Address for Pentecost 2 by Mr. Brian Bechtel, Seminarian Intern

At Virginia Theological Seminary, the students often argue about what the teachings of the Episcopal Church actually are on a given moral or theological issue. There is some debate around whether or not our Church has “teachings” at all, in the formal sense, or if it instead has something more like customs and traditions. Very little in the way of doctrine is officially defined in the canons of the Episcopal Church, and the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer gives only the briefest of outlines of the faith as a whole. Anglicanism, as a whole, is always trying to walk a fine line between dogmatism on the one hand, and relativism on the other. The dogmatism we are most familiar with would either be the Roman Catholic claim of an infallible pope, or the Evangelical claim of an inerrant Bible. We Episcopalians tend generally do a good job of avoiding that end of the spectrum. Our danger lies more in the other end, where we can lose our conviction in the specific content of our Christian faith. We can fall into what is sometimes termed “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” That is, we have a vague belief in some kind of creator god, and that this god loves us and wants us to be good and nice people, and that good people go to heaven when they die. All of the content that makes the faith specifically Christian, the story of Christ, the Incarnation of God, Christian virtues, etc. All of this is becoming a bit murky in the minds of some of the Christian faithful today. Moral Therapeutic Deism can easily see the “clay pot” aspect of our faith, but the “treasure” aspect is out of focus. What is this treasure Paul speaks of?

In today’s epistle reading when Paul uses the metaphor of “treasure in clay pots” he is speaking about how the ministers of the church are fallible human beings. But this image of treasure in clay pots is so vivid and striking because it applies to many aspects of our Christian faith. The Holy Scriptures themselves are, in a sense, earthenware vessels. We do not have the original manuscripts, and there are sometimes conflicting readings in what we do have. And our institutional Church is also a clay pot. We love our Church, and we believe that the Holy Spirit works in and through the Church, instituted by Christ himself, but at the same time, if we are to be honest with ourselves, then we must also be aware of all of the times the institutional Church has been sinful, often to ready to cozy up to the powers that be at the expense of the oppressed. The way in which the Church of England supported and was supported by colonialism is a great example of this. We are clay pots, in a clay house, as it were.
But in our honestly recognizing our own faults and shortcomings, we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of the treasure, which is the gospel itself. Not the texts of the gospels, but THE GOSPEL. The Good News that Our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and all are invited to a new life in Him. That is our faith, and is the treasure we hold onto, despite any external problems.

Paul is brilliant in this letter. He knows well how corrupt and quarrelsome people can be. Let’s face it, he’s quite often dealing with church fights, and those can get pretty ugly! He knows that life in the Church is often far from perfect, because we are all just people, and we all fall into sin. His brilliance here is to show us that God wanted it to be this way. We have treasure in clay pots “SO THAT it may be seen” that what is done is from God and not of our own power.

This juxtaposition of power with weakness defines the Christian life. Paul ties his sufferings directly to the sufferings of Christ. In Paul’s time, the stoic philosophers taught that it was virtuous to be indifferent to outside circumstances. You are to simply bear your sufferings through your own internal strength. Paul turns this thinking on his head. He says yes, you will be afflicted, perplexed, and persecuted! But not crushed, not driven to despair, and not forsaken! Why? Because as disciples of Christ we have taken on both Christ’s “death” and his “life.”
Death and life here both have multiple meanings. In always carrying the death of Jesus, we die to ourselves, leaving sin behind. The death of Jesus was a death of suffering, and Christians must be prepared to suffer at times. But we also carry the “life” of Christ in us. This of course refers to our resurrected bodies, but it is not only that. Just as “death” is both now in one sense, and in the future in another sense, so too is Christ’s life not only future, but also now. The Christian virtues to which God is calling us through this Holy Scripture are humility, and forbearance. Suffering is sometimes necessary, but it becomes possible for us, bearable for us not because of our own inner strength and determination, but because we have new life, Christ’s life in us always. This is the heart of the Gospel, the treasure in the earthenware vessel. Let us pray this week for God’s guidance, asking Him him to help us cultivate the virtues of humility and forbearance, so that God’s love and God’s power may be shown through us.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2018

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

There is a joke about how clergy try to get out of preaching on Trinity Sunday, it being the day every year when we are charged with saying something edifying about that most difficult of theological concepts. If you have a seminarian, the common advice has it, make him preach. Well, for the first time in a decade of ordained ministry I have a seminarian on the bench on Trinity Sunday, but he’s preaching next week, so it’s still up to me, it would seem.

Last year I introduced you to a Greek term—perichoresis—which describes the relationships of the three persons of the Godhead in a way quite distinct from the natural but heretical view that the Trinity is about division of labor. As you may or may not remember, the point was that the whole of God, not just a single person within the Godhead, accomplishes the work of God, and the mystery of the Trinity is less about what God does, but what he is: namely a self-sustaining relationship of love in which individuality is subsumed into the act of love, such that Father, Son and Holy Spirit can no longer be distinguished from each other.

This year I want to introduce you to another Greek term, this one perhaps a bit less dense than last year’s perichoresis. The term is kenosis, and it means “emptying”. It is a term used most widely in Christology— that is the study of the nature of Christ—but it is, I will argue, a key concept in Trinitarian theology and in its implications for our own spiritual and moral lives.

First, let’s look at the word itself. A form of the Greek verb kenóō appears five times in the New Testament, all in Pauline epistles. The most important for our purposes is found in the second chapter of the Letter to the Philippians in that great Christological hymn which Paul reproduces:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but εκενωσεν (emptied) himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

The Incarnation is a doctrine which hinges upon kenosis- self-emptying, which too often we talk about in weaker terms such as self-limitation. But the man Jesus of Nazareth’s lack of omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence was not a matter of willpower but of objective truth; it is not that he simply chose not to use the infinite power of God from moment to moment, but that he had emptied himself of that power before he was even a baby in a manger.

But what does all this have to do with the Trinity? Remember, last year’s sermon? The Trinity is characterized by a relationship of love within the Godhead. What is such love if it simply remains in one being? It seems to be narcissism. If each of us were spiritually defined by a love we had within ourselves for ourselves “full stop”, then our spiritual lives would not only be lacking, they’d be perverse.

Now, the same could not be said of God, if he chose to keep that love as a private affair, because the standards for God are not ours, and without God’s kenosis we’d not be here to argue about it. Nevertheless, what makes God’s love inestimable and salutary is precisely that it is not confined within the Godhead. At the very beginning, God chooses to empty himself of this love and pour it out; that is what creation is. The creation story in from Genesis is a great deal more than just a primitive attempt to explain the existence of things. It is a proclamation of how God’s love manifests itself, of how God could not delight in keeping such love within himself (which he could have done), but desired to pour out that love in a sort of recreation (or re-creation) that it might be shared.

In the same way, the Incarnation is a tangible example of how such love, to be perfect, is emptied out. In the same way, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is a sort of emptying, a kenosis, for as God proclaims to the prophet Joel “I will pour out my spirit,” empty myself of it, “upon all flesh.”

The Trinity, then, can be profitably understood not only in existential terms but in missiological terms. The relationship of mutual love within the Godhead (perichoresis) is one important element of our Trinitarian definition, but an appreciation of the Triune God’s activity (kenosis) is critical if we are to understand its spiritual and moral implications for us.

And what are those implications? We are called to nothing less than the same self-emptying which is exemplified in the Trinitarian mission. We are obliged to express love in a sacrificial, kenotic manner; not selfishly clutching to ourselves the love which God has poured out on us, but letting it go, pouring it out in creative action just as God did at the beginning and continues to do through the Holy Ghost. And in prayer, we pour that love back out to God, emptying ourselves that we might be filled anew, in sure and certain hope that, as St. Augustine put it, God continues to fill all things with his whole being.

It sounds awfully cerebral, but our response is rather simple. We love because God loved us. We can dress it up in lofty terms about the nature of the Trinity because it’s Trinity Sunday and it’s kind of fun to think in the terms of systematic theology. But if all of the theological hand waving that I’ve been doing for these last six or seven minutes leaves you cold, then at least take the conclusion home with you and think about it and think about your response to it. The mystery of the Trinity is above all else an affirmation of Christian love and the example we have from God himself that it must be shared.

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