A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Trinity Sunday 2019
16 June 2019
During this service a child, Freddie, was baptised
Sometime it’s the ordinary things in life we take for granted. The small act of kindness, the passing conversation that turns out to be far more significant than we imagined, the warmth of human touch. These are all things we sometimes only realise we had when we lose them.
The past week or so has been one in which these are the things I’ve been reminded of the most. In various ways, I’ve been given privileged access to the moments in the lives of others which have caused me to recollect just how precious these things are and how they are so easily taken for granted. I’ve sat with the family of James, a fit young man in his 40s, as they said goodbye to him as he slipped away following an aggressive cancer. I’ve spent time with Paul and Ruth as he faced death with calm acceptance and as she sat by his bedside until he peacefully slipped away. Even as I visited you on Monday, James and Victoria, and heard about your recent struggles with potentially life-threatening illness, the gift of the present and the risk of losing that which is most precious was brought home.
And in all of these is human love. Scripture says right at its outset these words, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” And so God creates a companion for the man (Genesis at this point hasn’t recognised sexual differentiation until the woman is created), one with whom companionship and comfort and intimacy can be shared. And, it should be noted, where community begins. So, for James and his family, for Paul and Ruth, for James, Victoria and now Freddie and his older brother Wilbur, comes the blessing of not being alone, and the risk that human love always contains, the possibility that one day loss will bring a return to aloneness and even loneliness. Some of you, who have loved and lost already, will feel this keenly.
Love is the greatest gift given to humankind; it is our true calling. It is the yes to life and the yes to community. Love fulfils the longing of our innermost being, that we not be alone. No one can truly live without love: it is God’s will for every person to be the other for every other person. Every person is called to love and help those around them on God’s behalf, to find community with one another and to help one another in love.
The two great commandments of Jesus are these: “love God with all our hearts, souls and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. These two commandments can’t be separated: to love God must always mean to love our neighbour. Perhaps even loving our neighbour is an expression of loving God.
I’ve heard and said all of this before, of course. Even if I’ve had it reinforced this week it’s nothing new. And it is good news, this gift of human love. But, like most things that are deep truths without context and care they can become less than they could be. What must it be like to hear such words if I have never experienced human love, if I grew up in a family where love was not the key thing, but where cruelty and neglect were the norm? What if I have never found or experienced a love about which I am speaking today, but have longed for it and sometimes wondered if life is worth living without it? And what if I have been blessed with such love but have lost it through bereavement or betrayal? What if I have come to suspect this little word ‘love’?
Today the Church keeps Trinity Sunday, the day as I said on the Church Facebook page yesterday most clergy find the hardest day on which to preach. Most, perhaps, but not me. And among the many reasons why this day is such a wonderful opportunity is because it is a day that celebrates love, the love of the Father for the Son and the Spirit, the love of the Son for the Father and the Spirit, the love of the Spirit for the Father and the Son, the love of the one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – for us all. This is not chiefly a day for doing divine arithmetic, geometry or the like. We don’t appreciate the Christian doctrine of Trinity by trying to work out how three can be one or one can be three. This is a day for celebrating the way in which the divine love overflows to us from the Godhead in love. Rublev’s famous icon – the one with the three angels around the table bowed towards one another in love – shows this. For on the near side of the table around which they sit is a space for you and me, invited into this trinity of love.
Our human capacity for love is but a reflection, not a counterfeit, but a genuine reflection of divine love. If we are created in the image of God, then perhaps it is our capacity to love that marks us our in particular, especially because divine love is always giving of itself to the other, always open to receive from the other as well. Whatever language of love we speak – words, deeds, touch, time or gifts – for love to be love – we have to give as well as to receive. This is the Trinitarian way.
But here are two further thoughts arising from the divine love of the Trinity. Firstly, divine love is not one person versus the other, simply a lover and a beloved. It is a community of love. Now, before the analogy is pressed towards breaking point, this is not the case for the more exotic kinds of relationship building, but rather a reminder that perfect love, the love to aspire to, transcends just two people. Some of those who struggle most in bereavement are those for whom their life partner has been everything to them – “my North, my South, my East, my West, my working week and Sunday rest” to use Auden’s famous line. Divine love always overflows in love, be that in the gift of children, the commitment to the extended family, the priority of community building, or the many other ways in which human beings go beyond the potentially stifling limitation of lover and beloved and, like the Holy Trinity, allow their love to overflow to those around them. “It is not good that we should be alone” takes us beyond the misunderstanding that just one relationship can hold all the love we have to give. It reminds us too, and perhaps especially those for whom that Significant Other has never emerged or who was loved and lost, that the love we have given can be given and received in many different ways, not constrained by modern Western romantic concepts of “The One”. There are many ways to love and many ways to find love. And the Trinity tells us, there is always more love we can share.
But the divine love of the Trinity has been given something but us as well, or at least by the Son, who took our flesh, by Jesus, the Word made Flesh. The godhead has learned the reality of loss from humanity. We celebrate at Christmas a God who became flesh; we mark on Good Friday the death of this God, something that was so scandalous to many in the early church that various heresies emerged claiming that God could not die like this. But in the Easter and Ascension stories, we find the risen Jesus – bearing the marks of his suffering – risen and returned to the Godhead. Whatever the many things that this might mean, among them is the idea that loss is now firmly part of the divine nature. The cost of loving is known, by God. So maybe, through our killing of Jesus, we have in some mysterious way, given something to God. That seems like a daring thing to claim and, again, I don’t want to push the analogy too far. But maybe this can say something to us, who know ourselves that love always means loss for humanity and that the risk of loving brings with it the all too real risk that one day we will face the cost of it. Now God knows that. There is a wounded lover in heaven, who now loves us knowing full well what loving means for us. Perhaps that is something of a comfort for us who have already loved and lost.
Love makes the world go round, say the cheap Valentine’s Day card and the cheesy Hollywood movie. But love as a Christian would understand it is far more than mere romance. Love is hard won, a costly thing. Love is always looking through and beyond the beloved into a community of love. Our love is a true reflection, in this and many other ways, of the generous, overflowing love of the divine Trinity who always has love to spare. Teach this to Frederick. Learn it yourselves. Make it your life’s goal to love like this, whatever the cost. And, Scripture says, in doing this you will abide in the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.