Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2019

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

About six months ago a poll was conducted by Lifeway (the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing company) ant the Reformed Christian discipleship Ligonier Ministries, of American Evangelical Christians’ views on a number of theological questions. The results were shocking to me. 71% of respondents agreed with the statement “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” Perhaps some proportion of the respondents stopped reading the statement after “first and greatest” and didn’t realize that they were agreeing that Jesus was a creature rather than the preëxistent, second person of the Trinity. However, 59% also agreed with the statement “the Holy Spirit is a force, but is not a personal being.” The upshot is that roughly 2/3rds of American Evangelical Christians are either poorly catechized or knowingly heretical with regard to Trinitarian theology. I suspect it is the former, but it’s hard to know.

Now, lest you think I’m just ragging on Evangelicals, I suspect the numbers would probably be similar if Mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics were the subjects of the poll. Forgive me for complaining about this yet again, but our use of the Revised Common Lectionary (developed within the halls of American Mainline Protestantism’s former glory) has now hoisted upon us a very poor Old Testament choice for Trinity Sunday. I mean the lesson from Proverbs is beautiful, but I would have to spend this whole sermon exegeting it in gruesome detail to explain that it’s not anti-Trinitarian because it’s not about the Trinity to begin with. Again, I suspect this is more a function of poor catechesis than of willful heresy, but it’s troubling either way.

Today we celebrate this sadly little understood, but critically important dogmatic truth (dogmatic not in the commonly used sense meaning inflexible, but in the proper sense of having been defined by the Councils of the Church and enjoined on believers). Today we celebrate the mystery of the Trinity. It is a mystery (or μυστεριον) not in the “Scooby Doo” sense, where you get the answer by unveiling the masked antagonist at the end, but in the sense that it is ineffable, beyond our human capacity to fully grasp. This is not to say that one would be justified in answering a systematic theology final exam question asking you to define the Trinity by saying “it’s just a mystery.” You’d get an “F” for that answer. But it is nonetheless impossible to fully express without imperfect analogies, and in the final analysis, we claim it is a truth which is revealed rather than deduced, and thank God for that because it means we need not be great philosophers to affirm the faith handed down from the Apostles in the Scriptures and the Creeds.

I want to discuss why this doctrine itself matters, but first a story about why the fact it’s a mystery matters, too. Back in the early twentieth century, during the period of the British Raj in South Asia, a Hindu prince converted to Christianity, and this so angered his Father that he was made a Dalit, an untouchable or outcast according to the Indian caste system. A missionary later asked him why he would do such a thing, give up his wealth and position and social status in order to become a Christian, and he said “I’ve come to the belief that I cannot believe in immortal gods with mortal characteristics. I need an immortal God with immortal characteristics.” A colleague of mine once said “if you can figure out God, you may not want to worship him,” and this rings true, to me at least as somebody naturally disposed to feeling as if I have to have everything explained to my satisfaction.

So this is why mystery matters, but why does this mysterious doctrine itself matter. There are a number of reasons, of which I’ll limit myself to three.

First, this may be the most strident thing you’ve ever heard me say from this pulpit, so “trigger warning” as the youngsters say. Jesus Christ was not primarily a wisdom teacher or a moral prophet or a spiritual guru. It seems to me that Jesus Christ was one of three things: he was either a crazy person or he was an evil person or he was true God the Son of God, the preëxistent Word of God through whom all things came into being. If you believe as I believe that the Scriptures are reliable in reporting to us that Jesus of Nazareth went around ancient Palestine claiming to be the Son of God, then either he was telling the truth or he wasn’t. If he wasn’t he either had a mental illness of the sort that leads people to claim to be Napoleon or be made of glass or else he was a charlatan who happened to establish the most successful con job of all time. If however he was telling the truth–the conviction that he was telling the truth being that which I would stake my whole life on if God willed it–permits us to see all the other claims about him (his role as mediator between us and the Father, his status as the great moral example, his role in imparting wisdom and enlightenment during his earthly life and then after by his pouring out the Holy Spirit) are thus trustworthy and true.

Second, and perhaps only slightly less strident than the first claim, either the Holy Spirit is a person with whom we can have a relationship or we can never have confidence that our religious experience and motivation is anything more than our brain synapses being fired and dopamine being pumped through our system. This, I claim (and it is a bold claim), is born out empirically. There is a great irony present in Christian history in the last century-and-a-half or so, which is oft overlooked and which I believe somebody (not me) should use as the basis for a monograph. Those segments of the Christian movement (whether or not they be part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church) which speak most often and sometimes even most-compellingly of the action of the Holy Spirit in fact have the lowest view of that same same Spirit’s ontological status.

What does that mean, in simple English and put more bluntly than is comfortable in our age of ecumenism and pluralism? Those movements which claim the necessity for salvation of the expression of certain charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit are less likely to view that same Holy Spirit as God; about a tenth of Pentecostalists belong to denominations which are explicitly non-Trinitarian. New religious movements which place a high importance on continuing revelation (an act of the Holy Spirit) are almost universally non-Trinatarian- Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses being the most well-known of such sects.

Like I said, this is ironic and peculiar, and I don’t know exactly why this should be the case. I could speculate, and my speculation would go like this: if the Holy Spirit is not God, he can be manipulated, used as a tool for some agenda or to receive some spiritual benefit at the discretion of the adherent rather than by God’s will alone. I do not mean that this is done in malice, but rather by some subconscious impulse. If the Holy Spirit is merely some spiritual force, no problem. If the Holy Spirit is indeed God, though, then such act would fit the classical definition of superstition- to place oneself above God in order to manipulate him.

Now, I don’t want to reject outright the possibility that charismatic gifts and private revelation are possible through the action of the Holy Spirit in our midst. You all know my own piety is rather “high and dry”, but I don’t discount the possibility of genuine experiences of this sort. I do believe the discernment of a community and the larger church are necessary to determine what is of God and what is not in this regard. Paul implies as much in his lengthy discourse on spiritual gifts in his First Epistle to the Corinthians and John makes this requirement explicit in his First Epistle General. This concern for discernment does not seem to be shared by many in these non-Trinitarian movements.

Anyway, we can see based on plain old empirical evidence rather than some theological proof that recognizing the Holy Spirit as a co-equal person within the Godhead rather than some spectral force or demiurge, seems to stand as a bulwark against emotionalism and radicalism and their concomitant abuses.

Thirdly, and finally, and most importantly, we are reminded in this morning’s Epistle that salvation itself is Trinitarian in shape. Paul tells the Christians in Rome and us that Jesus Christ has justified (or δικαιωθέντες, literally “vindicated”) us, making peace on our behalf with God the Father and making his love take up residence in us through the Holy Spirit.

I went back and read my sermons from the last two years, and realized that there was a sort of inherent progression in my argument, quite by accident, which is hard to recognize when we have a full year between each time we’re called upon to consider the doctrine of the Trinity. A very quick summary then: two years ago I introduced you to the Greek term περιχώρησις which suggests the circumincession or interpenetration of the members of the Godhead, whereby the relationship of perfect love within the Godhead makes Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indistinguishable except insofar as we can recognize that relationship itself being definitive. This is what theologians call an immanent model of the Trinity, that is, one that attempts to define who God is in himself. Then last year I introduced you to the Greek term κένωσις, or “emptying out”, getting at the activity in which the God is eternally active, in the pouring out of himself in creation, the emptying out of his Grace in the sacrifice on Calvary, and the teeming down of the Holy Spirit upon the earth at Pentecost. This is what theologians call the Trinitarian Mission, that is, what God does for us and for the whole world.

This year, since it’s become a tradition, I’ll give you one more little Greek lesson. The word of the day today is οἰκονομία. It might sound familiar because it’s where we get the English word “economy.” It literally means something like “housework” which means “home economics” is a redundant phrase. It has, of course, come to mean handling or management, now narrowly defined as financial resources and their management. But in theological terms it means God’s divine management of our fallen world. The Economic Trinity, then, is how Salvation is wrought and how we are brought to participate in it, by means of the Trinitarian mission (as opposed to the Immanent Trinity I’ve already mentioned, which deals with how God coheres in himself). The Eastern Orthodox tend to draw a distinction here between theology and economy, which is a useful distinction, if a bit confusing considering how these two words ave evolved in common use in the West.

So all God does, he does with one will as his whole self, indivisible. With regard to theology proper, the only distinction, as affirmed by both the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, is the Father’s status as Source of Divinity, the Son’s being eternally begotten from the Father, and the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from both. With regard to the economy of salvation, however, God is revealed to us as, we might say, “the ‘by whom’, the ‘through whom’, and the ‘in whom’.” The Father, our righteous judge; Jesus Christ our mediator and advocate; and the Spirit, our subsistence in holiness. With regard to substance, will, incomprehensibility, eternal existence, uncreated nature, there is no distinction. With regard to the Economy of Salvation, the distinction exists through what Augustine and Hilary of Poitiers and others called “appropriation.” That is to say that the whole of God saving us with his whole self can be understood in terms of the divine relationship described in our lesson from Romans, but at the fundamental level of Being, God has all within himself to delight himself, but has by the great immensity of that defining love, made us and called us to himself in terms we can start to get our heads and hearts around.

The point is this… We are not the ones saving ourselves. We cannot do that, and the belief that we can is idolatry of the highest order. We are not working toward perfecting ourselves or the world around us; trust in our own ability to do so is idolatry of the highest order. God has done this work and is doing this work and will do this work, because within the Godhead exists the relationship of perfect love which along can effect it. Not that he had to, but that he chose to, so great was that love. Because the “by whom” the “through whom” and the “in whom” is sovereign, and through that preëxistent relationship of unity in trinity and the pouring out of the same on humanity, we have been given a sort of grammar by which we can participate as recipients of Grace and even the capacity to serve as vessels, broken as we may be, of that Grace for the world, so long as we recognize it is not we ourselves but Christ, sharing the love of God, in the power of the Spirit who acts through us for the salvation of the world. In short, it’s not about us, it’s about the Lord God Almighty, who has within himself all that is needful, but for love’s sake has brought us in, made us inheritors of the Kingdom, and given us this brief time to come to know and love Him above all things in preparation for eternity.

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

Sermon for Whitsunday 2019

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

I saw a meme online earlier this week that often gets shared around this time of year with a toddler in a tuxedo looking very insistent, and saying “if Pentecost is the birthday of the church, there better be some cake at coffee hour.”

We often refer to Pentecost “the birthday of the Church”, but why? There seem other likely candidates. Take Christmas. The Son of God is born in a manger in Bethlehem. He’s surrounded by his Blessed Mother and her spouse, by shepherds and angels, and all are engaged in reverent worship. That sounds like it might have been the first Christian worship service, the beginning of the church as we know it. The church’s birth.

Or, for that matter, what about Easter. Christ is risen from the dead and it is by his resurrection that the community of the disciples and all Christians who follow are given new life. What’s more, it’s not only the faithful, but all of creation that is profoundly changed, is radically re-created, by Christ’s conquest of death and his victory over the grave. It seems like the church is born, at least in a sense, fifty days prior to Pentecost, if not thirty-three years.

Perhaps something different from the “birthday metaphor” might capture the essence of Pentecost more fully, or at least in a new and interesting way. Maybe it’s just because it’s that time of year, but I wonder if Pentecost might be more like the “graduation day of the church.”

Graduations have been on many of our minds of late. Several of our own have received degrees and diplomas in the last few weeks. Graduations tend to effect the relationships between parent and child. Often it’s the immediate precursor to moving out, that bittersweet moment in which a child goes off to college or moves into a new apartment and gets a job or gets shipped off with the service or whatever.

The relationship between parent and child is changed. Hopefully it remains a supportive relationship for the child, but it’s a very different kind of support. Hopefully direction is still provided, but it’s likely to be to a different degree. A little more (or a lot more) independence is expected of the child and a little more (or a lot more) trust is required of the parent.

Christ is ascended into heaven. God is no longer experienced in quite the same way as when a man named Jesus, who is God, was walking around in ancient Palestine and you could touch him. The initial, natural response to such a reality is the response of the disciples- feel abandoned, get frightened, lock yourselves up in a room in Jerusalem just like when you thought Jesus was dead forever. The good news of Pentecost is that God has not abandoned us at all. He is still present and active in our lives and in the life of the Church, albeit in a new and different way. He still supports us, the support is just a little different. Direction is still provided, it’s just in a different way. A lot more independence is expected, and a lot more trust is required. You see, it’s a little like growing up- graduating and moving out and the rest. God’s still here, it’s just different, because we’ve grown up a little.

We miss this if we take a purely functional view of the Holy Spiri. We’ll explore this a little more next week, on Trinity Sunday, when we confront the truth that the Trinity is not about division of labor but, rather, the nature of relationship. For now, let’s just take the Holy Spirit as an example. We miss the point of Pentecost and the Church’s life after it, if we think about the Holy Spirit entirely in terms of what He does. We can start to think about the Holy Spirit as some obscure agent who accomplishes tasks. He’s kind of like the universal translator in Star Trek (you know, the device that let the crew of the Enterprise talk to Vulcans and Klingons and the like in more-or-less proper English). That’s kind of what he does on the first Pentecost. He’s also kind of like a prayer partner. Paul says he cries “Abba, Father” within us to bear witness that we are children of God. He’s also kind of like a counselor. That’s what the word Advocate (or Paraclete) from this morning’s Gospel means. He comforts us when we’re in pain (like a therapeutic counselor) and he intercedes for us in the court of heaven (like legal cousel).

But, like I said, if we get bogged down in tasks which we tend to attribute to the Holy Spirit, we miss the larger point. The important truth about Pentecost is that God is still with us, but not in the same way he used to be. The Father has given us a little more line. God, the Holy Spirit, still directs us, but we’ve grown up and we’ve got to get on with the Christian life as adults. We can come back home from college for Christmas and sit at the dinner table for a while, but we can’t linger forever anymore. We can, and must, come back to church week-by-week and feed on the goodness of God in the sacrament, but we don’t have the luxury of staying put anymore. We don’t have the luxury of hanging out in Galillee with Jesus all the time. We’ve got to get back into the mission field, beyond these walls, to get on with the work God has given us to do.

The blessed assurance of God’s continued presence, which is the Holy Spirit, rousted the apostles out of their fear and their complacency. It got them to grow up, to go out, and to spread the Gospel. That is the promise and the challenge of Pentecost for each of us and for the Church as a whole. We’ve got the freedom to do God’s work and the promise of his presence. When we’re dismissed from Church we’re dismissed with marching orders (pay attention at the end of the service). Let’s actually make a point of “going in peace to love and serve the Lord”, of “going forth in the name of Christ” to do his will, of “going out into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” We may be assured that when we do, God will not abandon us, but he will give us the room to do his work ourselves, if we have the courage and conviction to try.

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

Sermon for Easter 6 2019

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

As a consequence of both having poor eyesight and being a rather clumsy person, I’ve never much enjoyed the dark. I dislike that feeling of waking up in the middle of the night and stumbling around to find my glasses, perhaps tripping over a cat or the shoes I left in the wrong place or whatever. I’m lucky to live in the developed world in the twenty-first century where electric lighting is ubiquitous.

Several years ago I read Bill Bryson’s amusing, discursive history of domestic life titled At Home, and I learned that the world in general and houses in particular were much darker places prior to the last century. I’m afraid that if I had lived in those days I would have either broken the bank buying candles or else would have met an untimely end on some shadowy staircase.

Imagine, then, how surprising the imagery in this morning’s reading from Revelation would have been to people living in a literally much darker world:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day–and there shall be no night there … And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever.

Light and dark imagery is seen throughout scripture, and I suspect it would have been more striking to these ancient people for whom the dark was a very dangerous reality. Bandits and predators struck in the dark. At nightfall you’d lock the gates to the city, and you’d probably stay in your house unless you were looking to get into some mischief.

And as dangerous as the literal darkness would have been, the metaphorical darkness in which the early church operated was a necessary evil. The church was being persecuted, and the best way to avoid death was to act like the bandits- move in secret, don’t get found out, worship God in locked rooms and catacombs.

How heartening, then, was this message of daylight! No longer would Christians need to scurry about in the dark, hiding from their torch-bearing persecutors. Finally, the true light which came to enlighten humanity could shine for all the world to see! The glory of God and of the Lamb would shine into every corner, bringing the righteous into a new and everlasting day and showing the designs of the wicked to be but vanity.

And now for the really interesting question, the question which makes the book of Revelation such a problematic text: Has this taken place? Are we, God’s faithful people, enjoying the light or is it an as-yet dim but growing hope.

As my sermons over the last few weeks implied, I think it’s both. On the one hand, the majority of Christians can now be pretty open about their religion. Since Constantine, the Church has enjoyed a privileged place in Western society, even if it no longer has the authority it once had in the day-to-day lives of adherents and the larger culture. The Church continues to grow in the global south, and societies which once saw the Faith as a threat are starting to loosen up on enforcing laws which discriminate against Christians. Things are by no means perfect, but they’re getting better, at least in some parts of the world.

But we’ve not yet reached that perfect state of light. Sin and death are still with us. The vision of Revelation is not just about Christians escaping outright persecution (though that was the prevailing issue when the book was written). It’s also about all things being made subject to the reign of Christ. We’ve not yet seen “the kings of the earth bringing their glory into [the city of God].” It may have seemed like that for about a millennium, between Constantine and the Reformation, but the story was and remains a great deal more complex than that.

So, as much progress as has been made over the last two-thousand years, there is still darkness. There are still corners into which the salvific light of God has not shone. The nations have not been fully healed. Not all have the name of the lamb inscribed on their foreheads and in their hearts.

So, the image of the City of God, the New Jerusalem, is still a hope. It is a hope for which we’ve been given a foretaste in the Church and Her Sacraments, but all is not yet accomplished.

And so we pray and we work for the Kingdom, in the sure and certain hope that it is our birthright in Baptism. We don’t just wait around waiting for “pie in the sky when we die, by and by”, because the vision of the Holy City is a vision of the coming reality of this world, too. Rather, we light a candle here and there, causing the gloom to take flight, and one day, perhaps when we least expect it, the world will be so full of the light of Grace that the darkness will have no bastion remaining, and all things everywhere will be transformed into just what God intends for them.

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