Sunday 26 May 2024

Trinity Sunday Sermon in response to the shameful defeat of the motion on Open Baptism at our recent General Synod

 See Video HERE

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2024

Trinity Sunday – It’s a funny sort of feast – It doesn’t celebrate any particular event in our faith story – It’s a celebration of a theological doctrine and immediately that makes a lot of people want to switch off!

It is however a very important doctrine – the heart of our faith  - which is implied throughout the biblical narrative and is intrinsic to our understanding of God and our relationship with God and indeed the whole of Creation.

I was looking for a fresh angle on the Trinity for my sermon today and I did a bit of reading of some commentaries on the theme and came across this from a contemporary theologian, Gerald Darring – The theology he articulates is completely orthodox but the way in which he presents it provoked a sort of lightbulb moment for me. This quotation is quite lengthy but I think quite helpful:
‘There is absolute individuality within the Trinity, for we believe that the Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit, nor is the Son the Father or the Spirit, nor is the Spirit the Father or the Son. Each person is distinct from the other two; none loses his personhood within the Trinity.
There is absolute equality within the Trinity. No person has something that the others lack, for each is God and each is all being. None is more God; all are absolutely equal.
There is absolute unity within the Trinity. God is one; the three persons are one. Father, Son and Spirit are three distinct persons, but they are persons in one God.
Ours is a Trinitarian religion. The Trinity is the source of our faith as well as the goal of our lives. We long to live for all eternity the life of the Trinity. Meanwhile, the Trinity is for us the model towards which we strive as a community: free individuals with total equality in complete unity.’

That last paragraph really hit home for me:

It hit home because I suddenly realised it addresses head on an issue which has caused huge hurt and damage within our own Church of Ireland and beyond in recent weeks. I’m referring to the defeated motion brought to General Synod which sought to encourage clergy not to refuse baptism to children based on the marital status of their parents. The motion was passed by the laity but narrowly defeated by the clergy, some of whom, for whatever reason seemed to want to be the gatekeepers to the sacrament of Baptism.

Lets look again at the last line of Gerald Darring’s commentary on the Trinity.

The Trinity is the source of our faith as well as the goal of our lives. …….the Trinity is for us the model towards which we strive as a community: free individuals with total equality in complete unity.’

How does that square with what happened at General Synod? It doesn’t I would suggest! The latter says we are a church with walls and barriers to keep out certain people – a church not of equality but one which likes to put people into categories of exclusion – a church which does not seek Unity but division – withdrawing itself onto an island of purity and rigorous and unforgiving rules which take away all freedom. It is a vision of Hell!

The Trinity on the other hand is a vision of Divine relationship which draws us in and welcomes us – What happened at Synod was the antithesis of this and flies in the face of who and what we are called to be.

I am not one for quoting huge tracts of Scripture out of context but I do make an exception for the words of Jesus which have a way of cutting across and through our prejudices and our hangups (and I think that is what was at play at Synod – some people far too wrapped up in their own theological systems and hangups that they could not see the fundamental principle at stake.)

These words of Jesus from Matthew 18: 1-5 are I think particularly relevant and instructive:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

I would defy anybody to interpret those words of Jesus in a way that could possibly justify turning away a child presented for baptism by its parent or parents regardless of their marital arrangements, their sex or sexuality or any other defining characteristic of their personhood.

If we are truly to reflect the vision of the Trinity in our church and in our lives then rather than creating a theological obstacle course for those who are seeking we should be the kind of community that reflects and extends the divine embrace and welcome to all who show up. We need to get over ourselves and realise its not about us but about a God who seeks to draw all people to himself and it is not for us to get in the way.

Infact the very next verse following those words of Jesus I just quoted from Matthew 18 says this – again the words of Jesus:

‘'If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.’

Strong stuff – I think the message essentially is – Get out of the way and let God be God!

God doesn’t need gatekeepers – The Church doesn’t need gatekeepers – I don’t know if you have noticed but people aren’t exactly knocking down the door to get in to our churches these days…….perhaps because we are perceived to be exclusive and inward looking – I know that’s not true in this parish or this church but can we continue to assume that those outside the doors don’t think differently. The public commentary following the General Synod made it quite clear that a lot of people had their opinions and prejudices confirmed. There is a lot of cynicism out there and its hard to say it isn’t justified! We cannot deny that the majority of clergy want to be gatekeepers and some laity as well – We have a problem and if we don’t address it our church will not be here in another generation.

I think this is a wake up call for us – Somehow we have to leave people in no doubt as to who we are and what we stand for because no matter what and who we think we are perception is reality. People have to know they are Welcome – No strings attached!

Some years ago at a vestry meeting we discussed  joining the Changing Attitude list of Open and Welcoming Churches in Ireland to LGBT+ people - Many of the parishes in this diocese (including some of our neighbours) are signed up to it but without consensus we didn’t pursue it further – I no longer believe it is a option – Yes I know that people of diverse sexuality are welcome in our churches but do those who might be outside the door and wondering will they be welcome know? Why can’t we make it easier for them? Why force them to guess or to make themselves more vulnerable by taking a risk? Why not be unambiguous and get out of the way of a God who doesn’t want or need gatekeepers. Sometimes by our inaction we make great gatekeepers!

That is just one example – Others spring to mind. Obviously the current issue of open Baptism is something that we need to make explicit.

We have an annual pet service in our parish and there is one four legged regular attender all year around but do we need to say more publicly that we are pet friendly all year around…. Its not just pets but support dogs – I wonder is there somebody who would like to be a part of this community of faith but is not sure if their pet or companion dog is welcome…..

I could probably go on but that’s probably enough to consider for one day. I never thought a consideration of the Trinity would lead me down this road but I do really feel there is an urgency for us as a church if we wish to thrive and continue to live the vision of the Trinity as a welcoming and open community of faith to be much more explicit about what we stand for and indeed what we do not wish to see said and done in our name.