A Good Joke

Sunday 7th June 2020
Year A, Trinity Sunday
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Isaiah 40.12-31
Matthew 28.16-20

At this time of considerable mental stress, you can't beat a good joke; and the one hinted at in our Reading from Second Isaiah Chapter 40 bursts into full mirth in Chapter 44 when the man who chops down wood divides it into two, such that he warms himself and cooks meat and bread with one half but, with the other half of the very same wood, he carves an idol and then worships it. Could there be anything more stupid than worshipping something we have made; surely, says Isaiah, it should be precisely the other way round; we should worship the God who has made us. After grim centuries of idolatry and exile there is at last room for a degree of confidence as the exiles contemplate returning to their homeland; and such is their optimism that Isaiah allows himself a joke at the idolatrous captors' expense.

We, I think, need to be much more careful. In the days of Isaiah the contrast between faithfulness and idolatry was sharp, supposedly demarcating God-fearing Jews from Gentiles, so when the Jews themselves became idolatrous, the punishment was frightening, leading, in the end, to exile in captivity. We, on the other hand, even in these stressful times, live in such comfort that the lines tend to be blurred. At this point, you will be relieved to know, I am not going to trot out the old cliché about the consumer society making idolaters of all of us; to a certain extent that is true but it's lazy and, in its own way, complacent, because if we're all idolaters then that puts us all on the same level as, well, a bit naughty, really. The real point of idolatry, however, is not our weakness for earthly things, it's our loss of the sense of the centrality and seriousness of God. At every turn we have choices about significance, about time, about ethics but, too often, we fall into a rather tame version of pragmatism rather than operating with the fear of God within us. By fear I don't mean we only decide to do the right thing because we are frightened but, rather, we do the right thing as humble creatures in awe of our creator, quite detached from the futile calculus of salvation.

Our Reading from Matthew is plain and simple. God out of time has sent Jesus, God in history, to proclaim the Good news of salvation and to gain adherent missionaries through Baptism. So what is all this about?

On this Trinity Sunday we need to consider what so often appears to be an abstruse piece of doctrine, even though it constitutes the basic structure of our Creeds. We understand God the Creator out of time reasonably well but Christianity has been seriously divided about the nature and purpose of Jesus, God in history, even though the basic dynamics of his life, death, Resurrection and mission are reasonably simple if we strip away the vanity of small differences: as we were created to love God freely we were given free will. Everybody knows that love not given freely isn't love at all. As we always would with free will, we have made good choices and bad choices. The result of the exercise of free will in making bad choices was that we lost the immortality we were bound for in the mythical Garden of Eden. Jesus became a man so that he could, specifically, explain that we could continue to exercise free will but would be spared the mortal consequences, that we would not die. Now why God should have arranged matters this way is the central, frequently overlooked, mystery, the conveyance of whose meaning is the purpose of Christianity, far more important than the mysteries of the death and Resurrection of Jesus, as god could have allowed us to make wrong choices but not linked this to death. The wonder of our lives is not only that God loves us but that a possible purpose of creation was that he wanted to be loved by us, of our own free will.

At the end of our Reading from Matthew, Jesus sends out his followers to baptise. We are baptised to make us new so that we have a completely different perspective on human existence from the unbaptised; we are no better and no worse; we are simply possessed of the capacity, as children of God our Creator out of time, to love God of our own free will, and we enjoy the promise of God in Jesus that we will not die, messages we are charged to share, lifting the weight of human helplessness, misery and fear of death.

We are, then, clear about the roles of God out of time and Jesus God in history; but what of the Holy Spirit? I think God's Spirit gets a rather bad deal because of the mistake of classifying it as a "person". We can grasp the notion of Jesus as a person and there is a tenuous way in which the Creator might be some kind of person - he frequently appears, after all, in the Old Testament and occasionally in the New - but the idea of God's Spirit as a "person" is baffling outside the context of Fourth Century neo Platonic theology. At that time a "person" was the representative entity of a collection of characteristics whereas today a "person" is precisely the opposite, being a unique individual entity, not representing anything but itself. This does not make the Spirit less real but points to the idea of God’s presence with us, as individuals but, more markedly, as collective members of the Church which Jesus established as his gift to us. Only very few of us, supported by the Spirit of God, can sustain Christian mission alone; most of us can only proposer through sustaining each other in the collective embrace of the Spirit. This is why the people who say they are fervent Christians but do not become involved in collective worship are fooling themselves.

From his writings, we know that Matthew saw Jesus as a direct successor of Isaiah but the question for us, 2000 years later, is how far we are successors of Jesus in worshipping God out of time, imitating Jesus God in history, and being attentive to the Spirit, not as a duty nor even as a pleasure but with the intensity we customarily reserve for our most urgent occupations.