Trinity Sunday – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 30th May

Isaiah 6.1-8; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17

A prayer of St Anselm of Canterbury:

Teach me, O God, to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you,
for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself.
Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking;
let me find you in love, and love you in finding. …
For I do not seek to understand that I may believe,
but I believe in order to understand.
For this also I believe, — that unless I believed, I should not understand.

It is wonderful to be gathering here in person together in worship. The last few weeks, since our choir returned at Easter, has been a strange, disembodied experience for us here at the Cathedral: to worship on Sunday mornings behind closed doors; joined, we knew, by people online – as we are today – but struggling, at this end anyway, to feel connected, joined with the Body of Christ, which is God’s faithful people, in worship, and in breaking the bread.

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the focus of our prayer and our thinking is on God, and that feels right as we begin to gather in person once again, after this interruption, this gash in our common life; this time of deep pain and anxiety and yet also of collective stock-taking; re-appraising of what matters. We gather once more in worship; and stand, like Isaiah, as we heard in our first reading, before the throne of God, lost in wonder, and preparing ourselves to be sent out.

The root of the word worship tells us that the object of our worship is that to which we give worth. If this last year and more has been a time of reappraisal, of re-connecting, often in their absence, with what truly matters, then worship takes us to the heart if it: for whether we are conscious of it or not, all humans are involved in worship, to the giving of worth to some thing, or things, to that which shapes our life. The sharp question that Trinity Sunday poses is, to what do you give ultimate worth, what shapes your life, my life? Family and loved ones, money, nation, the pursuit and wielding of power; the job we feel called to do or have to do; ourselves and our comfort and security – these are all possible shapers of the life we lead. And none, in and of themselves is necessarily wrong, quite the opposite in fact. To talk of God, however, in this context, is to place a question mark by each of these things; for the danger, our faith tradition insists, is that each of these things to which we give worth, can, all too easily, become idols – the recipients of ultimate worth, unquestionable, that to which anything and everything else can be sacrificed. Family is loved to the exclusion of others; money or power sought for their own sake, for the thrill that each brings; the self pampered because that is all that matters. To gather here in worship, to believe that God, in all God’s mystery and mercy, is the one to whom our worship is finally due, is to resist the pull of such idolatry. Or to put it more positively, it is to declare that our humanity is too precious to be offered to anything less than the mystery which gives shape to all that is. God is that to which our worship, and the shaping of our lives, is directed. The living of our life is the gift given back to the giver; it is the participation in the life of God who is in all, and through all, and transforms all.

And so the Trinity, a way of describing the God who creates us in love, comes alongside us in love, and connects and transforms us in love; the Trinity names how that shaping of our life might take place, the process which begins to work on us as we offer our worship to God. In our Gospel reading, Jesus offers the thought to Nicodemus that we need to be born from above. That analogy might make us look back –wonder at what point that birthing took place sometime in the past. There may well have been a significant moment for you when that birthing into the life of the Spirit became conscious, but surely it is also an ongoing process – a shaping, by the Spirit, in the midst of idols that forever claim too much, of that life we were given biologically in our mother’s womb.

I began with the famous prayer of St Anselm: a prayer that articulates the sense that faith and understanding are tied up together – are inseparable. Following the analogy of science, we often think that to believe in certain things, we must first be provided with the evidence for them and so understand them, and then we will believe in them. But Anselm’s prayer articulates that faith in God doesn’t operate like that. Faith and understanding, in the case of God, are the other way round. It is when we make the leap of faith, allow our worship of God to begin to shape us, that we begin to understand the depth of the mystery that is God.

And the reason for that is that God is no-thing. God is not a thing like everything else that we demand evidence for. God is no-thing, because God always eludes our conceptual grasp. So faith does not flow from proof, but rather is that within us which senses that God is. We trust: trust that life, despite all that it throws at us, has the possibility of making sense; that chaos and randomness and self assertion are not the final realities – that there is a reality which transcends them, stands over and beyond the will to power, reveals the things to which we are tempted to give ultimate worth, as idols. We trust that God is.

Again, it is very appropriate that we are invited to ponder these things on the Sunday when we gather back with our choir. Because music, in many ways, provides the best analogy for this process of faith preceding understanding. It is very hard to describe what music is in a way that does justice to the experience. You can talk about the process of producing a variety of sounds in the throat, or you can introduce people to the complicated notation of notes on staves that  and sets down that sound production. It’s also possible to sit and admire the technical skills involved in a piece of music being produced by others. But none of these is the experience of music, of music taking wing as we are caught up in it, swept up by the sounds made, the technical skills involved, but no longer focusing on those; instead we find it speaking to us, and for us, carrying us to a place beyond us.

And the journey of faith, of being shaped by offering our worship to God, is like that: learning to say ‘God is love’ is inseparable from the process by which we are taught what true love is by being loved truly, and so loving a little more fully ourselves.

Teach me, O God, to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you,
for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself.
Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking;
let me find you in love, and love you in finding. …  Amen.

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