Readings – Acts 11:1-18 & 22-31, Romans 5:1-5 , John 16:12-15
Sermon – Rev. Gill Webb
With the recent coverage of all the 75th anniversary events to mark the D-day landings in Normandy I watched again the film the Monuments Men. If you haven’t seen the film it is about an allied task force that was given the job of recovering the stolen art works that the Nazis had taken from across Europe and attempt to return these pieces to their original owners. Hitler had planned a massive museum to be built in his home town of Linz where he would exhibit the greatest collection of masterpieces that would eclipse any other collections across the world. In his Fuhrer Museum he planned to display paintings and sculptures from a multitude of famous artists. He took these priceless pieces forcibly from homes, galleries, town halls and churches without a moment’s thought.
With the massive loss of life that occurred over the days of the Normandy invasion it is hardly surprising that some looked askance at the men risking their lives to rescue paintings. One of the characters in the film justified their actions by saying, ‘We must not let an evil regime steal from us the story of our culture, the things we treasure; the things that have shaped our identity, the things that speak to us of beauty and the wonders of creativity.’ Many pieces were destroyed and lost forever but 5 million pieces were eventually recovered.
In more recent days there was worldwide revulsion as Isis wantonly tore down parts of the world heritage site of Palmyra in Syria, destroying so much of the nation’s symbols of their history.
Religious art has played an important part in the story of Christianity. From early times representations of Jesus and his mother Mary, the apostles and the prophets were to be found and pictorial accounts of the great stories from scripture. We can find them in stained glass, in paintings and sculptures. They inspire meditation and wonder and act as a vehicle for prayer. We are a people of the word and of the image. We learn and pray with the aid of our ears and our eyes.
The incarnation is central to our faith. We believe in God with us and among us. Jesus came to earth for this very purpose and the things of our daily life speak to us of the divine. The material things of life, for those with the eyes of faith, point to the spiritual. The question has been asked, If the ordinary ingredients of life like water, oil, bread and wine, that are used in the Sacraments, can open up a way for us to the world of the spirit, cannot images painted on wood or plaster, laid out in mosaics or enamelled on metal do the same?
Buildings like this church and cathedrals and chapels speak of God’s sacred space for people of every generation; to remind us of those who have gone before us and to give focus to our worship and mission to God’s world.
Today is Trinity Sunday when we focus on our understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Sadly over recent times much of this understanding has focused on how we rationally explain the dynamics of this belief, almost as we would a formula in chemistry. It was certainly important for the early church councils to construct from the lived experience of the Christian community a creed that we could all own and this was belief in the Holy Trinity.
Here in church and across the world Christians affirm their faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But in attempting to understand and experience this truth I am reminded of a story that some of you may have heard before. It goes like this:
Early in the 19th century surgeons were beginning to understand the complexity of the human body through autopsies. One atheist boldly claimed that he could demonstrate the function of every part of the body in purely physical terms. He said a human being was no more than a physical and mechanical entity- a collection of chemicals and structural parts. A Christian surgeon pointed the atheist to a piano and challenged him to take it to pieces and tell him when he found the music! Music has no physical substance even though it can be produced by physical means. The piano is meaningless without music. We are so much more than our physical body and we were created to have meaning in relationship with God.
I do not believe that dissecting theological doctrines is the only or even the best path for us to perceive the life of the trinity. So this is how I might approach an understanding of our Trinitarian faith. I believe we start with Jesus and all we know about him through the gospels and through our faith experience. We identify with Jesus as the one who walked amongst us, teaching, preaching and living the life of God here on earth. At his baptism we have a glimpse of the Trinity in action as the Father speaks, The Son listens and the Holy Spirit descends upon him.
Jesus spoke about God like so many prophets before him but it is only Jesus who speaks to God in the affectionate form of Father and he invites us to follow him in this practice. It is Jesus who opens up for us a new understanding of God, his character and his will for us all. Jesus lived a life of loving obedience to God’s guidance and he showed us what God’s Kingdom of love looked like. He invited us to embrace God’s rule in our lives and rejoice in his saving power. It is Jesus who shows us the Father in his very being. Remember his reply to the confused Philip when he asked Jesus to show him the Father. He said, have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father.
Jesus did not pray to the Spirit but he prayed in the spirit or with the spirit within him. There is sufficient evidence in Jesus’ words to demonstrate his belief that he was empowered through the spirit to do the works of healing in God’s name. After his resurrection Jesus promised his followers that they too would receive that same empowerment and comfort from the Spirit and the accounts we have in Acts of the transformed lives of the apostles is evidence of this truth.
While those early disciples struggled to fully grasp the identity of Jesus as they walked with him, after his resurrection they knew without any doubt that he was truly God’s Son. In John’s gospel which was the last to be written we see how this disciple of Jesus who had outlived Peter and many of their group came to appreciate over the years of his lived faith the true divinity of Christ and his eternal existence with the Father.
The life of the Trinity is ours. We have access to the Father through the Son and we have the gift of the Holy Spirit freely offered to us. The loving interchange of the Godhead is the essence of love and peace. So today we may consider how each one of us experiences the life of the Trinity. It may be through our prayers, our worship, through music, through paintings, through silence, through the natural world or through loving relationships. So may I ask you on this special day to reflect on an occasion when you have known the Father’s love at work in your life; when you have been touched or inspired by the words of Jesus or when you have felt the movement of the Spirit guiding or strengthening you; and let us speak to God about these moments in our prayers this morning.