Trinitarian Living

This Sunday is designated as Trinity Sunday in many Western churches. It is not that these churches forget about the Trinity the other 51 Sundays of the year (well hopefully it’s not like that.) This day is just set aside to lift up the Christian understanding that we worship one God who is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Doubtless, there will be lots of sermons devoted to the Trinity. The problem that troubles many of these sermons is trying to explain the Trinity; say too much and it is easy to go beyond the official teaching of 3-in-1, say too little and you might end of with just one being, say too much and you might end up with three unrelated beings.

Saint Augustine realized this danger years ago. In his book on the Trinity, Augustine first surveys the works of other early theologians on the Trinity. Augustine notes that many struggled when they ventured to explain the Trinity. Often they made the Trinity sound like a mathematical problem: 1+1+1=1 Augustine saw the Trinity not as a mathematical problem to be solved but as a model of Christian living.

For Augustine, the Trinity is a model of how Christians are called to live int he world. The Trinity is the original unity in diversity. For Christians, devoted to worshipping and following the 3-in-1 God, the Trinity calls us to live in fellowship with God and neighbor.

Arguments from the days of the early church about how many persons and whether or not they were all one same essence, were not esoteric hair-splitting just to get the doctrine correct. Doctrine was seen as guidelines, stage directions for living the Christian life.

The Trinity is about how we see and understand God, but like Isaiah (Isaiah 6), our vision of God leads to a new way of living in the world. A trinitarian understanding should lead to a trinitarian lifestyle. Such living places us, like Isaiah, before the holiness of God. Here we see our solidarity with others, “I am a person of unclean who lives in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Yet cleansed by God, we are sent forth to share with others the what God has made known to us, with our lives as well as our lips.

 

Advertisements

Pentecost: The Continued Work of the Spirit

Pentecost is one of my favorite days in the life of the church. I love the story from Acts 2 where the Spirit descends like flames of fire on the disciples, and a congregation is suddenly formed of mixed nationalities. The Spirit crosses our normal barriers and divisions.

I think of the flames of the Spirit descending in different colors, bright orange, red, and blue. It reminds me that the church of Jesus is a diverse gathering of people.

Years ago, one of my mentors said, “Anyone can build a congregation of like-minded people, but it would not be the church of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus is a congregation of people of different backgrounds, languages, nationalities, etc. It takes the Holy Spirit to form a congregation like that.”

There is more to the work of the Holy Spirit than the loud rushing wind and a church gathering that is confused with a drunken mob, there is the quiet on-going work of the Spirit helping us to truly live together in love and unity. This does not destroy our differences, rather it helps us to witness to the world that our new life in Jesus is more important than the things that others think should divide us.

Dwight Judy, in his book, A Quiet Pentecost, tells of over 40 different congregations being transformed by connecting to the on-going work of the Spirit in their life together.  Pentecost is more than one day in the life of the church year. Pentecost is the continued work of the Spirit within our life together, shaping and forming us into the body of Christ.

Celebrate the wild, loud, astounding work of the Spirit on Pentecost and continue working with the quiet continued presence of the Spirit in your midst.

Ascension

The Ascension of Jesus into heaven may be our most neglected day of worship in the church. It might be because Ascension occurs on Thursday and it is hard to get people to church on a Thursday. Perhaps the problem is we just do not know what to make of the Ascension and find it easier to ignore it. On the other hand, Luke, the author of the gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts, finds the Ascension so important that he repeats it.

Luke finishes his gospel with the account of Jesus taking the disciples to Bethany and then ascending from them (Luke 24.44-51). In the first chapter of Acts, Luke tells again about how Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be given to the disciples so they can be witnesses for Jesus, before ascending from them.

As the story is written in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they receive the Spirit. I think this is the real reason we often ignore or look over the Ascension; we do not like to wait. We live in an instant society. We want things as quickly as possible: download books to read from a website, microwave popcorn in under three minutes, coffee in less than one minute, instant access to entertainment on TVs, computers, and phones. We do not like to stand around and wait on things, not even big things like the presence of God. Give me John’s gospel where Jesus appears on Easter evening and breathes out the Holy Spirit not this waiting ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost.

We also tend to think of waiting as wasted or empty time; sitting around twiddling our thumbs until there is something to do. This is what the Ascension story in Luke’s gospel really challenges. Luke tells us that the disciples return to Jerusalem to wait on the Spirit, but they are anything but idle. They are in worship and prayer. Their waiting is an expectant waiting, not an inactive void. They are doing those things that keep them ready, attentive to the movement of God’s Spirit.

John Wesley called activities like worship, prayer, studying the scriptures, and sharing with fellow Christians means of grace. They are ways that keep us in touch with God’s Spirit and attentive to what God may do or say in our midst.

I think the real challenge of the Ascension is understanding that often I am prone to dart out on my own, in my own strength, my own vision, my plan, only to find out that I may not be doing what God is working to accomplish in the world. However, when I am in tune with God’s vision, God’s power, and God’s mission, I get to participate in something far greater than I can ever think or imagine.  That’s something worth waiting on.

 

Abiding In Love

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” John 15:9

This saying, like many of Jesus’ sayings, sounds simple and sweet, until we try to live it. I mean live it to the fullest, not just live it in a moment of ecstasy when we think everything is right with the world and things are all going our way.

It is comforting to be reminded that Jesus loves us with the same deep love that exists within the Godhead. “I love you as the Father loves me. Abide in my love.” To remain steadfast in this love, to be grounded and rooted in it, gives us a sense of worth and purpose in the world.

But there is more to this love than just a reminder of God’s love for us. The love that Jesus offers us calls us to love each other too. Abiding in this love of Jesus means we love each other the way Jesus loves us. Abiding in this love may be a little more difficult.

Kristen and I designed our wedding bands during our engagement. They are simple rings with an inscription in Greek. The inscription comes from another passage in John’s gospel where Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” (15:12) Circling our rings in Greek are the words, “as I have loved you.”

During our engagement, that seemed like a nice, sweet sentiment of Jesus. Nearly 23 years later, I can tell you that one of the most painful experiences for me is to look down at my wedding band in the midst of an argument and stopping to ask myself, “am I loving Kristen the way Christ loves me?”

I am not implying that Christ’s love will erase all our differences, disagreements, or even simple misunderstandings. But seeing that comment on my ring calls me to seek resolution of our differences, disagreements, and misunderstandings in a different way.

Abiding in Christ’s love also means staying committed to loving each other in times when we may think the other person undeserving of our love, rebuking our love, or even misunderstanding our love. Abiding in love is not something we commit to as disciples as long as we all get along and agree with each other. To love one another as Christ loves us, to abide in that love, means being committed to loving one another in difficult times, times of disagreement, times when loving my not feel like what we want to do at all. And if we abide in this love, Jesus says we will also be filled with joy (15:11.)

Pursued by God’s Love

As a boy memorizing the 23rd Psalm, I thought the Psalm ended by promising three things would always follow me:  surely, goodness, and mercy. It was the way I was taught to enunciate the words, pausing between each as if there was a comma between surely and goodness. As I was reading the passage out of the Bible one day it struck me, the Psalm ends with a bold confession that no matter what, God’s goodness and mercy will follow us. Surely was not one more item in a list, but confidence in God’s steadfast journey with us. Surely God will follow us with goodness and mercy.

It was not until I was in seminary, studying Hebrew, that I realized just how strong that confession is. The old English translation, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me,” made me think of how my dog used to wander around behind me. Sometimes the dog would get distracted by squirrels, or chase birds taking off from the ground. Always the dog would come back. I began to think of God’s goodness and mercy as dependable companions like my dog, ambling on behind me, sometimes taking off in different directions but always finding me. Surely God’s goodness and mercy would follow along. I learned the Hebrew text uses a strong verb to describe God pursuing us, not simply ambling on behind us.

The idea of God pursuing us is reinforced by the Psalmist’s use of the word Chesed. Chesed is the word often translated mercy in the Psalm. Chesed is translated in other places as loving kindness, covenant love, deep love. Chesed is used to describe God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Chesed is God’s love that does not give up on us but keeps searching for us as God wandered through the garden of Eden calling out until Adam and Eve finally step out of hiding.

Perhaps what causes us to lose sight of the strong confession at the end of Psalm 23 is the way the Psalm lulls us to think that all is peace and calm. We focus on the green pastures, the still waters, and we believe the Psalm merely describes a peaceful stroll with God. However, Psalm 23 also talks about the valley of the shadow of death and sitting down at a table with enemies. The Psalmist is aware that journeying with God does not guarantee that all will be peace and calm.  The Psalm bears witness to a faith that no matter where we travel, in peaceful pastures or dark valleys, God will not leave us on our own. Indeed God will pursue us with goodness and love.

 

Listening to See Jesus

“I’m sorry, I cannot hear you. One of my contacts is stuck to my eyelid.”

I knew how ridiculous that sounded before the words were out of my mouth. There seems to be no obvious relation between wearing corrective lenses and ability to hear. But, if you have ever worn contacts and struggled with a lens that will not stay in place or irritates your eye in some way, you probably understand that statement perfectly. It’s like all the other senses focus on whatever discomfort the contact lens creates, trying to help the eyes feel better. Perhaps your taste sensation is not as strong because taste buds are racing to the eyes to offer support or comfort. Could be that your sense of touch is less acute because all your feeling sensations or directed towards that eye irritant. Or, as in my case, maybe you just cannot hear as well as normal, because your sense of hearing is screaming at you to make the discomfort in your eye go away.

We often think of the Transfiguration of Jesus as an issue of sight. Jesus changes before the eyes of Peter, James, and John. His clothes become blinding white. He is seen talking to Moses and Elijah. Peter wants to build structures to commemorate what they have seen. But, as Mark tells the story, the real climax is a voice that speaks to the disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:8)

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 in Mark’s gospel contain three passion predictions; once in each chapter, Jesus predicts his suffering and death. Each prediction is followed by a story of the disciples misunderstanding what Jesus is trying to teach them. It’s like the disciples’ sense of hearing is distorted, as if they are too distracted to hear what Jesus is really saying.

The three passion predictions are surrounded by two stories of Jesus curing blindness (8:22-26 and 10:46-52). In the middle of these healing stories is the Transfiguration scene (9:1-8). Maybe Mark is warning us that our vision of Jesus gets distorted when our hearing is not functioning properly. Listen to Jesus, and you may see something more amazing than what Peter, James, and John saw on that mountain. Listen to Jesus, and you will see who he truly is.

Who Are These People? (On Seeing the Saints and Revelation 7:9-17)

Today is All Saints Day. One of the scripture readings assigned for the day is Revelation 7:9-17. At this point in the story of Revelation, John sees a vision of worship around God’s throne. There are angels, elders, creatures, and a great throng of people surrounding and singing praise to God. One of the elders turns to John and asks, “Who are these people?”

John responds, “You know.” I take that to be John’s way of saying, “I have no idea. That’s the very thing I was wondering, ‘who are these people?'”

John has already told us a few things about these people. He describes them as a great crowd. They come from everywhere and speak every language. They are dressed in white robes and stand before the throne singing a song of praise to God.

But why these people? Why are they here at God’s throne singing praise? Why are they dressed in white robes? What makes them so special?

The elder then answeres his own question, “These are people who have come out of the great hardship (or ordeal, or tribulation; depending on which translation you are reading.)” The word variously translated as ordeal, hardship, tribulation, etc., is the same word that John uses to describe his own condition in chapter 1 of Revelation.

You may remember that as the book opens up, John is in exile on the island of Patmos. Despite what he describes as his persecution, John is worshipping when the visions that he writes about are given to him.

Being persecuted for his faith by undergoing exile to a remote island, I imagine it was easy for John to feel like he was alone, cut off from the community of faith, and one of a very small faithful group of people willing to be persecuted for remaining faithful during  a time of hardship. I imagine this because, when I feel my relationship with Christ causes me to take an unpopular stand or make a statement that others may find offensive, it is easy for me to think, “Why are all the other “so-called” Christians giving in? Why am I the only one willing to stand up for the faith? How come the church is not filled with fully committed, dedicated people?”

I also know I am not the only person tempted to think this way when remaining faithful becomes difficult. When God finds Elijah alone at Mount Horeb (I Kings 19), God asks him, “What are you doing here?” Elijah says, “I am the only faithful one left.”  As God sends Elijah back to continue his work as a prophet, God says there 7,000 left in Israel who have remained faithful.

John tells us he sees a crowd so large that they cannot be numbered, people from every country and tribe. He sees a crowd so diverse that he describes them as speaking every language. John sees what we often call the church universal, the church spread across the earth and throughout time. John is given a reminder that we are never alone, that there are often more faithful than we recognize and acknowledge, especially when we are at worship.

I wonder as I go throughout this All Saints Day if there are saints that I might be missing, saints that I do not see or recognize?