Preached on Sunday, 11.06.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
It was a small quip at the beginning of the meeting – but it set me thinking, and the notes others in the meeting saw me taking were not, as they might have imagined, about the meeting; they were about the quip. The person leading the meeting said that we would start with a short reflection on the coming General Election; and the quip, from another round the table, was: ‘that’s not a very Calvinist concept’. It’s a little in-joke and it does what many a theologian, many a preacher, likes to do – it plays with words. But it actually goes to the heart of how we think of God as Trinity. Let me try to explain.
If you take to heart the Calvinist concept of double predestination, in which, from before we are born, we are destined in the heart of God either for heaven or for hell; if you believe in the idea of an elect who are favoured in that heart, and the non-elect who are not, then you believe in an election that is far from ‘general’, but is in fact very particular. Of course even those who once held strictly to this way of thinking tended to emphasise the ‘elected for heaven’ bit rather than its opposite. Those who argue, south of the border, for the expansion of grammar schools rarely if ever try to persuade their listeners of the benefits of secondary moderns.
The trick in the quip, however, is to turn the idea of ‘election’ upside down. In the old Calvinist doctrine of ‘the elect’ we were being told that we were being chosen (or not); in the political process of which we have recently been a part we are doing the choosing. The ‘general’ in general election does not say that everyone is chosen; it says that everyone has a part to play in the choosing. But it occurred to me that the doctrine of the Trinity might actually be the place to look for ideas about election – even general election. And that’s because the idea of the Trinity begins, it seems to me, with the idea of a creator God – the God who creates everything, and makes everything good. We heard this morning the first chapter of the bible, the first chapter of Genesis; we began with the words: ‘in the beginning’. And in the beginning there was a nothing with a desire for something; in the beginning there was a formless waste looking for life to be formed; in the beginning there was love searching for an object for its affections.
Through the story of the first chapter of Genesis, life as we know it develops – one generation after another, each growing out of what went before. And as each new form is generated each, in its own way, is very good. And in each God is at work. And each has its being in God. And through that story this morning we sang the petition translated from the original French: ‘visite nos cœurs, et demeure avec nous’ – ‘visit our hearts and stay with us’. It’s the prayer of the ages that God should be with us; the belief of the ages that that is so – that the power behind all that is, the reason for something rather than nothing, does not abandon us to our fate, but remains intimately involved.
So Matthew’s gospel begins with the promise of the Messiah, whose name will be Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’; and it ends with the words of that Messiah: ‘and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ And the way the church found to talk about this creator who is with us, in the flesh and in the spirit, is the doctrine of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit; creator, redeemer, sustainer.
So it is perhaps important to realise that what seems like an obscure and unnecessarily complicated belief of the church arose out of an attempt to account for the experience of the church and the prayers of the church – and the experience and the prayers are all about this God who is with us: in the beginning of the world of time and space, in the incarnation of Jesus the Nazarene, in the experience of the Spirit among the first disciples. And it’s important because that realisation leads us to two questions: if God is with us, who is included in that ‘us’; and then, how do we express that ‘withness’ in our lives and in our faith and in our churches?
So who is in the ‘us’? And now we’re back to election, general or otherwise. ‘Who is God with?’ is in, many ways, a strange question – or it ought to be – but over the centuries much ink, and indeed much blood, has been spilt on just this question. At Christmas time we sing about Emmanuel, God with us; we sing: ‘God is with us’, and probably we don’t give a moment’s thought to who the ‘us’ is. But Christians and others have gone to war to prove that God is with ‘us’, and not ‘you’ or ‘them’. And those wars are waging as we speak – in the deserts of Syria and Iraq, in the streets of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, behind the barriers of the West Bank, in the Iranian Parliament, in the concert halls of Manchester, and the bars and restaurants of London.
When the war is not waged with bombs or guns or knives, it is waged in wounding words; it’s waged when the ‘us’ is defined in such a way as to exclude people on grounds of gender or sexuality, on grounds of ethnic background or racial identification. It is waged on those who offend against styles of dress modelled on culture and not faith; it is waged against those whose relationships do not fit the patterns of previous generations, or previous centuries, or faraway lands.
And those who wage these wars of exclusion do so because they are firmly of the view that God is not with those whose lives are different, whose views are different, whose understanding of faith is different. It is waged because, they think, God cannot be with those who are different, who do not fit in to a pattern which has been declared as holy or righteous or sacred by those, in the past or even in the present, who have claimed to know the mind of God, and to know the boundaries of God’s love. And there are those who will claim that our earthly fortune displays the degree to which God loves us – so if you are poor, if you are ill, if you cannot cope, it is because the back of God is all you can see, as God walks steadfastly away.
There have also been those who have struggled to know if they themselves were included in the ‘us’, to know for certain that they were within the boundaries of God’s love. People have looked for signs of God’s approval in a superstitious attendance at the sacraments of the church, in a search for miracles, in a desire for martyrdom, in the adoption of saints who will pray for them, in an inner conviction, in a moment of revelation, or one of grace. They have examined their life and faith in intimate and painful detail, trying to find something that God might love, afraid they might find something that would show that God has turned away. And, even today, there are those who will not fully join the church of which in every other way they are a part, because they do not feel worthy enough to deserve the love of God.
And none of that can be right, can it? The ‘us’ with whom we believe the triune God lives is ‘us’, all of us – the people of God’s creation, the human race, the human race in which God lived in Jesus. It is the doctrine of the Trinity that tells us that creation and salvation and presence cannot be separated out; the work of God is integrated, integral – the three are one. We are all included, and anything we do to imply otherwise is a roadblock not only to the people of God’s love, but to the triune God, the trinity which is our central understanding of who God is.
General election is the will of God – not because we choose God, but because God chooses us; we do not elect God, God elects us – all of us. If there is in our understanding any kind of special election, it is election not to a body that will rule the world, or judge the world. Rather it is to a body that we call the church, which is to love the world, pray for the world, live for the world – or, as Matthew’s gospel puts it in the passage we read, live for ‘all nations’. Matthew expresses here what was central to the early church – that the love of God is not reserved to a chosen, special elect; it is limitless and unlimited.
So, finally and briefly, how do we express that ‘withness’? How do we live and move and have our being in this God? How do we show the God we worship in the lives we lead? It is in a radical acceptance, a generous welcome, an open heart and an open mind and an open door. Those who exclude always end up by excluding themselves; those who limit God in their understanding always limit themselves in their lives; those who can only love those who are the same as they are always end up in-turned, and inbred, and intolerant.
That’s not the way it’s got to be. The Trinitarian God whom we worship loves the creation, lives for the creation, is present with the creation – and we cannot turn our back on that creation, exclude parts of it from our concern and our prayers, our love and our lives, without turning our back on the God who made it, who came to save it, and who sustains it in love and in hope. It is ‘general election’ that is the will and the way of God.