Sunday 16th June – Evensong Sermon – Kenneth Boyd
ST JOHN: Trinity Sunday: 10.30: Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; Romans 5.1-5; John 16.12-15
Over the last year, I’ve been reading again some of the great 19th century English novels, in particular those of Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. Not everyone, I realise, enjoys reading novels, let alone lengthy Victorian ones; and some people consider them escapist, a way of evading the demands of the real world of the present by escaping into an imaginary and perhaps romanticised world of the past. Now that can be true of course: but I think there’s also another way of looking at it. One of humanity’s sorest shortcomings is self-centredness, seeing everything from our own point of view, and at worst becoming so trapped in our own individual point of view that we not only fail to understand one another, but come into conflict with one another; and this can happen not just to individuals but to families, societies, or nations when they become blinkered by their own exclusive point of view. But it can happen too in yet another way – when we get so involved in the present that we forget the past and cannot imagine that the future will be different. And when that happens in our national life, I think, novels like Trollope’s about 19th century politics, can be a healthy antidote to the media’s excitable insistence that the latest political or financial melodrama is ‘totally unprecedented’ or ‘has changed the world for ever’. In Trollope’s novel The Way we Live Now, for example, the great financier, fixer and fraudster Augustus Melmotte was at it all a century and a half before his present imitators on either side of the Atlantic. In many ways the world has not changed.
And in other ways too, the world has not changed. Lay aside the political and financial pages of the media and listen to the stories of ordinary people’s lives you hear perhaps at the end of a news bulletin, or on the BBC World Service in the middle of the night, or in a local newspaper – stories of ordinary people quietly getting on with their lives, overcoming disabilities, assisting their neighbours, protecting the environment, encouraging young athletes, musicians or scientists. In many ways, that was as true a century and a half ago as it is today. George Eliot, the other 19th century novelist I mentioned, often reflects, in a way that is utterly unsentimental, on the sheer goodness of so many people There is a timeless wisdom in this and, agnostic though she was, Eliot was surely very near the Kingdom of God when in her novel Adam Bede she wrote this:
[Your] fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wits, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people – amongst whom your life is passed – that it is needful you should tolerate, pity and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people, whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire – for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience.
But staying with that novel, Adam Bede, another passage is perhaps particularly relevant for today, Trinity Sunday. One of the characters, a young woman stroking ‘the rough grey coat’ of a terrier who has nuzzled her hand says this:
“Poor dog! I’ve a strange feeling about the dumb things as if they wanted to speak, and it was a trouble to them because they couldn’t. I can’t help being sorry for the dogs always, though perhaps there’s no need. But they may well have more in them than they know how to make us understand, for we can’t say half of what we feel, with all our words.”
Why might that be particularly relevant for today, Trinity Sunday? Let me come back to that in a moment. But first, let us admit that the Church’s Doctrine of the Trinity is not easy for many people today to understand. Perhaps it never was. It was not put into words until after about three hundred years of the Church’s existence, and this was done under political pressure to resolve heated theological disputes among Christians and to preserve unity in what was now the established Church of the Roman Empire. The words in which this was done were drawn as much from Greek and Roman philosophy as from the Old and New Testaments, and they emphasised as much what the Church did not believe as what it did believe. Some of the words, moreover, like the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity, or the one ‘substance’, or whether the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded’ from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father, were not a little ambiguous and have been interpreted in different ways by different branches of the Church.
And yet: what these words were trying to express was rooted and grounded ultimately, not in ecclesiastical politics, nor in esoteric philosophy, but in the living experience of Christians, to which the Old and New Testaments also testified. For while the Trinity is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, in today’s Gospel for example, the Son speaks of the Father and the Spirit, and St Paul writes of them all to the Roman Christians in today’s Epistle. Neither the Father nor the Son, it is true, are mentioned in today’s Old Testament reading from Proverbs, where we hear the voice of Wisdom herself, ‘daily the delight of the Lord, rejoicing in him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race’. Nor was Wisdom herself mentioned by the 3rd century Churchmen who formulated the Doctrine of the Trinity: although that perhaps only left room for her place to be taken in Catholic and Orthodox tradition by the Mother of Jesus. But while not mentioned in the creeds, Wisdom herself would often come to be identified, on the one hand with the Word of God who was made flesh in Jesus, and on the other with the Spirit, not only who descended at Pentecost but also, as today’s reading from Proverbs tells us, who was there ‘at the first, before the beginning of the earth’, the Spirit of God that Genesis tells us ‘swept over the face of the waters’.
Isn’t this all very confusing? Although the Church tried and has kept on trying to fit all these names and doctrines together into what is sometimes called ‘systematic theology’, it has never entirely succeeded; and a clue to the reason why, I think, can be found by going back to the words of Eliot’s young woman I quoted a moment ago. Dogs, she said, “may well have more in them than they know how to make us understand, for we can’t say half of what we feel, with all our words.” But if that’s true of dogs in relation to us, perhaps it is also true of ourselves in relation to the mystery the Church calls the Trinity: for all our words, we can’t say half of what we feel, for there is more in us than we know, let alone can put into words. Nowhere is that more true than when we try to speak of God. As St Thomas Aquinas put it: ‘We are only learning to know God, when we learn he cannot be known’. God cannot be known in the way we know about the world around us or even about the people around us. We learn to know God, rather, in a way that is closer to that in which we most intimately learn to know and love another person – by trusting and loving them, by being with them and by being enlivened in their company. We learn to know God by trusting that we are known and understood by God; and we are aided in this above all by remembering the teaching and example of Jesus and by allowing, as today’s Gospel puts it, his Spirit of truth to guide us.
Let me end by quoting some further words by George Eliot which she puts into the mouth of an old workman reflecting on his life. “I’ve seen pretty clear ever since I was a young un,” he says, “as religion’s something else beside doctrines and notions… It isn’t notions sets people doing the right thing – it’s feelings… I look at it as if the doctrines was like finding names for your feelings, so you can talk of them when you’ve never known ‘em… I found it better for my soul” the old workman concluded “to be humble before the mysteries o’ God’s dealings, and not be making a clatter about what I could never understand… for what have we got either inside or outside of us but what comes from God?” It isn’t notions sets people doing the right thing – it’s feelings. And where do those feelings come from, those feelings that against all the odds, inspire goodness, kindness, courage, patience and hope in human hearts, even in those who have as yet no name for them? Where do those feelings come from but the Spirit of God, unseen as the wind, gentle as is the dove?
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