Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Trinity Sunday 30 May 2010
30 May 2010 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The vulnerability of life confronts us sometimes unexpectedly, but is a truth always around the corner of our current experience. Moments of immense joy are followed suddenly, without warning, by moments that plunge us into the depths of sorrow or despair. Everything seems so good, so positive, and then disaster strikes, or what seems disaster at the time, and we face afresh our fragility, our dependence. The spectre is at the feast.
We see it so clearly in the life of public figures. A new government minister is praised with personal interviews and positive reviews in one newspaper, while lurking in another is a new revelation about his sexuality and expenses. But it is also true of our own lives and the life of a Christian community. The joy of a great celebration is shadowed by the knowledge of sudden bereavement and loss in the family of a member of the community, by the absence through a sudden physical collapse of another who should have been there, by the memory of time spent by the bedside of an old friend with a grave illness, by the arrival of a seemingly intractable problem.
Of course, this truth of the vulnerability of life is as obvious when we look beyond the human and personal to the global, the environmental, the geo-physical. The unpronounceable Icelandic volcano is now emitting steam rather than ash but this is thought only to be a pause. At any time, the eruption of ash might resume and throw air travel into further chaos. Storm and wind, flood, drought and earthquake will continue to surprise civilised western man with our own vulnerability, as will the wounds man inflicts on man and people on people, through the over-exploitation of the planet, through human cruelty and violence, through unbridled greed and selfishness. We may think we are clever, that we have control of our own destinies, that we are man come of age, that we can create and manipulate life, but in truth we are poor little dependent fools, intensely vulnerable.
This may strike us as sad but in fact our vulnerability is not a bad thing but good, and the recognition of its truth is a necessary step to a full and happy life. If we spin around ourselves the myth of our own invulnerability we create for ourselves an impenetrable cocoon that destroys all human interaction and the possibility of that most fundamental of all human virtues, the giving and receiving of love. To offer love is to be vulnerable, to suffer the risk of rejection, to be open to humiliation. But there is more. To love is to be vulnerable. A Carthusian monk wrote a few years ago a book published as The Wound of Love. Here he said, ‘Love does not consist in dominating, possessing or imposing one's will on someone. Rather love is to welcome without defences the other as he or she comes to meet me. There are no contests of strength between two people who love each other. There is a kind of mutual understanding from which a reciprocal trust emerges.’
God loves. Indeed, God is love and all love is of God. God the Holy Trinity is an intensely loving relationship: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not three Gods but one God, not one Person but three Persons, uncreated, unfathomable, equal in glory, co-eternal in majesty, love itself. So, is God vulnerable? Does God suffer the wounds of love? This question has come to seem more and more important in the past hundred years when human destruction has begun to be on a massive scale and it has no longer been possible to avoid the question whether God cares but can’t or can but doesn’t care. The answer is not easy but does matter. Is God vulnerable?
Jesus of course is vulnerable. He is wounded. He suffers. He dies on the cross. And Our Lord Jesus Christ is both fully human and wholly divine, both God and man, ‘God of the substance of his Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the substance of his Mother, born in the world … perfect God and perfect man, yet not two but one Christ.’ [Athanasian Creed] This one Christ suffers. He grows and learns. He is hungry and tired. He is angry and afraid. He is wounded. He dies. It is not that the man Jesus dies and the divine Christ somehow survives. The one man, Jesus Christ, God and man, suffers and dies.
But does that mean that God himself is vulnerable, that God suffers? The idea of the death of God is of course inconceivable. If God were to die, all life, made and sustained by God, would be snuffed out in an instant. God cannot die. But does that mean then that we should perceive God as standing above the fray, aloof, like the commander on the heights mounted on his horse, surveying the smoke of battle and disposing his troops hither and yon whilst never being at risk of a bullet? Surely not.
St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, spoke of God being in Christ reconciling the world to himself. ‘All this’ he said, ‘is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. [2 Corinthians 5: 18-20]
God is making his appeal.’ No one invulnerable makes an appeal. God appeals. It is not simply that Jesus Christ, perfect God and perfect man, suffers. In his suffering, he reveals the vulnerability of God, the need of God, the plea of God: ‘be reconciled to me.’ God offers his love. God longs for his love to be returned. The whole act of creation, the whole act of redemption is a sign of the generous, costly, needy love of God.
This idea of a needy God has been and is rejected by some theologians on the grounds that it offers an understanding of God as being less than fully perfect. If God is absolutely perfect as he is, they would say, then he can need nothing in addition to what he is. Of course, that is readily understood but surely can be countered that perfection stands on a pedestal and is admired but does not interact. God, revealed in the Bible, and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, interacts.
God answers our own vulnerabilities with his own. He reaches out to us in our vulnerability and shares our suffering. This reaching and sharing is itself transformative. We are not alone; there is one alongside who shares our suffering, who knows our pain, who holds our hand.
God has moved decisively, once and for all, in the life and death and resurrection of His Son our Lord Jesus Christ. And God moves in our lives through his Holy Spirit, the comforter, the encourager, the one who calls us together and builds our community of love. The Holy Spirit whispers in our ear sweet messages of love, of needy, of costly love. He does not force himself on us, command us to love, insist and manipulate us into loving him back. Like God the Son, he can be despised, rejected. But his message is always there for us: ‘be reconciled to God.’ We can offer, we should offer, in return for the gift of love we have received, our own love for God. We can do it at any time. But we should not delay. Our vulnerable, loving God reaches out, offering us his suffering heart.
Sir Philip Sidney’s poem that begins, ‘My true love hath my heart, and I have his, By just exchange one for the other given’ includes the line, ‘My heart was wounded with his wounded heart.’ May the wounded loving heart of our great God reach and wound our hearts this day with his vulnerable love.