The Metropolitan Congregation

- serving and celebrating the LGBT communities of Manchester and the North West

Sermon - 19th June 2011

Seeing Salvation: 2
Hospitality of Abraham - icon by Andrei Rublev

Scripture - Genesis 18:1-5

Rev Andy Braunston

[An audio version of this sermon is also available.  Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]

The Icon

· What do you see?

· What are the similarities and differences between the characters?

· What are they doing?

As we have seen this icon is used as a depiction of the Trinity.  We have three distinct characters but each of them is linked to the other.  They sit around a table sharing a meal, each of them wears a blue garment, each has a halo and whilst they look a little different, all have similar facial expressions.  But they are different: the figure on the right is often thought to represent God the Father as the blue on him, sign of humanity, is most hidden.  The other figures seem to look towards him.  It’s difficult to make out but he’s holding a staff – symbol of authority.   The figure in the middle wears the most blue and is thought to be representative of Jesus. He rests two fingers on the table – in Orthodox worship they have candlesticks for two candles representing both the divine and human nature of Jesus.  This figure points to the cup – possibly a reference to the Eucharist.  The figure on the right wears green – a sign of life and vitality and is often taken to be a representation of the Holy Spirit.

What is an Icon?

Last week we looked at contemporary icon, this week we’re looking at one dating from the 15th Century.  We use the term “icon” a lot in computer language – the buttons we press to start programmes on our computers are called icons.  We refer to celebrities as iconic, or people who the lesbian and gay community admire as “gay icons” (whether or not they are themselves gay).  But in the religious sense an Icon is more than this. Indeed it’s more than a religious painting; it’s a window into the spiritual world.  An icon is designed to be an aid to prayer, to help us pray to God and to venerate the person portrayed in the icon.  It’s also a way of conveying theology – perhaps a better way than writing.  Some people respond much better to images than they do to words.  So if an icon is more than a picture but a way into spirituality and a way of making a theological point, we need to consider what points are being made in this one.

Why this Story?

The story we’ve heard read to us from Genesis is a bit obscure and rather odd.  The writers of Genesis often had God appearing to speak to people in a form which seems human.  God walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening in Eden, he debates with Abraham later on about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob wrestles with either an angel or the Lord. The writers of Genesis were quite comfortable with God taking on tangible form in their stories.

Just before this story God has told Abraham that he will be blessed and that he and Sarah will have a child.  This seems rather ludicrous due to the great age of Abraham and Sarah, but he had gone along with the promise and, as a sign of following God, had been circumcised and had all the men of his household circumcised too. 

The odd thing about the story is the issue of how many people come to visit.  At first Abraham sees the Lord but then there are three visitors. Christians easily see the Trinity at work here – God being present in three people.  Abraham is eager to be a good host to his guests and, as a man of his era, sets Sarah to work preparing the food.  He offers gracious, and abundant hospitality to the visitors.  This is in marked contrast to what follows in Chapter 19 where the inhabitants of Sodom violate the laws of hospitality by turning on the angels who appear to be guests and wish to abuse them.  Abraham’s generous hospitality here is contrasted with the dangerous and abusive behaviour of the people of Sodom.

Christians have always read into this mysterious story the Trinity – God is revealed in three persons.  It is for this reason why Rublev draws the story.  Whilst it was permissible in Orthodox Christianity to draw images of Jesus – he was God made flesh so it was seen legitimate to draw him – it was not seen as permissible to draw God the Father and difficult to represent God the Holy Spirit.  Western art often used the idea of an old man, a young man and a dove to explain the Trinity or to use the Triangle or other geometric designs to explain the idea that God is one yet known in three persons. 

The solution the iconographers came up with was to turn to this Biblical story and see it as an allegory of the Trinity.  Other iconographers painted the other characters, like Abraham, Sarah, the fatted calf, and servants in the picture too.  Others made the figures more distinct from each other or worked it as Jesus and two angels.  Rublev was the first to exclude all the others and to have identical figures.  He was, therefore, the first to make this an explicit depiction of the Trinity; this icon is, nowadays, always seen as an icon of the Trinity.

The Trinity as community

The interesting thing about this icon, for me, is the depiction of the Holy Trinity as a community.  The painting isn’t a static depiction of three unrelated people, but an image of three interconnected people sharing a meal.  There’s a sense of fellowship and communication – after all when we share a meal with other people we talk, we connect and we share.  We tend to eat meals with people we like and get on with.  But this isn’t a picture of identical people; they are similar but different.  There are different hand gestures, differences in clothing, as well as in position.  For me this is an image of God which is diverse, yet one.  There is of course the sense of unity, but also a sense of diversity.  In this we see a reflection in Rublev’s conception of the divine life and the life of humanity.

Rublev’s context

Now Rublev wasn’t just painting an icon to be an object to aid religious devotion.  He had a purpose and this was partly political and partly theological.  At the time he was painting – in the 15th Century, there was  a debate in the Russian church with some people holding that the idea of God as Trinity was wrong.  There had been many debates, often forceful and those who disagreed with each other became bitter enemies.  Instead of joining the debate using words, Rublev does it using art.  For many people a picture is an easier medium to explain complex ideas than words are.  We use images in road signs to tell us something quickly, we use images in computing to get a point across really quickly.  So Rublev wanted to show his believe in the Trinity, and to persuade others of the rightness of that belief, using an image.  So, first and foremost, this image is to teach.

But Rublev also wanted to make a point about politics.  At the time he was painting Russia wasn’t a united country faced invasion from outside and was divided into petty squabbles and rival war lords.  None of the different parts of Russia wanted to lose their identity; Rublev paints a view of God which shows that unity and diversity can be held together. Regardless of what we think about nationalism, it’s clear that the icon paid a part uniting a country. 

 Our Context

In our own age we’re much more suspicious of nationalism;  the Twentieth Century saw the birth of many countries which united diverse ethnic groups only to see those same countries fall apart by the end of the century.  In the UK every so often we hear voices protest about the ethnic mix that is now a feature here.  In Italy the Northern League wants independence for the north, in France the National Front react against the increasing multi-cultural nature of French society.  We value, it seems, unity more than diversity.  Interestingly the United States – one of the most diverse countries in the world – seeks through its foreign policy to impose one view, one system, one way of doing things on other countries.

This icon reminds us that diversity, and unity, are in the very heart of God and that both need to be held in tension with each other.  We need both – we see that in our church life.  We need the unity around our values, identity and mission but need the diversity that each of us brings different gifts, perspectives, and contributions.  We need this mix of unity and diversity in our national life and political institutions, we need to see this mix in the wider Church. 

Rublev’s icon was used to show the Russians that it was possible, indeed desirable, to mix these ideas of unity and diversity.  Indeed these are characteristics of God’s own self.  This Trinity Sunday we reflect on the mystery that is God and see both unity and diversity in God’s own being and remind ourselves that we are created in God’s image.


Link to image of painting here.

(Rev Andy Braunston)

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