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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Your Pain will turn to Joy: racism and the Trinity

Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5.1-5; John 16.12-23 

Today is the beginning of what is called ‘Reconciliation Week’ here in Australia.  The week is used, in various ways and by various groups, to promote reconciliation and peace between Indigenous Australians and those who came here more latterly from across the sea. This year there is a focus on the continuing scourge of racism, in the form of a call for its eradication from both every day society and from the constitution of Australia. For who can doubt that racism is still very much amongst us?  The exchange between a football fan and dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes at the Sydney/Collingwood game on Friday night - when Mr Goodes was branded an ‘Ape’ - is a powerful reminder of that fact.  It is also a fact that our national constitution still pretends that Aboriginal people do not exist.  It is a thoroughly racist document in that it fails to recognise that Australia was not an ‘empty land’ when the Europeans came; that it had been inhabited and cultivated by another people for at least 60 thousands years; that it was taken from that people by force, and without lawfully recognised treaty, and that the effects of this taking are still amongst us in the form of huge levels of social, psychological and spiritual trauma amongst Indigenous people.  As you know, I am an Indigenous Tasmanian, so I know about the effects of colonisation ‘up close and personal’, as they say.  The way I look at everything – the landscape, society, the church, political and theological ideas – is profoundly influenced by that experience of loss and trauma. But I shall return to this later.

Today is also, for the Christian community, the feast of the Holy Trinity.  It is a day when we reflect explicitly on themes that are regrettably (for liberal Protestants such as ourselves) much more implicit during the rest of the year: namely the nature and mission of God as a Trinitarian communion of three persona, the ‘Father’, the ‘Son’ and the ‘Holy Spirit’.  The lections for today seek to encourage such reflection.  The reading from Proverbs speaks of ‘Wisdom’ as if she were a person, a person who cannot be simply separated from God as yet another of God’s myriad creations.  Wisdom is here spoken of as the very ‘first’ of God’s possessions, appointed ‘from eternity’, begotten of God rather than created out of nothing.  Wisdom is furthermore both a witness and co-worker with God in the act of creating the universe, a master craftswoman at Yahweh’s side.  It is clear that many early Christian theologians understood this passage, and its sister passages in the apocryphal Book of Wisdom, as Jewish presentiments concerning Jesus Christ.  We are all familiar with the opening poem at the beginning of John’s gospel: 
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was the same as God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people . . .  The true light, which enlightens everything, was coming into the world.  (1.1-9).
Like Wisdom, the Word exists in the beginning with God and shares in the divine action of creating.  The Word, like Wisdom, may be understood as some kind of emanation from God.  In other words, the Word is born of God, not made by God out of non-divine material.  And finally, like Wisdom, the Word is imagined as a divine light which enlightens the world.  Much recent scholarship concludes that Lady Wisdom is the model out of which John created the divine Logos which became, in short order, the second person of the Trinity, the divine Son.  The Son shares in the deity of the Father, but cannot be absolutely identified with the Father, certainly not without remainder.

Look at John’s careful treatment of the relationship between the Father and the Son in our gospel lection for today.  ‘All that belongs to the Father is mine’, says Jesus. He also says ‘My Father will give you anything you ask for in my name.’  Names are important in New Testament imagination.  Names represent a person who is not present.  They are the same as the person themselves, yet they are different from that person also, because they can stand for, or represent, that person in their absence.  So when Jesus says ‘The Father will give you anything you ask for in my name’, what he is really saying is this: ‘I am the exact representation and presence of my Father.  If you cannot see the Father physically, yet, in looking upon me and listening to my voice you can see and hear the Father, for everything I am, I received from my Father, and everything the Father is has been given to me. So ask in my name.  To do so is ask of my Father what I has already been given you in me’.  According to John, then, Jesus of Nazareth is the same as the pre-existent Word of God who was begotten of God the Father before the creation of the world and shares in his Father’s deity and power; in Jesus we therefore see and hear all that we can, as human beings, see and hear of God.  Jesus is the Father’s face and arms and voice for the material world of flesh and blood in which we live and move and have our human being.

What of the Holy Spirit, then?  Well, according to John once more, the Spirit clearly shares in the divine being of the Father and the Son.  Jesus says that the Spirit will come once he, the flesh-and-blood Christ, has passed from this world.  The Spirit will guide the disciples into the truth of God, a truth the Spirit will repeat and echo into our hearts exactly as it is spoken in the life of God, in the divine conversation between the Father and the Son.  The Spirit possesses everything that the Father and the Son possess.  The Spirit shares in the divine being of the Father and the Son, but also in the relationship of non-identity they share with each other.  Some theologians have speculated that the Spirit is the relationship between the Father and the Son, the very intangibility of their love and regard for each other, the substance of their conversation and their care.  That may well be true, for the Spirit is indeed less ‘solid’ than the Father and the Son in terms of character and identity.  The Spirit is a tad more wild and mysterious in her workings, like a wind that comes from nowhere and goes to nowhere.  And yet, what she brings us from her divine companions is something very valuable indeed: truth, hope and joy.  She is the midwife of these things, John tells us, the one who assures us that they are real and that they will one day belong to us, even as we weep and grieve and labour in this valley of tears we call our world.

The reading from Romans makes a similar point.  It makes the claim that all who believe in Jesus Christ and have received the justification that comes from him as a free gift of grace, have also received the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is nothing other than the vessel in which the love and mercy of God arrive.  This gift, says the Apostle, gives us hope when life is difficult.  She helps us to rejoice when there is little to rejoice about.  She helps us to persevere and to be disciplined in the face of difficult circumstances.  For the promise is there for all who believe, that our pain will turn to joy and that our weeping will one day turn into laughter.

Now, it is unfortunately true that around our church today there will be a great many sermons that skip over the feast of the Trinity and over trinitarian theology, because so many of our preachers simply do not have the knowledge or the will to know what to do with it.  Many, unfortunately, see the doctrine of the Trinity as something of an irrelevance, an ancient curiosity that really has nothing to say to our contemporary world or faith.  Nothing, of course, is further from the truth.  What such preachers fail to appreciate it that the doctrine of the Trinity, like all doctrine, is a story.  A story of God, and God’s dealings with the world of human beings that unleashes the power to transform our despair into joy, our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh and feeling.  The doctrine of the Trinity is shorthand, in other words, for everything the Christian faith has to offer by way of truth, faith, hope and love.  It is the grammar out of which we may start to comprehend our world, our society and our church as the arena of God’s action for forgiveness, justice and peace.

‘Why is racism wrong?’ for example.  Have you ever asked yourself that question?  What story, what grammar do we depend upon to render the denigration of another person (on the basis of nothing more than their skin-colour or ethnic origin) as fundamentally wrong, false, evil, immoral?  Well. For Christians, it is the doctrine of the Trinity!  The Father gives the Son into the world of flesh and blood in order to show us how to live, to reveal to us what is right and what is wrong, what makes for life and what makes for death.  In the face of the Son we learn that God does this out of an infinite love for 'the world', for us all (cf. John 3.16). God longs for our life, not our death, for our flourishing, not our diminishing.  In the face of Christ we learn that God is no bully, but is nevertheless prepared to come amongst us in the vulnerable form of the Son, to remonstrate and plead with us, that we might choose the way to life.  God does this even to the point of being misunderstood or, conversely, understood very well, but ultimately rejected. Even to the point of death, death on a cross.  Not that death can kill God’s love, for in the power of the Spirit the Son is raised to life as a sign of hope that all who follow in Christ’s way will themselves be raised, will themselves transcend death’s dominion when the racists and the death-squads come to exact their terrible revenge. 

So, racism is wrong because God is a communion of love since all eternity, and wants to include everyone, without remainder – whatever their skin colour or ethnic origin – at the table of mercy and hospitality shared forever by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Racism is wrong because God is willing to put everything on the line in Jesus Christ - and, through the Spirit, also within the very human and therefore fragile history of the church - in order to make that message resonate loud and clear within the arena of our inhumanity toward one another.  Racism is wrong, finally, because it will not have the last word. The last word is love, the love shared between the Father and the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, a love that is always going out of itself in creative and hospitable action.  In the gift of Christ we who believe are empowered to rejoice in the final victory of that love even as the evil of racism continues to permeate our world.  For the Spirit is a deposit, a guarantee of that which is to come: a sign in our midst of that final peace-making, the shalom of God, when all who are reconciled to God are also reconciled to one another.  In the work of Christ and the giving of his Spirit, every sin is both forgiven and forgotten and the idea that someone might be used and abused because of their race has become absolutely laughable. Racism is wrong, in summary, because God is a trinity, a threefold relation of divine equals who go out toward one another and toward the cosmos in love and mercy.  In this story and this grammar is the indispensable plumbline of care and regard and justice . . . for the church, for human society, and for the whole of creation.

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