Monday, May 31, 2010

I believe in the Holy Trinity - One God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit

We don't think much about the Ebionites anymore.  In fact, we don't talk or think much about the great heresies of the first few centuries of the Church.  True most of us confess the Nicene or Apostle's Creed weekly, and they were created as the direct result or response to some of the great heresies of the early church.  But, we don't really concern ourselves much with this.  The ELW has eliminated the Athanasian Creed - which was the most polemic of the creeds, but as Pastor Colville-Hanson says in her blog (she's the ice skating Pastor - see below) this is a pity because it has some incredibly beautiful sections.  Nevertheless I received a very friendly comment from someone whose screen name is Adam Pastor (see the comments section) and he suggested that I might want to watch a video entitled "Jesus is Human."  He seems to think that by watching this video I would be convinced that the Trinity was error once and for all.  Well, thank you Pastor Adam for the chance to watch the video, and for the opportunity to re-think many of the theological issues surrounding the Trinity - but I remain strongly and staunchly Trinitiarian as a result.

I put off writing this for a little while because the issue is so complex that I just didn't feel much like writing a dissertation.  So I will resist the temptation to write a dissertation and make just a couple observations about what I saw and what I believe about the Trinity.

Now, the video is two hours long and I confess up front, I got tired of it after about and hour.  So I did not watch the whole thing.  The English professor who is the host began to repeat himself and the interviews began to get a little more strident (I thought) so I stopped.  But judging from what I saw it seems to me that this Professor and this video were essentially a remake of the ancient Ebionite heresy - which believed that since Jesus was Jewish, Christians must become Jewish in every way, especially theologically.  And, most important, that even though Jesus was the Messiah and a great Rabbi, he was not God.  There was no room for the Trinity in the Ebionites theology.  The video's main point seems to be that since Jesus was a unitarian - believing in the One God of the ancient Hebrew religion then the Trinity is an abberation and should be rejected.  The message was repeated over and over again.  One technique was to corner some poor unsuspecting Evangelical literalist and then the English professor would tied the poor person up in theological knots.  I thought this technique was unfair, and completely unconvincing.  The young and inexperienced evangelical tried so hard to make literal sense of the Trinity, but could not do it.  It was interesting to me that only mostly young lay folks were interviewed.  I saw no Pastor or theologian interviewed.  Why not interview a Pastor - say Rick Warren.  It would also have been interesting if they had actually interviewed a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran or Episcopalian clergy or theologian.  But I am not sure that the English professor was prepared to deal with that perspective.  (Why is it that when someone wants to try to debunk some tenet or aspect of Christianity they take aim at the literalist Evangelicals?  There is another perspective which is equally valid and has a lot to say).

Well, I am not a literalist, but I believe in the Trinity.  I also believe that God is one.  It may be that Jesus was not a Trinitiarian - he was, after all not a Christian.  But the church came about in response to His ministry and in response to the strong belief (expressed in particular by St. Paul - who was particularly disliked by the ancient Ebionites) that Jesus was God incarnate.  The Trinity emerged from the Church as a way of understanding how God works in the world and acknowledging that Jesus is God incarnate.  This is not three Gods - like the Gnostics believed - this is one God.  Can I explain it any more convincingly?  Not really.  Do I feel that I need to?  Not really.  This is how I and many other Christians experience God in our midst.  It is this doctrine that proclaims God's incarnation in Jesus and affirms God's continuing presence with us in the midst of our lives through the Holy Spirit.  For me, to affirm the Ebionite belief proposed by the video would be to abandon God to the distant heavens.  The Trinity promises God's presence here in our midst.

I am sure that others can put this more eloquently than this.  And I am equally sure that the Ebionites will find this unconvincing.  But this is not only what I believe mentally, this is my experience of faith.  Finally, I must completely reject the suggestion made by the video that the creation of the doctrine of the Trinity was a "sinister plot."  Sorry, I think you might need to revisit your early church history.  I would recommend any book by Bart Ehrman - also Dominic Crossan.  To any reader who might like to weigh in feel free.  I will post responses.  I reserve the right to comment, and I will not post mean or disrespectful comments.

Again, to Adam Pastor - thank you for your comment and for the opportunity for me to reaffirm by strong and unwavering faith in the Holy Trinity - One God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.
SBD+

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Dancing...." - A Sermon on Trinity C

One of my all time favorite shows has become "Dancing with the Stars." Now as someone who is fairly musical and has very good rhythm I nevertheless am a lousy dancer (just ask my dance partner from "Die Fledermaus"), so why does this show hold my interest so much. I think it is because of two things - first, the hope that even the bad dancers (who I relate to) actually can learn to do a pretty good job and can be acceptable. And second, because of the shear beauty of the dances themselves. What is required of course is complete coordination and communication. Which the more I think about it, reminds me of the Holy Trinity!

Many of us approach Trinity Sunday with some nervousness. The Trinity is one of those complicated doctrines of our church which we accept and believe and which we regularly affirm – every week in either the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed. But, one which may give us a headache if we try to think about it to much. It is complicated and it is hard to make sense of. The Trinity is the best example of church math: 1+1+1 = 1. And while we talk about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we might understand in part how they function as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, ultimately we all have to admit that the Trinity is beyond all of our complete understanding. If anyone claims to completely understand the Trinity – be suspicious and don’t believe them.

So how do we get a handle on this important doctrine of the church. St. Augustine wrote this about the Trinity: “The Father is God; The Son is God; The Holy Spirit is God; The Father is not the Son; The Son is not the Holy Spirit; The Holy Spirit is not the Father; There is only one God.”1.

Some have come up with alternative adjectives for Father, Son and Holy Spirit: “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” or “Sovereign, Savior, Sustainer.” Sometimes in order to try to understand the Trinity theologians and pastors will come up with various images. For example, one popular image is the water image: liquid, steam and ice are all water; or the family image: I am my children’s father, I am my parent’s son, I am my wife’s husband – but I am all one person. One of my favorite images came from a book I read by Robert Farrar Capon. He describes the Trinity in terms of a game. He begins by warning that he doesn’t mean that God plays the first half of the game, the Son plays the 3rd quarter then the Church gets sent in for the 4th quarter with the Holy Spirit coming out to kick field goals occasionally. While this might be a popular image he rejects this and instead suggests thinking of the Trinity like a team where all of them are playing all the time - since the dawn of creation through all eternity.2

Now, none of these images really work completely. They are all flawed. If one of them is helpful to you – fine, but don’t try to push it too far because it won’t completely work. If one of these images doesn’t work for you at all – fine, discard it. Having said that I should say that I have always been drawn to the Capon game image, and the reason is because of the relational aspect of it. This is because I believe that whatever the Trinity is, it is relationship. It is a relationship within God that enables God to be in relationship with us.

Understanding the Trinity as relationship then leads me to share another image that I think is very beautiful – and that is that perhaps we should think of the Trinity as a dance. The love of God, the love that IS God is like a divine Dance, a dynamic and graceful and deeply intimate movement. In this movement, the God who is "I AM" is not alone, never alone, for the very essence of God is relationship. ... What we see in the Trinity is a dance of Persons who are mutually affirming, mutually caring. For the very essence of God is relationship, community, unconditional love.

It is even more remarkable then that God, who in this Dance needs no other, did choose to create and redeem a people--no, even more, chose to create and redeem you, me, each and every individual we encounter--so that we might join in this Dance. The invitations have been sent. There are to be no mere spectators on the dance floor. No outcasts, no outsiders. We are called by God to see ourselves as God sees each of us and thus discover ourselves to be, like the Persons of the Trinity, truly beloved.
3

So... Come and join the dance. There are no wallflowers in the the Triune God's dance of Love. There is no one who has to worry about being clumsy or alone or unacceptable. This "Dancing with the Stars (literally)" has no judges who will eliminate you - rather God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit is always dancing and always beaconing to us to: Come and join the dance! We also need to be reminded that it is not the Triune God who rejects us - usually it is we ourselves who reject ourselves and way too often it is we ourselves who reject others for a whole variety of reasons. We easily see ourselves and others as flawed and have a much harder time accepting that we are beloved! What would happen if we looked at all those around us (and at ourselves) with fresh eyes, seeing not rivals or annoyances or, perhaps worst of all, as invisibles... but rather as God's Beloved ones, as God's Dance partners? ... On this Trinity Sunday, God gives us a priceless gift that we can share with all those we meet, all those whose life's baggage has become so full, so heavy, that they have forgotten who they are and whose they are. We can dare to look them (and ourselves) in the eye and quietly remind them (ourselves) "not only with our lips but in our lives" that they (we) are not God and don't need to be. There is one God, who is relationship, who is Divine Dance, who is Love. And they (we) are God's Beloved.3  So... Come, Let's Dance!

1. Augustine of Hippo - "On Christian Doctrine" (Contact me for an exact citation)
2. Robert Farrar Capon - "On Hunting the Divine Fox"
3. The Rev. Canon C.K. Robertson - Sermon "The Dance" posted at Day1.org


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pentecost - 2010 - "What's It All About?"

It was a stormy day on that Pentecost Sunday.  The rain was coming down hard and off in the distance there was lightning and thunder.  Nevertheless, at 1st Lutheran Church the mood was festive.  It was Pentecost Sunday and on this day 5 young people would be confirmed.  Like young Lutherans in many congregations, these 5 had attended classes faithfully every week for two years and had learned the catechism and the bible.  And today was the day when they would affirm their Baptism and become members of the church.  So amid a sea of red the service continued - "O Day Full of Grace;" "This is the Feast;" "Reading from Acts 2." And as the storm raged and the lightning got a little closer the Pastor preached a sermon telling a couple interesting stories of his own experiences as a confirmand and then the moment finally came.  "The following young people desire to be confirmed..." and the names were read.  Dutifully each of the young people stepped forward. "Do you renounce... Yes, and I ask God to help me... Do you believe... I believe..."  And then the young people all kneeled at the railing and one at a time the Pastor placed his hands on their heads and prayed "Stir up in... the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the Spirit of joy in your presence."  Each in turn had this prayer prayed.  He finally reached the last young person - a boy named Scott.  He placed his hands on his head and repeated the prayer: "Stir up....... The Spirit of..... joy in your presence."  And immediately at that moment there was a blinding light!  Lightening struck right outside the church and the church was rocked with deafening thunder.  And then the lights went out!  Everyone sat stunned and motionless.  The Pastor still had his hands on Scott's head as the boy slowly looked up and said, "Wow, is that what it is all about?"

Is it?  Is that what it is all about?  Are our celebrations of festivals such as Easter, Ascension and Pentecost all about the spectacular miracles: Jesus is raised from the dead, Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit in a very dramatic way!  This is, of course, part of the story.  The miracles which we remember and mark on these days are important – but is that it?  Is that all that the festivals focus on?  As important is they are, it is, nevertheless, easy to get side-tracked by these miracles.  They are so dramatic and so exciting.  The image that always comes to me about this time of the year comes from the Acts reading for Ascension.  The disciples have watched Jesus ascend into heaven and there they stand gazing into heaven.  Two angels speak to them: “Men of Galilee…” stop gazing into the heaven.  The Kingdom has come and now it is time to get to work!
These words are especially appropriate on Pentecost.  Amid all of the rushing winds and the tongues which seemed to be like fire what happens on this day is a manifestation of that instruction from the angels on Ascension.  The disciples HAVE finally gotten to work, and God has provided them with the Holy Spirit to help them.  No longer are they cooped up and hiding in a secret hide-a-way.  No, they have come out and have begun the work to which they had been called from the beginning: Proclaiming Christ – in word and deed!  And the Holy Spirit drives them out into the streets not just on any normal day – but right in the middle of the Feast of Weeks (Shauvot); right when the city would again be filled with travelers and pilgrims.
Sometimes God works in big dramatic ways – like at Pentecost; sometimes God works in more subtle ways.  But the proclamation of Pentecost is that God works; God acts!  God acted on Pentecost and God continues to act among us and will continue into the future.  The Holy Spirit is present here and now leading guiding and empowering.  How do you see and experience God working in the world today; in the midst of our community and in your life?  How have you experienced the Holy Spirit?  Have you had dramatic experiences of God’s presence and work?  Are you open to and do you notice the subtle ways that God is at work in your life?  In what other ways is the Holy Spirit leading you to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus crucified and risen in word and deed?
Finally, on this Pentecost weekend we celebrate the bestowal of God’s amazing gifts of love, grace and the Holy Spirit upon three of our young people: Austin, Mackenzie and Brenden.  They will affirm their Baptismal vows on Sunday and be confirmed in their faith.  We pray that God would always bless them, and all who are confirmed now and into the future.  And may they and all of us always be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  May be allow the Spirit to enter into our lives now and always.  Come, Holy Spirit, Come!


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reflections on the Gospel for Easter 7C - John 17

This weekend our Gospel is the third in the series of three readings taken from Jesus’ last address to His disciples – it is known as the final discourse. Jesus has brought together His disciples for the last supper; he has washed their feet (only in John); he has shared bread and wine; he has given them a new commandment – to love one another; he has promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit and finally he breaks into a beautiful prayer during which he prays not only for his disciples, but he prays for us! David Lose writes about this wonderful prayer (known as the High Priestly Prayer): “No more instructions, no more Q&A, no more assurances or predications. Jesus just prays, asking his heavenly Father to draw the disciples into the relationship the Father and Son already enjoy, that they – Father, Son, disciples – may be as one. But then he extends his prayer, actually breaks it wide open until it stretches beyond the room, city, region, and even the time and history they occupy. ‘And I ask not only on behalf of these,’ Jesus prays, ‘but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.’

“Did you hear that? Two thousand years ago, understandably focused on his impending suffering and death, Jesus nevertheless turns his attention to us, actually prays for us. Jesus prays, in fact, for all those of every time and place who will come to believe through the testimony of his disciples, and that includes us... And right there, in a heartbeat, the distance between the stories the Bible tells and our own stories collapses. Suddenly, what's going on in the biblical story isn't way back then, it's right here and now, as Jesus prays for us – for our ups and down, our hopes and disappointments, our aspirations and commitments, our yearning for meaning and need for purpose. Right there. Right then. Right now.”

And what does Jesus pray? That those who call themselves by his name, those who believe and follow him might be drawn into the life of the Holy Trinity. This is a life of grace, love and presence; this is a life of reflecting and giving back the gifts which God has given us. And the more we give away the more we have to give away.

My internship supervisor once told a story of how, as a child, he loved chocolate pudding. One time when his mother had made it he decided that to prevent any of his brothers and sisters from getting any of it he would take it out of the refrigerator and hide it so they could not find it. The problem was – he hid it so well he couldn’t find it himself. Weeks went by. One day his mother opened a very remote cabinet and there in the back was the chocolate pudding – now all dry and moldy. It was no longer edible. By seeking to hoard for himself he didn’t get any of his favorite dessert.

How often are we inclined to do that with the gifts which God gives to us? God’s gifts are for us to give away – as much as possible. Our calling is to live lives that reflect the love and grace of God; to recognize that all that we are and all that we have is God’s. May we always recognize all that God has given to us; and may we always enthusiastically give God’s gifts away to others.

Footnotes: Professor David Lose, on WorkingPreacher.org