June 18, 2017: “Trinity Time”

Since our Children’s Sunday was last week, I moved Trinity Sunday to the 18th,  I felt like the sermon was a bit too busy.  The main point I set out to make is that the Trinity reconfigures our experience of time.  But based on the reading from 2 Cor., I went off on an interesting digression about grace as distinct from love.  I used the Genesis 1 reading as an enacted call to worship, connecting it to the elements of light, water, and flowers in our worship space.   

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

 

We are celebrating Trinity Sunday today. Immersing ourselves in the mystery of the Trinity will be quite a leap from the “Life for Others” sermon series during the seven weeks of Easter. There I emphasized that the essence of the Christian faith is simple and practical. If you can live for others, you can be a Christian; there are no great leaps of intellectual comprehension or belief required. That’s still true. But while I want to continue to emphasize that we welcome a flexible and diverse approach to belief in this church, this is an appropriate time to revel in the richness of traditional Christian faith. For on this Sunday we have just reached a milestone in our church year. Over the last six months our liturgical year has celebrated the presence and work of God in our own likeness as Jesus the Christ, and two weeks ago we celebrated the continuing work of Jesus Christ among the disciples in the form of the Holy Spirit, all according to the plan and all to the glory of God the source of all, the one we call Father. So after these six months, we are now in the position to survey and admire the totality of God’s works as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in what have been called three persons, but we might also call these three dimensions of God’s one being. This is the Trinity, and already it sounds superfluously abstract and intellectually vain—a delight for theological nerds that is lacking in any practical importance. I think it’s a shame, but we are used to thinking about the Trinity as mostly pointless speculation about God’s eternal being, far removed from our everyday life in the here and now of time.

But I noticed that in each one of our readings today, words evocative of the Trinity show up in relation to time. The Trinity is hinted at in the very beginning of creation in Gen 1. It appears again at the very end of Paul’s contentious letter to the Second Corinthians. And the Trinity is invoked as Jesus sends his disciples out on their mission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, along with the promise that Jesus will be with us until the end of “the age.” So it seems that the Trinity is not just about the arcane truths of God in heaven; the Trinity ought to frame our whole relation to time, which means that the Trinity is all about here and now.

Now, I have labored hard to understand the Trinity; I’ve read many explanations of the Trinity; and I wrote one myself in an academic journal, which I think holds its own against the many others out there. [Story] This labor has helped me understand God, but also what we do here in church and what really matters about what we do. And it has even affected my understanding of the world all around me. And not just understand, but love God and the world better.

I’m pretty sure that clarifying the Trinity is not going to solve all our problems. But it is just possible that some of our confusion, lack of unity, lack of direction; some of our hesitance to really live into the Christian faith, comes from this dark cloud that forms in our mind whenever we hear the word, Trinity. “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to know about that, and I’m supposed to believe in it. But I don’t know how, so I’m just going to pretend it’s not too important for right now.” We can’t be sure how much that dark cloud is affecting us until we dispel it with the beautiful luminosity of God as a one in three.

That will take some time. It’s not a matter of a quick and easy formula. A good explanation of the Trinity leads you to the brink of what lies beyond comprehension. I can’t just define the Trinity for you, and you have it. Along the way to really understanding it, you also have to understand everything else afresh, now seeing it in light of the Trinity. After all, everything is created by God, right? And if God is three-in-one, then that will leave some kind of stamp on everything God made, including time—which we fancy can be adequately understood by a watch and a calendar app. But already in the very beginning of time, as Genesis 1 describes it, we see the Trinity present, or at least alluded to. The triune God is already there in the beginning of all things. We see this first when Genesis tells us that “a spirit from God swept over the face of the waters,” although the word “spirit” can also be translated as wind or breath. We never hear anything else about this spirit in chapter one. It’s mysterious. You get the sense that this windy Spirit is perhaps stirring up the water, “making waves,” quietly bringing about momentous change. But the Spirit is invisible; like the wind, you only feel and see it by its effects. And surely, God is also invisible, and we never see or completely understand God.

But God doesn’t just silently move and blow, God also speaks. “Let there be…” In most of the world’s creation stories, the gods form and shape something (that goes for Genesis 2 also), and sometimes the gods have to kill a beast in order to create. It’s so unusual in Genesis 1 that God creates so calmly and peacefully by speaking the Word. As it happens, the word, “Word,” is one of the key words that Christians use for the second person of the Trinity, also called the Son. John begins his Gospel by evoking Genesis 1: “In the beginning / was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The language is simple but the idea is very difficult: the Word was with God and was God. How’s that work? Welcome to the Trinity.

Now, what does it mean that part of the reality of God can be described as “Word?” A Word is simply anything God does or says, typically through a spokesman, that unlike the invisible movement of the Spirit, becomes a permanent marker by which we can recognize God, or identify an action as typical of God. A Word of God is repeatable, visible, and intelligible. A Word can take the form of a command, or a promise. It can be a saying of the prophets or a parable of Jesus. The Word can also be a song, or a ritual like our sacraments, which we repeat in order to better understand God and our relation to God.

But here in Genesis the primary Word is, “Let there be.” God is letting all this non-divine stuff come into being, all organized by the fundamental differences that make up our world, as between day and night, land and sea, and the great diversity of living creatures. God isn’t engineering all this stuff. Genesis doesn’t describe how God lets it all be. There shouldn’t be any problem saying that God lets the universe be by way of the scientific theory of the Big Bang, or that God lets the diverse array of creatures be / by way of evolution. God isn’t portrayed as a micromanager In Genesis. Just as one who lets be. And God doesn’t say so, but we are told that God saw that all of this diversity was good.

Now, what does it mean to let something be by pronouncement, while silently judging to oneself that it is good?   I think we call this “grace.” As in the reading we had from Second Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In his closing Trinitarian benediction, Paul doesn’t start with the first person of the Trinity, the “Father,” but with the second person, “the Son,” the Word, whom he identifies as Lord Jesus Christ. And Paul associates grace with Jesus Christ, just as he associates love with the Father and communion or fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Now why, you might ask, does Paul associate grace with Jesus Christ and love with God the Father? Well, let’s keep in mind that all of these qualities belong to God. But Paul’s way of assigning a particular divine trait to each person of the Trinity can help us understand why there is a three-ness to God.   And the most visible and identifiable and repeatable characteristic of God, made known to us by the Word of Jesus Christ, is grace.

Grace, charis in Greek, means having favor toward someone or having a good disposition toward someone. In Paul’s use of the word especially in Romans, grace is something unearned from God, the result of a free gift. God’s good favor is something we don’t earn or deserve, something that isn’t obviously and self-evidently our right or our property. Paul mentions the “Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then “The Love of God.” These are not quite the same. Parents know that they love their children. Spouses know of their own love for the other. But we all get angry and dismayed with even our dearest loved ones. And we all feel guilt and shame at what we do, or at least at our strange and uncontrollable inner thoughts. It isn’t always obvious in our anger and dismay that we love those most dear, and it isn’t always obvious that we should be loved by those most dear. That’s why it needs to be said. We need to say, and to hear, the words, “I love you.” Love needs to be a stated commitment, because what you are committing to is not yet mutually firm and fully in place. As true as this is in human relationships, it is much more true for God’s relationship to humanity. God tells the Israelites through Moses, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Neither part of that commitment was obvious; neither part could be taken for granted. Words both affirm what is not yet obvious, and make it possible for us to aim at fulfilling that commitment.

It is not obvious that the Israelites were God’s people; they never really fulfilled that promise, just as we, the New Israel, have yet to fulfill that promise. It is not obvious that human beings are created in the image of God, nor that we have a justifiable dominion over a planet that we are placing in peril. It is not obvious that we have some special favor or grace from God, a special calling or honor, when you consider the awful things we do or let happen. We need Jesus Christ to reveal this far-from-obvious grace to us. We need a Word of grace that we can perceive outside of us to this effect, assuring us of our favor with God. It needs to be objective and to come from outside of us, because we do not usually feel worthy of God’s favor; true enough. But also, in a way, we really are not worthy. We really are sinful, our world is a mess and all of us are tainted by and implicated in our messed up world, especially when we consider the absolute holiness and perfection of God. And Jesus Christ is this perfected Word of Grace from God, both assuring of God’s forgiveness and also embodying in himself a humanity that is truly faithful and just and loving, like we all should be. Jesus is the pride and joy of all humanity, which otherwise often has little to show for itself.

That is why Jesus is also our judge, the one who will come to judge the world. We’ve told ourselves “God is love” until those words barely have meaning any more, or at least they have long since ceased to pack a punch. That’s why, first of all, Jesus Christ is the grace of God, because through him we realize that God’s love is not our right or entitlement. Jesus Christ is grace, because he brings both the good news of God’s mercy as well as the awakening to our need for repentance. Christ Jesus remains ours and yet is distinct from us, one standing apart from us and taking our place.

Only through him and the grace Christ represents do we properly arrive at what Paul calls “the love of God,” or we might say, the love of the Father, the first person of the Trinity, the source and destiny of all. This deepest dimension of God’s being is, whether we realize it or not, invisible and incomprehensible to us. This is the God who told Moses, “You cannot see me face to face and live.” If we arrogantly assume we know exactly who and what God is, we will quickly end up with an idol, a little god of our own making who is indeed a false god, a golden calf. The God of love can also become our idol, a god created according to our need, an idol we make to give us assurance, rather than to be our Lord. Only when we know this incomprehensible God through the Word, through Jesus the Christ, crucified for the sin of the world and risen to bring the world reconciliation, can we know the love of God, without making that loving God into our idol—as if all if right with us and the world, it only needs a heavenly sheen of blessing. No. The world is God’s creation but it has all gone wrong; the Kingdom of God comes to turn our world upside down, and Jesus Christ will come again to judge the world. And yet: God has offered us peace and reconciliation in the midst of this quagmire, a world where children die unnecessarily every day and the world shrugs. This is a troubling paradox, this grace amidst our fallen world. Only a paradoxically triune God can hold together grace and love with a world so unworthy.

We are now in ordinary time, which covers the six months or so from Pentecost until the new liturgical year that begins with Advent. We’ve just finished hearing the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension as our own story, the story that tells us the most important truths about ourselves and all humanity. And that time concluded with the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, giving them the power to be the community that continues to testify to God in Jesus and that acts as the continuing presence of Christ and of his kingdom here on earth, while awaiting what is to come (that’s who we really are, folks). This has been Trinity story time, a story about the Son and the Spirit granting the world a participation in the glory of God the Source and End of all, beyond all time.   This is what time is for us: it comes from a past of timeless truth with the Word, continues into an open presence with the Spirit, and leads us into union with the Eternal God.

It is an open-ended story. 2000 years later, despite some fresh challenges, we still have everything in this room to be the Spirit-filled Kingdom in Christ’s name, participating in God’s eternal life here and now. The Bible is still our extraordinary window onto divine truths, even if we have to work a little to interpret its truths. Our sacraments are still effective in connecting us to our origin in Jesus as our Word of God. We don’t have to live one day after another, same old same old, until our allotted years come to an end. We can instead live each day in the drama of Trinity Time. Each day can begin with God the creator as its ultimate origin; each day can be made possible by the grace of Jesus the Christ, who has revived human life so that it can experience mercy and love amidst terror and heartache; and each day can bring us the feeling of the Spirit rippling across our depths, moving us by a power we don’t own but that we cannot deny. What a shame that we just got all the pieces of the Trinity in place for Trinity Time, right as summer is starting and most of us are about to scatter (including me). Don’t forget about the Trinity this summer. Repeat Paul’s nice benediction in your prayers every day. Let it sink in to you, let take you over, and it will bear you up and sweep you along like the perfect wave at the beach. Come summer’s end, I want Trinity Time to start here in earnest.

5th in Easter-Life for Others: By God’s Eternal Life

Acts 17:22-31 ; John 14:1-14

“Life for others” is my theme for these seven Sundays in Easter. The first way to understand “life for others” is as a description of the shape and purpose of our lives as a Christian community. The rest of the world may live by other shapes and purposes: perhaps “life for me,” or perhaps “life for some,” or life for those I like or that are like me. But that is not the shape of our lives as a church. We welcome all here, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or whether they are like or unlike us. We seek the good of all others beyond those gathered here; we do this by praying for others, including our enemies, by our mission work by which we help the poor, the hungry, and those are neglected or ostracized in our community, regardless of whether they share our faith; and we provide at least some support for the worldwide efforts of our denomination and other organizations (like Church World Service and Blankets Plus) who seek to help people from all walks of life across this country and around the globe. We could do a better job, but all this kind of thing is what life for others looks like. Life for others is also expressed in the kind of community we believe in and try to carry out as a congregation. We try to create and nourish a community of mutual care and love, in which we do not put ourselves first but live for the good of each other. I’ll talk more about that in two weeks.

Since we are life for others, we make room for others to be different, which also means we are a free-thinking church. As I speak to you, I know that we as a group of assembled individuals are all over the map, intellectually. Some of us profess old-time religion, some of us identify with newer, liberal, or modern Christian ideas; some of us do not think much of classical Christian beliefs, and doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity do not mean much to us; some of us don’t have much confidence in any religious beliefs. Well, we mean what we say: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”—it’s true. But I do see us as on a journey together, although we come from very different starting points. I only ask that you think of us as being on a journey together. And as your pastor, I’m not going to pretend that our journey is just going wherever we happen to wander. This church comes out of a strongly (but not dogmatically) Christian tradition, and that is obvious by the forms of our worship life: we read only from the Christian Bible, we follow a Christian liturgy and practice Christian sacraments (as we saw last week). In short, we profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We will ask new members to profess this with us, three weeks from now. To be sure, we don’t claim a single interpretation of what that means, and we certainly don’t impose one on people.

But my role here is obviously not neutral. I am not here just to facilitate conversation between you all, although sometimes I will do that and, as a former college professor, I am good at it. I welcome discussion and dialogue, and change my mind often in response to your insights and questions. But make no mistake, when it comes to theology, to our ability to articulate what we are all about as a church, to explain it in a coherent and responsible way—a way that understands the many challenges to Christian belief and creatively reinterprets that faith to meet valid challenges—when it comes to theology, I proudly assert my role as your leader (not your dictator, of course). That’s why I asked that my title be, “Pastor and Theologian in Residence.” When it comes to actually living like a Christian, living a life for others, I gratefully defer to the many saints of this church, because they do it better than me. But when it comes to explaining why we believe in life for others, rather than life for some other purpose or direction, I happily and confidently take the lead.

When I look out not only here but across the Christian world, I see a whole lot of beautiful life for others being lived and I celebrate and praise God for it. But intellectually, I see enormous division and incompatible opinions, often not very clearly articulated; Christians with very different views are often not aware of how much in conflict they are with each other. I observe Christians to be often incapable of even understanding each other, incapable of having effective discussions with each other. In short, on the intellectual front, I see sheep without a shepherd.

And I believe I can be a good shepherd, on that front at least. I do not stand alone, certainly. The intellectual challenge Christians face is enormous, larger than it has ever been, as I need to keep reading and learning from others just to be effective in our little corner of those challenges. But I believe I have a pretty good grasp on responding to those challenges. I hope when I preach and teach that lights go off in your head (not warning lights), and that you see a way of thinking through your faith that is helpful and encouraging. I have tremendous confidence in the Christian faith. I think that our Christian faith, rightly understood, has the best intellectual game going today. I am not ashamed of the gospel, as Paul says, and I want you likewise to be free of shame and intellectual doubt. I do not believe the Bible is infallible. In some ways, I think we need to strongly reinterpret the Christian faith as it has been handed down to us. But when it comes to the essence of that faith, for instance, what I’ll talk about today—the divinity of Christ and the Trinity—I think Christians can claim that they have the most rational way of seeing what life is all about. But I hold to this in a very non dogmatic way. We need to be above all self-critical about our Christian faith, which often gets things terribly wrong. Even when we are right, I think there are many possible ways to be right as a Christian. There can be no one and only way to explain what it means to be a Christian; it won’t fit in any one box. And we need to appreciate that there are good reasons why others have rejected Christianity as it’s been understood and practiced. And we need to appreciate, I think, that there is great truth and insight and validity to other faiths and to non-religious understandings of reality. That’s a lot to take in, but I’ve been at it for years and it hasn’t at all weakened my Christian faith, although my faith has been altered. What a shame that some of our Christian cousins find it necessary to think that everyone else is wrong, and that Christians alone have the truth. Now, did you notice in the John reading, what blockheads Thomas and Phillip were? And they were Jesus own disciples. Why do some followers today think they are so much smarter?

So I am your guide on this “life for others” journey, and we aren’t tourists, we are pilgrims. So I’ve got a strong sense of where that journey will hopefully lead, even though I don’t expect we’ll all get there in seven weeks or seventy years, including me: but I hope that we’ll all come to see more and more that the God of Jesus Christ is our ultimate ground, and way, and hope for the “life for others” that we believe in as the shape of a good life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said; I hope we all come to see and understand that better and better. Today I want to talk about, by reference to our scripture readings, why God is the ultimate ground of our life for others, the God of Jesus Christ. And so confessing and worshipping this God of Jesus Christ is essential to our life for others. A few of us might think that it would be better if we were just out there right now, helping others.

Well, we can’t be life for others if we are just holed up in here, worshipping (although we do pray for others). But without worship we will not have the feeling of gratitude to spur us to help others; and we won’t have the confidence that comes when we realize that life for others is grounded the divine will for the universe. On our readings for today, we have two versions of how to connect the God we worship to our life for others.

In the gospel of John, we get a command from God. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works that these.” Two weeks ago we talked about how Jesus is the very embodiment of life for others, and that means all others, regardless of their worthiness. Jesus commanded and inspired his disciples to live for others as well. But before they encountered him raised from the dead, alive by the power of the Holy Spirit, they were not yet 100% on board. Phillips says, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.” O gee, that’s all. We just want to see God. Has Phillip forgotten that the Bible repeatedly, including in John chapter 6, has God say: “No one shall see me and live.” So Jesus could have chastised Phillip for even desiring to see God. But instead he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

In these innocent little sentences are found all the riches and perplexities of the Christian faith. It is one thing to believe that Jesus was a wise teacher. But here he is saying that what we encounter in him is not just a human teacher but the personification of God, insofar as we can see God. Notice that he doesn’t say, “I am the Father.” That would violate the whole Trinitarian view of God, and it would sound too Darth Vader. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. Jesus shows us God in a way that is personally recognizable, without exhausting all the mystery and beyond-ness of God.

Trying to explain the Trinity caused no end of trouble for the early church; and things are hardly better today. But Jesus so simply and perfectly encapsulated the mystery of the Trinity with his one word, “in.” Jesus and the Father are not identical, but they are in one another. And the mystery of our union with God is likewise contained in that “in.” “Believe in God, believe also in me,” Jesus said. “Amen amen I say to you,” so says the Greek; or in our version, “Very truly I say to you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.” Faith in or belief in does not mean assenting to certain claims about who Jesus is, or who God is. “To believe in” means our lives are in Jesus and Jesus is in us, as Jesus also is in the Father and the Father is in him. Our life is in God, through Christ. That is why we can most truly live life for others—because we are in God and God is in us.

And God is most perfectly life for others. We all tend to picture God as some remote but beneficent dictator, ruling from on high. But the more the church thought about this passage in John and about the Trinity, the more we realized that God’s eternal being, even apart from creation, is life for others. The inner life of God is not solitary, but is like the relation of a parent and child. There is an eternal begetting in God, an eternal expression of an other in God. So we don’t just say God is “loving,” we say, “God is love.” Within God’s own being, that is, there is eternal love between the Father and Son, or, since we are expressing a great mystery high above us, we might say a love between God the invisible origin and God completed expression. Or, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So when I say that, most fundamentally, God is life for others, I mean that as a definition of God’s own life and being. There is a one another in God. (Sometimes I’m so glad I don’t have to take questions while I preach.)

So, in John’s version of things, God has been revealed as life for others by Jesus, who has shown us the Father. We see something rather different in Paul’s famous speech in Athens, as reported in Acts. Paul never mentions Jesus until the very end, and then only by allusion to the coming judgment by Jesus that has been guaranteed by his resurrection. He barely mentions Jesus at all, let alone the Trinity. Instead, Paul talks about how near to everyone God is. God is so near that the pagan Athenians already know God, in a way. Paul quotes their poets as saying, “In him [there’s that “in” again]; In him we live and move and have our being”—that last line is beautifully poetic, but the Greek just says, “In him we live and move and are,” we are in God. And the Athenians poets have also said, “For we too are God’s offspring.” Now, Paul is making much the same point that Christians otherwise make using the Trinity: God is in us and we are in God. Paul didn’t demand that his audience believes in Jesus and that Jesus is God and the whole Trinity thing. They already in fact know they are in God and God is in them.

And this God, Paul declares, is life for others. He puts it this way: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth…he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Now, the Athenians have clearly lost the simplicity of the message about life for others amid a plethora of temples and multiple gods and idols. But in this respect we are not so different from they. Earlier, Acts describes them this way: “The Athenians…would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Sounds familiar? But despite their flaws, Paul manages to find an in with the Athenians (there’s that “in” again!). He finds an altar that says, “To an unknown God.” Among all their idols, they worshipped also an unknown God. Paul sees in that confession of what they did not know about God an opening to faith. And so we also may do well to speak openly about the God we do not know.   Because we might miss the God who is life for others, all others, if we know only the God who is life for us, on whom we expect to do this and that for us. You all are here to get something from God, right? Maybe that’s your idol, the god you have housed in a “shrine made of human hands,” “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Erect then also an altar to the God you do not yet know, for God is life for others, not just God for you, and God is calling you to be life for others, too.

And in fact, the Trinity that Jesus called forth, when he said that whoever has seen him has seen the Father, for he is in the father and the father is in him—this God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already erected this altar to an unknown God for us. For the Father who is life for others in the Son, and who is also our life for others when we put our life in him, when we believe in him—this Father whom we have seen in the Son is also not the Son. We have seen the Father in person in the Son, but the Father also remains unseen in himself. We know God is life for others as our Triune God, but still in the heart of this triune God is a mystery we do not know. And that’s good. For it keeps the “other” in our life for others. We may think that we know all about being for others, but we have not finished discovering which others we are going to be for, or understanding just how other they are, how unlike us; and we do not yet fully know how to be for them. As we rededicate ourselves to living a life for others this Easter, let us pay our respects at the altar to an unknown other.