situation but we will need to nurture and sustain them as the lockdown eases.
In this passage there is a sense of urgency and excitement. It is mixed with a feeling of fear and awe; so much was changing and developing. This vignette from Luke is striking for the sense of unity he expresses, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common”, they pooled their possessions; they met daily in the Temple and broke bread together. What a contrast to the way we feel today when we cannot meet and break bread together. The other striking contrast is the element of sharing. We cannot get away from the fact that our society has become divided and unbalanced and it is interesting that there are voices in unexpected quarters, both in politics and business that seem to acknowledge that this is an opportunity for the way in which we look at our fractured society; a need to strike a new balance.
So this passage from the Acts, speaking as it does about the early church, should have something to tell us. It opens telling us that “Fear came upon every soul” – the signs of the times were disturbing. Yet through all this the people believed in Christ and came together. The central message of the Gospels, carried on by Luke in Acts is that the unity that is in Christ crosses boundaries of race and gender, of background and culture. People of different backgrounds, of differing wealth and social class gathered in the Temple praising God and breaking bread in their homes.
So the way in which we perceive our society as confused, as troubled is not so far from how Luke and early Christians must have seen the world. Surely we are now called to examine how we do this or how we could do it better.
As the government and society slowly look forward to how we begin to emerge from lockdown, we as Christians and as a church, both locally and nationally should do start to do the same. Imagining our selves in a new world like the world Luke describes in the days of the early church, in the clear morning light of Resurrection might be a good place to start.
2nd Sunday of Easter
Acts 2, vv. 14a, 22-32, I Peter 1, vv.3-9, John 20, vv.19-31
Rather unexpectedly, Easter turned out to be rather busy for me this year. I had thought that apart from preparing some thoughts for the website I would not be over stretched. In fact while thinking about how I should make use of modern communications and what I should try and project through them, I spent quite a lot of time on my preparations. In many ways it felt like a normal Easter. I’m well aware that it wouldn’t have seemed anything like that for most of you. And now that we are in the Easter season it hardly seems as if we have moved out of Lent. The routines that we have established becoming embedded and that joyous outpouring of life that we celebrate on Easter morning seems somewhat subdued. That Lent feeling will need to endure for some weeks yet.
The truth is that although our year is marked by periods of reflection and introspection, such as Advent and Lent as well as outpourings of joy, such as Easter, Pentecost and Christmas, the seasons are intermingled. As someone I met in the street last week commented, “Everything seems so beautiful and fresh at the moment, we have time to think and yet behind it all we know that for many there is a difficult struggle going on between life and death.” There is nothing new in that. Norman Adams’s “Golden Crucifixion” reminds us that crucifixion and Resurrection are inextricably linked. If you click on the image you can see it in a larger format. You will notice that the soldiers are blind, the mourners do not yet see, only Mary Magdalene with open arms sees Jesus’s butterfly wings.
I have taken the last few days as holiday and spent much of the time in the garden. It has been especially rewarding this year to have a little more time to get on top of those tiresome tasks and things are really beginning to look quite organised. I am waiting for some basil seeds to germinate in the greenhouse. There is a pot of summer savoury that I hope will burst into life soon and this morning I noticed that the dill has just broken forth from the earth, dampened by last night’s rain. Of course this time of year is always a time the growth and yet somehow we seem closer to it this year.
Was it just my mother who told me when I had a slight ache or pain that they were growing pains? I think not. Sometimes our growing pains are physical, sometimes mental (the rewiring of a teenager’s brain) and sometimes spiritual. I have felt that very much this year, especially as I pray in church. The pain of prayer when it seems as if God is absent is part of that growth, part of that moment in the tomb before life breaks out or before my dill seeds began to explore the environs of Winchelsea.
This week’s gospel tells us of doubting Thomas. His need for some kind of physical witness was part of his struggle; I expect my mother would have told him he had growing pains too. Pain and growth are signs of God’s work, signs of Easter – our gospel ends –
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
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