Holy Trinity Church, Fortitude Valley
4 June 2023
IMAGE: Holy Trinity Church, Fortitude Valley, 8 January 2007. Photograph by DBHKer.
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It has been a long time since I last stood in this pulpit!
As I recall, it was in July 1989 when I came back to Brisbane—from Adelaide where I was teaching at St Barnabas’ Theological College—for the conferral of my PhD at the University of Queensland. So that must be about 34 years ago. I was 37 years old at the time. You can all do the Maths.
I remember various Trinity Sundays from my time here. Like your current Rector, I usually invited a special guest to be with us for the occasion. They were days when we enjoyed all the smoke and bells of the great tradition.
However, the Trinity Sunday that stands out most strongly in my memories was one year in Jerusalem. I think it was 2009 and I had arrived in town from the airport. I was just in time to join the congregation at St George’s Cathedral for the Feast of the Holy Trinity.
As I listened to a sermon on the Trinity, delivered in alternating Arabic and English, it struck me that day just how important this doctrine is for the Christians in the Middle East, and especially in Jerusalem.
While this day is also the feast of title for this parish, for most faith communities this is that day of the year when the local clergy try to explain the Trinity, or perhaps avoid the topic as best they can.
Others, would you believe, invite guest preachers for this day. Some even go so far as to dust off retired clergy and past rectors from time immemorial to fill the preaching slot this morning.
Of course, that is not the case here this morning. It is simply that Fr Rodney could not think of a finer preacher to speak about God on this feast.
For our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East the situation is totally different.
For them, this is one of the great days of the church year where the very essence of their faith—our faith—is made plain.
The affirmation of the Trinity is not simply an abstract theological puzzle for them. It is a live question that impacts every aspect of their existence.
The people in the congregation at St George’s Cathedral that Sunday in 2009 (and again those in the Cathedral this morning) are Palestinian Christians living in a Muslim-majority society and also under Jewish military occupation since 1967. Ever since the Nakhba, the Catastrophe, of 1948, they are largely displaced from their homes and their hopes, irrespective of their formal citizenship.
The trinitarian faith defines who they are, and how their neighbours view them. In many cases it determines where they live, what occupations they follow, who they can marry, their family inheritance laws, and where they will be buried.
They may be targeted by their Muslim neighbours, if the latter fall under some extreme version of Islamic ideology. They might equally find themselves targeted by Jews who consider them blasphemers and worse, with no right even to exist in the Eretz Yisrael.
Their churches might be vandalised, their houses marked for future violence, or their cars tagged.
Clergy and religious may be spat upon as they walk to the holy places in the Old City or in other parts of the country.
Thankfully, most Jews and most Muslims do not act in these ways. But the extremists on both sides do, and the threat of hatred and violence is an ever-present reality for Christians in Jerusalem and the Middle East.
It could not be more different here.
Our neighbours do not care what we believe about God, and for the most part they would have no idea.
Despite what the extreme fringes of the faith might claim from time to time, Christians in Australia are not persecuted for our faith in the Trinity, or indeed for anything else.
What we mostly experience is apathy.
And perhaps condescension.
In the past, Christians have fought over the precise words to be used to express the doctrine of the Trinity. We have consigned each other to hell, and even killed those who disagreed with us.
Religion that kills is not unique to Islamic extremists or Jewish settlers, nor to Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or even Hindu fundamentalists in India.
Religious violence is the dark side of religion, and the shadow is especially dark in monotheism as our binary understanding of reality seems especially prone to violence against those with whom we disagree.
On Trinity Sunday we are reminded that the truth which matters most to us is far from simple, and certainly not an invitation to draw circles around those we love and those we hate.
We affirm that God is one.
We also affirm that Jesus participates in God’s eternal reality, and that the Spirit of Jesus active among us and within us and between us is nothing less than the Spirit of God.
The affirmation is straightforward, but the explanation is rather more complex.
But here is the thing … no one outside the church (and many of us inside the church) are not in the least bit interested in all the fuss about trying to make sense of this central Christian belief.
Where we once killed each other over homoousios versus homoiousios (yes, there is just one letter difference in those two terms), none of our neighbours and almost no one in our families cares about these internal Christian arguments over how to define the indefinable and express the inexpressible.
The religious debate in Australia today is not about the Trinity, but about God.
Is belief in God even a reasonable option for most Australians?
As the world teeters on the edge of an ecological catastrophe that may see humans extinct within 250 years, what does our theological fine print matter?
For millions of humans living on islands and in low-lying delta regions that will be submerged by rising sea levels in the next few decades, can belief in God make sense?
As AI threatens to make humans redundant, what is the point of religion?
Our mission is not to discuss the Trinity, but to live the vision of God—and of humanity—that Jesus both taught and practised.
If people are to glimpse that there may be more to life than gadgets and status—if they are to embrace the call to compassion in everyday life—then they need us to be people who embrace the call of Jesus to imagine a world where God’s dream is realised.
Our fancy religious words for that are “the kingdom of God” or the “reign of God,” but it is as simple as saying: imagine if the life we live reflected the inner character of God’s own self?
Indeed; imagine that!
We are called to celebrate God as the ultimate reality, the meaning beyond every explanation, and the profound love that calls everything into existence.
We are called to walk the way that Jesus walked. Read the gospels. Practise doing what Jesus did. Jesus got it right. We need to imitate Jesus. Better still, we need to be Jesus for those around us.
Those who first walked the way of Jesus—and they called their religion, “The Way”—discovered that Jesus was still present with them, and that his Spirit was the same as the Spirit of God in previous times.
They discovered the truth of the Trinity.
They lived the reality of the Trinity.
And we can do the same.