The Trinity Incomprehensible

The audio for this sermon is available on the Christ Church website, or you can read it here.


In 1939, Dorothy Sayers, a novelist, playwright, poet, and Christian humanist, published a pamphlet entitled “Strong Meat.”  The odd title is based on the King James Version of Hebrews 5:14, in which the author admonishes his audience for being ready only for milk and not solid food.  “Strong meat,” the author writes, “is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”  In her pamphlet, Sayers offers a tongue in cheek version of the strong meat of the Christian faith.  It ends with a catechism-like set of questions and answers on the basics of Christian theology.  In response to the question, “What is the doctrine of the Trinity?” Sayers writes, “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.”[1]

With that inauspicious beginning, we note that today the Church calendar turns to Trinity Sunday.  It is the only day on the Kalendar on which we remember a specific doctrine of the Church.  Note that Trinity Sunday isn’t a feast celebrating the Triune God.  No, that would be too easy.  Instead, today we are invited to reflect specifically upon the dense theological doctrine of the Trinity.  If my week had gone better, I would have happily preached a sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity in hopes of moving us from Sayers’ incisive understanding of the working definition of the Trinity that many of us hold, to a fuller understanding of how God can be one God, co-eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one Lord, in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being.[2]  Alas, there was other work to be done this week, and the seven books on Trinitarian theology on my book shelves remained un-opened.  Rather than doing the inevitable heretical dance of the unprepared preacher, I thought that perhaps we might celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity this morning by exploring what our lessons teach us about the role we are invited to play in the ongoing relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For the most part, it seems like the lessons for today were selected simply because they explicitly mention all three persons of the Trinity.  While that might be the case, I am also of the belief that with God, there are no coincidences.  If we dig into these lessons and pay attention to how the references to the Trinity are used, there is a whole lot to learn.  Take, for example, the short lesson from Second Corinthians.  Things in the Church in Corinth were not going well when Paul wrote his letters.  There had been quite a bit of infighting among the Corinthian Christians, and by now there were a lot of hard feelings.  In his first letter, Paul addressed the issues head on, and yet, some of the problems continued.  Here in his second letter, which he called a “letter of tears,” Paul used some strong language to draw very clear lines in the sand about what it means to claim to follow Jesus as Lord.  Our lesson comes from the end of this difficult letter, and it strikes a surprisingly hopeful tone, given all that has passed.  “Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.  Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the saints greet you.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

The tradition teaches us that the very nature of the Trinity is that of a perfect relationship of love.  It is out of the abundance of that love that creation happens.  There is so much love between and among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that creation is made just so God can have something else to love.  As such, we who follow Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit, are made to take our place in that ongoing out-pouring of love.  Agreeing with one another and living in peace is really difficult.  Anybody who has ever driven through Nashville at rush hour or gone grocery shopping on the Saturday before Easter can attest to that fact, but as beings created by God’s love, saved by Jesus, and sustained by the Spirit, the reality is that we have everything we need to live in love and peace with everyone around us.  Our very nature as Trinity-created-beings defaults to love.

This is made even more clear in our Gospel lesson for today.  After spending most of Easter season not dealing with resurrection stories, here in the Season after Pentecost, we’re back with the resurrected Jesus and his disciples.  Matthew’s famous “Great Commission” occurs several days after that first Easter Day, some seventy miles from Jerusalem.  The eleven have travelled to Galilee based on the word of the two Mary’s who were commanded by both an angel and the risen Jesus himself to tell the disciples to go to Galilee and meet him there.  Truth be told, one way or another, these men were headed back to Galilee.  Either Jesus would appear to them, as the women had promised, or they would pick up their fishing nets and return to the life they had once known.  As they slowly made their way up the mountain, I’d take the under on whether three of the disciples really believed Jesus would meet them there.  And yet, there he stood!  They worshiped even as they couldn’t believe their eyes, and Jesus began to speak.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  God didn’t wait for the disciples to get their act together.  God didn’t require them to perfectly understand what was happening.  God didn’t even ask them to stop doubting.  Instead, the authority of Father, vested fully in the Son, was handed over to the confused disciples through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  Amid the doubt and the confusion; the joy and the worship; God invited the disciples to join in the love-filled work of the Trinity: creating disciples by sharing the grace of Jesus and teaching by word and example what love looks like.

In some ways, Dorothy Sayers’ definition of the Trinity was absolutely spot on.  The love of the Father is incomprehensible.  The grace of the Son is incomprehensible.  That the Triune God would invite us, in our mixture of doubt and worship, to share that love and grace with the world is incomprehensible, but that is, I think, precisely what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about.  It wasn’t made up by theologians to make things more difficult, but rather, our Trinitarian understanding of God as a loving relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an attempt to explain how our broken humanity can even begin to receive the strength required to do the challenging work of loving our neighbor, loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.  In the end, it is probably easier to understand the Trinity than it is to live into our calling as Trinitarian Christians.  It makes more sense that God is co-eternally three persons of one substance than it does to try to love the world in the way God loves you.   That kind of love is incomprehensible, but then again, so is the Trinity after which it is modeled.  None of this means that we should quit trying, however.  Instead, this Trinity Sunday, I commit, and I hope you will too, to developing a deeper understanding of the Trinity by living into it: loving the world like the Father does, sharing Christ’s grace with everyone I meet, and allowing the Holy Spirit to strengthen me to care for those in need.  It might seem to be an impossible task, but nothing is impossible with the God of incomprehensible love who is incomprehensibly Trinity of Persons in Unity of Being.  Amen.

[1] Sayers, Dorothy Strong Meat 1939, accessed 6/8/2017 http://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/sayers-strong/sayers-strong-00-h.html#ch02dogma

[2] A paraphrase of the Proper Preface for Trinity Sunday, BCP, 380.

Tuesday in Holy Week 2017

Thanks to the expansive rubrics in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I have the opportunity to pray one of my favorite collects every morning during Morning Prayer.  It is the third collect for mission and it rings the bell of the lesson from John’s Gospel appointed for Tuesday in Holy Week.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP, 101)

As the scene around Jesus gets more and more hectic, suddenly a small cadre of Greek proselytes, those who had converted to Judaism, desire to meet Jesus.  Perhaps they’ve heard of him all the way in Athens: certainly a man who had healed the blind and the lame, had cast out demons, and even raised someone(s) from the dead would have been talked about all up and down the King’s Highway.  Here, as the city of Jerusalem is filling with people’s hopes and expectations, we find a strange and fleeting moment of clarity.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

John never tells us if they see Jesus or not.  Jesus seems to go off on some sort of tangential aside rather than actually visit with these Greek visitors, but what we do hear is a word that tells us that whether or not he saw them, they were in his mind as he spoke.  “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  The Greeks may not see Jesus now, but they will see him when he is lifted up on his throne of wood.  They will see him again when he descends from his Father with power and triumph.  They will see him in his glory as they, along with Romans, Samaritans, Egyptians, Ethiopians, and all those from every corner of the earth, are welcomed with open arms into his kingdom.  The same arms that were stretched out upon cross – the same cross that acts as his throne of triumph – they will embrace all those who seek after him.

Life is all about choices

There is an inherent flaw in the version of Christianity that is focused entirely on grace.  Well, there are probably multiple inherent flaws in it, but the one I am thinking of this morning comes out of Sunday’s Old Testament lesson in which Moses is clear that even for God’s chosen people, those whom God had rescued from slavery in Egypt and to whom God had promised a land of prosperity through their ancestor Abraham, life was still about choices.

good-choice-bad-choice

Despite the hard line often taken by strongly reformed traditions on whichever sin they’ve decided God cares more about than anything else, in a theological worldview that is only concerned with the grace of God, there is actually little, if any, room for consequences.  The same sort of theology that created sola gratis underlies Your Best Life Now.  It assumes that because one has been washed clean in the blood, there is no room for sin, even though everybody knows that can’t possibly be true.

Moses lays before the Hebrews a choice between life and death, blessing and curses, and God continues to do the same for each of us; especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus.  As committed disciples, the assumption shouldn’t be that we can “sin boldly” or “go on sinning” as people have been trying to argue from the very beginning (see James, the Letter of and Romans, the Letter to), but instead that we are called to live by an even higher standard.  Our lives are testimony of the Gospel of Christ, and when we make bad choices, we bring curses upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.  Alternatively, when we choose love: of neighbor, of creation, of enemy, we bring blessing upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.

Grace forgives us our sins, but it doesn’t excuse our bad behavior.  As Lent rapidly approaches, it might behoove us to give some thought to how our lives reflect the Gospel of love.  The benefit of grace is that we have one more opportunity, in a long life of opportunities, to repent of our misdeeds, to acknowledge the times we have chosen curses over blessings, and to once again choose blessing and life.

The King we Need, not the King we Want

Today’s sermon is posted on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


I’m always amazed at just how quickly November arrives.  It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating Mardi Gras and preparing for Lent.  Now, here we are at the end of the church year, once again celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.  Well, celebrating might not be the best word to use here in Year C when our Gospel lesson comes from Good Friday.  As we close out the church year and ponder what it means to call Jesus the King of kings and Lord of lords, this year, we do so with the stark reality of his death at the hands of Rome and the complicity of the Jewish leadership right in our faces.  It makes me wonder, in light of Good Friday, is Jesus the kind of king we want, or the one we need?

Questions about Jesus’ kingship are particularly difficult to answer for us 21st century Americans because our understanding of kings and queens are based mostly on history books and British tabloids.  While we might admire Queen Elizabeth II for her long reign in England, her monarchy is very different from the role of kings and queens historically.  Her’s is a constitutional monarchy: she rules with the help of an elected Parliament and Prime Minister.  This sort of power sharing has not always been the case.  More common throughout history is the absolute monarchy, a situation in which the king or queen is the sole ruling authority in the land.  In the Bible, we hear the story of Pharaoh in Egypt as an absolute monarch.  Sol, David, Solomon and the other kings of Israel and Judah were the same.  In Jesus’ time, Augustus and Tiberius, while technically Roman Emperors, served with the same sort of iron fist that we tend to think of with the absolute kingships of folks like Henry VIII of England and Louis XIV of France.

When the mocking soldiers called up to Jesus on the cross and said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind.  When the religious leaders laughed at Jesus and said, “If he is the Anointed One of God [a royal title if I’ve ever heard one] let him save himself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind.  When one criminal derided Jesus and asked, “Aren’t you the Messiah?  Save yourself and us” he had a particular image of kingship in mind.  All these were expecting the King of the Jews, the Anointed One, the Messiah, to be a man of power, arriving with a great army who would overthrow Rome and bring about the peace that Jerusalem had lacked for so long.  They expected a king like those they had known, men who ruled with power and might, horse and rider, sword and shield.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus was and is a different kind of king.  That he was the King of the Jews, there is no doubt.  He is the Messiah.  He is the Anointed One of God, but his kingship is unlike anything the world has ever seen.  His throne is not made of gold.  It does not sit in the throne room of a palace built from marble, exotic woods, and precious metals.  Instead, as Luke’s Passion Narrative so skillfully suggests, Jesus’ throne is two roughhewn wood planks, formed into the shape of a cross.  He doesn’t sit on his throne in luxury, but rather hangs from it in agonizing pain.  Yet from this throne, wearing a crown of thorns instead of gold, Jesus makes two royal proclamations.

The first comes immediately after he had been nailed to the cross and raised into the posture of his death.  Jesus looked upon the crowd around him.  He sees the soldiers, who have beaten him, ridiculed him, nailed him to a tree, and will cast lots for his clothing.  He sees the religious leaders, who have lied under oath, conspired with one of his closest companions, worked for months to trap him in his own words, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and now watch approvingly as he suffers for all the world to see.  He sees the crowd that just a few days ago welcomed him to town as a king, laying palm branches and cloaks along the road as they shouted out praises; the same crowd that had just that morning cried out for the release of Barabbas and shouted down Herod with chants of “Crucify him! Crucify Him!” the same crowd that is now getting what they thought they wanted.  Noticeably absent are his disciples, his closest followers, those who have seen his miracles, heard his teaching, and who first called him Messiah and Lord; they are hiding a safe distance away for fear that they might be next.  To all of them, there on the hill called the skull and those cowering in fear far away, Jesus declares pardon, saying “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus’ first official act as the King upon his throne was to declare absolution to all those who played a role in his death.  He forgives those who were actively involved like the soldiers, Pilate, and the Pharisees, and those who were passively involved like his disciples and the crowd.  Jesus Christ, the King of kings, leads through forgiveness.

His second proclamation happens later in the day.  After Jesus had hung there for hours under a sign that read “The King of the Jews,” one of the criminals being crucified beside him had the courage to ask for favor from his king.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  After hours of “if” statements, challenging Jesus to be the sort of king others wanted him to be, one man, convicted of a crime punishable by death on a cross, was willing to speak the truth.  Jesus responds with his second royal proclamation, promising salvation to the thief who believed.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus Christ will not be the type of king the world wants him to be, but instead, he is the king that we need him to be.  A king who leads through forgiveness, and as his second proclamation makes clear, offers salvation to anyone who asks for it, even and maybe even especially those who are well outside the bounds of proper society.

In his final moments and in the face of a shocking amount of doubt and derision, Jesus was able to assert his kingship by welcoming this outsider, this criminal, into his kingdom based on only one criterion: faith.  This unnamed criminal had faith that Jesus was the King of the Jews, and that was all he needed to gain entrance into the Kingdom

Jesus is certainly not the kind of king the world expected him to be.  He led through forgiveness.  He offered salvation to the criminals, tax collectors, and sinners.  He refused to come down from the cross because he knew that the only way for him to exercise his kingship was through obedience unto death.  By not saving himself, he saved the whole world, and made paradise available for everyone: male and female; Jew and Gentile; slave and free; just and unjust.  From his throne of torture, Christ the King declares forgiveness for the whole world, setting us free from our bondage to sin to live and serve in his kingdom of love and compassion.  Thanks be to God Jesus isn’t the sort of king the world wants, but is exactly the king we need.  Amen.

On Being Sheep

mv5bmjqxnjmwntu3ov5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjeyodeynje-_v1_

My children love the Shaun the Sheep movie.  Of course, by “my children” I mean me as well.  It is an enjoyable take on what can happen when sheep decide to stop listening to their shepherd and start making their own decisions.  As you might expect, what started out as simply the desire for a day off turns into a disaster, but it is out of a deep love for their caretaker that Shaun and his friends risk life and limb to go save the farmer who is lost in the Big City.

As I reread the Gospel lesson and pray the Collect for Sunday, I can’t help but think about the ways in which I’m a lot more like Shaun the Sheep than I am the kind of sheep the Good Shepherd is talking about.  Sure, I can listen, but sometimes I’m not very good at it.  And learning to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd in the midst of a cacophony of voices that would pull me in a million different directions can be difficult.  There are often times that I go my own way.  Like Shaun and his friends, my desire isn’t necessarily a bad one, sometimes a day off is really required, but when I follow that good intention, it can have disastrous results.

Thankfully, God’s love is stronger than my poor choices.  Thankfully, the Good Shepherd has stated his intention to leave the 99 behind to find me.  Thankfully, God continues to call out my name, again and again, until I’m able to hear his voice and return to the flock. Each time that happens, and it happens more often than I care to admit, it is the sheer force of the Good Shepherd’s faithfulness that brings me home.  I’m an expert at getting lost, but God is even better at restoring relationships, between God and me, and between me and the other sheep in the flock.  I may be prone to wander, but thanks be to God, the Good Shepherd is just as prone to seek me out, and call my name to bring me home.

Rack, Shack, and Benny – a homily

I absolutely love the story of Shadrach,  Meshach, and Abednego.  I came to know Rack, Shack, and Benny through the Veggie Tales, a children’s cartoon that tells Bible stories in a fun, age appropriate way.  I watched them in high school, and thought they were hilarious, but that’s my issue.  In fact, I re-watched this particular episode yesterday.  Anyway, the story, which we heard Ned read for us this morning, is part of the much larger story of Daniel, an apocalyptic book in the Old Testament not unlike John’s Revelation in the New.  The Book of Daniel opens with the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar laying siege to Jerusalem in the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim as King of Judah.  In time, Nebuchadnezzar was victorious.  He left Jehoaikim to rule Judah as a puppet king, but took the brightest and best that Jerusalem had to offer back to Babylon to be trained to serve in his court.

Four men were deemed to be of particular value by Nebuchadnezzar: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  As foreign powers are wont to do, Nebuchadnezzar tried to break the spirits of these four men by taking away their Hebrew names and giving them Babylonian ones:  Daniel became Belteshazzar, Hananiah was Shadrach, Mishael became Meshach, and Azariah was called Abednego.  Slowly, the King came to respect Daniel very highly, and gave him promotion after promotion until he became more powerful than all the magicians and enchanters in the Babylonian Empire.  Here’s where things began to turn south.

Nebuchadnezzar started having terrible nightmares.  They were so awful that he couldn’t sleep, and he refused to speak about them.  He brought in every magician, enchanter, and sorcerer in his kingdom to interpret his dreams, but because they were so frightening, he wouldn’t tell them about the dreams, instead he demanded that they  tell him  the dream and its interpretation.  When they couldn’t do such an impossible thing, he ordered that every wise man in his Kingdom be killed.  As they searched for Daniel to be executed, the Lord gave him a vision of the King’s dream and its interpretation.  This brought much joy to the King, so he promoted Daniel again.  Here things take a turn for the much, much worse.

Nebuchadnezzar sort of went off the deep end after Daniel successfully interpreted his dream.  He started worshipping Daniel, burning incense for him, and making grain offerings to him.  Daniel made the best of it, making sure his friends, Rack, Shack, and Benny got cushy posts in the province of Babylon, where, it just so happens that the King decided to build a 90 foot tall golden statue that was to be worshipped whenever the King ordered.  The King invited every officer of his court to come and see the statue at its dedication, and commanded that they all worship it.  Rack, Shack, and Benny refused out of deference to their God who commanded them not to worship any idol, and our story picks up as Nebuchadnezzar catches wind of their protest.

Rack, Shack, and Benny have several opportunities to recant and worship the statue, but they refuse, and are thrown into a furnace kindled so hot that it killed the men who put them into it.  God spared them, walking with them in the midst of the fiery furnace. After they were saved, just after our lesson ended, Nebuchadnezzar had a change of heart, declaring that “any people, nation or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego should be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.”  I’ve never been thrown into a fiery furnace, but over the years, I’ve come to know what Nebuchadnezzar learned: our God is faithful, especially in times of trial.  As we come to the end of Lent, and Holy Week is upon us, may we walk with Jesus through his not-quite-as-fiery ordeal, certain that God will be present in the midst of our suffering. As Jesus told those faithful Jewish disciples in our Gospel lesson, the truth of God’s love will set us free; not from the bad things that might happen, but free from the anxiety, worry, and fear that come along with them.  God stands alongside each of us, even when we’ve walked far from his plans, even when life seems to have gone off the rails because God is faithful, even, especially in the fiery furnace of our own making. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Repent or Perish!

You’ve certainly seen them before.  Carrying signs.  Yelling about hell and damnation; fire and brimstone.  Here in LA, they even carry their message on their vehicles.  Heck, somebody even made a Tailgate-Bus-o-Fear!

db2087-repent-or-perish

And while I am hesitant to give this sort of Christianity any credence whatsoever, the reality is that they kind of get to the heart of what Jesus has to say in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  “Repent or perish” is a hard word to hear from Jesus whose core message is the Good News of God’s love for all of creation, but it is the message he felt was needed in that moment, albeit a message dripping with metaphor and nuance that often gets overlooked by the likes of Pat Robertson and his compadres.

As I tied up my trampoline and found homes for outdoor furniture cushions ahead of last night’s Potentially Dangerous Situation (PDS) storm system I joked that don’t normally worry about these things, but when school closes early and Sunday’s gospel is the Tower of Siloam, doubt begins to creep in.  Of course, I know that tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods aren’t sent as God’s punishment upon an unfaithful people.  I understand that when Jesus says “perish” he means something more than physical death.  In fact, the Greek word Luke uses there is apollumi, which is used throughout his Gospel to describe those who find themselves lost: outside of right relationship with God.

When Jesus says “repent or perish” he doesn’t mean “repent or God will smite you.”  Instead, it is a warning of eschatological proportions.  Repent or be found wanting.  Repent or be on the outside looking in.  Repent or be given over to the consequences of your selfish actions.  Turn around and follow the right Way, for the path you are on leads to eternal punishment.

Yet even in this word of judgment, there is hope, as Jesus follows these words with the parable of the faithful dresser of sycamore figs, aka the parable of the somewhat patient farmer, aka the parable of the fig tree.  After three years of waiting for figs, the farmer comes ready to cause the fruitless tree to perish right then and there, but because of the intercession of the gardener, the farmer relents, deciding to wait another year.  The offer to repent that comes from Jesus isn’t an all or nothing deal.  We may be unwilling to change upon first hearing the Good News, but there is still time, time for the Spirit to work in our hearts, time for us to experience the power of the risen Lord, time to repent.  God’s gracious offer is steadfast and his mercy endures forever.