|Published on Tue, 29 May 2018 16:49|
Stories, lives and the Trinity
The reading set for today, from Isaiah 6, is the same one that was set for my ordination as a Deacon, twenty three years ago. It took me back instantly to the moment when, in my brand new robe and my brand new clerical shirt and my brand new eau de cologne, I was lined up with all the others who were to be ordained, standing anxiously along the side aisle of Southwark Cathedral, near the organ, behind the choir, waiting for the service to start.
I remember very clearly the moment when the organ blasted into the introduction to the great anthem by Hubert Parry:
I was glad, glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord!
The entry of the choir, fff, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – as they are now, when I recall that moment. The reading – this great piece of Isaiah – ends with the simple words: whom shall I send? Here I am, send me!!
It’s an interesting choice for Trinity Sunday, as is the reading from John’s Gospel, which tells the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, wanting to know more, much more, about this strange new teaching that he is hearing about. They have sent me down a different tack from my usual approach to Trinity; usually I say how difficult it is and then talk about the interrelationship of God, about the dance of the three person of the Trinity, about perichoresis (dancing around….) and talk about the famous Matisse picture of the dancers –
But, looking at these readings, I want to approach Trinity from a different angle.
I am very fond of Nicodemus, as he is presented in John’s gospel. He comes by night, so as not to be seen – for he is, we later learn, a senior member of the Sanhedrin, the senior body for the Temple. He’s struggling with the questions, trying to make sense of what Jesus said. He comes by night because he wants to make sense of the world.
He is mentioned three times in John’s gospel; first, in this passage: then later on when he reminds his colleagues that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged, and then after the crucifixion when he brings 33lb of embalming spices to embalm the body of Jesus.
He never appears as a formal follower of Jesus, but he is clearly intrigued. He comes across as someone special, someone who is pursuing his path within his context. He comes across as very human.
These readings, and the story of Nicodemus, led me to think of my own story, my own journey to where I am now, which I haven’t shared with you for many years, and some of you never. It’s a typical journey, I think, in some ways and atypical in others, perhaps a bit like Nicodemus, perhaps a bit like Thomas, perhaps a bit like the stereotype of Mary Magdalene.
I had a typical Anglican upbringing, in a village in Sussex, comfortably off, privileged, really, in all sorts of ways. A bit lonely, at times, especially as a teenager. Aged about 15 I was invited to a Christian house party for a week in the summer, family-focused; they took over a school in East Sussex. 150 evangelical Christians and me. I was caught up in it all; loved it, loved the worship, loved the people (mainly people like me, but richer).
But the enchantment soon palled; it seemed to me quite quickly that the kind of Christianity I had found my way into was more interested in answers than questions, and there seemed to be no place in the church for a gay teenager trying to work out, back in the 1970’s, who I was. So, to cut a long story short, I left it all behind and became an atheist; went to university to study theology as an atheist; and remained firmly that way inclined. Living the London life of a young gay man in the 1980’s. Lucky to be alive, now, I am.
In my late 20’s, as I remember it, my school friend Bernhard, who lived above St Anne’s Church in Dean Street, said to me
‘Giles, I think you should come back to church. I think you need some grounding.’
So I went, slightly shamefacedly. And found a little church in an upper room (the original building had been bombed and not yet rebuilt), congregation about 20, made of eccentric older women and eccentric younger men. Really I have never left.
So I was someone who, like Nicodemus, came to Jesus by night. And, I am still here, still learning, still trying to make sense of this path I’m on.
But I have also been moved by other stories, this week – the stories of the people who died in the Grenfell fire. You may have seen some of the accounts of those people, which have been presented this week at the opening of the inquest.
Their names: Logan, Denis, Saber, Joseph, Mary, Khadija, Debbie, Rania, Hania, Fethia, Hesham, Pily, Tony, Zainab … and many others. Their stories have been reported in the Guardian, reported well: I quote from an article dated 25th May:
'They might not have been able to compete financially with the Holland Park set, but there was nothing poor about these lives. Over the first week we learned of the most incredible array of people, their journeys and achievements.
It started heartbreakingly with the story of stillborn Logan, cradled in his father’s arms hours after the family had escaped the fire. And it didn’t get any easier. The testimonies were gruelling, broken, tender, tearful, funny, haunting, angry, eloquent – every one of them beautiful in a unique way. To listen to them was a privilege. A terrible privilege.
There was fun: Rania and Rasha pelting each other with eggs while cooking, Pily trying to persuade Nick to talk to the camera in Spanish. There was art: the poem by Hesham Rahman including the prescient line “Remember my presence after my departure”, the haunting film about Marjorie Vital and her son Ernie by a relative who wished to remain anonymous. There was unimaginable horror: Marjorie and Ernie tried to save themselves by running a cold bath and died fused together. There was lump-in-the-throat cuteness: Amaya, who died on the 19th floor aged three, with a different coloured flower in her hair in each photo.
There was anger. Hisam Choucair, who lost six members of his Lebanese family on the 22nd floor, said: “We had to stand there watching for hours, watching them burn to death. I don’t see it as a tragedy; I see it as an atrocity.
There was the astonishing story of Mohamednur Tuccu, a freedom fighter in Eritrea who had to flee his homeland for Sudan, then Nigeria, before moving to England and earning a BSc in genetics, and an MSc in bioinformatics. For the last 10 years of his life he worked as a security guard.'
These are the stories of ordinary people, struggling, in London, told by ordinary people, struggling, in London – struggling to survive, struggling to make sense of a world, a death, a loss, many losses – struggling in ways which I, in my incredibly privileged position, can only begin to imagine and to respect…
What on earth does the Trinity have to do with all that? With Nicodemus, with my own journey, and with Mohamednur, with Pily, with Rasha’s terrible deaths in the Grenfell fire?
Well, it does bring me back to where I might have started on a typical Trinity Sunday. Because it reminds us powerfully and incontrovertibly that life, if it is not lived in strong, complex, loving, struggling, uplifting, transforming, engaged and real relationships, has no point. And God is at the heart of that, in God’s relational Trinity.
The Trinity is a way of saying that God is with us, God reaches out to us, God lives with us, God loves us; those who live in love live in God. It tells of the reaching out from the Divine to the Human, from the unimaginable to the terrifyingly real, from heaven to earth. From the beyond to the present. From then to now. As we move from Pentecost towards Trinity, into ordinary times, we take something with us, and that thing that we take with us is this:
'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.' (John 3)
That’s the Trinity at work – enabling it to be clearly seen that the deeds have been done in God. I hope that my deeds have, as much as possible, been done in God; and that Nicodemus’ were; and I am sure that the stories we have heard of the people in Grenfell were. Not to romanticise them, but to say that they, Nicodemus, I, we, are all people struggling to make sense of the world; the Trinity is our secret weapon. For which, I gave much thanks.