Sunday 27 May - Holy Trinity - Eucharist - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN: Trinity Sunday 2018: Isaiah 6.1-8; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17

In the small North of Scotland town where I was brought up, ‘Gabriel’s Shop’, as it was known, was a substantial building towards the east end of the High Street. The shop sold watches, jewellery and household furniture, and like the temple in today’s first reading, ‘it was filled with smoke’, the heady aroma of the cigars smoked by its proprietor, Mr Gabriel. But Mr Gabriel also sold something which no one else did, and that was ice cream. I still remember the mixture of expectation and trepidation with which I and other small schoolboys entered his shop, clutching our pocket-money, to be brusquely served and then gruffly dismissed by the proprietor, perhaps justifiably suspicious of those of us who lingered too long among the display cases filled with much more expensive goods. I’m not sure for how many summers I bought Mr Gabriel’s ice cream, perhaps just one or two, for another early memory is being told that he had died and was to be buried in Glasgow, and not like everyone else in the local churchyard. That seemed odd, but perhaps I was incurious: it was only later that I began to wonder about Mr Gabriel, what beneath the gruffness he really was like, from what European persecution perhaps he had escaped, to set up shop in what for us was the centre, but for him must have seemed the edge of the known world.

Thoughts of Mr Gabriel came back to me recently while reading Simon Schama’s magisterial but highly engaging Story of the Jews.  It traces their history over the past three thousand years by telling the stories of individual Jewish people at particular moments in their long history, much or most of it in exile from their Middle Eastern homeland, only occasionally being able to lead a settled life, but even then being always liable to prejudice and persecution, simply for being Jews. When I first began to wonder about what Mr Gabriel had perhaps escaped from, it was in growing awareness of what Jewish people had suffered under the Nazis: but Schama’s history reminds us that that was only the latest, if most thorough and cold-blooded, genocide of the Jewish people, justified all too often by what would now be called the ‘hate speech’ about Jews, pronounced by Christians, including leading theologians such as John Chrysostom and Martin Luther. The seeds of this prejudice against ‘the Jews’ as those responsible for the death of Christ, are there even in the Gospels, particularly that of John: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus asks Nicodemus the Pharisee in today’s reading. “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony”. Words such as these – “yet you do not receive our testimony” - would later often be used to claim that because the Jewish people had rejected Jesus they had been replaced as the people of God by the Christian Church.

Now that, of course, was a travesty of the truth. ‘The Jews’ whom Jesus opposed and who got rid of him in order to preserve their own political power, were not the Jewish people, but the only partly Jewish family of the Jerusalem temple priesthood; and many of the teachings of the Pharisees, despite what the gospels sometimes say about them, were actually quite close to those of Jesus himself. Much of what Jesus taught, moreover, was firmly in the tradition of the Old Testament Jewish prophets, and many of the first Christians were also observant Jews. It was only after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, that strains began to show between Jews who were and Jews who were not followers of Jesus, and Christian Jews together with growing numbers of non-Jewish Christians, were eventually expelled from the synagogues. It is as much the bitterness of this family quarrel between Christian and non-Christian Jews, as what actually happened in Jesus’ lifetime that is reflected in much that is written about ‘the Jews’ and ‘the Pharisees’ in the Gospels.

That the Church had replaced the Jews as the people of God was a travesty of the truth, is seen most clearly the way that repeatedly throughout European history, Jews were forced either to convert and be baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, or to be driven into exile or even tortured and killed.  In the end there is not much difference between that and what the temple priests did to Jesus himself

How this cruel travesty of the truth could have come about is perhaps worth thinking about today, on the Sunday when we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity. How could the mystery of the Trinity become (in Edwin Muir’s words) so ‘impaled and bent into an ideological instrument’, that even forced profession of belief in the Doctrine of the Trinity could be taken as sufficient evidence of conversion to Christian faith?

The short answer to that question is that it could become so, only to those more driven by the love of power than by the power of love, and impatient for certainty. But belief in the Trinity does not give us certainty. That is because the Trinity is not a thing: there is in fact no such thing as the Trinity. To think of the Trinity as something or even three some-ones that we can or could describe is to misunderstand not only the Trinity, but also the nature of human knowledge. Human knowledge, all we know and can know, we know in two very different ways: we know about things we can describe, understand and to some extent control; but we also know other people; and however much we know about another person, we can never fully comprehend, understand, or let alone control them in the way we can things. It is not putting it too strongly to say that in the end another person is always a mystery, just as we are a mystery to other persons.

And that also is true of the mystery of the Trinity.  The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a description of what God is. It is rather a way of keeping our minds and hearts open to the experience St Paul writes about in today’s Epistle: the confidence, taught by Jesus and kept alive by his Spirit, that we can cry “Abba father” to the ultimate mystery and not be afraid. The ultimate mystery is the mystery of love, the ever circling love of God that draws us in to love’s embrace and yet lets us be ourselves, encouraging us to become all that we were created to be.

That is the heart of the Christian Gospel and because it is the heart of God, there is room in it for all. Because, as today’s Gospel reminds us, it was, and is, ‘the world’ that God so loved and loves, there is no contradiction for those who trust in the mystery of the Trinity, also to trust that God’s ancient people of Israel are as much God’s people still, as Christians are. It is in the nature of human knowledge and understanding that our different religious traditions each can speak of the ultimate mystery only in the particular ways that our particular family histories have shaped: only God has a God’s-eye view of the whole, and here below we are bound to disagree on many things. But that does not mean we cannot learn from others of different faiths or of none. As a modern Catholic philosopher has put it: ‘Under many names which are not that of God, in ways known only to God, the interior act of a soul’s thought can be directed towards a reality which in fact truly may be God.’

Trust in the mystery of the Trinity does not give us certainty that we are right and the others are wrong; and insofar as the Church has tried to force our beliefs on others there is much to repent for, and perhaps for the Church today to suffer the consequences of.  But there are also, in the greater mutual recognition of religions in the modern world, grounds for hope that we may learn to love one another more genuinely. Trust in the mystery of the Trinity does not give us certainty, but it gives us confidence – confidence to continue and grow in faith and in hope and in love, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away. As that lovely modern hymn, set to the Skye Boat Song, and sung to the Third Person of the Trinity, puts it: ‘Spirit of God, unseen as the wind, /gentle as is the dove. / teach us the truth and help us believe, / show us the Saviour’s love.’