This Sunday ( May 26th) is Trinity Sunday. Preaching at St Mary’s Priory recently St Michael’s Ordinand Tom Bates reflected on the Trinity.
In the Eastern Church Theology is expressed not in literary form as in the West, but in art, and I’ve brought a picture of an icon to share with you today. It’s a version of a very famous icon by Rubilev which I’m sure you’ve seen many times, which is commonly referred to as the Trinity. However this is not the Trinity in some heavenly landscape, surrounded by adoring angels and archangels and all the host of heaven. This is a depiction of the visit of the three strangers to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18. You can just make out a green leafy shoot at the very back which looks a little bit like a stem of asparagus or something…well that is infact an oak tree, and to the left of it we can just see a very grand looking dwelling, which symbolises Abraham’s encampment. So very far removed from heavenly glory, here is a depiction of Godhead in a tent in the West bank, enjoying Abraham’s hospitality.
I visited the oaks of Mamre myself earlier this year, as well as Hebron where the hospitality of Abraham still has a thriving culture today. Despite the incredibly high level of security checks to pass into the West Bank, once we arrived local people were keen to welcome us, and to extend to us hospitality after the example of their famous forebear. It was very moving to travel to a place where there is so much division and poverty, yet to be welcomed with such generosity.
The icon depicts how the Trinity, relate to one another, and explores the idea of what it means to be a Godhead that is three in one. It gives us a glimpse inside the family life of the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
However there is something interesting about the perspective of the way in which this icon is written, and it reflects the idea that an icon is not an image, but a window. From this perspective we are not mere observers, but, as we enter the scene through this ‘window’, we are a part of this picture too. We take the place of Abraham, the host. I chose this edition of this icon because the bowl on the table appears empty. Abraham bent over backwards to entertain his visitors. He set all his household to work, making cakes and bread, preparing a fatted calf, curds and milk. He offered the very best of what he had.
This icon is not just a picture of the Trinity, it is designed to encourage us to think about what it means for us to be in relationship with God. The empty bowl is a question to us. What do we bring to this relationship? Are we able like Abraham, to give back to God the best of what he has given to us?
All of our readings today tell us something about what being in relationship with God is like and will be like in the future. In the reading from Acts we hear about the early church trying to understand what being in a covenant relationship meant for Christians. The psalmist tells about how being in relationship with God will bring about God’s reign on earth, and what that will be like, and in Revelation we hear of what life will be like in the ultimate reality of God’s kingdom in heaven, where God will be with us, no longer seen through a glass darkly as St Paul says, but face to face: The true reality of God.
Recently I’ve been rediscovering the weight of the greeting ‘the Lord be with you’? I wonder whether we think about the enormity of what we wish upon one another when we say this? A whole host of biblical heroes at pivotal moments in their lives received that promise…and for them nothing was ever the same again. We know through the Scriptures that the Lord was with Isaac, and Jacob, with Moses and Joshua, with David and Jeremiah, and of course with the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Lord being with you has tremendous, life changing consequences….’Go and tell Pharaoh, Lead my people, bring me to my people, make me manifest, Immanuel, God with us. None of these are small easy things, but tasks which require the dedication of our whole self to God’s will.
This greeting features in our liturgy, often as almost a throw away greeting, a polite way of saying good morning to the priest, but there is so much more to it than that, but in today’s gospel reading we are told not only that God will be with us if we love him and keep his word, but that he will make his home with us. ‘If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our HOME with him.’ You learn a lot about someone by living with them. He’s not just visiting for the weekend, Not popping round for an hour on Sunday morning, Not even visiting in the way he visited Abraham. He’s moving in and he has a makeover in mind. The popular saying goes ‘ To live is to change, and to be perfect to have changed often.’ As Christians we might say ‘To live is to be changed, through repentance, to once again ally ourselves to God’s will instead of our own, and to be perfect is to do this, not by visiting him once a week for an hour, or promising to make more time for Him as one might the gym in a new years resolution. No, it is to make a home for Him in our hearts and to be constantly be informed and changed in our lives by our relationship with Him.
In Acts 15 we hear about the concerns some people are having about the mark circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, a rite of passage I witnessed in Hebron as Jews from all over Israel and the world still bring their children there to Abraham’s tomb to perform this ritual today. In Acts the early Christians were uncertain as to how to marry the Jewish culture of the Old Testament with the continuation of that promise, Christ, ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’. Did they too need to adopt this ritual to be a part of God’s covenant?
But what is a covenant?
Was it just a business deal between God and Abraham? A sort of gentleman’s agreement? I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine?
In the Middle East the connotations of the term covenant represent a sacred bond which brings someone into a family relationship with someone else. Perhaps the closest thing we have in our culture is marriage. Two individuals become one. Two families are united in love.In the Old Testament we read that God started off making a covenant with a few individuals. Adam and Eve, a couple. Then Noah and his family. Then with Abraham God extends his familial relations with a whole nation: His covenant people Israel, and through Jesus this inheritance comes to the whole world. We can see this relational idea in the language we use surrounding the Holy Trinity, God three persons in one. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.. Through Jesus we are family, a part of the covenant people of God.
This icon is not just a picture of an historical event, or even an odd depiction trying to explain a difficult piece of theology. It is, as it were, a reflection on the heart of human nature as God intended it. His home with us: A perfect relationship between God and humankind. A table prepared in the midst of the human heart where God and the individual can be family together. Where he by his infinite grace knows us as his children and, as Jesus taught us, we may in turn know him as our Father.
Jesus said ‘If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him’.
May that love be yours and mine, and may we truly know the glory of the Lord who makes his home with us and may we be continually changed, growing in his likeness and love that through him we may become the perfect realisation of his image for us. Amen.
Sermon for St Mary’s priory, Abergavenny 5th May 2013.
Acts 15:1-2 & 22-29
Revelation 21:10-14 & 22-23