Sunday, May 30, 2010

Experiencing the Trinity

Trinity Sunday – Year C (RCL)
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
Sunday, May 30, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

[Following is the original text of the sermon I wrote for Trinity Sunday. I actually preached from an outline instead of a manuscript.]

There’s a famous Far Side cartoon that I’m sure many of you have seen that has a crazed-looking scientist in front of a blackboard. The board is filled with intricate mathematical formulas and calculations. And down in the lower right hand corner, just before the solution, is a clear area with the words “then a miracle happens.” Well, my seminary theology class was sort of like that. In class, we discussed such things as the Trinity and other equally, if not more complicated concepts. At times, it was enough to make your head hurt. In our discussions, we invariably reached a point where we just couldn’t go any further. It was like the scientist who, in order to come to a solution, needed a miracle. Well, our equivalent was “it’s a mystery.” Whenever we reached a point where we couldn’t go any further, the only possible solution was “it’s a mystery.” But that was a cop-out. To prevent us from avoiding struggling with difficult issues, Professor Wondra only allowed us to use “it’s a mystery” in the last ten minutes of class.

When it comes to theological concepts, there are a lot of difficult to understand and certainly a lot of difficult to explain concepts. And we find ourselves faced with one of those today – the Trinity. If this were the last ten minutes of worship, I might be tempted to invoke “it’s a mystery” and be done with it. But I hear Professor Wondra’s voice in my head, telling me to slog through it. So here goes.

When we start talking about the Trinity, we tend to get all theological and almost immediately run into such concepts and descriptions of God as three in one and one in three. We begin to talk about essence and nature and being and persons. And pretty quickly we enter denser terrain, with concepts with obscure Greek names like homoousios, heteroousios , and perichoresis.

As much as clergy dread trying to explain the Trinity, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, we still tend to want to get hung up on the doctrine of the Trinity, with providing explanations of just how the Trinity “works.” As such, we often try to come up with creative analogies to describe how the Trinity works, such as the much used image of the Trinity as being like water, being one substance but existing in three states – liquid, solid, and vapor. Or else we may want to discuss the various functions of the various Persons of the Trinity, such as the Father being the creative force, the Son being catalyst for the act of redemption and salvation, and the Holy Spirit being the guiding, inspiring, and energizing force. Or we want to discuss the relationship aspect, of how the three Persons inter-relate and how this should be a model for Christian community.

Now this is all very interesting, or can be very interesting from an academic perspective. We could have great fun taking any of these approaches, and would certainly learn something about the Trinity in the process. But as I see it, understanding the Trinity, if that is even really possible, is not what’s truly important. We don’t need to know how electricity works before we can switch on a lamp. Likewise, we are not required to understand the intricacies of the Trinity and how “it” works in order to be Christians or to worship God.

Johannes Tauler, a German pastor, writes “To experience the working of the Trinity is better than to talk about it.” I would go one step further. We can talk about the whys and wherefores of the Trinity all we want, but that does not make us Christians. To be Christian, we must experience the Trinity.

If you look at our scripture readings for today, none of them tell us how the Trinity “works.” Rather, all of the readings are intended to help us with our experience of the Trinity. And it is no accident that while today we are exploring the Trinity, the lectionary readings primarily focus on the Holy Spirit. For it is only through the Spirit that we are able to really experience the Trinity in our lives. The Holy Spirit is the Person that connects us with the other two Persons, to the Father and the Son.

Proverbs talks about wisdom and invokes the imagery of Sophia, the personification of Wisdom, which is also used as an image for the Holy Spirit, particularly in the Old Testament. In this passage from Proverbs, Wisdom, the Holy Spirit, is calling out to us. Lady Wisdom reveals something of herself, of her relationship with the Creator, and her place within the Godhead. She delights in humanity and nurtures us. She tenderly woos us, seeking engagement with us. She seeks an intimate relationship with us so that we may be in relationship with the entirety of the Godhead.

Our Gospel reading from John has Jesus focusing on the Spirit, which he has promised will be sent by God following Jesus’ death. Only in passing does he connects the subject of the Spirit with God and with himself. Of primary importance is that the Spirit, whom Jesus refers to as the Sprit of truth, will continue to edify and instruct God’s people, continuing that role that Jesus began before his death. And in addition, the Sprit will provide a guiding and inspiring function.

The Epistle lesson provides the broadest and most useful explanation of our experience of the Trinity. Romans has Paul talking about the Holy Spirit, but in the context of the other two Persons of the Trinity. The central theme that Paul uses is that of faith, and particularly justification by faith – that our justification, in which God forgives our sins and brings us into right relationship with him, is a gift of grace that the Father promises us, a gift that is made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and is received in and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives – a gift involving all three Persons of the Trinity, requiring all three to be fulfilled. At the end of today’s passage from Roman’s, Paul writes “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” As such, the Holy Spirit is the direct manifestation of God in our lives. It is the way that we most directly and most intimately know God. The Spirit is what provides the connection to the Godhead and to the other persons of the Trinity. The Spirit is what allows us to be directly in relationship with the Father and the Son. While all three Persons of the Trinity are important and necessary, it is the Holy Spirit that allows us to experience the Trinity.

Of course, we experience each Person of the Trinity in different ways, and each of us experience them to varying degrees and in varying ways. Probably the most direct way in which we experience the First Person of the Trinity, the Father, is through God’s creative nature. We probably experience the Father first and foremost through creation, through our encounter with and enjoyment of the natural environment. And while we may not consciously think about it, we encounter the Father in the very fact that we have been created. And not just as any creature, but that we are made in the image and likeness of God.

Probably the most direct way we experience the Son, Jesus Christ, is through our religion and our faith. We are followers of Christ. Our whole belief system is based on the centrality of the Second Person of the Trinity to our experience of the divine, to our experience of the mysterious. Our cognitive experience of the Son comes primarily through the Gospels, the story of his life and the summary of his teachings. But we have a more personal relationship. This is the product of what Christ has directly done for each and every one of us. Through his death and resurrection, he has liberated us from the bondage of sin and death. He has given us new and eternal life. While granted to all humanity, there is still a very personal quality to this act. For many, Christ’s presence in the world is manifest in an abiding friendship, in Jesus Christ as a companion with us on life’s journey.

Trying to generalize the experience of the Holy Spirit is probably more difficult, since the Holy Spirit is a more personal and intimate expression of God’s love, as Paul tells us. Although by and large, most people would probably concur that our experiences of the Holy Spirit tend to come in the form of her inspiration and guidance. This is often manifested in such ways as creativity, intuition, and insight. These are the ways I specifically experience the Holy Spirit. Your own experiences may be different – perhaps more subtle, perhaps more obvious.

Taken together, the varied ways we encounter the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit provide us with our own unique experience of the Trinity – experiences that certainly shape and influence our religious beliefs, but also influence our daily lives. Taken as a whole, our experiences of the Trinity reflect the relationship we have with God, and include three major components: the creative force of the Father, the presence and fellowship of the Son, and the vivifying and energizing force of the Holy Spirit. All these are reflected to one degree or another in our individual lives and experiences of the Trinity.

And these are also reflected in our communal experience of the Trinity. In our case, and given our parish’s history and on-going journey together, I think it is particularly appropriate that this place is named “Trinity.” Throughout our history this parish community has lived out the characteristics of the Trinity. We continue to do so in the present. And as we look to where we see ourselves in the in the future, this parish community is well-poised to continue to live the characteristics of the Trinity. We are actively demonstrating how the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is experienced in our lives, by going into the world.

God the Father provides the creative force in the world. As a parish, we are currently in the process of inventorying the gifts and talents of our parishioners. We are examining the needs of the community. We are identifying the passions of our members. Very shortly, all this will come together and we will begin looking at new and creative ways that we can do ministry in the community. In that work, we hope to be co-creators with God the Father, using our creative talents and energies, to create something new in this City.

Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the Godhead in our world. During his earthly life and ministry, he was the presence both physical and divine, of God, ministering to those whom he encountered, serving as a witness to the love and mercy of God. And even through his death and resurrection, he continues to be a palpable presence in the lives of his followers. So too, Trinity parish, since its founding, has been a presence in the City of Redlands and surrounding communities, witnessing to the power of God, demonstrating in action the love of God for all people, being the hands and feet of Christ in our little part of the world. We bring the presence of Christ every time we feed the homeless, visit shut-ins, help connect a child with a parent in jail, and in all the many other ways we minister to God’s children.

The Holy Spirit is the vivifying, energizing force that guides and inspires us, giving the energy to do the ministry that we are called to do. So too is Trinity parish an energizing force. Just in the last year, we have started some new and exciting things that are energizing the community – namely Blue Christmas and Las Posadas. The energy of the Spirit, working through this parish helped create these, and there is much energy around the continuation of these activities, bringing new life to the ecumenical work in this community.

None of these things, none of these manifestations of the characteristics of the Trinity would be made possible in Trinity parish if it were not for the direct experience of the Trinity in the lives of each and every one of us. Whether we recognize it or not, it is those experiences of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our individual lives that bring us here week after week, and prompts us onward to share those experiences with one another and the broader community.

No matter how much we talk about the workings of the Trinity, about the doctrines and theological explanations, it would still just be a bunch of talk, and in the process no real ministry would be done. It is not in the talking, but in the experiencing, that we come to learn and live the true meaning of the Trinity, both individually and as a parish community also called Trinity. And that, my friends, is the secret to addressing the mystery of the Trinity.

Through the experience of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Read more!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Us and Them Problem

Fifth Sunday of Easter – Year C (RCL)
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 2:1-6; John 13:31-35
Sunday, May 2, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

“If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)

The Church has always struggled with an “us and them” problem. At any given point in time, there has been a fence around the church, keeping “them” out, and keeping “us” safe from “their” influence. Those who comprise “them” has varied over the years. People of a particular nationality, persons of color, female clergy, gays and lesbians, the poor, just to name a few. Such division is not new to the Church. In fact, we can trace it back to day one. And our reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us how the early church dealt with the original “us and them” problem.

In the early days of the church, and we’re literally talking days, there were already factions among those who followed Jesus. The very first Christians were originally Jewish. Early on, tension arose between the Jewish Christians and Gentiles who were beginning to believe in Jesus Christ. Specifically, the tension was over what was required to become a follower of Christ. Many of the Jewish Christians felt that one first needed to convert to Judaism and follow the Jewish laws and ritual practices. Others didn’t feel that this was important, that one could believe in Christ without being Jewish. It was all about defining who’s in and who’s out.

Today’s story has Peter, leader of the Jewish Christian community, embroiled in this very issue as he faces criticism for being in fellowship with Gentile Christians. The criticism levied against him is in reference to what is documented in the previous chapter of Acts, where Peter baptizes Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household. And then following the baptism, Peter stays for the reception, eating and consorting with Gentiles, thereby going against Jewish purity laws. Not only that, but in eating with Gentiles, Peter is not only accepting their hospitality, but is also giving tacit approval to their beliefs and practices – their non-Jewish beliefs and practices.

Now I don’t think the other leaders of the Jewish Christian community, the ones criticizing Peter, were against the baptism of Gentiles. That wasn’t the issue. After all, Jesus, before his ascension, commanded them to spread the gospel to the whole world, including the rite of baptism as the means for inclusion in the Body of Christ. Peter was doing just that when he baptized Cornelius and his family. That event was the start of mission to the Gentile world, the mission Jesus had given the disciples. No, what was happening was that the leaders of the church got hung up on the details, on the minutia, of what it meant to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles. As a result, they missed the point.

Fortunately, Peter could relate to what they were struggling with. He himself had the same struggles just before his encounter with Cornelius. And to help his colleagues out, he relates to them his own struggle with this very issue. He tells them of a vision he had, in which a sheet came down from heaven with all sorts of animals on it. In the vision, God commands him to eat of these animals. When Peter objects, citing that to do so would violate Jewish dietary laws, God counters with the statement, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter immediately understands that the message God is conveying is not about dietary laws per se, but about inclusion – that he wishes all to be included in the church, Jews and Gentiles alike. And with that new understanding, Peter went and baptized Cornelius and his household, welcoming them into the Body of Christ.

This scene of Peter’s vision was obviously of importance to the early church because it is told not just once, but twice. The 10th chapter of Acts contains the first telling of the vision, in real time, as it were. And then in today’s reading from the 11th chapter, Peter retells his vision from a week previous for the benefit of his colleagues. This vision is worthy of repetition in our sacred writings because it was a pivotal moment in the life of the early church, for several reasons. One, it is important precisely because of the intended message – that all are welcomed at the table, Jews and Gentiles alike. And two, because of the process. The various sides in the issue, while holding definite notions about how things should be done, did not become entrenched in their positions. They were open to listening – listening to each other, and listening for the Spirit to guide them. They were genuinely open to discernment of the course of action that would be in keeping with their purpose, with the central message that Jesus Christ proclaimed – that all are welcomed here.

Because of the genuine listening, the willingness to suspend personal agendas, and the willingness to enter into a process of discernment, the leadership of the Jewish Christian community was able to experience a change of heart and mind, just as a week earlier Peter had experienced a change of heart and mind. In fact, it was because of Peter’s witness to the transformation that he had experienced that the other leaders were able to do likewise. This openness to listening, to discernment of the Spirit, to discernment of God’s voice, was the basis for making a decision that would change the face of the early Christian religion, forever altering the course that it would take.

Despite the struggles of our forebears, the Church has not completely learned the lessons contained in those events. As a whole, the Church and the various expressions thereof have continued along the path initially embarked upon by Peter’s critics. Just as they got hung up on who’s in and who’s out, just as they got hung up on the details and the minutia of what it means to worship the “right way,” just as they got hung up on what specifically one had to believe in order to be part of the “true” faith, so have we been guilty throughout the two thousand years of our history.

But rather than beat ourselves up over it, what we need to do is step back and take a look at the lessons of the early church, and re-learn what they have to teach us. And there are two specifics contained in today’s scripture readings that we should heed.

The first comes from the Gospel reading from John. Jesus tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Loving one another means that we don’t get hung up on who’s in and who’s out, because we recognize that all are welcomed at the table. Loving one another means that we don’t get hung up on the details and the minutia, because that’s not what’s important. Rather than get hung up on, obsessing about, and worshiping the specific way we do things, rather than obsessing about and worshiping our own agendas and preconceived notions, we need to focus on the essentials. And when it comes to living our faith, Jesus’ commandment that we love one another is about as essential as it gets. In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind; and that we are to love our your neighbor as yourself. This is the core. All else flows from this message. If we just try to do that, everything else will take care of itself.

This should be obvious. Yet I am amazed at how often the subject comes up in one way or another. Just this past week, the struggle with this concept came up three times in just one day – in discussions at two Eucharists and one Bible study, all involving different readings, different people, different contexts. But the discussion always came around to the essentials of faith and the necessity of focusing on what is truly important and not obsessing about the extra trappings.

The second lesson from the early church is how they dealt with disagreement. In our own time, we tend to deal with disagreements through debate. Each side attempts to present their best arguments, substantiated by all sorts of Biblical evidence and theological justifications. Well that just doesn’t work most of the time. If anything, argument and debate only serve to solidify differences, to cause us to become more entrenched in our own positions, more determined to prove ourselves right. But that wasn’t how the early church operated, at least not the model for church lifted up in Acts 11. Peter didn’t present theological debates about why the church should include Gentiles. Instead, he told a story. Why? Because stories invite people into the process. Stories show how God has worked in our lives, and those hearing the stories may be able to relate them to their own lives and experiences. And when we look at our lives and experiences, we find that, regardless of our positions on various issues, we are not so different after all. We find that we share core values and beliefs, and that the other trappings are not that important in the grand scheme of things.

Remember, when confronted with disagreements, Jesus did not use debate or theological arguments. He used parables, stories, to make his point. Because stories change lives, arguments do not. Stories allow for the finding of common ground, while debates only serve to divide and to perpetuate separation. This is because debate comes from within ourselves, born of our own motives and agendas, whereas story and discernment come from outside ourselves, born of the desire for clarity and openness. Debate makes no room for God. Story and discernment make room for God to work. As one pastor notes, “If we would only learn to be story tellers and tell compelling stories . . . we could leave the rest up to the Spirit who takes up where stories end” (Jones, 455).

As we continue to grow and to expand our mission and ministry out into the world, we may at times be confronted with some of the same issues as the early church – to become obsessed with identifying who’s in and who’s out, to get hung up on inconsequential details and minutia because it can seem safer and less messy for “us” than dealing with “them” out there. Instead, we need to refocus, remembering what is essential – love of God and love of neighbor – and to recall our own stories of how God and neighbor have been at work in our own lives, to share those stories, and then to step back and let the Spirit guide us where it will. For who are we that we could hinder God?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Stephen D. Jones. “Acts 11:1-18, Homiletical Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Read more!