The Gospel According to Solomon

In the real life version of Draughting Theology, we’ve spent the last five months (minus a break for Lent) studying the three epistles of John.  It has been a striking study in the dichotomy of the life of faith in the early Church between the overwhelming awareness of the deep love of God and the struggle (and at times, battle) to figure out the bounds of orthodoxy in this new religion.  This back and forth in the letters of John make for some interesting juxtapositions between “love your neighbor” and “the Antichrists.”

Last week, we finally arrived at what Raymond Brown says might be “the most famous saying in the NT,” 1 John 4:8b, “God is love.”  As Brown prophesied in his commentary on the Johannine letters, these three words took us down a path of conversation in which we wondered about the nature of God as God has revealed himself in Scripture.  The natural tendency seems to be to read the Old Testament as being all about a God of vengeance and the New Testament as being all about “God is love.”  Brown has this to say: “This outlook both misunderstands the biblical concept of justice as primarily punitive, and ignores OT passages that make hesed, ‘covenant love and mercy,’ characteristic of God” (p. 550).

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This is all still very fresh in my mind as I read the Track 2 Old Testament Lesson for this week and the great prayer of dedication that King Solomon prays over the Temple that he has built for God.  In the sight of all Israel, with his arms lifted heavenward, Solomon approaches God with these words, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart” (1 Kings 8:23).

Solomon is a wise man.  His words are spoken with intentionality, and so it is telling that he chooses to highlight the steadfast love of God (hesed) in this great moment of national, personal, and religious pride.  The Gospel according to Solomon, about as Old Testament a King as there ever was, is that God’s very nature is love.

Luke [un?]intentional double entendre

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Sunday’s story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s slave is full of juicy preaching morsels.  As I pointed out yesterday, it is one of two instances when Jesus is said to be amazed.  There’s the fact that the Centurion never actually sees or talks to Jesus directly, but always through intermediaries.  It is also worth noting that unlike every other healing story I can think of, Jesus never declares the slave healed; he simply commends the faith of the unseen Centurion.  Reading the story some 2,000 years after the fact, it is always hard to tell what exegetical tidbits were intentional choices by the author, and which are just happenstances of language.

Take, for example, the final word in Sunday’s lesson.  In the NRSV, when the friends of the Centurion return to his house, they find the slave “in good health.”  Other translations say he is “well” (NIV), “completely healed” (NLT), and “whole” (KJV).  The Greek word that Luke uses is hugiaino, the standard Greek medical term for healing, but according to my Bibleworks lexicon, it carries another, deeper, theological meaning: “to be sound, correct or well-grounded (of Christian teachings and teachers)”

Luke 7:10 is the second time hugiaino is used in the Gospel.  It occurs first in the story of the calling of Levi the Tax Collector.  The Pharisees and scribes are upset with Jesus for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors and in Luke 5:31, Jesus responds, “Those who are well (hugiaino) have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…”  Here too, the word seems to be doing double duty.  Jesus’ mission on earth wasn’t to perform miracles and make people hugiaino physically, but rather, his primary mission was to make people hugiaino spiritually by restoring them to right relationship with God through a well-grounded teaching of the will of God.

I can’t be certain that Luke meant both meanings when he first put this Gospel to parchment, but I can’t help but read it that way.  Given the fact that Jesus commends the faith of the Centurion and never actually speaks a word of healing, I can’t help but think that when the Centurion’s friends arrive back at his house, they bring with them the good word from Jesus and, perhaps, a pretty solid understanding of the Gospel.  The faith of the Centurion surely would have been infections upon his household, and so it only seems reasonable that ailing slave would have been made hugiaino in both body and spirit by his in absentia encounter with Jesus.

Jesus was amazed!

Luke really seems like he was a fan of the word thaumazo.  Eighteen times in his two-part Luke/Acts he uses this Greek word that means to marvel, to wonder, or to be amazed.  The vast majority of the time, Luke uses it to describe the response of the crowd to something Jesus or his apostles had done.  It gets used a few times to describe the response to his resurrection, and once in a story about Moses, but Sunday’s Gospel lesson seems to have the most interesting use of the word:

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Jesus was amazed

The Synoptic Gospels only show Jesus to be thaumazo “amazed” on three occasions. Mark tells us that Jesus was amazed at the unbelief of the people in his hometown of Nazareth, while Matthew and Luke share the story we will hear this Sunday about the “great faith” of the Centurion.

Centurion might be second only to Tax Collector in the list of worst jobs in first century Palestine.  Centurion’s were Gentiles, more specifically Roman soldiers assigned to keep order.  This particular Centurion had been assigned a pretty awful gig.  Not only was Palestine a backwoods assignment on the edge of the Empire, but to be assigned to the small fishing village of Capernaum made it even worse.  There was no action in Capernaum, only a population of 1,500, mostly work-a-day folks, from whom not much extortion money could be extracted.

I imagine Centurions who drew Capernaum felt like FBI agents assigned to the Cleveland, Ohio field office, but this Centurion was different.  He immersed himself in the culture of Capernaum.  He fell in love with the Lord God that the faithful Jews worshiped, and even helped them build the first Synagogue in the village.  He was beloved by the people of Capernaum, and so, when his slave fell ill, the Jewish elders felt no qualms about approaching Jesus and asking him to help the slave of this outsider.  On the authority of their witness, Jesus was inclined to help, but it wasn’t until the Centurion’s friends came with his message of great faith in the authority of Jesus to simply say a word of healing that Jesus was “amazed.”  In fact, Jesus was so amazed that in both Gospel accounts of this story, he claims to have never seen such faith in Israel.

As one who has dedicated my life’s work to the Gospel of Jesus, I can’t help but wonder if my faith is strong enough to amaze Jesus.  I highly doubt it.  In fact, I’m probably more like the rest of Israel in that my familiarity with the Lord breeds laziness in my faith.  It is so easy to simply go through the motions of the life of faith and forget to be thaumazo “amazed” at the simple fact that God loves Creation so much that he sent his only Son to redeem it; to lose sight of the fact that it is even through grace, and not of my own doing, that I’m able to have faith at all.  This morning, I too am amazed at the great faith of the Centurion, and hopeful that I can remember to approach Jesus in the same way.

Too much to bear – a sermon

My Trinity Sunday sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


“Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…” If you listened carefully on Monday morning, you might have been able to hear preachers across the globe letting out a huge sigh of relief as they read the opening line to today’s Gospel lesson and realized that Jesus himself was giving them a pass on preaching the doctrine of the Trinity. You see, today is the most dreaded preaching day of the year.  The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday is one of those days when we preachers put way too much pressure on ourselves to explain the unexplainable.  Over the course of some two thousand years, the Church has yet to find a suitable way to explain the Trinity that is a) easy to understand and b) not filled with heresy, and yet, every year, thousands of preachers try to take it upon themselves to come up with a twelve minute sermon that accomplishes the task.  I’ll admit it, I struggled with it too this week.  I really wish there was a simple, biblical way to fully explain the doctrine of the Trinity, but the reality is God is bigger than our wisdom can fathom and there is more to say about God than any of us can bear.  As I read through the lessons and realized that even Jesus held back at times, I breathed a little easier, knowing that maybe having a full understanding of the Trinity isn’t what’s important. Without the self-inflicted pressure to adequately describe and suitably amaze you with my knowledge of the difference between homoousious and homoiousious, I, and preachers all around the globe, have been set free to instead tell you about the equally mind boggling love of God as revealed in three persons of one substance: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For the fifth consecutive week, our Gospel lesson takes place during Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  Jesus has laid some pretty difficult teaching on their shoulders.  He’s predicted that one of the twelve will betray him.  He’s told Peter that he will deny Jesus three times before the night is over.  He’s promised that the world will hate them just as the world has hated Jesus.  On top of all that, he says to them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…”  What an unfair thing to say to someone.  What more can their possibly be, Jesus?  We can’t bear what you’ve already told us, why hold back now?  Just tell us plainly.

From past experience with these eleven guys, Jesus knows that the events of the next 24 hours will be more than his disciples can bear.  Each time he’s predicted his death and resurrection to them, they’ve freaked out.  The first time, Peter flat out told him he was wrong.  The second time, the whole group broke out into an argument about which one of them was the greatest.  The last time, James and John took it as a chance to angle for better positions in his will.  Jesus knows that the disciples are going to fail him spectacularly over the coming days, and yet he loves them so deeply that he chooses to hold back, to let them deal with the impending grief, and to allow the Spirit of truth come in behind and rebuild them as apostles of the risen Jesus.  “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…”  Jesus had already promised his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Just a few moments earlier, he told them that when he leaves, the Father will send another Helper, a Comforter and Advocate, to come alongside them.  There too, he calls this Helper “the Spirit of truth.”  This Spirit will come, Jesus says, to lead the disciples into all the  truth that right now is too much for them to bear.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit arrived in power and might like wind and flame and a cacophony of sound, and while that Pentecostal experience gets most of the publicity, it certainly wasn’t the first time the Spirit was at work in the world.  If Jesus’ promise to his disciples is true, then the Spirit of truth was with them at the moment of his death.  The Spirit of truth was there to comfort the disciples in their grief, even if they couldn’t realize it.  The Spirit of truth was there to help the disciples come to grips with the amazing story that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, even if the news was too much for them to handle.  The Spirit of truth was there as they watched Jesus ascend into heaven and wondered what on earth was going to happen next.  And the Spirit of truth continued to be present to them every moment of every day as they went about their work of sharing the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a world that was hungry and angry and confused all at once.

The Spirit of truth is still present in the lives of the disciples of Jesus today, revealing the truth of God’s unfailing love slowly, over the course of a lifetime, at a pace that is manageable for us to handle because if we’re really honest with ourselves, many of us have a list of questions that we want to ask God when we get to heaven.  I know I do.  I want to know if all dogs go to heaven.  I want to know why the doctrine of the Trinity is so dog gone hard to understand.  [I want to know why that high g just before the third stanza of Canticle 13 gives me goose bumps every time I hear it.]  I want to know why bad things happen to good people.  I especially want to know why good things happen to bad people.  There are a lot of things that I want to know about the overwhelming fullness of God’s love for me and for people I wish God didn’t love so much, but I can’t bear it yet, which is why I’m thankful that God loves me enough to send the Spirit of truth to guide me into all truth… slowly… not all at once… but in due time.

In two weeks, I’ll head off to Sewanee, Tennessee for my fifth and final year of doctoral studies at the School of Theology.  It’ll be my eighth year of seminary studies.  In the course of those eight years, I’ve learned just enough about the love of God to know that there is still a whole lot more to know.  I could spend the rest of my life digging through books, reading what the greatest minds to ever think have to say about God.  I could sit in dozens of seminar classes, arguing deep theological truths until I was blue in the face.  I could write thousands of pages on the love of God, but nothing will be a better teacher than the Spirit of truth who Jesus promised and the Father sent.  Knowing everything there is to know about God pales in comparison to knowing God as revealed in the creating, loving, and sustaining Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As we celebrate Trinity Sunday, thankfully, we can do so without getting all caught up in how  the whole three in one and one in three thing works. Instead, let’s invite the Spirit of truth to lead us into the fullness of the truth of God’s love for us and for all that the Father has created and the Son came to redeem.  Let’s let the Spirit reveal that love to us in God’s time.  Let’s be patient, and trust that knowing God is far superior to knowing about God.  There really is way more to say this Trinity Sunday, way more than any of us can bear, but sometimes, a simple word of love is more than enough.  May God bless you with a profound experience of the truth of his deep and abiding love today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life.  Amen.

The Glory of the Trinity

William Reed Huntington, in a series of lectures that were published in 1870 as The Church Idea, posited a future for Protestantism in American that was called “The Church of the Reconciliation.”  His basic premise was that some 350 years after the Great Reformation and the many theological squabbles that followed that the Protestant denominations in America were so similar to one another, that it wouldn’t take much for them to reunite as a Pan Protestant American Catholicism.  Rather than getting caught in the weeds of doctrine, Huntington suggests that the historic creeds are all that is needed as a shared doctrine of the Church of the Reconciliation.

“In the Church of the Reconciliation no more ought to be demanded of the laity, on the score of theology, than an affirmative answer to the question, ‘Dost thou believe all the articles of the Christian Faith as contained in the Apostles’ Creed?’ and no more ought to be demanded of the clergy than assent to the same articles of faith as they are more exactly stated and more fully expanded in the Nicene Creed.”[1]

The fullness of our understanding of the Trinity, for Huntington, was found in the Nicene Creed, for clergy, and the Apostles’ Creed, for laity.  In the almost 150 since, some have suggested that even that is too high a doctrinal bar.  I’m not willing to lower the bar beyond the historic creeds, but I do understand the feeling of Dorothy Sayers, who sixty years after The Church Idea articulated the feeling most of the clergy and laity I know have about the doctrine of the Trinity

Q.: What is the doctrine of the Trinity?
A.: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.” Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult—nothing to do with daily life or ethics.

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So what is the basic requirement of belief in the Trinity if the doctrine can’t be articulated by metaphor, can’t be understood by mortals, and can’t possibly sum up the fullness of the Godhead?  I think the Collect for Trinity Sunday tells us all we need to know:

“Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity…”

Acknowledge the glory and worship the Unity.  There is nothing in there about comprehending the mystery.  Noting about properly articulating the difference between homoousios and homoiousios. Orthodoxy flows, it would seem, from orthopraxis.  In acknowledging the beauty, splendor, and magnificence of the fullness of the Godhead through worship, we accomplish all that is properly required for Trinitarian belief.  The rest, as Dorothy Sayers might say, is for theologians to mess around with.

So here’s your task, dear reader, on Trinity Sunday.  Show up at church, worship the fullness of God’s majesty in the midst of the mystery and God might just answer our prayer to one day see God in his full and eternal glory.

[1] The Church Idea, 171.

Trinity Sunday as Pentecost 2.0

As I prepare to enter my 8th and final year of seminary study, I can safely say that I’ve been thoroughly ruined as a human being.  I will probably never be able to listen to a sermon without wondering what I would have preached instead.  Even with seven years of dad jokes in my bag-o-tricks, I’ll never be able to fully break free from the niche market of church jokes.  Worst of all, I’ll never attend a worship service without an ongoing and sometimes brutal Mystery-Science-Theater-3000-esque stream of criticism running through my mind.  After all, we all know there is only one difference between a terrorist and a liturgist.  You can negotiate with a terrorist.

In preparing to preach one of the most difficult Sundays of the church year, my liturgical training is trying to overpower my theological training which is trying to stamp out my homeltical training that is based on the very solid Biblical training I received at VTS, and that might be a good thing.  Reading the lessons appointed for Trinity Sunday, Year C, I’m noticing a strong Holy Spirit theme.  The Father gets a nod, the Son does some speaking and some saving, but the texts really seem focused less on the doctrine of the Trinity and more on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  With my liturgy senses tingling, I noticed that the title for this Sunday isn’t just “Trinity Sunday,” but rather “The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday.”  If you buy into the primacy of place rule of Prayer Book studies, then the more important title for this day is “The First Sunday after Pentecost,” or as I call it “Pentecost 2.0.”

The truth of the matter is that most of western Christianity is pretty strongly Binitarian.

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We have a pretty decent understanding of God the Father who created heaven and earth.  We’ve got the Gospels to tell us about Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.  The key to becoming fully Trinitarian Christians is a deeper understanding and experience of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, but even our foundational creed, the Apostles’ Creed, does nothing more than mention the Spirit as something we believe in on par with the holy catholic Church, the communion of saint, and the forgiveness of sins.

Maybe the key to a strong Trinity Sunday sermon would be to unpack what Paul and Jesus have to say about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the world.  The sermon need not dig to the level of the perichoretic dance to be a fruitful teaching on the Trinity.  Instead, it seems like in a world that lacks Biblical and theological literacy, a fuller understanding of all three Persons would suffice.

The Spirit of Truth

I am a big fan of the Seasonal Blessings that are published in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services.  As one who prefers simple over the often unnecessarily complex when it comes to worship, I tend to prefer the single sentence blessings over the four-fold ones, but all of them are good, even if some are easier to say than other.  (See “your eternal inheritance” in the third part of the four-fold Easter Season blessing).  Of all the blessings published there, one of my favorites has to be the single sentence blessing for the Day of Pentecost.  I like to use it all season long, and while the Aaronic Blessing works well for Trinity Sunday, the Gospel appointed for Year C begs the Celebrant to use the Pentecost Day blessing this week as well.

May the Spirit of truth lead you into all truth, giving you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to proclaim the wonderful works of God; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always.  Amen. (BOS 2003, 27)

As Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure, he promises them in John 14:15, another advocate, the Paraclete, to be with them forever.  Immediately, in the very next verse, Jesus describes the work of the Paraclete as the “Spirit of truth,” or in Greek to pneuma tas alatheias – a spirit which Jesus says world cannot receive because they do not know the truth.  When he reprises the theme later in chapter 16, a portion of which is appointed for Trinity Sunday C, Jesus uses the exact same phrase to describe the Spirit of truth who will come to help the disciples come to grips with the fullness of the truth that even they can not handle at this point.

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Holy Spirit by Colleen Shay

The fullness of the truth of God’s love is impossible for the world to understand, to be sure, but here Jesus seems to indicate that it is even too much for those who are following Jesus.  They won’t understand his death.  They’ll miss the fullness of joy that should follow his resurrection.  They’ll struggle with their call to feed his lambs, to preach the Gospel, to baptize, to teach, to be one, and, most especially, the commandment to love one another.  They will consistently fall short of the truth of God’s love, and so do I.

The Spirit of truth has to be revealed slowly, over a lifetime, otherwise it is too much even for Jesus’ closest followers to handle.  That’s why I love the blessing for the Day of Pentecost so much.  Inviting the Spirit of truth to lead us into all truth is part of that lifelong process of discipleship and sanctification.  It is the blessing of joining the journey of revelation that God is constantly inviting us into.  It is a blessing we could hear everyday, and it wouldn’t be too often.