I was up with my dad in Yorkshire on last week and was reminded that although he and I are both priests and have a lot in common, in one way we are total opposites. Aged 92 and awfully wobbly on his legs, he still lives for the times he can escape out of the front door and stagger his way to the local lunch-club, mid-week Communion, drop-in, book club – the list goes on. He just loves being with other people and comes back full of life. While me: I do like people. Really. I mean really. And a large part of my job these days is being alongside clergy especially when they’re having a hard time. But when I get home I’m so exhausted by it all that a blank wall can seem a bit too exciting, and a mirror slightly too much company.
But introverts or extraverts, there’s no escaping the fact that people come in the plural. And learning how to get on with each other and build peaceful, just and harmonious societies not to mention families, not to mention churches is perhaps the greatest human project there is this side of the worship of Almighty God.
It’s why hospitality, even to strangers, even to enemies, is one of the oldest of our human values, found especially strongly in the earliest most nomadic cultures and still with us today though worryingly much more weakly in our sardine-packed society, in which so many of us hide behind our own front doors, and communicate through computers.
Today’s Old Testament reading makes a direct link between this old desert virtue of hospitality and the nature of God himself. Abraham and Sarah are by their tent when strangers arrive, and as they entertain them according to the customs of their time, the story takes a very strange twist indeed, because the three strangers turn out to be messengers from God and perhaps in some sense God himself. This is the scene that must have been in the mind of the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews when much much later he memorably told us to, “Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebs 13.1-2) And of course Jesus teaches us plainly in the parable of the sheep and the goats that when welcome a stranger we welcome Him. (Mt 25.35).
So here is something which is at the heart of our faith. God wants to welcome us, his prodigal sons and daughters, back to him when we have become strangers to Him. And he does it by setting up moments when we can if we choose recognise that he is unexpectedly and strangely right alongside us in our ordinary lives, waiting for us to welcome him. And every time we welcome others, we are practising welcoming him, and indeed in some sense actually welcoming him, and opening up our own welcome by him in heaven.
But there is a deeper mystery here too. I’ll have a go at explaining it, though when Father Mark asked me to take the service for him today so he could have a birthday break – all a cunning plan if you ask me to get out of preaching on the Trinity – he did point out that it’s a mystery because it’s meant to be. Although that could have been another cunning plan to avoid a famously difficult sermon subject.
Anyway, what I want to suggest is that God does not just offer us a welcome. In some sense, there is welcome going on inside him, if that makes any sense, all the time. Welcoming us and loving us is not an optional activity for God. Fishing today, football tomorrow, welcoming on Tuesday. No. Loving and welcoming is what God does. All the time. He is Love, he is welcome.
And so it should not be a great surprise when, as we get to know and experience God a bit, we discover that soon what we thought was just a one-to-one and might have looked to as a comfort blanket (and I agree, we all need comfort blankets sometimes) turns out to be more like a dance or a drama, or a love story, going on from the beginning of the cosmos to the end and into which our little lives are wonderfully drawn.
One of the important truths of the doctrine of the Trinity is that although God is One, He is not One that is cold or closed-in on Himself. He is Love, love in action not a disembodied ideal, and within His own being are, as St Augustine put it, the lover, the beloved and the love that flows between them – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
It is this truth that the great icon writer Andrei Rublev tries to make present to us in his work that we call The Hospitality of Abraham or The Old Testament Trinity that Fr Mark has printed for me on your service sheet. The very act of making an icon was, according to St Gregory Palamas, a response of love to God for His love to us. It aimed, according to St John Damascene, to be God present to us in a picture just as the Bible is God present to us in the Word, through the agency of the Holy Spirit. So reading the icon becomes an act of prayer that unites us with the Father, in Christ his image, through the Spirit: we are brought into the very life of the Trinity. It is a way of joining ourselves into the great story of God and being welcomed into heaven, which the gold background of the icon symbolises.
The way the icon is painted brings this truth to life. Rublev has left out the figures of Abraham and Sarah to concentrate on the presence of God. The angel on the left represents the Father – with Abraham’s house behind Him representing the Father’s house of many rooms into which we are invited. Like all the figures he holds a rod of authority and is clothed in blue, the colour of the heavens and divinity, here overlain with the shimmering purplish-gold of majesty and transcendence. With his right hand he blesses the Son, represented by the angel in the middle, in whom He is well pleased.
The Son wears his blue like a deacon’s stole, over the crimson tunic of His incarnation and passion – His unvarying garments in the eastern tradition. Behind him the tree of the oasis’s life stands for the Cross, the Tree of Life itself. He bows towards the Father in obedience – ‘Thy will be done’ – and blesses the cup of sacrifice which is in front of Him. The cup contains literally the meat prepared by Abraham for his guests, but spiritually the sacrifice of the Passover and of Christ himself, and the Communion in which we share.
To the right is the angel representing the Holy Spirit, on Whom the gaze of the Father rests, as He sends Him to be our Comforter. The Spirit is clothed in the green of the resurrection life which He leads us into, and behind Him is the mountain of prayer which is also the rock from which living water pours out for us.
The Spirit points downwards, to a rectangular opening in the front of the table, for this is meant to be read as an altar, in which an opening would have held the relics of martyrs, of those who shared in Christ’s suffering as His witnesses, and share now in His risen life. Christ’s hand also blesses them and by extension us as it blesses the cup above, and we are shown that His sacrifice is indeed for the salvation of the world, and that we share in that salvation by entering into the sacrifice, in the eucharist and in our lives.
Finally, standing back from the icon, we can see that its very composition is making the same point as its parts. The three angels and the opening, which is us, form a circle – our invitation to be joined into the eternal love of the Godhead. The heads going across and the opening, the cup, the head of Christ and the tree going upwards then make the sign of the Cross, by which we have our entry into that circle of sacrifice. And finally see how the bodies of the two outer angels frame the shape of another cup between them: the cup of communion that is the sacrament of God’s presence with us and ours with Him.
So the whole icon is a deliberate invitation to us to enter the circle of loving sacrifice, to be joined with God, and to find our joy and our salvation there. In modern times the writer Henri Nouwen has looked long at it, and at a time of great stress and exhaustion found in it a renewing peace that reminded him of a verse from Psalm 84: “The sparrow has found its home at last … Happy are those who live in your house.”
So, back to the weekly reality of our family lives, caring for one another and trying to rub along with each other in some sort of harmony, and to the local life of the church which is meant to lead the way. It is into these coming weeks that God has called us. It is there that we must spend our daily lives, and face in them the challenge of welcoming and loving both friend and stranger, of both trying to do good and confronting evil.
But God’s word to us is that we are not called to do this our own strength alone. We are invited, welcomed during each and every week to spend time in the circle of His love. In prayer, in the sacraments, in making the story of the Bible our own, we can share in the hospitality and refreshment of heaven even while we offer it to others here on earth. And when the cost is more than we can bear, we can find a place in the heart of God’s love, a place like the place of the martyrs, and know that we are safe.