Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

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

I wonder how many of us have been through a situation similar to Jesus’ in the morning’s Gospel. Our Lord was, let’s be honest, causing scandal, and his family was afraid he’d gone mad. I think that the first time my parents learned that I wanted to be a priest, they thought I’d gone mad. When Jesus’ family finally approaches, Jesus’ response is not especially polite:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” 

One wonders how Jesus’ family—the mother and father who raised him and the kinsmen with whom he grew up—felt about this. One suspects they might have felt horribly betrayed!

This is certainly a shocking story, though I think it has something to tell us, and it may be something which some of us are unwilling to hear. Even though I joked about my parents probably thinking my choice of vocation to be madness, I am fortunate in that they never stood in the way of what I felt God was calling me to do and who God was calling me to be. This is not always the case. I didn’t know how fortunate I was that my mom and dad found it entirely appropriate that I should move off to a college 1,500 miles away, or live in the big scary city (that’s New York, which is big, but honestly not scary) afterward. They never told me, when I was in my early twenties I couldn’t go hang out with missionaries in Pakistan or cross the border from Israel into some of the more “iffy” parts of the Palestinian Territories or try (unsuccessfully) to insinuate myself into one of the underground churches in Southwest China. I was more or less an adult, after all.

These are extreme examples, but I have heard stories of family expectations seriously impeding a young man or woman’s development into the kind of person they feel God wants them to be. Going off to college? That’s madness! Choosing to live somewhere besides the family property? Madness!

I don’t mean to suggest that we have no responsibility to honor the expectations and hopes of our elders. I do, however, mean to suggest that parents and other family and friends need to respect the potential vocations of their loved ones. When I say “vocation”, I don’t mean profession, but rather calling. Perhaps God is truly calling a son or daughter into a life which takes them far away. Perhaps God is calling that child to an endeavor we might think is irregular at best or foolish at worst. The trick is to help that loved one discern God’s call and support him or her when he or she has made a prayerful decision.

The risk in not doing so is to be either purposefully at odds with God’s will or uncomfortably convicted by Jesus’ assessment of his mother and brothers when it’s too late to say “I don’t understand, but I support you.”

We know that in Jesus’ case, even if his family were caught off guard by the comments in today’s Gospel, reconciliation was effected. Our Lady was present at the cross, keeping her vigil, surely knowing that as horrible as it all seemed her son was following the Will of his Heavenly Father. None of us is as gracious as the Blessed Virgin, though, so we must be all the more reticent when we may be dissuading or manipulating somebody against God’s will for them. When we’re conscious of this pitfall and prayerful in our response, we not only avoid a great deal of grief. We are able, at last, to see just how unexpectedly God can work through loved ones and circumstances we never would have imagined.

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

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

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

“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In his nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus establishes the sine qua non of what it means to be a Christian. My temptation when encountering this text again earlier this week was to preach about a debate being held in some quarters of the church over Communion of the unbaptized- something for which some dioceses and clergy have expressed support in recent years, but which I, frankly, cannot reconcile with the historic teaching of the church. Instead of wading into that controversy, though, I’d like to talk about Baptism more generally this morning and in particular how it relates to our Trinitarian theology.

This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus will be familiar to some, but what precisely Jesus means has been interpreted in different ways. Some have suggested that “being born of water and the spirit” isn’t necessarily about Baptism at all. Apparently there is some water involved in the physical process of child birth. These people suggest that Jesus is here distinguishing physical birth (with its concomitant water) from spiritual birth (some sort of charismatic “anointing” as a pentecostalist might say).

I don’t buy this argument, because the context of the passage in John suggests an explicitly Sacramental focus in the first three chapters of the Gospel. Jesus is baptized by John, he turns water into wine in Cana at a wedding (that’s two Sacraments—Eucharist and Matrimony—foreshadowed in one story), and then he meets up with Nicodemus. I would contend, then, that Jesus is most assuredly talking about Baptism here.

Others have taken the story to indeed refer to Baptism, but to suggest a very different idea about the Sacrament than what the Church has always taught (and here I get a bit polemical, for which I apologize, but I want to be clear about what we believe). This began with small groups of sixteenth century reformers known as Anabaptists and gained popularity in evangelical and fundamentalist sects in the last two centuries. These would claim that for Baptism to be effective the baptizand must believe. Whether this simply means granting cognitive assent to Christian truth or having some sort of spiritual experience, such sects would reject infant baptism.

This position comes, I believe, from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. First, it assumes a disconnection between water and spirit which the Greek can neither support. More importantly, though, said interpretation makes a mistake in how it understands Jesus’ insistence that one must be “born anew”. Some translations read “born from above” and others read “born again”, which is the standard translation cited by opponents of infant Baptism. All these translations are technically correct. The Greek word anōthen could mean “born again” or “born from above”. Nicodemus mistakenly assumes it is the former, and those who teach so-called “believer’s baptism” make the same mistake as Nicodemus. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ confusion is one of correction. “No, Nicodemus, I didn’t mean that you had to be ‘born again’ exactly,” he might have said, “but that you need to be Baptized.”

So, the rebirth (or regeneration) is not a discrete experience symbolized by Baptism. It is, rather, the actual, objective effect of Baptism. Though a small child may not know precisely what’s happening (indeed, though even an adult cannot fully grasp the nature and importance of the great mystery of this Sacrament), God does, and we all, regardless of our understanding, receive the grace of the Sacrament, which is the forgiveness of sins and inclusion in the Kingdom of God.

Today is Trinity Sunday, and I’m going to break the tradition I’ve established over the last few years of introducing a complicated theological concept with a funny Greek name (though surely some of you remember my previous Trinity Sunday sermons on perichoresis and kenosis). Instead I want to conclude by saying how the mystery of the Holy Trinity relates to Baptism. It is obvious enough that we baptize in the name of the Trinity, but why?

If there’s one point about Trinitarian theology I repeat ad nauseum it is that the fundamental reality of the Trinity is not about a division of labor, but about a relationship of love. It’s not that the Father does some stuff (create the world, say) and the Holy Spirit does other stuff and the Son still different tasks. The whole of God is active in the work of God. The reason the Trinity matters is because it means that God was Himself a relationship before all worlds and, even more exciting, God is a relationship in which we are invited to participate. This is a relationship we maintain our whole lives through prayer and acts of loving-kindness and (most especially) through the Sacraments. It is, however, a relationship which has its beginning in and for us. Perhaps this isn’t language everyone is comfortable with, but it’s language I’ve become comfortable with: we have a life-long love affair with the living God, and that love affair begins at Baptism. Treasure that relationship. Nurture it. And support those who, through Baptism, are caught up in it, too.

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

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

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

One of the chief jobs of a clergyperson–whether a priest in a sacramental church or a minister in a more reformed church–is to teach the faith. This seems like it should be one of the most noncontroversial claims one could say about an ordained person’s responsibility, but I often fear we don’t do a very good job of it. I don’t know whether this can be blamed on the anti-intellectualism which too often distrusts expertise in our culture or on clergy being too lazy to do it or perhaps too poorly educated themselves or some combination of these factors. In any event, it seems to me that there is a pretty serious problem with basic biblical and theological literacy within the church.

This catechetical crisis becomes apparent any time a survey comes out about what American Christians actually believe. You’ll find shocking numbers of professed Christians who don’t believe in Christ’s divinity or sinlessness, who believe metaphysical claims that are closer to Buddhism or Gnosticism than to Christianity, and who have views of human nature which are incompatible with the doctrines of original sin and the means of salvation. A 2018 survey, and this is the reason I bring all this up, found that fully 59% of US adults believe “that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being.”

As I’ve already said, I think much of the blame can be lain at the feet of clergy, because, while important, lay-folk tend not to hold full-time, paid positions in which getting one’s theology straight is (or should be) a work requirement. So, let me first apologize for my profession and for myself where I have fallen down on the job in this regard, and second, attempt to dispel this popular misconception about the nature of the Holy Spirit on this great feast on which we celebrate His descent upon the Church.

So, the Holy Spirit is not merely a force. He is a personal being. We may get into the nitty-gritty of Trinitarian theology next week, on Trinity Sunday, but the classical way of explaining the Godhead is that God is three hyspostases in one ousia, three persons of one substance or being. This gets complicated; like I said, we may get into the weeds next week if you’re up for it. The point is that the Holy Spirit is just as much a person as the Father and the Son. Just as the Father is not merely some abstract “ground of being” but a person with whom we can be in relationship, just as the son is not just the universe’s ordering principle, but somebody with whom we can speak as a Lord and Savior, so is the Spirit not just an animating force, but one with whom we can relate and pray and gain support as one would with a friend or sibling.

Perhaps part of the reason we have not recognized this is because the way we pray has been codified in such a way as to sometimes obscure it. I am not saying this is an altogether bad thing; public worship should be done decently and in good order, and the prayers with which we’ve become so familiar tend to do a good job of highlighting what we call the “economic Trinity.” We typically pray to God the Father, through or in the name of God the Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. This suggests, quite rightly, that in the mystery of Salvation, we are brought into and instructed in the relations of the persons in the Godhead. We have some, though fewer, prayers which we direct to the second person of the Trinity, Jesus himself, and I suspect these are more common in our private and particularly our extemporaneous prayers than in our public liturgies.

Few and far between, though, are prayers addressed to the third person of the Trinity. Our Communion hymn this morning is one of those prayers, the Veni Creator Spiritus. In our Sacraments the Holy Spirit is invoked, but invariably by a request that the Father send the same (whether upon the Bread and Wine, the Ordinand, the husband and wife, or whatever) rather than by praying to the Spirit directly.

There is no reason that I can think of, though, why we ought not pray to the Spirit directly, and that’s really the point of this rambling homily. Jesus tells us that the Spirit is our Counselor. We’d not have much trust in counsel (therapeutic or legal) if we didn’t have the opportunity to talk with its provider. Paul tells us that the Spirit prays on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words.” We’d not trust a mere force or principle to be our advocate before God or the world; we’d trust a person who is trustworthy, and this the Spirit of God is.

I am not here advocating for superstitious enthusiasm, but I don’t think our primary danger (at least in our context) is to be found in sectarian revivalist movements. Transport me to a snake-handling community in Appalachia and I might feel differently. A genuine appreciation for pneumatology, the theology of the Holy Spirit, and an authentic devotion to the same Spirit can only lead to good, because he is God. In that vein, I would like to conclude with a prayer drafted by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy–the Roman Catholic group responsible for translating the Latin texts of the Mass into our language–and pray that we grow in devotion to God as he is revealed in the Spirit:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful.
And kindle in them the fire of your love.
Come, Holy Spirit, and they shall be created.
And you will renew the face of the earth. Amen.