Tag Archives: Icons

27 May – The three-in-one God

View or print as a PDF

Trinity Sunday

1 John 4:13-17, 5:3-5
Psalm 29
John 3:1-17

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Rob Gallacher

“God so loved the world” John 3:16 is such a gift to the preacher that You’ll all be expecting me to wax strong on love, like Bishop Michael Curry at the royal wedding of Harry and Meghan.

But I am going to direct your attention to the next verse:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  John 3:17

“Not to condemn… but to save” We can find plenty of things in this world to condemn – the behaviour of the banks, the treatment of asylum seekers, the slaughter of Palestinians, domestic violence, – the list goes on.      It’s not that God approves of such things, but God’s nature is not to condemn but to save.     These tragedies we condemn are a rejection of God’s saving way and produce their own dire reward.     God sent the Son to offer us an alternative.

There are three points to be drawn from this.

  1. The WORLD, the whole world, with all its freedom and folly, is within the embrace of the one God whose nature is to save.
  2. THROUGH HIM – in order that the world might be saved through him. The saving God is not some ephemeral distant spirit, but in Jesus becomes flesh and blood, visible, tangible, and in our worship that physical, substantial presence is manifest in the consecrated elements of bread and wine.
  3. We PARTICIPATE in that saving life of God. In the language of 1 John 4:13 “We know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.   And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent the Son as the Saviour of the world.”    Or John 3:21:   Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.   To be saved is to believe in the Son and through him to participate in the life of God.

Now I want to see how these three points are expressed in the icon of the Trinity.

  1. The WORLD is within the embrace of the one God whose nature is to save.

      (Place circle around the 3 figures in the icon)

The outer line of the three figures form a perfect circle   – eternal for a circle has no end, and also inclusive of all that goes on within it.     The hand of the Holy Spirit indicates the rectangle in the table.    This is the four corners of the earth, the world.   See how small it is in relation to the life of God.   Whatever catastrophes we create we cannot shake the being of God.    As the profligate actions of the prodigal son do not change the nature of the father.   Somehow, in ways we cannot fully grasp, God holds together all the dualism – light and darkness, life and death, spirit and flesh, good and evil – and is constantly offering to all saving grace, eternal love.

The life of God is community within oneness, as each submits to the other with an inclination of the head.    Each is equal in power, as all carry the same sceptre, and all are the same size indicating they are equally important.    When one is present all are present.

  1. THROUGH HIM. Notice that Christ is painted in solid, substantial colour, whereas the Father is more mystical, and the Spirit is a bit of both.    The Son is the one sent into the world, the physical presence, God incarnate, the one we see.    The red indicates his humanity, the blue, divinity.   When I was painting the inner garment, I looked to see if there was anywhere else I could use the paint I had on the brush.   There is one spot, in the chalice.  And Christ’s hand is blessing it!    This led to long prayerful contemplation.   What is the substantial visible presence of Christ in our world today?   It is his body in the sacrament, and through our consuming of the elements, it is through Christ in us.

  (Place the marked-out chalice over the inner lines of the Father and the Spirit)

Now look at this.   The inside lines of the Father and the Spirit make a chalice, and Christ himself is in that chalice.     Superimposed over the table and chalice is the larger picture, real presence of Christ.     Uniting Church people would do well to contemplate the real presence of Christ in the sacrament more deeply.     Receiving the elements means participating in the one whom God sent to save the world.     It’s not some airy-fairy spirituality, nor is just imaginary symbolism, it is being the body of Christ in the world, solid, physical, substantial, actual.    Sacrament and incarnation are inextricably linked in the story of salvation.

  1. That the world might be saved. When we live in Christ and he in us, the whole world looks different.   That’s what the dialogue with Nicodemus is all about.    You are born into a different world.     You still have to go out and live in the old world, but you see it differently when you abide in Christ.     I John speaks of abiding in all the first four chapters.   God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  1 John 4:15.   And the gospel talks of abiding in the vine, (ch 15) or dwelling in God’s house (ch 14)

See how the icon expresses this abiding

(place cut out on the lines of the footstools)

The lines of the footstools are in inverse perspective.     The lines meet outside the picture.     They activate the space in front of the picture and the space beyond it.     (i)  It’s as though, you, the viewer, are looking out through a window into an ever-expanding but unseen reality which is God.   There is much to contemplate prayerfully in this, but that’s for another day.      (ii)   When you look at the icon in this way it draws you in.    The lines are like arms, drawing you in.   Notice that there is a space at the table, a place for you.    It is sometimes called The Hospitality Icon, taking its origin from the three angels that visited Abraham under the oaks at Mamre.     If Abraham had not invited the strangers to stay salvation history would be altogether different.    So too the triune God invites you in, to be part of the life of God, to take your place in the life of the divine community that is unshakeable and eternal and exists for the sake of the world.   That’s what is real.   The outside world, the old world, is only a shadow of what can be.   But it can be saved, through him

I hope that by picking out the artistic devices that I have not turned the icon into a diagram.     The whole is to be contemplated all at once.     It is a living entity, opening for you the life and saving power of Father, Son and Spirit.       There is a lot more that can be seen in this icon.   This is only the way I see it in relation to today’s text.   But I hope it is enough for today, to confirm you in your faith.

12 April – The Resurrection Appearance in John 20: 19-31

View or print as a PDF

Easter 2

Acts 4:32-5:11
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

Ressurection IconThe Anastasis or Resurrection icon depicts Christ clothed in white, surrounded by a radiating blue capsule or mandorla (Italian for almond). To this point the icon resembles traditional icons of the Transfiguration. In the Resurrection icon Christ straddles the black abys of death standing on two sarcophagus lids. He is drawing Adam and Eve out of their tombs. With Christ, Adam and Eve are alive, they are resurrected.

Orthodox theology is very clear that this icon does not represent any historical moment. It does not depict that which no one saw happen, which no gospel writer describes. They all describe the death and the post resurrection appearances of Jesus. Luke describes the ascension. They tell of the empty tomb but not of the emptying moment.

Neither does the Resurrection icon depict any moment in history.

Leonid Ouspensky has written of the theology of icons. He writes of the Asastasis icon, “The unfathomable character of this event for the human mind, and the consequent impossibility of depicting it, is the reason for the absence, in traditional Orthodox iconography, of the actual moment of the Resurrection.”

Orthodox theologians describe this as a dogma icon. It is not about an event. Rather it is about a truth that interprets an event. Jesus Christ was crucified and on the third day rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. In baptism Christians enter into Christ’s death and rise into his resurrected life. “The Resurrection of Christ is simultaneously also the Resurrection of humanity; the Resurrection is not only the Resurrection of Christ, but a majestic universal event, a ‘cosmic event’”. (Branos. Θεωρία Ἁγιογραφίας. pp.216,217., http://orthodoxwiki.org/Resurrection#cite_ref-12, April 2015)

Just as Orthodox iconographers set out to paint the image of truth about Christ, so the gospel writer, John, set out to tell in story form, truth about the resurrected Christ. We can set aside the historical veracity of the story he tells. It differs remarkably from other accounts.

We have been conditioned by Luke’s gospel to understand the transition of Christ from a man inhabiting our human existence through death, burial, resurrection, post resurrection appearances to the disciples, the ascension to heaven, and then the sending of the Holy Spirit. All very lineal. Suits our time bound existence.

Rudolf Bultmann suggests that the resurrected Christ in John’s gospel who appears to the disciples behind closed doors does so as the crucified, risen and ascended One. John has told the little story of Mary in the garden mistaking the risen Jesus for the gardener. 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father… ‘” (John 20:17). The crucified, risen and ascended Christ appears to the disciples, greets them with peace, breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, and sends them. Christ’s sending of the disciples is the same type of sending by which the Father sent the Son. The mission of God’s sending of Jesus is the mission of Jesus sending the disciples. The Church is the heir of Christ’s mission in the world.

Well, the gospel writers admit that this kind of stuff is a bit difficult to swallow. How are we supposed to believe such things? It is not difficult to imagine that there were members of the early Church that struggled with faith and doubt. The gospels suggest that it was ever thus from the beginning of the Church – from the beginning some took more time than others for the truth to click. Luke tells of two disciples who couldn’t get it at first even though they were in the presence of the risen Lord as they walked to Emmaus. Mark tells of those who are first told of Christ’s resurrection running away in fear and didn’t tell anyone. The gospels are up front. Paul nailed the issue when he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,…’ (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)

John puts the disbelieving problem on the shoulders of Thomas. He is the one who, for so many of us down the ages, has responded to the doctrine of the resurrection, “Prove it! – show me the evidence that the Jesus who was killed by crucifixion is the living and ascended Lord.”

A week later, John tells his church, Jesus appeared again and Thomas was there and the crucified, risen and ascended Christ invited a close inspection – a come and touch the evidence invitation. Thomas makes his declaration of faith, “My Lord and my God.” John doesn’t say if Thomas accepted the invitation to touch. Western artists such as Caravaggio depict him making an inspection with autopsy-like thoroughness.

Stylistically the inclusion of this bit of the story is a bit clunky. But it was important to tell the story because there was a body of opinion that suggested that either Jesus was not truly incarnate – he was a heavenly being who seemed to be human, or, he did not really die but seemed to die and was resuscitated. Dan Brown favours the second theory, hence the Da Vinci Code. He managed to keep the heresy alive in his block buster.

Some years ago I was at a cross cultural event in which church leaders from different ethnic origins shared something of their cultural and spiritual backgrounds. The Chinese presentation was impressive. Our colleague showed us video of the parts of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games and he helped us to understand the richness of the history of Chinese spirituality told to the world in that display.

What we were hearing was so beautiful, so aligned with our Christian hopes for peace and harmony. One Anglo minister dared to ask the speaker, “So, why do you need to be a Christian?” His answer was quick and simple – “Because the Word became flesh”, he said. A murmur of ascent ran through the room – an ‘Amen’ to this profound expression of Christian faith.

John tells the story of Thomas and his struggle to believe because from the beginning John has said, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) And John asserts at the end of his gospel account that God’s word is with us in Jesus, that God is still with us in the crucified, risen and ascended Christ who breathed on his disciples and bestowed the Holy Spirit so that, in the Church, the Word still abides in flesh.

All the action is God’s. The disciples are given the encounter with the risen Christ. Thomas is given what he needs to cast doubt aside. Faith is never a work of human endeavour. Faith is God’s gift. New life in the crucified, risen and ascended Christ is a gift.

In like manner, those who paint an icon of the Anastasis, the Resurrection must take care that Christ’s hands clasp Adam and Eve in such a way that it is clear they are not holding onto him – he is holding onto them.

Adam and Eve in the Anastasis represent all humanity, all of us. The dogma captured in this image speaks of Christ reaching to us to draw us into his new life. This is not our doing. Like it or not Christ reaches out and holds us. His new life is his gift. Ours is the choice – to live his new life – or not.

15 February – Transfiguration

View or print as a PDF


Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 50
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-8

Sermon preached by Rev. Rob Gallacher

The most famous icon of the Transfiguration is the apse mosaic in the monastery of St Catherine’s at Mt Sinai.     It dates from the 6th century and is still in perfect condition.   But to see it you have to go into a side chapel and stare at it from an oblique angle.     More than a thousand years after the church was decorated,  a four posted canopy,  a baldachin,  was built over the altar,   and it obscures the view of the transfiguration.      I once read a remark by an Abbot that no miracles had occurred in the church since the apse was obscured.      You may interpret that as you wish.     I want only to use it a mental picture, framework,   for us to consider how we erect barriers to protect us from the vision.

In 2 Corinthians Paul talks about the veil that prevents belief –  the god of this world blinds the mind  (2 Cor. 4: 4).   But we are to let the light of God’s glory in Christ shine in the darkness.     Paul had his own experience of the light of Christ on the Damascus road,   as did Moses on Mt Sinai,  or Isaiah in the temple,  and in today’s reading, the disciples on the mount of Transfiguration.    In each case the brilliance of the light is a problem.   Paul goes blind,  Moses veils his face,   Isaiah says he is not worthy,  and the disciples fumble around,  not knowing what to say.    The vision of the glory of God is too bright for us to bear,  yet without it we fade away.

The first time I heard this story I was dutifully attending Sunday School.   The teacher told the story, and that was all right.  But then she did a terrible thing.   She added a sentence. “This can happen,  early on a sunny morning on the top of a mountain covered in snow.”    She turned an epiphany into a picnic.     Worse,  she gave me a model that I applied to all the awkward bits:  At the feeding of the 5,000 they all had lunches hidden away,    where Jesus walked on water there was a rocky protrusion making the water shallow,   the resurrection was the result of Jesus going into a deep trance and so on.   The need to reduce the gospel to something we can easily comprehend is a barrier.

Back in the 1970’s James Fowler wrote “Stages of Faith”,  setting out what kind of material children could understand and accept at each developmental stage.    Christian educationalists loved it,  and lesson material changed accordingly.     It is hard to prove a direct relationship,   but it was at the same time that Sunday Schools collapsed.     Anniversary platforms and Songs of praise were out and glossy graded lessons leading on to group discussion were in.    Somewhere in there a massive barrier was erected,  and Epiphany became a funny word attached to a season on the church’s calendar,  routinely observed,  but seldom productive of  vision and inspiration.       It was a situation that caused James Loder to write a critique of Fowler called “The Transforming Moment”.     It spoke more of a defining experience,  a moment when a greater reality, a deeper meaning,  is suddenly apprehended.   Loder’s book did not have the same currency in the rationalistic climate of the day.    But it exposed some of the barriers separating us from a vision of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

So one contemporary barrier is the realism that eliminates the not yet,    that insists that the way things are is the way things will always be.    In that cold climate, the world shrinks and human arrogance grows.

If this were a seminar instead of a sermon,  I would now put you into groups and ask you to discuss your own barriers.    I would expect to get “I can’t believe what I can’t understand”,  or “My professional training compels me to think thus”,  or maybe “I had a bad experience as a child” or even “I was brought up in Christian home”.

It is the nature of an Epiphany that witnesses cannot capture its full meaning.   It will take you out of your comfort zone.       The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.     The eye of faith will see all kinds of things of which you cannot be certain.      The light of Christ causes you to see the world differently.

Just look at the connections in this account of the Transfiguration,  and it will blow your mind.    Light is God’s first act of creation,  while Christ, the light of the world is the first act of new creation.  The mountain was where Moses received the Law, the basis of the first covenant,    while Jesus gives a new law on the mount of the beatitudes and dies on Mount Calvary, and a mountain is the site of the new Jerusalem  (Rev 21:10) .  The cloud is everywhere,  from that which led Israel out of Egypt,   surrounded Moses on Mt Sinai,  to the Ascension and the picture in Revelation of Jesus returning on a cloud,  and beyond Scripture to the Cloud of Unknowing in mystical devotion.        The voice connects with the voice at the Baptism of Jesus, affirming his divinity, “This is my beloved Son”.    The shining face reminds us of Moses.    The white robe is heavenly clothing  (Rev. 4:4 and 6:11),  while the presence of Elijah signals the imminence of the new kingdom.

If that is not sufficient to refresh your vison and shift a few barriers,  be like Isaiah, and let the symbols in the church come to life.     Contemplate the empty cross and let it take you into resurrection life,    look at the open Bible and let the Word speak.    Touch the water of baptism to your forehead let the significance of your belonging to the messianic age sink in.    As you consume the bread not only does the life of Christ dwell with in you,   but even more significantly,    you dwell in Christ.   See yourself in the company of Moses and Elijah,   see Christ transfigured,  and not just Christ,  but the world transfigured into the kingdom of God,  reflecting the glory of the face of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The best sermon on the Transfiguration I ever heard was given by Desmond Tutu.     At the National Christian Youth Convention in Ballarat,  I think it was 1985,   he applied the Transfiguration to South Africa under apartheid.     He told stories of personal struggle,  persecution and suffering.     A young man called Tom returned from prison to his faith community,  and there was vision there,  and hope.    The transfiguration of Christ flows into the transfiguration of human community,  light for the world shines back down the mountain.     Tutu reached the climax.   His eyes bulged like saucers,  his black face shone,   his hands went out,  and the voice said,  “This vision will lift us up,   up…..up   ……….up!”