Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Trinity and Our Life Together in Community

Proverbs 8.1-14, 22-31, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15

Wisdom, in Hebrew, is feminine and so wisdom personified - that is the Wisdom of God standing in the street or the market place and speaking directly to human beings - is naturally described as female too. This isn't to say that God, or even God's Wisdom, is female. God is, of course, apart from human gender, except in the person of Jesus.

It isn't to suggest either that women are wiser than men, although that may very often be the case. The word 'table' is feminine in French but tables are no more intrinsically connected to womankind than wisdom. In many different places, however, the Bible tell us is that God is in touch with both the feminine and the masculine sides of humanity. It talks about God loving and nurturing us just like a mother loves and nurtures the baby that she is feeding at her breast, or like the parent who gently leads a toddler along on reins to stop them wandering into the road.

We looked out of the window at teatime one day last week and saw some unusual brown lumps in the middle of the lawn. Mole hills? No, baby birds almost fully fledged but quite dead. Whether they had flown the nest, hidden - but not very well hidden perhaps - in one of our bushes, and then been attacked by a predator while they were sitting on the lawn, or whether they had been frightened out of the nest, we couldn't tell. But their parents sat on the fence making alarm calls, and stayed close by for the rest of the day and also next morning - hoping they might suddenly recover - until I eventually collected up their remains and took them away. And that's how God cares for his people, like a hen seeking to gather and protect her brood under her wings, or like an eagle catching a falling chick gently in her talons and returning it safely to the nest.

And yet the Wisdom of God - as depicted in Proverbs - is not wholly identical with God. She is God's first creation who then shares in and becomes part of all his other work. There have been Christians who have thought of Jesus, the Word of God, in exactly the same way - as Wisdom's twin brother. And yet, as we shall see, most Christians have come to feel that it is necessary to say rather more than this about Jesus and about God.

But a few more thoughts about Wisdom before we move on. Wisdom, shrewdness, is not the same as cleverness. In a town not far from here there's a local politician who mistakes cleverness for wisdom. When members of the public ask a question at a council meeting or a cabinet meeting he specialises in picking apart any tiny inconsistencies in what they have to say. If he can discover the slightest lack of clarity or any room for wilful misinterpretation of what they mean he's absolutely delighted and he points it out triumphantly. But, of course, he still doesn't answer their questions and the members of the public go away totally dissatisfied and feeling cheated. His tactic may be clever, but I ask you, 'Is it wise?'

Or what about government spin-doctors, endlessly on the look out for the right day to release some bad news to an unsuspecting public, or repeatedly announcing the same spending initiative to make it sound much grander than it really is. Have we seen the last of them now, I wonder? Are politicians listening, at last, to Wisdom's appeal for plain speaking?

And wisdom isn't the same as technical ability. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that it's wise, or shrewd, to attempt it. One would think that the managers and directors of BP would have thought more carefully about drilling for oil in deep water. They had one fail-safe device, but perhaps they needed two. Did they think in advance about the environmental damage that an accident would do, or the cost of trying repeatedly to dream up and execute ingenious new ways of capping an oil leak on the deep sea bed? Did they give any thought to the impact on their profits and shares if things went suddenly and irretrievably wrong? Wisdom is more valuable than pure gold. No jewel can match her.

Actually, the Revised English Bible makes a common mistake here. It equates knowledge with wisdom. In the translation we heard this morning Wisdom seems to be saying that we should choose knowledge and that knowledge is the same as Wisdom's instruction. But the New Revised Standard Version says something that is subtly different. We should choose the knowledge that wisdom
brings - a knowledge mixed with equal parts of discretion and prudence. This, not technical know-how, is what is worth more than gold and jewels.

Finally, Wisdom says that she hates 'subversive talk' - the New Revised Standard Version says 'perverted talk' and the Good News Bible has 'false words'. Introducing the idea of 'perversion' here seems to me to strike the wrong note. It conjures up the image of the postman who was pretending to be a teenager in order to groom young people in Internet chat rooms. Instead, 'subversive talk' or 'false words' are here being contrasted with straight talking and plain speech.

Someone said to me the other day that Methodists don't like to speak out at meetings. They prefer, this person said, to chunter. Well, of course, we all chunter from time to time - don't we? - and if we do it in the privacy of our own homes, or with a few close friends or family, it probably does no harm. But if we really think that something needs to be said, and - more to the point - if we want something to be done about it, chuntering is not the answer. Plain speaking, being prepared to tell it how we think it is, to the person or the group of people whom we hold responsible, is the only Biblical approach and the way that Wisdom demands.

If everyone can be brave enough to say what they really think, in front of everyone else, then we can have an honest debate and the chunterers can find out whether they are part of the overwhelming majority, or whether they belong to a tiny minority who must graciously bow to the wishes of everyone else, or indeed whether opinions are evenly divided and there needs to be some give and take. That's why the Methodist Church tells each congregation to arrange an annual general meeting. It's our opportunity to come together and express our views in public and elect the people whom we want to represent us as church stewards or on the church council. And if we don't go to meetings, and don't say our piece there, then I'm afraid I think it becomes subversive and harmful to chunter.

Paul reminds us in his letter to the Roman Christians that - thanks to our allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ and our willingness to own what he has done for us through his death on the Cross - we are all supposed to be living in a state of grace, filled with hope, at peace with God, and overwhelmed by the inescapable feeling that our hearts have been flooded with God's love. What an incredible thought - that God's love should flood our whole being and then radiate out from us to other people because of the power of God's Spirit at work within us!

Of course, this could sound too syrupy and sugar-coated to be real. Ordinary life isn't filled all of the time with grace, hope, peace and love even within the most Christ-centred church community let alone in the world beyond the Church. Paul acknowledges that there will be hard times. He talks about suffering. The Revised English Bible says that suffering is a source of endurance, endurance is a source of approval, and approval is a source of hope. The New Revised Standard Version says suffering leads to endurance, which builds character and produces hope. Another version talks about afflictions, steadfastness, character and hope.

Affliction or tribulation is really the right translation here. We all face times of affliction, difficult or testing times, as individuals and as members of a community like Wakefield or like the church here. Are we going to let the hard times break us apart, or are we going to let the Holy Spirit use them to build us up?

Jesus said that the Spirit of truth has been sent by God to guide us into all the truth. As I observed last week, John's little community of new Christians was soon bitterly divided with people claiming that the Spirit of truth was telling them vastly different and contradictory things. He had to write three letters in order to clarify what he had meant when he went on to say that the way we can be sure the Spirit is speaking to us, and through us, is when it takes the words, the wisdom and the love of Jesus and declares these things to us.

In other words, the true Spirit points us to the teaching of God's wisdom and reminds us that we should detest wicked talk, stick to plain speech, and temper knowledge and ingenuity with discretion and prudence, but much more than that the true Spirit points us to a God who is love and whose love is meant to flood into and overflow our lives and our life together.

Finally, what do these readings have to do with the Trinity? We saw that the passage about Wisdom says she is not the same as God but rather the first thing that he created - that God existed before Wisdom. When it's put like that, such an idea is clearly nonsensical. It's impossible to imagine God without wisdom, wisdom must be part and parcel of what it means to be God. So the writer is probably thinking not about wisdom per se, but about wisdom in action - the way wisdom works out when the universe starts to be created. It's a way of saying that we live in a universe fashioned by wisdom rather than ingenuity, by compassion rather than cold logic.

The New Testament doesn't tell us anything formal about what God's nature is like and it certainly doesn't talk about or attempt to describe The Trinity. What it does, however, is to link God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit inseparably together - so much so that it becomes impossible for New Testament writers to speak about one without thinking of the others. They are bound together in just the same way that wisdom is inseparable from God and God's wisdom belongs to all three.

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