What makes a saint?

Some 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, the common understanding of sainthood is stilly mostly influenced by Roman Catholicism.  We might vaguely know about the need for miracles, or that the process involves steps like beatification and canonization.  These things often cloud the broader understanding of what actually makes a saint.  Rather than it being about religious celebrity or those who have made significant impacts or even those who were martyred for their faith, in the New Testament, sainthood is simply a synonym for discipleship.  When Paul writes about the saints, he isn’t even necessarily talking about those who have died in the faith of Christ, but rather all who have sought the kingdom and its righteousness.

A seminary classmate of mine was fond of saying that our hymns best show our heresies.  This was usually in response to that line in “Hark! the herald angels sing” that invokes the gnostic heresy when it says, “veiled in flesh, the godhead see.”  “For all the saints,” one of the classic All Saints’ hymns might not tip-toe into heresy, but it certainly exacerbates our profoundly misunderstood theology of sainthood in the line, “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”  Even those saints that we honor with specific feasts like Francis, Nicholas, or Mary Magdalene feebly struggled from time to time.

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The saints of God

The life of faith, the only qualification necessary for the title of saint, is a daily struggle.  It requires us, as Joshua challenged the tribes of Israel, to choose this day whom we will serve.  Will we seek after the Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world.  Will we subscribe to a theology of God’s abundance or fall into the trap of our own scarcity.  Will we look at the world in love or fall back in fear?  These choices must be made, with God’s help, daily, if not minute by minute.  As another classic All Saints’ hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” says, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

Dear saints of God, what will you choose this day?

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Trinitarian Doctrine

So, after a week of my suggesting that you tread lightly on the Doctrine of the Trinity, you’ve decided you are going to preach it anyway?  Good for you.  In a world and a church that is increasingly biblically and theologically illiterate, I applaud you for attempting to summit the Mount Everest of doctrinal understanding.  For me, at 1:44pm on sermon writing day, I can’t bring myself there.  The week hasn’t allowed me to dig into Tanner, Rahner, Coakley, or Moltmann like I would like.

If you do plan to preach the Doctrine of the Trinity, or as one of my DMin classes put it, “preach the feast and not the texts,” then I urge to consult a few resources first.  Please don’t subject your congregation simply to your FEELZ on the most complicated and fundamental theological statements in Christendom.  I humbly offer you three resources.

  1. Susan Hylen’s commentary for this week at WorkingPreacher.  In this article, Professor Hylen works hard to help us understand how the authority of Jesus is rooted in his being one person within the Triune God.  I commend it to you.
  2. The Athanasian Creed.  Though likely not written by Athanasius, this Creed, which is a part of the Historical Documents section of our Book of Common Prayer does a pretty decent job of unraveling the doctrine of the Trinity from its earliest days.  Based on my reading of Matthew 28, you can doubt that this is the fullest one can understand the Trinity, but it is as good a place to start as any.
  3. Finally, you have to watch (or re-watch) St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.  Every year, this fun video from a group of Missouri Synod Lutherans, reminds me that no matter what bit of soundbite, bumper sticker, analogical theology one might employ on Trinity Sunday, it will lead, without a doubt, to heresy.

Best wishes as you preach this week.  You are in my prayers, as I hope I am in yours.

Searching for the Trinity on Trinity Sunday

Every few months, Episcopal priests on Facebook feel the need to get uppity about something.  Recently, we’ve had a newfound interest in Prayer Book revision to get snarky about, but one perennial favorite is the topic of Trinity Sunday.  There are those who will suggest that one might not need to preach the doctrine of the Trinity on Trinity Sunday, while others will get very emphatic in saying that one must preach the Day.  I honestly don’t have an opinion on the matter.  If you can preach the doctrine of the Trinity without steering your congregation into heresy, then by all means, please do so, and share your wisdom widely.  If that is not possible for you, either because of a lack of time, a lack of enthusiasm, or clarity of understanding, please steer clear of this notoriously difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain in 12 minutes topic, and preach the texts.

There are a brave few who will attempt to do both this Trinity Sunday.  These preachers will take the bait of the Revised Common Lectionary and assume, probably unwisely, that the men (let’s face it, it had to be a bunch of dudes) who threw darts in that smoke filled room to set the RCL had benevolent motives.  They will dig into each text, searching for the kernel of doctrinal truth about the Trinity for Trinity Sunday.  As they search for the Trinity on Trinity Sunday, they will notice that Psalm 8 is simply a response to the Genesis lesson.  Canticle 13 simply names the Trinity, as do the lessons from 2 Corinthians and Matthew.  While it is important to notice that the Triune name of God has been in use since the early part of the second half of the first century.  Unfortunately, one cannot extrapolate much about the doctrine beyond that.

Which leaves us with the first Creation story from Genesis.  This is the story with which we are most familiar.  It has the cadence we have come to look for, “there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.”  It affirms again and again that God sees creation as good, and only when everything had been set into place, does God declare it very good.  It is also the only place in the lessons for Trinity Sunday, Year A, that we might find some insights into the nature of the Trinity.  While it is doubtful that poet who wrote Genesis 1 had the doctrine in mind, the first three verses can be informative for our understanding of God to see how the three co-eternal Persons are at work even as the one nature is to create.

God, the name we often conflate with the Father, is the creative force behind it all.  The Spirit, called the “wind from God,” hovers over the face of the deep, waiting to take her place as guide in the hearts of humankind, and to teach them what it means to “have dominion.”  And then, God speaks, and God’s creative Word goes about the work of bringing the Father’s ideas into being.  Even now, I’m teetering on the edge of Modalism, so I’ll stop here.

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No! Not Modalism!

My point is, preaching the Trinity is difficult.  Let’s cut each other some slack.  Let’s pray that we don’t lead our congregations down a path toward heresy.  And let’s invite God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to guide us as we search for the Trinity on Trinity Sunday.

The Challenge of Trinity Sunday

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According to Wikipedia, that great source of all church history and theology, the First Sunday after Pentecost has been known as Trinity Sunday since the Pontificate of John the 22nd in the early 14th century, but its roots go all the way back to the Arian Controversy at the turn of the 4th.  You would think that in the course of more than 1600 years, someone might have found some better lessons than those assigned for Trinity Sunday in Year C.  I mean, the day is already rife with difficulty, as anything created in opposition to something else would be, but as a preacher committed to the text and the author of a “blog about the Bible,” the Scriptural basis for Trinity Sunday seems to be woefully lacking.

I’ve not gone back to look at the Propers for Trinity in years A and B, but it is clear that the focus in year C is on the Third Person of the Trinity.  On the back of Pentecost, we’re invited to ponder the Holy Spirit from three distinct angles.  First, the lesson from Proverbs that borders on the Macedonian heresy, invites the preacher to deal with the co-eternal nature of the Trinity that gets priority billing in the Proper Preface for Trinity Sunday.  If the preacher is hesitant to dive headlong into a systematic theology of the Trinity, then perhaps the Gospel lesson, our fifth straight from the Farewell Discourse in John, will prove more fruitful.

Here, in the 16th chapter of John, Jesus is explaining the work of the Holy Spirit to his disciples, all the while realizing that the events of the next 24 hours are going to make most of what he has told them seem moot.  “I have much more to say to you, but right now it would be more than you can understand,” might just the be best word a preacher could say to her congregation on Trinity Sunday.  Embracing the mystery of the Trinity is part and parcel of a faith that is built on mystery: of the Incarnation, of sanctification, and of the real presence in the Eucharist, just to name a few.

If mystery isn’t for you, then you might consider the lesson from Romans 5, which is the most explicitly Trinitarian lesson of the three, but only because it names all three Persons (assuming by God, Paul means the Father), not that their natures or relationship are explained in much depth at all.  Avoiding Modalism will be the challenge here, as the preacher tries to highlight the distinctions of the three Persons, while steering clear of bad analogies like the three phases of water or Saint Patrick’s classic three leaf clover.  No matter what you choose to preach this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, especially in Year C, presents many challenges, but your hard work will be worth it, dear reader, I promise.  My prayers are with you, and I welcome yours with me.

What is it? vs I am.

As far as I can tell, supercessionism hasn’t yet been declared a heresy, and while it probably should be clearly defined as a heterodox belief, sometimes supercessionism is really hard to avoid.  Put simply by the good folks at Wikipedia, “supercessionism is the belief that the Christian Church has replaced the Israelites as God’s[2] chosen people[1][3] and that the Mosaic covenant has been replaced or superseded by the New Covenant.[4]”  It is a wildly dangerous belief that has led to violence against the Jews for two millennia.  Since the holocaust, more and more Christian theologians have repudiated supercessionism, but sometimes you read John 6 and you can’t help but think that Jesus’ rhetoric is pretty strong.

In the midst of what has been called “The Bread of Life Discourse,” Jesus pits two ways of looking at the provision of God up against each other.  Having heard the grumbling of the Jewish leadership, Jesus makes a bold and clear statement about his identity, “I am the bread of life.”  It is one of seven times that John has Jesus uses the two word phrase “ego eimi” which is a literal Greek translation of the name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush.  If you’ll recall, Moses has been called to return to Egypt to save the Hebrews from slavery, and Moses says to God, “the people will want to know who sent me, by whose authority I have come to set them free, whom should I tell them has called me?”  God replies, “Tell them that I am sent you.”

For John, it is vitally important that Jesus is God, he is just as much “I am” as the voice in the burning bush, and so seven times Jesus declares “ego eimi.”  In the next breath, here in chapter six, Jesus contrasts the certainty of who he is with the uncertainty of the Jews, reminding them that in the wilderness the Hebrews ate bread, but not the bread of eternal life.  The bread they ate was given the name manna which means “what is it?”  They were confused, untrusting, and hard headed.  In contrast, Jesus sets himself up as sure and certain.  It sounds awfully supercessionist, and it is a point upon which the preacher should spend some time, at least personally, so as to avoid leading a congregation astray.

The point of it all is faith.  The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years for lack of faith in the God who saved them.  Those who question Jesus do so for lack of faith in a man who has taught and done amazing things in their presence.  It isn’t that one way of approaching God is better than the other, but rather that both are a call to faith, a call to trust in the God of all creation who seeks to be restored to right relationship with the whole world.  He tried through the Hebrew people.  He tried through Jesus.  In both, he called the people to a life of faith, trusting solely in God’s good provision of bread from heaven.

“I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer

“The Trinity is a mystery which can not be comprehended through human reason, but is understood only through faith.”

-A very frustrated Saint Patrick

You may think it odd that I’m beginning my sabbatical on a Thursday, but if you’ve already looked at Sunday’s lectionary, you’ll understand completely.  This Sunday is the first after the Day of Pentecost, a day set aside [for the curate to preach, and] to celebrate the mystery of the Trinity since the early 14th century.  There will be any number of heresy’s espoused from pulpits around the globe come Sunday, but thanks to a well-timed high school graduation for my niece, none of them will come from me.  [TKT gets a break this Sunday as well thanks to a baptism scheduled at 10am.]

Every year, as I ponder the lessons for Trinity Sunday, I wonder why so many well worn and long anathematized metaphors get trotted out on Trinity Sunday, and this year, I think I’ve figured it out.  Clergy are afraid to say “I don’t know,” but the truth of the matter is that on Trinity Sunday “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer.  In fact, “I don’t know” is the ONLY acceptable answer on Trinity Sunday.

As Saint Patrick tells us in the video above, the closest we can get to understanding Trinitarian doctrine comes in the Athanasian Creed which is found in your Prayer Book on page 864, but even as it begins with some pretty strong language about orthodox belief, ultimately leaves us lacking when it comes to a full explanation of how the Trinity can be three-in-one and one-in-three.  It isn’t a bad place too begin, but the astute reader will quickly begin asking follow-up questions which cannot be covered in 657 words.

So, dear reader, especially the preachers among us, as we begin a short week with the fullness of the Trinitiarian mystery looming, I encourage you to stir up all your courage and bold proclaim “I honestly don’t know.”  You and your people will be better off, I can assure you.

The Challenge of Trinity Sunday

Today marks the opening day of the Advanced Degrees Program at The School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South.  Classes run for three weeks on a  variety of topics, of which I’ll be taking two: “Ordination and the Eucharist” and “Preaching the Feasts.”  What that means for you is that you’ll probably be stuck reading blog posts that feature themes I’m learning about in my classes: It is the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.  Today, I’ll spare you my course work and instead highlight that the ADP schedule for both 2014 and 2015 are set up perfectly for me because the first weekend both years is Trinity Sunday, and I hate preaching Trinity Sunday.  Inevitably, I turn my sermon prep into the research for a theological treatise on the nature of the Trinity and then scrap it all because nobody wants to hear 45 minutes on the Trinity from the pulpit.  Of course, the problem with going the other way is that the preacher will usually end up in heresy.

The fact of the matter is that Trinity Sunday is hard to preach, but thankfully there are some great texts to preach from in Year A.  I’ll get to Matthew’s “but some doubted” later in the week, and instead focus my attention on trying to convince you to preach from Genesis this Sunday.

I think that exploring the Trinity in the context of the Creation Story is the most fun you can have on Trinity Sunday, Year A.  The role of God, the Word, and the Wind both before and during Creation make for an interesting study in how we relate to the Trinity to this day.  Do you find your relationship with God more through the Creator, the Creating, or the … (see the above video for various heretical ways to finish this statement).  What I’m getting at is that the Trinity has its thumbprint on creation itself, and the Genesis story invites us to take some time to carefully consider this fact.

In reality, however, you should watch Rob Bell’s video Everything is Spiritual and then preach Genesis 1 saying “hovu vah tovu” as often as possible.