This week there have been two quotations which I have carried around with me. In my thoughts I have often taken them out and looked at them, and let God speak to me through them. The first comes from one of the readings we’ve heard today and the other from the news that we’ve all been seeing every day. I don’t know about you, but there are sometimes times in my life when I need some words to hold onto, some things to cling to so that I don’t go under, just some short phrases to remind me who I am and what I really believe in. It’s like somehow carrying round a love letter, or some words on a wristband, even words you might choose for a tattoo or learn by heart, some words to repeat and to know, something to hold on to.
The first phrase is simply the verse from the very end of what our Bibles call the second letter to the Corinthians.
‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.’
It comes right at the end of a letter, or letters probably, that Paul wrote to a church he founded, but a church that had turned on him. This is a phrase of such grace and beauty that we use it often even now and say it to one another – in all sorts of Christian gatherings. And they are words that can trip off our tongues so easily, without us even thinking about how they came to be given to us.
It’s great that we have Paul’s collection of letters to the church at Corinth in the Bible if only because it reminds us that there never was a golden age when it was easy to be part of the church. This church argued, split, coped with scandal, economic division, with the charismatics versus the conservatives – all of which shows that there’s nothing much new under the sun. It’s clear when you read between the lines that Paul had been getting the first century equivalent of on-line abuse, that this church that he had set up had been getting at him for being too poor, too scruffy, for working with his hands, for not having the right qualifications. He’s under the kind of attack that we all hear about now and some of us might even have known. And he has to defend himself. But at the end of this long, passionate, sometimes weary and difficult correspondence, Paul writes these simple and ageless words,
‘The grace of the lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.’
Reading the Bible is sometimes like reading Shakespeare – you come across a line that you realise you know already – and there’s a flash of recognition. We say those words so often, at the end of meetings – sometimes with head bowed low and sometimes looking round at each other so we can speak them directly to each other. They are so familiar to us that we could easily forget they come from the Bible. Maybe Paul composed them and maybe he didn’t – maybe his churches used this blessing already and it was a phrase already known to them – but it’s an astonishing thought – that Christians through centuries and in many places have blessed each other with these same words. Reading them at the end of Paul’s letters gives them an added edge. These are not just pious, empty, words. He is saying them to people who have criticised him, hated him, attacked him, and abused him. He is wishing the grace of Jesus, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, upon those who cast him as an enemy. He says, in a way, it doesn’t matter what you say about me or what you think of me. Your abuse and attack isn’t going to make me anything different from the person I am determined to be; a person shaped by God’s grace, living God’s love, seeking fellowship, friendship, community with anyone.
Today, in our time, I think we can see that we need this kind of blessing and intention too. It’s so easy for the words of faith to be emptied, to slide over our ears like the soft and easy music of the Radio 2 of my childhood. When really, the truth is, that we need to hear them with all the edge of a rock album or a piece from Radio 3 at its most avant garde. These words need to be rescued from the shallows if we are to encounter the depths of a life-sustaining faith. They are powerful words. If we say them every day, if we pray them for everyone we meet, if we greet even those who attack us with these kinds of words, they will shape us and through us, shape the world. Let’s get them out and dust them off and make them live again with all their vibrant and stunning power.
Which brings me to the second quotation. This one doesn’t come from the Bible, but is a phrase that has become what people these days call a ‘meme’, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. You could find it this week all over the underground, all over Facebook, repeated by countless voices and displayed as a kind of act of defiance. It is simply these words – ‘We are not afraid.’ Of course, these are words that people speak when fear is running riot, when it feels as though the world is coming down around us. To say ‘We are not afraid’ is not necessarily a description of how we feel, but is really a kind of choice, a choice not to make fear the thing that shapes us or that inspires how we act, but instead to stay calm and confident, to hold on to the things that really matter to us and to believe that they will triumph. We refuse the fear that violence breeds, we choose to find courage and calm, we choose life over death, and love over hate..
But what has any of this to do with the Trinity? What have these chosen quotations to do with the doctrine that has terrified preachers, befuddled the faithful and complicated life for Sunday school teachers for many generations?
It’s striking that for so many generations of Christians the doctrine of the Trinity might not have been the simplest to understand, but people have understood that somehow it sums up the faith in a way that we can hold on to it in times of trouble. St Patrick called the Trinity his ‘breastplate’, and he bound to himself the strong name of the Trinity. Somehow he knew that with the fullness of God’s love and blessing with him, he could stand firm against anything that came. He bound to himself the doctrine of the Trinity – just as now we might make a band for our wrists – and wear it. He believed that with the fullness of God with him, expressed in this language of three in one, he would live, and more than live, flourish! He said.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Or he might have said, ‘I am not afraid’. God is with me.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not given to us to be a mental puzzle and a stumbling block. It may be a clear signal that faith is difficult – and that it should be. Faith is difficult, demanding for mind, soul and heart – and don’t expect to grasp it straight away. Make it your life’s work. But the Trinity is also a kind of testimony to the depth and power of the faith, to the real strength it can bring. The Trinity says – look at the great sources of faith which men and women have found through the centuries and in many places – this vast space is before you and waits for you to inhabit it – so that you can learn of the mystery of faith and discover yet more of the wonder of God. I think that the kind of Christians who talk most about the Trinity are often likely to be those who have found a way of faith that offers deep wells for living by.
‘The grace’ – the little blessing at the end of Paul’s letter –its effect is to offer us the full resources of the faith. If a human being, or a community of human beings, truly did receive the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, and know the love of God, and share in fellowship with the Holy Spirit, that would be a powerful and holy person or community indeed.
There are times in all our lives when the supports we thought we had crumble away, and when we seem to stand on unsteady ground. I think that’s an all too common experience in today’s world. And perhaps that’s why we are so readily impressed by people who have such a firm, unshakeable and joyful faith. It’s striking that many Christians in the past – and still today – talk of the Trinity as a kind of rock to stand on – a circle around you for safe-keeping – or a breastplate for protection. And I think such talk does not mean that the Trinity is a kind of magic spell to keep away evil, but that if you hold to a faith rooted deep in the profoundest mysteries of God, if you know who you are and who loves you, you will be held and sustained. So many people in our culture seem to be reaching out to find this kind of rootedness and depth. Perhaps we have just not always believed or shown how amazing, and how life-giving is the tradition in which we are privileged to stand.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he and they were both aware that they were doing and enduring some pretty terrible things. But Paul told them that God wanted to give them the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. That is what God wants to do with all of us – to bless us with the gifts of the beautiful Trinity and to show us what human life – touched by such blessing – could really be like. So, I hope that you will take these two sayings with you today. Know that ‘We are not afraid’. And may the grace of the lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,’ Amen.