Joint Honours

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
University Chaplain

22 May 2016

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
Joint Honours

In a month’s time, many of you will graduate with an Honours Degree. Some will be Single Honours and others with Joint Honours in two subjects. A few rare creatures will graduate with Joint Honours in three subjects, such as Arabic and French and Russian. Linguists seem to add languages as easily as adding friends on facebook. But it strikes me that the idea of joint honours, especially in three subjects, is a nice way of exploring, on this Trinity Sunday, the doctrine of the Trinity. God is one, but his love is expressed as three different persons, perhaps in three different subjects.

Now while it is true that the word Trinity does not exist in scripture, there are a number of passages which are highly suggestive of a sharing of God’s work of creation, of rescue, and of presence. In the Old Testament, for example, God often acts through his Word, and in the passage set for today from Proverbs, God’s Wisdom seems to be personified as an agent.
v. 22 Wisdom says: The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
This Wisdom is not like everything else in creation, because when everything else is created, Wisdom is beside God, like a master worker. It is as if God creates through the work of Wisdom. And what’s lovely is that Wisdom rejoices in this peopled creation, delighting in the human race.

Of course in some ways you could say this is an anthropomorphising of an attribute of God, an accommodation to human minds to help us understand how God is wise. Yet throughout the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, Wisdom is given this exalted role in a way that other attributes of God are not – his mercy, his justice, his holiness. And indeed, God’s Wisdom is utterly central in the Hebrews’ understanding of God: Wisdom speaks of God’s goodness in creating the world, his purpose for justice within creation, his role for humanity in whom he delights. And so when the early followers of Jesus tried to understand who Jesus was and how he was related to God, they found this and other Old Testament passages on Wisdom a rich source of ideas. In particular, this passage showed that while God was still one God, aspects of God’s love could be expressed in distinct persons. And that gave a background and a sense to their bold, radical understanding of Jesus as God’s Son, through whom God acts in love in and to the world. As Janet Martin Soskice puts it, God is both ultimate and intimate.

When we turn to the short passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans set for today we see how the first Christians were beginning to understand Jesus’ relationship to God. Paul believes in one God and nothing in his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, his growing faith, his deepening reflection will tempt him away from trusting in one God. But it is one God who must be understood through his encounter with Jesus, who died on a cross, was raised to life and appeared to many including Paul himself. And this encounter with Jesus forces Paul to grasp how the one God relates to creation, to the humanity in whom he delights, to the failures of justice, of peace and of community which mark creation so devastatingly, and to the wholly good future which seems implicit in the perfection of Eden. There seems only one way for Paul to bring this together – that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the anointed one, the promised one through whom God would save his people. That Jesus was indeed the one who would expand the people of God from the descendants of Abraham to the entire human race. That Jesus was indeed the one who was the Lord – who shared the honour of being God. In this passage from Romans, we find the thrust of Paul’s thought in vv. 1 & 2: We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.
In other words, God’s love – forgiving, healing, restoring, reconciling – his grace – comes to the world through Jesus. And such a sharing is a sharing of God’s very self. The fresco by Masaccio in Santa Maria Novella in Florence conveys this beautifully. It is a fresco of the holy Trinity in which God the Father holds the cross on which God the Son is dying. This understands Father and Son as being for the world in unconditional self-giving love.

So far perhaps we have joint honours in two subjects: Father and Son. If we use our own St Andrews degrees as an analogy, joint honours perhaps in Chemistry and History. Chemistry is God the Father, Creator, letting life come from his loving will, blessing the emergence of carbon, oxygen and water, from which life grew. And History is God the Son, Jesus Christ, who lived in a particular time and space, who was seen and heard, whose actions were witnessed and recorded, who died in time, and was raised and seen by women and men, including the Apostle Paul. What then of the Holy Spirit? How does the Spirit share the honour of God? What subject would be an apt metaphor for the Holy Spirit?

Again this short passage from Romans holds the key. Just as God’s love, in reaching out to the world, finds itself fully incarnated in the human being Jesus, so God’s love, being poured into his people, finds itself fully present in the Holy Spirit. v. 5: Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Last week, we heard the account of Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit in tongues of fire, of a rushing wind, of a wondrous linguistic comprehension. The New Testament does not then discuss the Spirit as much as the Son, but the Holy Spirit’s presence is assumed throughout, enabling the community to pray, to worship, and to love, to experience forgiveness, to develop their character as followers of Jesus, to have courage to speak and act, to hope in the teeth of opposition and persecution.

And this presence of God with his people, no less than his presence in the crucified and resurrected Jesus, demands for the early Christians the trust that God is entirely present by his love, that nothing is held back, that there is no inner core, immune from the experience his people have in the world. And so the Spirit too has fully to be the presence of God. The Spirit too must share fully in divine honours. The Spirit too is God. What subject then is the Spirit? What else but Sustainable Development: the presence of God sustaining his people in love, in community and in hope, and supporting indeed challenging them in being fruitful, in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

I confess that I had another joint honours triad in mind – Physics, Medicine and International Relations – I sense that the fun we could have over this might never really come to an end. And of course the real subject for Trinity Sunday is Mathematics, for isn’t 1 cubed still 1?

Anyway, before any Joint Honours degrees are awarded, many if not most of you will go away. Some will go away to come back next year; others merely for a holiday at some point over the summer; but others here today will be leaving St Andrews for good. Today is the final Sunday service of the semester, and will be the final Sunday service for some people of their St Andrews life. What parting words can a sermon on the Trinity give to you? Well, this week as I returned from a conference in Edinburgh, I was struck how almost all of us have to cross water to leave here. It could be the Tay for points north. But for most it will be the Forth, for the west, the south and for the airport. This year, as you cross the Forth by road or rail, your bags blocking the view from the rear-view mirror, or blocking the aisle on the train, don’t look back, look right. There’s a third bridge being built, the Queensferry Crossing, connecting Fife with Lothian. Consider then, as you cross, the three ways there will be to span the distance; the three lines which connect; the three bridges over the gap. As you leave, you’ll find whichever route you take, the same solid ground will meet you, and welcome you, and bring you to the next stage of your journey.

Whichever bridge you cross, the same God was here with you in St Andrews, and the same God will go with you, holding you up, guiding you over, delighting in your presence. As Father, Son, Holy Spirit (or Chemistry, History, Sustainable Development if you will) this is God with Joint Honours in love. It is love which brings forth and sustains creation; it is love which lived and died and was raised for our rescue; and it is love which is poured into our hearts for the journey and challenge of life. May you be richly blessed by God whichever bridge you find.