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The Rector: The Five Martyrs of Marrakesh

Trinity Sunday
30th May 2021
Sung Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

In 2016 we went for a family holiday in Morocco

Staying just outside Marrakesh, we had a lovely holiday visiting the city as well as an excursion to the Atlas Mountains and the coastal town of Essaouria

It was a wonderful, oriental, experience –

But during our visit, we went to the Catholic Church of the Five Martyrs

The Church is named after five Franciscan Friars who were executed for attempting to proselytise the inhabitants of the city

We joined a service and, by chance, the Old Testament reading was from the Eighteenth Chapter of the Book of Genesis

The story may be familiar to some, but is where Abraham and Sarah are visited by three mysterious men

As the reading says:

“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre…he looked up and saw three men standing near him”(Genesis 18: 1-2)

The identity of the three mysterious men has long been a question of debate

However, some in Christianity believe that they are the Holy Trinity

This story was captured in an icon painted by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev in the 15th century

And I have reproduced the icon on the front of your service sheet

[as well as on the website, should you be listening on-line]

Do have a look at it now

Deliberately leaving Abraham and Sarah out of the picture, the artist decided to leave just the three men in the painting instead

However, the way the men are painted makes it impossible to know who was who

Who is the Father, who is Son and who is the Holy Ghost?

See what you think?

However, by making it impossible to tell who was whom, perhaps the painter, expresses the un-representability of the triune God?

Today is Trinity Sunday

It is one of the crowning moments of the Church Year

In the aftermath of Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, we can now affirm

“Father, Son and Holy Ghost”

It is, as if, a huge monolith of theological stone has been rolled into place

But the Trinity is not easy

St John of Damascus said that he was “baffled” by the Trinity

St Basil the Great said that “it would be easier to measure the entire sea with a tiny cup than to explain the Trinity”

Furthermore, the Trinity is not mentioned in the Bible but came to be defined through the Church Councils instead

As a result, we have a theological definition that is, at times, bordering on the incomprehensible

There is a joke about the Trinity which runs as follows:

Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Whom do men say that I am?’  

Peter answered and said,

‘You are the Logos, existing in the Father…with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple.’

And Jesus said ‘you what?’

Point made –

But the best way to understand the Trinity is not a matter of understanding but as matter of revelation

And the perfect story to assist with this understanding is the baptism of Christ

If you recall the story

  • Christ is baptised in the River Jordan
  • The Holy Spirit descends in the form of a Dove
  • And God says – “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”

All three members of the Trinity are depicted perfectly for us to imagine

God in heaven, Jesus in the Jordan and the dove descending

Try and explain the Trinity – and you will most certainly fail

Tell the story of the Baptism of Christ – and you will, to a large extent, succeed

But what does the Trinity mean for our lives?

The Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware stated

 “Made after the image of God, human beings are called upon to reproduce on earth the mystery of mutual love that the Trinity lives in heaven”

Learning to live in mutual love is, perhaps, a given

But Kallistos Ware goes on to say

Our faith in the Trinity puts us under an obligation to struggle at every level, from the strictly personal to the highly organised, against all forms of oppression, injustice and exploitation

And perhaps the story of the five martyrs illustrates what this might mean?

When I researched the story of the five martyrs, I was intrigued to find out that they were the “protomartyrs” of the Franciscan Order

They were some of the first monks to be admitted to the order by St Francis himself

Shortly after the Second Chapter, St Francis decided it was time for the Order to extend their labours beyond Italy

And the five monks were sent off to preach the Gospel in Spain

Not surprisingly, they were arrested and then sent to Morocco after they asked to speak to the Sultan in person

They were received favourably and, at first, first granted them permission to preach

However, the inhabitants in Marrakesh were so enraged that they were arrested once again

This time they were then beheaded  

They became the first martyrs of the Franciscan order and were canonised two hundred years later

However, the story of their life and death seems at odds with a doctrine which seeks to promote the mutual love of the Trinity

How were they living the Trinity?

Let me first state that I am in no way condoning the proselytization of those from other faiths

That is not my faith

And, in my view, belongs to an age of misguided imperialism -Perhaps a sermon for another time

But I believe that we should live in love and charity with those of different faiths across the world

Respecting their faiths and traditions

But perhaps a closer look at the icon reveals a fuller truth about “living the Trinity” in Christianity

As you can see, there are three people are sitting at a table with their heads slightly inclined towards one another

They are clearly very close

And, judging by their hands, it suggests that there is a deep unity between them

It would not be unreasonable to conclude that God is love and

“those who live in love, live in God and God in them” (1 John 4:6)

But if you look at the picture more carefully, you will notice that the three mysterious figures are not alone

There is a chalice in the middle of the table

As the German theologian Jurgen Moltman remarked

“The chalice on the table symbolizes the sacrifice of the Son on Golgotha for the redemption of the world”

Living life in the Trinity means, not only of living a life of mutual love but, ultimately, that we should follow the way of the cross And that is a challenge for us all