World Cup fever is upon us and there have already been a few shocks in the opening games with the current champions, Spain, losing 5-1 to the Netherlands on Friday. In the Cathedral sweepstake I have drawn England and so am not spending much time thinking about which charity to donate the winnings to. The games are taking place in Brazil, a country of stark inequalities and the home of Liberation Theology, a view that the social and the spiritual go together born under significant deprivation and oppressive governments in Latin America. This was hated by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict, but in the way history can bring plot twists his successor Pope Francis seems to be well and truly in that mold. And he is showing just how dangerous a gospel of justice, which seeks to overturn the oppressing inequalities, is for the rich and powerful, for those who are comfortable. He has instigated changes which ask what money is for, what power is for and what life is for.
On Thursday I picked up a football at the checkout at Morrison’s. It has the flag of St George on it. And the flag of St George is being flown with pride all over the country, as other national flags will be around the world. The flag is a statement of identity. Also on Thursday every house in England received a free copy of The Sun newspaper. This has proved controversial, a number of people suggesting we return it to sender and it was taken as a sleight on the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough. The headline on the front picture was ‘This is our England’. I’m not sure if it was a World Cup rally or a response to Michael Gove’s call for British values to be promoted in schools. That call resonates and there can be an instinctive nod, surely cohesive community requires common values, but when you try to work out exactly what our identity is, it’s not quite so clear. There are ideas of Britishness promoted by racist and extremist groups which I don’t recognize, so I look forward to a good debate on this. There is a potential for a battle for the soul of the nation here and an opportunity to inspire and challenge.
Among the values suggested have been democracy, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance, not a uniquely British list. They sound good until we ask what they really mean. For instance, what does individual liberty mean? There is a political divide around the notion of big government and little government – large amounts of state control and the state backing off to leave the market to decide. At the extremes lots of state control can stifle, but the government withdrawing too much leaves the rich to be comfortable and the poor to suffer with little means to express any liberty. Liberty for one does not necessarily mean liberty for all. So I’m not convinced individual liberty is a value I want to expound without qualification. If it means free speech that is fine until it becomes offensive and incites hatred. How free can free really be? This week I heard someone, I can’t remember who now, remind us about the Millennium Resolution, put out by the Christian Churches and others just before the Millennium, and he suggested we look at that when wanting to decide what kind of identity we want. Here’s a reminder of what it said:
Let there be
respect for the earth
peace for its people
love in our lives
delight in the good
forgiveness for past wrongs
and from now on a new start.
Identity should bind together and set the tone, but this should not be at the expense of anyone else, diminish their worth or be a cause of oppression.
Today is Trinity Sunday. This is the day that we celebrate the identity of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are the three ways that we see God revealed in Scripture and in religious experience. God who is distant, the ultimate, source and goal, beyond and transcendent. This is God the mystery, who inspires awe and wonder. The one who is far bigger than anything we can see or imagine and therefore puts us firmly in our place as creature and not creator. We refer to this as Father, but that includes what it means to be mother too. Then there is God alongside us, sharing the life we live, bringing that life into being so that there is anything rather than nothing. God who has a purpose and expresses it in creation and makes the life we have a sacrament of who he is. God who bridges any gap between creator and creatures and draws us into his eternal love, who saves us. We see this in Jesus. And there is God who gets inside us, who actively makes things happen. Inspires, works the magic and sparkle of the music of creation. Not just science and the building blocks but makes these dynamic and creative, energized and a cause for delight. The Spirit directs and breathes life wherever it moves.
These three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are shorthand words for the deep mystery of God: distant, alongside and within; creating, redeeming and sustaining. There is a dance between them and they are interdependent. So when independence is held up as a totem around which we should gather, a warning bell sounds from our doctrine of God. Independence is not actually what we are aiming at. We are made to exist together by a God who carries true community within itself. Independence can actually mean isolation and not the freedom we really want. Interdependence can counter the imposing of one view on everyone, which we are seeing in such destructive ways in Iraq and Syria, among other places. The history of the development of thought shows a great reliance on other cultures to open new insights, to remind us of things we have forgotten. Amidst great diversity there is much that is shared and a reliance on others for far more than we are often aware of.
Community and common purpose are at the heart of our doctrine of God. So any vision of identity should remind us that I only find out who I am when we find out who we are. We are persons in community and in that we reflect the image of God who made us, so it should not surprise us that we bear the stamp of God’s identity. Britain as a nation, or collection of nations, has learnt the importance of interdependence the hard way. We have had religious wars and class struggle. We have found they do not bring life in abundance but death, hatred, division and oppression. There are features of what was called the Arab Spring, but now looks much more like winter, which remind me of 17th century civil war and puritan struggle.
Amidst the many anniversaries around at the moment, next year, a year today, is the anniversary of Magna Carta, signed in 1215. It is time for a new one to be clear on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship for 21st century. The role of the state to promote freedom but so that everyone has the means to enjoy it, not just the modern version of the Barons.
Today we are confronted with symbols and statements of our identity. The nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit sets the tone of interdependence in community. Independence is a delusion. We can have different levels of decision-making, but no one is an island entire unto themselves, in John Donne’s famous phrase. The World Cup in Brazil, the home of Liberation Theology, focuses the spiritual and social needing to sit together and any identity we want to celebrate must do that too. We find that in the very way we understand the identity of God as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th June 2014