Three is the Magic Number
Reading: Matthew 28:16-20
So it’s now been a fortnight since my nephews came to visit…and I think I’ve just about recovered! Having Joe, Tom, Jacob and the other one stay with me for a few days, along with their parents, was an absolute joy as well as an assault on the senses! And on their final day with me, after exhausting them by running round Caerphilly Castle and spending the GDP of a small country on pick and mix, the eldest two and I settled in at the cinema in Nantgarw to watch the latest Marvel Superhero blockbuster – ‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2’. Anyone here seen it? It’s a decent film that follows the adventures of a dysfunctional crew of a spaceship as they go about making money and…well…guarding the galaxy. It’s fun, silly, a little overlong and…I think…somewhat of a parable of religious intolerance and extremist politics in society today. I know – it surprised me too!
You see, part of the film involves the spaceship’s Captain – Peter Starlord – meeting his father for the first time. Peter’s father is a celestial – a space god who can create planets, is revealed through different forms and is best known as ‘Ego’ – Latin for ‘I’. Early in the film, this spacegod seems charming and generous but as the story unfolds, we learn that his aim is to take over planet after planet – to gain power over the whole universe so that all things will become him. The universe’s wonderful diversity of people and planets will be turned monochrome; anyone who doesn’t think like him or act like him – who aren’t merely extensions of him – are casually slaughtered along the way for the only thing that matters in the whole universe is Ego and his desire for control, power and self-glory.
Described in such a way, perhaps you can spot one or two parallels with today’s religion and politics. After all, we have a President Ego in the White House – a self-aggrandizer hell bent on stamping his name and image on everything; a narcissist who denounces any report of him that isn’t flattering as fake news; an egomaniac prepared to destroy this planet because he believes it will stop other countries from laughing at him. Across Europe, the spectre of right wing populism is back in which community is seen as of little merit, the individual – the ego – is King, and anyone who looks, acts, thinks, loves or believes differently to me is treated with suspicion and discrimination. And on these shores, in the atrocities of Manchester and London, we see the tragic outcome of a belief in a God who is violent and power-hungry; who derides difference, seeks expansion and cares not for whose lives are lost for the sake of His glory. I’m not – of course – speaking of the Muslim God here for those who committed those acts of terror no better represent Islam than the Ku Klux Klan represent Christianity – but rather of the God who is made in the image of the extremist’s ego.
And as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation this year, it’s perhaps an appropriate time to remember the division, violence and wars that have resulted from the Church’s attempt to stamp out freedom of belief and action over the years. Our history is littered with crusades and inquisitions, witch-hunts and pogroms, all designed to spread one agreed understanding about God and society and to silence any heretical alternative – a dark path which some of our scriptures have added credence to;
If anyone entices you—even if it is your brother, your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace,—saying, “Let’s go worship other gods,”…show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God and if you hear it said about one of the towns that your God is giving you to live in, that some from among you have gone out and led the inhabitants of the town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods,” then you shall inquire and make a thorough investigation. If the charge is established that such an abhorrent thing has been done among you, you shall kill all of the town’s inhabitants, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword.
Words from Deuteronomy, chapter 13 there. Words which send a shiver down my spine. Not the jolliest of passages for a service where we welcome new members! Thankfully, we’re not finished just yet. You see, just as the ascension might speak of God’s hope for humanity and the Spirit’s movement at Pentecost gives us glimpses of the inclusive blessing of God, I believe that the magnificently mysterious model of the Holy Trinity has much to teach us about the diversity and unity which is at the heart of both God and humankind.
Long before Christians came to the Trinitarian view of God, God was largely understood as being singular, isolated, self-contained. God was in heaven, we were on Earth, with God’s apparent representatives – the King, the Pope, the priest etc, bridging the gap. This patriarchal set of beliefs established a hierarchical system where power came from the top and trickled down; where everyone knew their place; where there was one God, one King, one Rule. There was no room for difference in gender, ethnicity or sexuality, no place for differing beliefs or ideas…for such diversity might endanger the whole, tightly controlled system. The goal of this kingdom was expansion – to spread throughout the Earth, making all places and peoples an extension of it and anyone or anything that questioned this uniformed society was to be crushed – sound familiar?
But then the idea of God as Trinity started to be articulated. It didn’t come suddenly or out of nowhere, for Christians had been wrestling with the nature of God’s Spirit and the idea of Jesus as God for centuries, but over time, bit by bit, the idea of God being an isolated, all-powerful, supreme monarch was challenged.
Perhaps, instead, God is Father, Son and Spirit, followers began to think. Perhaps, at God’s very being, there is a relationship of love, disciples began to whisper. Perhaps, diversity is celebrated, the other is welcomed, authority is shared in God, Christians began to praise. And whether we picture this Trinity as three equals blessing one another and welcoming us to the Communion Table, as here in Rublev’s icon, or even as a vivacious Mother figure, Middle Eastern man and Asian woman, as described in the book and now film ‘The Shack’ – the idea that God might be three-in-one; that love, not power, is at God’s core began to shake the world’s foundations. For if we stopped trying to make God in our own image – if we stopped, perhaps subconsciously, trying to project onto God our own ego, prejudices and need for others to think like us and instead began to see humankind as made in God’s image, as created to be like the God who shared power and embodied a community of equality and love…then the whole world might be turned upside down!
And what might this radical view of God mean to us in Pontypridd today? Well, firstly, I think it might be a call to action. If we are to even begin to understand God through this Trinitarian lens of equality and diversity, then we must do the same with those made in this image and challenge any powers that seek to denounce this view. So when language is used to divide communities and dehumanise minorities we must speak up for our common humanity. When we see religious or political leaders quashing debate, promoting a strict unity of thought or trying to make the rest of the world in their own image, we must stand up for our created diversity. And when we witness global systems which are built on power and violence, which identify someone’s worth by their bank balance, which profit the few at the expense of the many, we must rise up for justice and equality.
But before we become too sure that we have all the answers, our belief in the Trinity must also be a call to openness of belief. The Deuteronomy reading we heard earlier offered a particular view of a tribal God who demanded death to anyone who belonged to other religions. Whatever we might want to say about context, if this understanding of God was to be understood today as it was for those who wrote Israel’s history centuries ago then I, for one, could not worship this God. So thank God that the Israelites believed God spoke fresh insights through the prophets who called for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Thank God the early church wrestled with the idea that Jesus is God with us. Thank God for the leaders of the reformation and countless women and men since who have shown us that the Spirit brings renewed revelation of God’s grace and goodness in every time and place.
Put simply, throughout human history, we have seen that those who think they know exactly how God thinks and acts are the ones who burn witches, blow up buildings and nail heretics to a cross, witnessing to a God of violence and wrath and inhumanity whilst those who are open to fresh revelations and new insights, who believe that God is still speaking to us today, are the ones who have seen God in a baby in a manger and a risen friend on the shore, who continue to see God in the most unexpected people and places today. The truth is that we don’t have all the answers but isn’t that exciting because there’s more…so much more to discover about the nature and magnificence and love of God! Over these next few weeks, as preachers from our parent and sister churches come to share their thoughts on what the reformation might have to teach us today, I pray that you will once again be surprised, enthused and blessed by such new wonders.
So a call to action, a call to openness, and finally, I’d like to suggest that our understanding of God as Trinity requires a call to radical welcome. Of the many descriptions and images of the Trinity, the one that we are perhaps most familiar with is the image of the divine family – of Father, Son and Spirit. A family who allows each member to flourish in their own way; a family of mutual self-giving; a family who look beyond themselves to enlarge their circle of love. Made in this image, it is the duty and great joy of the church to mirror such a family, welcoming with open arms all who find themselves here. And whether we come anywhere near close to embodying the love found in the divine family, or more closely resemble the strange, sometime uneasy love of the Guardians of the Galaxy family…we declare that we are a family of prodigal sons and daughters, ready and willing to welcome others just as we have been welcomed by God. Today, we once again have the privilege of doing just that as we welcome Zelda and Toby into membership, as we officially welcome them into this church family, as God welcomes them home. And we know that as our family expands to embrace them, it is we who will be blessed – blessed by Toby’s humour, kindness and curiosity; blessed by Zelda’s warmth, words and wisdom; blessed by the Triune God who shines in them and through them
So welcome to the family Zelda, Toby. We’re so very glad you’re here. Amen.