A sermon preached on October 18.
Scriptures: Numbers 11:11-17; 24-30 ; 1 Corinthians 2: 1-16 (all)
Today is the second in a series of six sermons on the mysteries of the faith; we will look briefly at the most comprehensive mystery of the faith: the Trinity. So yes, more esoteric and obscure ideas! I think you’ll find it interesting and important, even if complex ideas are not usually your sort of thing. But in the next three weeks we will look at more practical matters concerning what we do and how we live. So, take heart.
In our quick tour of the liturgical year, we are moving from Easter very quickly into Pentecost. Last week we began with the resurrection of Jesus, with the cross by which he died, and his eternal role as the mediator between humanity and God. Jesus perfected the individual human life by giving himself fully to the rest of humanity, and by exposing the demonic drive for power that infects everything we do, even the way religions misuse God’s authority and God’s name. (Don’t worry, all this will come around again. It’s an unfathomable mystery, remember? So we’ll never be done with it. )
Now if I were able to explain clearly and completely everything Jesus did for us, we could just stop right there; no more sermons. Jesus shows us God’s ultimate mercy, once and for all; and he fulfills the human aspiration to be righteous, in a self-giving way. End of story. It’s true; there is a kind of end of humanity in Jesus, a grand finale. Nothing we can do for good or ill can add to what Jesus has done. There’s a great comfort there: we don’t really need my sermons. (So if you head for the door right now, at least I’ll know that you were listening!) The UCC would have to change our slogan: ‘actually, God is done speaking. It’s all been said.’
God doesn’t need anything out of humanity any more, and so no longer makes absolute demands: hey, pressure’s off. Jesus demonstrates God’s free acceptance of us, or maybe changes God’s reckoning. It’s comforting; it’s also humbling: we cannot add to what Jesus did. And lastly it’s liberating: now we are free to be God’s people, not because we must do so or die, but because it’s good and glorious and beautiful to be God’s people. We too can now give freely to God and to neighbor, without anxiety about the outcome.
But there is more than just the Son of God; there is the Spirit. While nothing we do here can add to Jesus, can the church nonetheless glorify God in her own way? Is human history, so far as God is concerned, really over with Jesus Christ, or is it just beginning?
The story from Numbers can help us get our heads around what more can be accomplished after Jesus, and it bears on Pentecost: we are moving now from God’s one righteous servant, Jesus, toward the establishment of the church as the new people of God. There a fundamental and familiar problem driving the story about Moses in Numbers: you can find a few good and righteous individuals, but it always seems impossible to have a whole people that is good and righteous. Isn’t that one reason people like to say “I’m spiritual but not religious”—because once you have a community, an institution, you seem to have corruption, a let down. So in Numbers 11 we find Moses being God’s righteous one, but he is saddled with a people who are not as spiritual as he and like to complain a lot. They aren’t satisfied with the manna God is providing them. God sustained them in the wilderness, but did not satisfy all their cravings. (We too go through wilderness wanderings; times of scarcity rather than plenty. God sustains us, but yet we have cravings and longings. And not only are some times like this; life as a whole is kind of like this, a wilderness wandering.) So the Israelites cried out, something like this: Don’t get me wrong, God, the manna is lovely—it’s like Coriander seed, after all, and the color of it is like gum resin (so we are told). Why, I could eat a little of that just about every day. But do you have any meat? … We don’t mean to seem ungrateful or anything.” And of course they funneled these complaints through Moses, who was the one mediator between God and the people. God is very holy, you see; and the Israelites did not want to besmirch the holiness of God with all of these unholy people. Well, Moses couldn’t take it—and don’t you get impatient when you have to deal with…people? Moses seems to foreshadow Jesus when he complains, sounding a bit maudlin, feeling a little sorry for himself: “If this is the way you [God] are going to treat me, put me to death at once, and do not let me see my misery.” I’m sure there’s a contemporary translation out there that has it: “Just shoot me!”
So God tells Moses to gather 70 elders, and to bring them to the tent of meeting. And God says, “I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you.” Here is the spirit, this breath of God (ruach can mean either) that is life giving (God breathed life into Adam) but is also a special gift, a charisma, a power that marks those who speak in God’s name and share God’s authority. (Keep in mind that Moses, when God put this gift upon him, mentions again and again how undistinguished and unworthy he is—and unwilling too. It’s about God’s power, not Moses’.) God puts the spirit on certain individuals, and they prophesy with conviction and determination. So we think of certain individuals as being spiritual. But in this story the spirit from God can be shared with others, who prophesy or speak divine messages at least once, for it says, “they did not prophesy again.” Eldad and Medad apparently forgot to come to the tent of meeting, and so they just start prophesying in the camp. (So yes, it’s ok to prophesy out on the street. God doesn’t confine divine speaking to inside the church walls.) Now Moses’ brother Aaron gets jealous—as some people do who’ve enjoyed having authority for a while, and then have to share it with those less worthy. But Moses here sets the example for us: he is humbled by God’s gift of authority—“more [humble] than anyone else on the face of the earth,” it says in chapter 12—and in response to Aaron, Moses wishes that everyone were a prophet, that everyone would share in this gift of divine power. This is the Pentecost promise: that everyone, everywhere will share in the Holy Spirit, in God’s sacred authority and rule.
On one hand, this Pentecost promise of the Spirit is linked closely to what Jesus Christ has accomplished, so much so that the Spirit often goes without mentioning. Notice what Paul says in our passage from Corinthians: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” We said above that you could literally do that: you can end the story with Jesus. But for Paul, Jesus Christ, the crucified and raised one, is a living reality, alive in Paul and in the community. Paul, dealing in this letter with self-aggrandizing members of the church, finds in the crucified Christ a total reorientation toward personal power and authority. What we have in Jesus is not another Great Man who will exercise authority on us and for us. Instead, Jesus is self-giving. He rules us not from the outside, like a prince, but from within, by his Spirit. To the extent that we all share and participate in the Spirit, we all are Jesus Christ. And we all exercise Christ’s power by participating in the same self-giving love that Jesus demonstrated on the cross, and Paul acknowledges by talking about his own weakness and fear.
But as we go on, we see Paul does not stick to even this expansive sense of “knowing nothing but Christ crucified.” He continues: “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom…God’s wisdom, secret (the Greek has “in a mystery”) and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory….These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”
If we just proclaim what God has done in Christ, we proclaim it for all. God has already reconciled all of humanity in Jesus. You and I are in no better place than a non Christian. And in some sense, everyone is saved in Christ, already—total inclusiveness. But as Paul turns to the Spirit, although it is promised to everyone, he recognizes that this way of Christ is a secret, and only those who are spiritual can discern the things of God. Notice the people he is leaving out of the Spirit are not the ones people typically think of as sinners: the perverts, the felons, the uppity people who don’t know how to submit to authority. It is the “rulers of this age,” those who crucified Jesus because they are blinded by worldy power; they are “doomed to perish.” He doesn’t seem to have particular people in mind, but what we might call a system, a collectivity. To the extent that we participate in this rule, what I called last week the dominion of Satan, we also are “doomed to perish.” (I ‘secretly’ think that most of us today, in this age, both participate in the self-giving love of Jesus and so, in his eternal life, and in the worldly rule of power that is doomed to perish. So it’s not so simple as, “If you died tomorrow, would you be saved or not? A sheep, or a goat?”) But Paul speaks to the ideal church, which he will go on to eviscerate with reproaches, when he concludes: “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny”—take that, rulers of this age. “…We have the mind of Christ.” We see and perceive the truth of God’s world, even when that world largely does not, and we endeavor to live that truth out in this community. We do this by the Spirit, that makes us the living body of Christ.
Some people would rather do away with traditional doctrines like the Trinity, and focus on the “historical Jesus” as a model that we can imitate. (These are the Jesus seminar folks, if that means anything to you.) Not Paul. Do you realize that he hardly ever refers to anything that Jesus said or did—the main exception being that Jesus was crucified and rose again. He says in 2 Cor 5 that we no longer know Jesus according to the flesh: in other words, the actual things Jesus did are not necessarily relevant. The line for Paul between the Jesus who came from Nazareth and the living Lord known by the Spirit in the church—is quite blurry. So it turns out that God is still speaking after all, but not as though God’s mind has trailed off into some new direction. For Paul, to have the mind of Christ is to be enabled to discern God’s gifts where we don’t expect them, where others will miss them, and we do this because the Spirit continues to teach us the depths of God.
Because of the profound insights of Paul and others, thinking as they acted on the ground in this electric new movement called the church, Christians quickly began to think of God as three in one, later coining the word Trinity. The people who articulated the Trinity were not speculative philosophers, they were activists. The teaching of the Trinity that some find an arrogant and pointless dogma, they found essential to their work.
To explain the Trinity, let’s begin with the Spirit, which often perplexes people. I can picture Jesus the Son, but what is the Spirit? The Spirit (the biblical words also mean breath or wind) is the power of God made present and manifest. It’s like an electric charge in the air. It helps to compare the Spirit with the Word of God: early theologians thought of the Trinity as God’s hidden mind, God’s spoken Word, and the living breath or power by which God speaks that Word. Now a word can be true, you can say something true (“Hey, we should be good to each other”), but it won’t necessarily convict with power; often that depends on things we can’t see—someone’s psychological state, or the general mood of a culture or epoch. God is fully revealed when the Spirit leads someone to speak God’s Word, and then that Word shows its hidden Spirit power by transforming lives. There’s always the Word and the Spirit; even in our ordinary speaking. (Ever notice how in stories like the one from Numbers, God first says what God will do; and then it has to say that God did it—kind of repetitious, right? But God acts by a Word, a promise; and then God fulfills it in power or by the Spirit.)
Of course, God can act outside the Word; God can act secretly, invisibly, and in a way that is not consistent with what God has pledged to do. But Christians believe that God’s Word came into clear expression and God’s power or Spirit accompanied this Word, all through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We probably shouldn’t try to read a revelation of God off of current events, a natural disaster, or a troubling diagnosis, and then wonder what these events tell us about what kind of God we worship. Jesus Christ alone grounds our knowledge of God, not the mess and disaster we see around us.
At the same time, God our source, whom Jesus called Father, is inexhaustibly mysterious and hidden, as Paul says. We cannot be sure what other shapes God’s Word might take, and what other ways God’s spirit might move. We have a reliable access to God in Christ and in God’s words to Israel. The Trinitarian doctrine teaches that each Person of the Trinity is fully God, not one third of God. So if you have the Son, you have God. But that doesn’t mean God can have no other shape, just as the Father and Spirit are not identical to the Son. One of the great traditional sayings of the church is this: If you comprehend it, it isn’t God.
There are deep things in God that have not been said, and perhaps can never be said, can never be made Word. And so at the end of the day, we kind of have to say things that sound contradictory—indeed, we are graced by God to be able to say these things: Jesus gives us all of God; yet God remains unknown to us. Beside Jesus there can be no other; and yet there is room in God for other revelations. It helps to realize that Jesus not only reveals God to us, he also re-veils God, he does a better job veiling God; he incarnates the hidden mystery of God. We have seen this already: the cross is the very deepest of mysteries. There is no simple moral to the story of the cross.
The deeper you go into the mysteries of the faith, the more it seems beyond your grasp. So, I have tried to make sense of these mysteries—don’t feel bad if you are confused; it’s on me. Even if you did follow me, you might still feel cheated: pastor, I thought I was supposed to get something from the sermon, something to take away, something useful. Usually, yes. Next week, yes. But today not exactly. As you approach the deepest mystery of God, you end up simply full of wonder. At the deepest level, you don’t learn things about God. God just is, and beside God there is no other.