Sermon - Sunday, 16 June 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 16 June 2019.

Scripture: Revelation 4: 1-11/ John 16: 12-15

Text: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.   (Revelation 4: 8)

IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

Some thirty years ago the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland decided to prepare a new statement of Christian faith.

The inevitable committee was formed, produced its report and in 1992 the Assembly authorised the new statement for use in worship and teaching.

Commenting on the committee’s work, Alec Cheyne, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Edinburgh, compared and contrasted it with the church’s various other historic statements of faith – the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

And then in an almost after-thought at the end of his article, Cheyne suggested the next time the Assembly decided to embark on such an exercise, instead of a statement of faith it should commission some new hymns.

Why?

Although they might lack the academic rigour of a confessional statement, Cheyne wondered if congregations learn more about Christmas singing Come thou long expected Jesus or about Easter singing Thine be the glory or about Pentecost singing Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire than they do from reading statements of faith.

Today is Trinity Sunday.

Unlike the other great Christian festivals of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, all of which refer to significant events in the life of Jesus and the early church, the doctrine of the Trinity arose in response to heresy.

In the 4th century AD, Arius taught that Jesus of Nazareth was a human being like everyone else and so, in an important sense, inferior to God.

The Arian heresy prompted a response from Athanasius, then the archdeacon of Alexandria, and one of the most influential of the early church fathers.

Athanasius suggested that although distinct, Jesus was the same in being as the Father.

The dispute culminated in the great Council of Nicea in 325 AD, convened by the Emperor Constantine, when the matter was finally resolved in favour of Athanasius.

Are you with me?

No, I thought not.

So rather than speak about councils and doctrines, let me take Alec Cheyne’s advice and speak instead about this morning’s opening hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, a hymn described by the Victorian Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as the finest hymn in the English language.

It is not difficult to see why Tennyson so liked this hymn because with an economy of words and with an abundance of striking images and phrases, the hymn draws us into the greatness of God.

Based on a passage from the Book of Revelations[1] where the author is granted a vision of the heavenly throne and the worship which surrounds it, whatever else it expresses, this hymn expresses the majesty of God, the mystery of God, the mercy of God, the God to whom our morning song should rise, the God who is perfect in power, love and purity and who evermore shall be, the God whose works deserve the praise of every living creature in land and sky and sea.

What the hymn also does is to introduce us to distinct but related ways of thinking about God.

As Father, God is revealed as Creator of the universe and the Lord of life.

As Son, God’s love and concern took face and voice in the life and person, the dying and rising again of Jesus of Nazareth.

As Spirit, God is the divine presence evident in the life and activity of the first disciples, evident in the life of the early church as it set out to make disciples of all nations, baptising and teaching people to obey everything Jesus commanded and evident in the life, witness and worship of God’s people today.

Here is the essence of the Trinitarian understanding of God - God in three persons – an understanding at the heart of the Christian faith – blessed Trinity.

At its best, as well as drawing us into the greatness of God, what the doctrine of the Trinity does is to express the community of relationships that exists among Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And at its best, isn’t this what the church aspires to be, a community of relationships as people from different walks of life are brought through the power of the Spirit into the family of Christian faith by the love of God in Christ?

It was the poet John Donne who famously wrote that no man (no person) is an island, that we are all part of the continent, part of the main, in other words we all belong to one another.

And yet the cruel irony is that at a time when communication has never been easier, and there are more ways than ever for people to be in touch with one another, loneliness and isolation have been identified as among contemporary society’s most significant ills.

Research by AGE UK suggests many thousands of older people have less than weekly contact with family, neighbours and friends with some leaving their house once a week or less.

Medical research also suggests loneliness is often a trigger for mental illness and can be as harmful to someone’s physical health as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day.

Given the age profile of our parish - the last census revealed we have the highest average age profile of any part of Edinburgh – and with many older people living on their own – Cramond Medical Practice has more single elderly patients than any other city practice – one of the outcomes of last autumn’s Stewardship Project, Cramond Cares, was the creation of Diane Williams’ pastoral assistant role with responsibility for creating an information hub of resources and services available for older people.

While it will not surprise you to learn Diane has been inundated with requests for help, support, advice and information – it might surprise you to learn the requests have not just been from older people but often from mothers with young children.

Evidently loneliness, isolation and the draining loss of confidence and self-esteem it brings affects people in every age and stage of life.

And to this prevailing social ill the church brings its gift of welcome, of belonging, of being valued, needed, respected and loved – the gift of community.

As you know, the great dilemma posed by the Easter gospel is its startling assertion that not only was the tomb empty, the one who was crucified was alive again, free, beyond death’s reach.

And of this the gospels are adamant; the person the disciples met was no ghost nor figment of their imagination but the same Jesus whom they had always known and who now bore the marks of the crucifixion on his hands and side.

He speaks and is heard.

It is possible to touch him………although did Thomas actually do so?

And he eats.

If their various encounters in Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus or on the shores of the Sea of Galilee had indeed been dreams and visions, like many of the dreams and visions in their own scriptures, then the discples might have made some kind of sense of it.

But the disturbing reality was this : the person they met was Jesus, risen from the dead, just as he promised.    

Rowan Williams suggests the beauty of the Easter gospel is that it describes the most extraordinary thing in the most ordinary way.[2]

I am risen and I am still with you………that for Williams is the message of Easter.  

I am risen and I am still with you………and one of the things we discern is these bewildered disciples being transformed again into a vibrant community of women and men willing to risk everything to follow Christ.

Here is the heart of what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday, our faith that the one who was crucified and rose from the dead is bound up with the existence of the community that is the church.

Quite simply, you cannot be a Christian on your own but only……only…….in company with others, only as part of the church.

Of course at one level the church is nothing more than a meeting of people, people who have been engaged in the normal routine of home, work and family life, people touched by the joys and sorrows, the excitement and disappointments, the triumphs and defeats, the wonders and the sadnesses of life.

But in another way these same everyday events and experiences of life are transformed as in worship we too are transformed into a vibrant community of disciples through our encounter with the risen Christ.

In church we discover we belong, that we are welcomed, accepted, forgiven and loved.

And when that happens, then like the disciples of old our lives are transformed  and our morning sun rises in praise of the One who is with us for ever, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God, now and evermore.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen

 


[1] Revelation 4: 8-11

[2] Rowan Williams Resurrection : Interpreting the Easter Gospel, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 2002