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Sermon at High Mass of Trinity Sunday, Pusey House Chapel, Oxford

Sunday 7th June 2009

A sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at High Mass of Trinity Sunday, in Pusey House Chapel, Oxford. The celebrant was the Revd Philip Ursell, the former Principal of Pusey House, and the occasion marked the fortieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

Click link on the right to listen to the sermon [17Mb]

Read the transcript below:

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 4.32—4, 39—40; Romans 8.14—17; Matthew 28.16—20

'Go, baptize, and teach'. At first blush, it sounds as if we have them in the wrong order. Surely it should be go and teach and baptize? 'Go and sow the seeds, put people through the courses, show them the landscape; and then invite them to commit themselves'. But Jesus seems to think otherwise and behave otherwise. And it's that otherwise that gives us the clue to understanding just some small part of the immeasurable mystery that we celebrate on Trinity Sunday.

'Has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself?' (Asks Moses in our first reading this morning.) God begins by going to act, going in the world that he has made. God the everlasting Son goes to take a people for himself, us, in the midst of the world by his coming in human form. And when God the eternal Son has come in human form, and begun to gather a people to himself, he draws them into his own reality. He tells them, 'Turn around, trust, follow: otherwise repent and believe'. He draws them into the place where he stands, the place where following involves carrying his cross, suffering with him, as St Paul tells us in the epistle today. He challenges his disciples to be baptized with his baptism. That is to enter into the mystery of his self-giving love. And before the disciples really know what's going on they are involved in something they cannot understand or control. They are swept into the mystery of the Son's love for the Father in the Spirit, and all that that means, and all that that costs.

When they have stood alongside Jesus in that process, and failed to stand alongside Jesus at his crucifixion, and been recalled to stand alongside Jesus in his resurrection, then the risen Lord says, 'Go and do the same'. Go, baptize, go and draw people into the mystery of the threefold love. Go and draw people to stand in my place and pray with my prayer and breathe with my spirit. And they do. And out of that comes the teaching. Out of that experience, an engagement in mission, comes the doctrine. Because if you try long enough to stand in that place where Jesus is, with the fathomless waters of God's love washing around you, sooner or later you'll begin to search for the words that might begin, just a little, to do justice to this mystery and understand that you stand with the Son, crying out to the Father borne up by the Holy Spirit. And bit by bit the Church of God learns that language and begins to teach that doctrine. That doctrine which today we celebrate not as a puzzle, but as a joy. I will have no truck with those preachers who begin on Trinity Sunday by apologizing for the fact that it's all so difficult. On the contrary: today we celebrate the fact that we have been plunged into a mystery beyond any depths we could imagine, and that this mystery is life and health and joy for us, and make no mistake about it, because, God the Son has come into our midst.

'Has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself?' Yes indeed. And we have been drawn into the baptismal mystery and plunged into the uncontrollable, frightening vortex of God's love for God in the power of God, Father, Son and Spirit. And today we take a deep breath, a spirit-filled breath, and we say, 'This is what we have to teach, what we have to say to the world', struggling and stumbling in our understanding, looking not for the exact, but the least silly things to say, looking for something that will convey just a little that exhilaration which is being drawn into the place of Jesus Christ.

And of course the place where that comes alive for most for us, where we most deeply understand this mystery, is here at the Holy Eucharist. The doctrine of God as Holy Trinity grows out of the life of the Church as a community that celebrates the Eucharist. Because here we take the words of Christ on our lips; here we pray his prayer, we invoke his spirit, and we call God Abba, Father, and the life of God the Son comes alive in us. This is where it all begins. To speak about God as Holy Trinity is to speak out of the heart of the eucharistic experience, out of the heart of love which is the Mass. This is why good priests are Trinitarian priests, priests who live out of the heart of that eternal love in the Eucharist.

Priests go; they go where they're sent. We speak of the missio canonica of priests; the canonical 'sending' which bishops do. Priests are essentially missioners, going where Christ goes, going to take a nation for God, to create a people, to draw people into that place of praise and love and joy. But first they need to go. And with Jesus to say -- in the midst of whatever community they stand – 'turn around, trust, follow'. And those words have power and conviction only when the Priest stands in the midst of the mystery that is the Eucharist. Not arguing, not first of all making the case and doing the detailed apologetic (time enough for that) but first saying, 'Here is the mystery. Here is life and joy'.

Father Philip has always cared very deeply about how worship is the root of all our thinking as Christians. And how worship performed with beauty, conviction and dedication is the beginning of conversion. And the life of this House and this chapel demonstrates that over many years. A Priest goes and baptizes, drawing into the mystery and by God's grace signing it and sealing it in literal and actual baptism. But it's from there that the life flows. In the fourth gospel, the first missionary encounter is an encounter in which Jesus says to those who are to be his disciples, 'Come and see, come and be involved in the mystery, come and see what it might be like to love and praise the eternal Father with the full joy of the Spirit.' Come and be where I am. And so, in our mission as a Church, we seek to imitate our Lord and to say, not, 'Listen to these arguments', but, 'Come and see where Christ is alive, come and see Christ alive in the eucharistic assembly'. And, 'Come and see where Christ is alive in the lives of those particular people who were around at the eucharistic assembly'. They may not absolutely all be canonizable saints, but they will be people seeking to inhabit the eucharistic place, seeking to inhabit the place of Christ turned to the Father, and to be inhabited by God the Holy Spirit. And they may not be making much of a success of it, but they are trying. Come and see where the Trinity is alive in the lives of people. Because it is in this eucharistic meeting that is most real, and the priest who has gone and built up that trust, set up that vision and invited people to share it, who has begun to immerse himself and others in that Trinitarian mystery, then begins to teach, then begins to share with the people around what words we need to carry the vision, to be singing in tune with the wisdom of the whole assembly of Christ's people through the ages. The priest begins to teach the Catholic and Orthodox faith – not as a set of abstract requirements, but as those words and concepts that have been pressed out of people's minds and hearts by the experience of this eucharistic place.

All of this suggests that for a Church to be alive, to proclaim its Trinitarian root and context with joy and conviction, it needs Trinitarian priests. It needs priests who are willing to hold up that vision and speak in those terms: 'Here is where God the eternal Son is alive'. 'Here you may see the life of God the Holy Trinity in the eucharistic meeting'. And out of this come those great words which transform our imagination and our intellect alike. When the Church's vision of the Holy Trinity is weak and impoverished, it is in part because the Church has somehow lost its way in understanding the centrality of the eucharistic assembly. And if it's lost its way about that perhaps that is again partly because it's lost its way in thinking about what priesthood is; that priesthood which inhabits the eucharistic heart of the Church, so that doctrine flows from there, transformingly and excitingly.

So today we are giving thanks for the revelation of God as Holy Trinity. We are giving thanks for the revelation that has come to us not in words alone, but in the eucharistic experience of Christians through the ages. If we give thanks for that eucharistic experience, we give thanks for the priests who have inhabited its heart and spoken from that heart. We give thanks particularly for those priests we have known who have opened the doors of Heaven to us by their faithful standing in the mystery -- having been sent and accepting that sending -- baptizing, drawing people towards immersion in, and identification with, the way of the Son of God to cross and resurrection – teaching the doctrine of God faithfully and joyfully out of that experience.

For those of you who are asking, 'Could God be calling me towards that place?' all that can be said is that that is a place from which truth will stream out to transfigure your hearers and your world. It is a place which will demand great things of you and lay great burdens on you, and bear great fruit through you and in you. Nobody becomes a priest because they think it will be an easy, self-satisfying life. But to answer God's call to priestly ministry in the Church surely is first of all an answer that says, 'Yes, I am willing to go into the heart of things, for the truth to take hold of me, so that through me it may take hold of others. I am willing to live in the mystery and let it show itself in me. However weak and confused I may appear, nonetheless I am willing that God should be alive, here in me in the heart of the Church.'

Thank God then, for priests who have ministered to us that great, delighting, inexhaustible glory that is God the Holy Trinity. Thank God for who God is.

'Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation?'

No other people has heard the voice of God speaking from the heart of the fire. No other god has ever gone to take a people for himself. No other God, with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who in Jesus Christ has made plain his glory, his beauty, his purpose for us. And in this great festal assembly of those he loves, once again gives life and hope through the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. And to that Holy Trinity, be love, thanksgiving, praise and glory now and for evermore. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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