June 7, 2020
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee that thou wouldest keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see thee in thy one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Corinthians 13:5-14
Back in September, which now seems a lifetime ago, I discussed a quotation from Evelyn Waugh’s strange, but amusing, novel Helena, about the life of the Roman Empress, Christian Saint, and mother of Constantine the Great. Back then, in those antediluvian days, I was discussing the importance to Helena, and, if I am being honest, to me, of the materiality of the cross on which Our Lord was crucified.
Waugh’s Helena was obsessed with finding the object, which she assumed had to be discoverable after only three centuries. She says, “It must be somewhere. Wood doesn’t just melt like snow. It’s not three hundred years old. The temples here are full of beams and panelling twice that age. It stands to reason God would take more care of the cross than of them.”(1) Getting her hands, our hands, on the wood of the cross would, she believed (and I think rightly) connect her (and us), materially, physically, to Jesus and affirm the reality of the events that so changed the world, inaugurating the Kingdom of God. This is the beauty of Christianity: that our faith is in events that happened in time and space in which God decisively acted into creation and put us firmly on the path to reconciliation, to eternal life, which, as I have been saying, is everlasting connection with God and each other in love.
We are now in the midst of a continuing global public health emergency that is far from over and that has hit minority communities especially hard. We have once again witnessed a Black man, George Floyd, murdered by the police. We have witnessed afresh the brutality that people of colour and those who stand up to power, including journalists, face at the hands of law enforcement, and the turbulence that the sins of racism and white supremacy have wrought on our nation. We have seen action (and inaction) by the government that has made it all worse. We have seen religion misused and become a battleground and a prop. We are a nation that is suffering and in pain. We are looking to our faith, and to the leaders of our faith communities, for answers, concrete answers about what we can and must do in these days. What is the response of the Christian to disease and death, to violence, oppression, and hatred? The answer, my friends, will not be found merely in theological formulae or platitudes.
Today is Trinity Sunday and the last thing I want to talk about is the union of three persona and one ousia, of the difference between begotten and created, of the exact path of procession of the Holy Spirit. I’m usually happy to throw all that about, but it is Trinity Sunday 2020 and I feel like Helena talking of the Cross: Jesus is “just waiting for one of us to go and find it—just at this moment when it’s most needed. Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union, there’s a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I’m going off to find it.”(2)
On this Trinity Sunday, we need to get down to the wood of the cross, to the heart of what makes our faith alive, real, present in the here and now. We need to come to grips with the concrete reality that in and through the cross and resurrection the course of history has been altered and that the working of the Trinity upon the world takes physical shape in the life we lead. The Trinity is nothing more, nothing less, than God at one with God’s self, in perfect union, distinct but individualised. In turn, this is what we are called to be: each unique, but at one as members of Christ’s Body. As I put it two weeks ago, connected with God in Christ, who is one with the Father, we are, bound to one another like a vine, called by name like the Good Shepherd, possessing the ability to show forth the works of love into the world and thereby partake of eternal life.
We hear in today’s Gospel from Matthew that this gift of eternal life that we have already received, our relationship with God in Christ, bound as he is with God the Father, and full of the Holy Spirit, places upon us both responsibility and authority. We are authorised, literally, by the source, the author of all things, to go into the world with a mission. Jesus tells the disciples at the end of his time with them,
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.
In the name of the Trinity, God at one with God’s self, each of us, unique but always one, must spread abroad, live the Good News of Jesus Christ, that death stands defeated in the face of God’s loving and healing power. We must bring into the Body of Christ those who, hearing this message feel the call to unite themselves with God and with their neighbours in the unbreakable bonds of eternal life. Finally, we are called to teach and, in fact, remind and inspire everyone, to live out “all that [he] has commanded us.” This is Jesus’ parting message for us. It is a call to action. It says that the Christian life is not an ascetic one of quiet contemplation and prayer. It is a call to engage with the materiality of the world, to find the wood of the cross, to make disciples, and do what Jesus commanded us to do.
And what is it, according to Matthew’s Gospel, that Jesus commanded us to do? We are to Love God. And what does it mean to love God? It is loving neighbour. Just like every other aspect of the Christian life, loving God is not an abstract, solitary activity. It is something we do in community with our neighbours, both those we already know and with the neighbour who is still a stranger. In his vision of the last judgement, imagining what the sum our life looks like, seen from the perspective of eternity, Matthew tells us that “the king will say:
“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
It is a well-worn passage, oft quoted by me, but never over-done. It can not be. We can never emphasise too much this aspect of the Christian life. Christian life happens in the world. It happens in and through and with the stuff of creation. How we treat creation, how we treat our neighbours matter. If we do the work of love—seeing, serving, and empowering those in need, those on the margins, taking care of one another, doing the work of justice, love, peace, and healing, standing up to the powerful in the name of Christ—then we are living up to Jesus’ great commandment. If we do the works of love, then we are not only doing what Jesus commanded us, but embodying the Trinity; God in God’s fulness; God at unity with God’s self; God, living, in perfect relationship, interconnected, distinct, but yet one.
And truly, we are like the Trinity: distinct, but one, one Body in Christ. The Trinity shows us that any attempt to flatten differences among us, say that we are just all the same, is denying something essential about ourselves and about God. Likening our existence to that of the Trinity is a way of saying that we are indeed all human, all of one substance, but that our differences still matter. Of a single substance, we are many persons, each unique, each subject to different circumstances. And indeed this is what makes it all hard, too, because our differences, seen through human eyes, seen through lenses affected by sin, afford people starkly different amounts of privilege, and we are often mistreated and mistreat others because of those differences.
This is something, however, Jesus himself understood. Jesus was not God the Father, Jesus was a member of a small minority within a vast world-wide empire. Fully human, he was subject to persecution, arrest, and torture at the hands of those charged with enforcing the law. Fully divine, he effects God’s knowledge of what it is to be distinct, different, and persecuted. In Jesus those who have suffered, those who mourn, those in pain, have a companion. That is the hope of the cross, of that real wood so precious to Helena. While God in Christ will not magically make all our suffering disappear, for that is part of the reality of our mortality, his passion, death, and resurrection make it inevitable that sin and death, in fact, will not win, that reconciliation, justice, and love will have the last word. This is the hope of the Resurrection.
The Trinity—God the Father, the source; God the Son, united with us in our humanity; God the Holy Ghost filling us with breath like fire and moving us to action; God in three persons, each unique, each at one with the other—is our pattern. It shows us, made in the image and likeness of God, how we can live together in a complex ecosystem of changing circumstances, emerging events, and be always responsive to the needs of the world, always attuned to our ministry and our mission. The Trinity is not simply a mystery to be picked apart using the tools of Greek philosophy or some other system. It is a living reality, embedded into history, as real as the wood of the cross. The Trinity is how we see God at God’s most complex, it is the pattern for our lives and relationships, and it is in the name of the Trinity that we go forth into the world and do the works of love to which we are called in our baptism.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
The Martyrs of Lyons, 2 June 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume