Jean Francois Gravelet was one of the great dare-devils of history. On 30th June 1859, under his stage name ‘Blondin’, and at the age of 31, he made his first tight rope walk across the Niagara Falls to the amazement of the large crowds who gathered to watch him. For the rest of the summer of 1859 he continued to thrill crowds who came from near and far to watch him.
Never content to merely repeat his last performance, Blondin traversed the great expanse of the Niagara Falls, with whirling waters underneath him, on his tight rope riding a bicycle, walking blind folded, and walking with his hands and his feet in manacles, on one occasion stopping in the middle to cook an omelet, to the delight of the watching crowds. It is hard to imagine how someone could have been so brave, so skilled and so totally lacking in the kind of common sense that would prevent any normal person from attempting such feats!
There is one account of his tight rope crossings in that great summer of 1859 that struck me more than any of the others when I read about it. Blondin, so the story goes, crossed on his tight rope as he done before, to the applause and the shouts of the assembled crowds.
“Do you believe I can do this pushing a wheelbarrow?” he called to the crowds when he reached the far side. “Yes, yes!” they cheered in anticipation. “We believe you can do it!” So Blondin returned on the tight rope, awkwardly pushing a wheelbarrow as the waters bubbled beneath him.
When he arrived he again called to the crowds, “Do you believe that I can do it a second time?” “Yes, yes!” they all cheered in response. “Ah,” he replied, “well, do you believe that I can cross above the mighty Niagara with this wheelbarrow, but this time with someone in it?” “We believe you can,” the crowds excitedly shouted back expressing their confidence in him. Blondin paused for a moment, looked across the sea of faces in the crowd. “Okay then,” he said, “I am going to do it, which of you would like to sit in the wheelbarrow?” Almost as one, the crowd looked down at their feet and up in the air. No one stepped forward. No one was willing to sit in the wheelbarrow.
If it is a true story, it is an encounter that could have been staged just so that it could be re-told in sermons about faith couldn’t it! I yearn to have the kind of faith in God, that would lead me to sit in the proverbial wheel barrow as God pushes me along his tight rope through the whirling waters of life. Faith and trust: sometimes I feel that I have it, but a lot of the time it seems like it is lacking in me.
At this morning’s Mass we celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. We glory in the majesty of God revealed to us, as our Collect prayer says, in this Triune Unity. But we know too that any attempt to understand the Trinity is difficult, no impossible for us, and we take heart as we remember that down through the ages Christians have struggled to be able to define and make sense of what is, after all, something beyond our comprehension.
The Nicene Creed which we will affirm in a few minutes time was not originally written to be used within the liturgy. It was a hotly debated, argued over, definition of the closest explanation that the Church felt that it could give in the Fourth Century to its understanding of God as three but also as one. It sought to build on earlier creedal statements that had left room for a whole lot of interpretations that the Church believed to be false, and which needed to be clarified and corrected in this new definition.
As we celebrate our limited understanding of God’s revelation of himself to us as the Trinity, we remember that how we humans attempt to express this has always been and always will be in this life, a work in progress – we don’t yet know what we don’t yet know. Yet we affirm too, that we believe that one day we will know.
So we need faith. Not blind faith, that has an unwillingness to question, but sufficient faith to remain open to this great mystery. The kind of faith that would make it possible for us to trust enough to get into the wheelbarrow, and to keep our trust in God.
I think that we need more faith than the people who came before us have needed to have. Western civilisation has gone through a revolution in believing. There was a time when following the Christian tradition needed almost no faith at all, it was simply what people were expected to do, whether they took time to stop and wonder whether they believed in it all or not. But those times have changed. It is exceptional, not normal, here in Australia to be a member of a Christian congregation and to seek to share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus with others.
It requires faith, faith that cannot simply be inherited but which needs to be owned by us personally. Despite all of the risks, that all of this might actually point to nothing, that we might be entirely wrong, and even deluded in our believing. We all strive for a certainty that faith cannot give us, because it is faith – and faith is hope in something that we cannot be sure about. When we place ourselves into the hands of a God that we cannot see, and often do not feel, it is like getting into a wheelbarrow that someone else is going to push across a tight rope. That is what faith is like. But the good news is that the wheelbarrow is big enough for all of us to be in it together.
Today as we celebrate God’s revelation to us, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We celebrate the gift of faith, and we celebrate each other’s faithfulness, here in the Body of Christ. Because faith is always a conversation of hope. And this Church is a church of faith, and so it must also always be a beacon of hope.
In this faith we need to be people of balance. Tight rope walkers who don’t have balance are usually not very successful. And if we are in the wheelbarrow of faith on that tight rope of life, we need to have balance as well. The life of faith, the living out of faith by believers like you and me, is always at risk of being out of balance in our believing.
If we were only to read the Old Testament we would have a sense of God as the Creator of all things: the world and his chosen people the Jews, through whom he willed to bless the whole world. God is present as Spirit, and the Messiah is longed for and awaited, but primarily the Old Testament portrays for us reflections on the God who has created everything and who demands our worship and our adherence to his laws.
If we were only to read the Gospels we would find Jesus centre stage: in his birth and baptism, in his ministry, his dying and his glorious resurrection, but know little of the one who has created us, and who hold all things in the palm of his hands, nor of the Spirit who sustains us now that Jesus is no longer here as a man on earth.
If we were to read only the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of the early Church, the Epistles, we would know something of the Spirit, but little of the other two persons of the Trinity; because in these New Testament texts there is a primary focus on the Holy Spirit, at work in the life of the first Christian communities, enabling and empowering them, giving them courage and wisdom, equipping and guiding them to be signs of God’s presence in the world.
We will not in this life, understand or be able to express how all of this fits together. The Trinity was an experience before ever it was a doctrine.
But the point is that not one of these portraits will do, we need to live in a balance between all three of them as we seek to live God-centred lives. This dear friends, is what we celebrate today, as we live in the wheelbarrow of faith crossing on the tight rope.
Shortly after the great theologian Saint Augustine had finished his great writing on the Trinity, he was walking along the Mediterranean shore on the coast of North Africa when he chanced upon a boy who kept filling a bucket with seawater and pouring it into a large hole in the sand.
“Why are you doing that?” Saint Augustine asked the boy. “I’m pouring the Mediterranean Sea into the hole,” the boy replied in all seriousness. “My dear boy, what an impossible thing to try to do!” chided Augustine. “The sea is far too vast, and your hole is far too small.” And as Saint Augustine continued his walk, it dawned on him that in his efforts to write on the Trinity he was much like that boy: the subject was far too vast, and his mind was far too small!
Today we give thanks for God’s revelation of himself to us: God the Father, beyond all time and space who lovingly created the world, and who brings order to our chaos; God the Son, who shows us how to love and who gives his life that we may truly live; God the Holy Spirit, who sustains us and equips us to be faithful.
And we pray for the continued gift of faith, that we may live in the light and the hope of his love for us. One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.