On Being Sent

Can I be honest for a second?  Trinity Sunday is a disaster.  It serves no greater purpose than to make life hard on the preacher, and to produce an annual threat of heresy to our congregations.  Every year, I throw up my hands and ask the Irish twins to take me away.

The Scriptures appointed for Trinity Sunday, especially the three Gospel lessons, do nothing to help.  References to the Trinity are either obviously later additions (see Matthew 28) or are clearly early and undeveloped Trinitarian references.  Above it all, they begat bad preaching.

For example, I suspect someone, somewhere in the world is going to use John 3:1-17 to preach on the errors of the filioque (literally, “and the Son”), by noting that in this text the Son is sent, while the Spirit is clearly pre-existent, which, while accurate, will do little to edify or inspire.  One could, without being obnoxious, riff on the larger idea of being sent.

There is, thankfully, a growing understanding of Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles.  The first to witness the resurrected Jesus, it is Mary who is given the task of sharing the Good News with the eleven remaining disciples.  It is Mary who is sent by Jesus, or, in the Greek, apostolos.  That verb makes an appearance in the Gospel lesson for Sunday, in the more important verse than John 3:16.  John 3:17 notes that the Son is sent (apostolos) by the Father for the salvation of the world.  Later, after the resurrection, Jesus send (apostolos) ten of the remaining eleven disciples out into the world, just as he had been sent by the Father.  To empower them for that work, Jesus breaths the Holy Spirit upon them.

It is God: Father,  Son, and Holy Spirit who sends us into the world, empowered to spread the Good News of Salvation.  Without one part of the Godhead, our mission is diminished.  So, rather than bother with the messiness of the perichoretic dance, maybe this Trinity Sunday is a chance to remind our folks that we are empowered by the same Spirit that sustained the Son in the salvation of the world.

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Don’t try so hard, Patrick!

 

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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.

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.

All Authority

A little over a year ago, I had the chance to give the Theme Presentation at the Gathering of Leaders held in Fairhope, Alabama.  The topic for the 2016 iteration of the GoL Gatherings was “By Whose Authority?  Faithfully Exercising Authority in the Missionary Church.”  The Theme Presentation, as you might guess, is meant to give the topic for our time together some context.  At the time, I was still the Associate in Foley.  As such, my canonical authority was the equivalent of a thumbtack, and yet, there was something very intriguing about this basic premise of authority that we hear about in Sunday’s Gospel for Trinity Sunday.

As I did some digging on the topic of authority, I found the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms to be significantly lacking in the theology department; defining authority as “the power or right to command belief, action, and obedience.”  Merriam-Webster couldn’t have done a more secular job.  I kept searching and found a commentary for Trinity Sunday by Craig Koester on the WorkingPreacher website.  There, as Koester wrestles with this interesting story of worship, doubt, commission, and promise, he pulls out a definition of authority that an old college professor once gave him.  It might sound just as secular as the WDTT attempt to you, but it spoke to me on a much deeper level.

“Authority is followability.”

Something made the disciples leave their fear in Jerusalem to find the risen Jesus on a mountain in the Galilean countryside.  That same something would be required for them to leave their Savior’s side to go and make new disciples.  It wouldn’t be up to them to concoct it, but rather, their ability to go rests entirely on the ultimate authority, the innate  followability of Jesus.

It isn’t a particularly Trinitarian lesson for Trinity Sunday.  I suppose the RCL would have us highlight the Triune name of God to be used in baptism, but what’s of interest to me this morning, as I stretch my blogging legs after a week’s vacation (let’s be honest, I’ve been pretty lax of late), is this idea of the authority of Jesus as his followability.  We who follow Jesus have the opportunity to share that authority with those around us.  We have the chance to share about our worship and our doubt, about our highs and our lows, about all the reasons we continue to follow Jesus in a world that says the story of God’s love is nonsense.  And maybe that’s the tie-in to Trinity Sunday.  On a day set aside to consider the basically extrabiblical doctrine of the Trinity, we are reminded that the authority of the Church comes from the authority given the disciples, which comes from the total authority given to Jesus, which is a result of his being a part of the Triune God.  We follow the teaching of the Church when the Church is following Jesus, the recipient and source of all authority.

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.