Moderator preaches at St Giles on General Assembly Sunday

The Moderator preached at St Giles on Sunday morning and attended the Heart and Soul festival in Princes Street Gardens in the afternoon. Here is his full sermon.

St Giles
Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr delivered a sermon on the theme of the Trinity at St Giles on Sunday 22 May.

Scripture: Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31 / John 16: 12-15

In the name of God, father, son and holy spirit, amen.j

Of the many high and holy days in the Christian calendar, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension or Pentecost, Trinity Sunday is the odd one out.

Trinity Sunday is the odd one out because rather than marking a particular event in Jesus' life, or the life of the early church, Trinity Sunday celebrates the threefold Christian understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Holy, holy, holy we sing, God in three persons – and drawing on the various ways God is revealed in the Bible the claim is that as Father, God is known to us as the Creator of the universe and Lord of life.

As Son, God is known in the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth, the wandering preacher, teacher and healer, who died on Calvary's cross and was raised to life on the third day.

As Spirit, God is revealed as the divine presence in the life and activity of the first disciples as they set out to make disciples of all nations, baptising and teaching people to obey everything Jesus commanded.

God over us, God beside us, God within us…….always the ONE God, yet with three different ways of understanding…….or better……..three different ways of expressing the Christian experience of God……blessed Trinity.

As with many of the church's doctrines, the doctrine of the Trinity arose in response to heresy, on this occasion the question of whether as a human person, Jesus of Nazareth was inferior to God.

What became known as the Arian heresy culminated in the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, convened by the Emperor Constantine, when the matter was finally resolved in favour of Athanasius who argued Jesus was the same in being as the Father.

Are you with me – I thought not – so let me stop and tell you instead a story, a story about one of the members of my congregation in Easterhouse, a man called Jimmy Hendry.

As I met him at the church door at the close of a morning service, steam was coming out Jimmy's ears.

Jimmy had been upset by something I said in my sermon and wagging his finger at me Jimmy told me in no uncertain terms it was the worst sermon he had ever heard.

Rather than continue the conversation at the church door, we agreed that I would go and visit him – a mistake – because it only gave Jimmy time to think of all the other things I had said with which he disagreed.

So it was some weeks later a funeral director 'phoned about a death in the parish – a woman in her mid 40's – and when I went to visit the family her husband greeted me warmly

We have never met, he said, but I feel as though I know you.

How come? I asked

I work beside Jimmy Hendry he replied– but before I could say anything the husband continued - Jimmy says you are the best minister he has ever known.

This is a sermon about community because at its best the Trinitarian understanding of God describes the community of relationships that exists among Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And at its best, one of the things the church aspires to be is a community of people, people of different nationalities, backgrounds and life experiences, people of different views, beliefs, thoughts and ideas, people who don't always agree with one another or see eye to eye, but people who are drawn together by a common faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord rejoicing, as Paul puts it, in the hope of the glory of God.

All four gospels report that early in his ministry Jesus gathered around him a group of disciples.

We hear a lot about the inner group of twelve but there was clearly a much larger group of women and men who followed and supported him.

What is also evident is that in the immediate aftermath of the first Easter the group broke up in a state of bewilderment with fearful disciples meeting behind locked doors, the news of an empty tomb simply adding to their confusion.

Could the women be believed?

Perhaps they had gone to the wrong tomb?

Perhaps the body had been moved……..or stolen?

Thomas wasn't going to take anyone else's word for it.

Would you?

Slowly but surely their mood changed.

Slowly but surely as people encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, in Jerusalem and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee they were drawn back together again.

Here is one of the dilemmas posed by the Easter gospel; its startling assertion that not only was the tomb empty but the one who was crucified was alive again, free, beyond death's reach.

And of this the gospels are adamant; it was no ghost nor figment of their imagination the disciples encountered but the same Jesus whom they had always known and who now bore the marks of the crucifixion on his hands and side.

He speaks and is heard.

It is possible to touch him…… did Thomas actually do so?

And he eats.

Rowan Williams puts it well when he says the beauty of the Easter gospel is that it describes the most extraordinary thing in the most ordinary way.[1]

And I think Williams is also right to suggest the experience of community is the key to understanding it all.

He writes;

In his ministry, Jesus created and sustained the community of his friends by speech and touch and the sharing of food: so after his resurrection, that community is maintained in the same way.

What we observe is that on the Emmaus Road, in a locked Jerusalem room, or on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, fears were turned to freedom and despair to hope as once more women and men are transformed into a vibrant community of faith, people who would again risk everything in order to follow

And this I think takes us to the heart of what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday, our faith that the one who was crucified and rose from the dead is inextricably bound up with the experience of community that is the church.

It is a community evident in this place today as we gather to worship God

It is a community evident in the meeting of the General Assembly as ministers, deacons and elders gather on the Mound

It is a community evident in the international presence of delegates and visitors welcomed to the Assembly from partner churches in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.

And it is a community evident in the reports, debates and decisions of the General Assembly as together we seek to discern something of the mystery of God's presence and promise and purpose in our lives and in the life of the church and the wider world.

A community of people, a people of the way, the people of God's way – and one of the things such an understanding of church calls from us is a much greater vision.

Like me you will have your way of expressing your faith, your way of reading and understanding the Bible and your way of trying to live the Christian life.

And to the extent to which that is true doesn't it suggest there is no single true and pure path of belief and understanding and practice?

St Paul puts is best when he reminds us that on the journey of faith and life we but see through the glass darkly and know only in part.

Indeed from the evidence of the New Testament and the debates which raged within the early church, far from being a communion of like-minded saints, the church has been and always will be a community of people from different nationalities, different backgrounds, different education and life experiences with different thoughts, views and ideas on a whole range of subjects…………….but people brought together by God and united in a common journey of faith, hope and love.

Sometime later when I conducted Jimmy Hendry's funeral service a packed church burst out laughing when rather than saying anything by way of welcome I simply wagged my finger at everyone.

Jimmy argued and disagreed with everyone but we were all in church that morning to thank God for Jimmy's life and his faith because deeper than any disagreement were the common bonds of humanity and friendship and forgiveness and compassion and faith uniting us.

The glory of Trinity Sunday is to discover not that we always agree but that we always belong, with all our hopes and dreams, our joys and sorrows, our wandering and wondering and longing, belong to the community of the One who is over us and beside us and within us, a people of the way, the people of God's way.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen