Saturday, May 29, 2010

Let's Talk About the Trinity --- Tomorrow

[This sermon was prepared for the people of Saint John's Anglican Church in Port Moody, BC to be preached on Trinity Sunday, 30 May 2010.]

+ My sisters and brothers, I speak to you in the name of God, the Weaver who weaves us into the pattern of the Word through the wisdom of the Spirit. Amen.

Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1990, I began my first-ever sabbatical. It was a significant year for our family in many ways, especially since our youngest child, Owen, was born in October of that year. Paula and I decided that it was an opportunity for us to take a sabbatical from the parish where we had been worshipping for the past three years. We were not dissatisfied with Saint Anselm’s and would return at the end of my sabbatical, but spending a year in another parish was a way for us to have a little distance. We chose to attend the Cathedral where Jim Cruickshank, later Bishop of Cariboo and a former professor at VST, was the Dean.

We were immediately drafted! The Cathedral had a programme for the preparation of adults for baptism that was modelled on what is known as the catechumenate process. In this process the candidates for baptism attend Sunday worship and their preparation sessions focus on the readings from the Sunday gathering. They bring their questions and reflections rather than ‘receiving instruction’, as it used to be called, and the role that Paula and I were to play was more as mentors rather than providing weekly content.

Among the participants were people who were already baptized and preparing for the re-affirmation of their baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil when the others would be baptized. It was a good group and, although I cannot remember all that was said and done, it was a time that I look back with fondness and a sense of appropriate pride.

I remember one session particularly well. Among the candidates for baptism was a gentleman from mainland China who had been raised in the Buddhist tradition. He was a fine participant and contributed much to the group’s life. It was this session, however, that remains fixed in my mind and that gave rise to my thoughts for the sermon today.

This gentleman turned to the group and said, “The one thing that still confuses me is the Christian belief in the Trinity. I can understand that God is one. I can understand that God is present in Jesus of Nazareth. I can understand that the Holy Spirit is, in some way, an expression of God in our daily lives. But I really cannot understand trinitarian theology. It seems unnecessary complicated and mysterious.” In keeping with the spirit of the process, I turned to the group and said, “What do you think? How would you answer this question?” I was met with a resounding silence. When I turned to the members of the group who had been baptized, I was met by all the signs that I am familiar in seeing in my students who do not wish to respond: no eye contact, gazing out the window, sudden fascination with a text in the Bible or some other book --- you all know the routine.

Please don’t get me wrong. I happen to belong to that group of Christian teachers who believes that the Christian experience of the God whom we know as the Source of all life and love, the incarnate Word and the Spirit, gentle as a dove, burning as fire, is a central part of the story that we tell. But I am not so sure that it is one of the first things that we teach. The basic Christian confession is that when you meet Jesus of Nazareth you meet God. For two thousand years we have tried to explain what this means and how this is possible, but these efforts are commentary, inspired and necessary, but commentary on this fundamental Christian confession.

So let me share some thoughts with you about the God whom I believe we meet when we meet Jesus of Nazareth.

Throughout human history we have seen signs that God acts to unite what has been separated by human sin. When the World Council of Churches came into being in the years following the Second World War, we witnessed God’s refusal to accept that divisions created during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries between Christians and God’s work in making more visible the unity that exists between all Christians by virtue of our baptism in Christ. When apartheid in South Africa came to an end, we witnessed God’s refusal to accept that the barriers erected to maintain the superiority of one race over another could not be sustained in the face of God’s uniting purpose. When the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited, we witnessed God’s refusal to accept as perpetual a division caused by the distrust of the Allies after the Second World War and by the oppressive structures of the East German regime. Because God is one, God works in us and through us to bring about that unity which will reflect an essential characteristic of our creation in the image and likeness of God.

But the shadow side of unity is confusing ‘uniformity’ with ‘unity’. Human beings have an unfortunate tendency to assume that we cannot be ‘one’ unless we are all doing the same things, thinking the same ways and believing the same beliefs. What we have come to see in the environmental crisis we have witnessed as species have become extinct and habitats are ruined is that there is a long-term cost to the loss of bio-diversity. As we have often heard on our coast, a tree farm is not the same as a forest. Similarly, the history of societies and religious movements is that the suppression of diversities for the sake of unity often leads to a totalitarianism which quenches the human spirit and leads to further oppression. For this reason, we confess that God loves ‘infinite variety’, so long as that variety does not deny that all of us, human and non-human, are inter-dependent and that are ultimate well-being depends upon the flourishing of all. Because God loves diversity, we learn more about ourselves and our role in God’s purposes when we hear the perspectives of gay and straight, male and female, so-called ‘conservatives’ and so-called ‘liberals’, Christians and non-Christians.

We confess that God is more than we can know or understand. There is an ‘otherness’ to God, a quality that we often call ‘holy’ about the One whom we believe is responsible for all that is, seen and unseen. God’s otherness manifests itself when we realize that our perspective on our lives and on the history of our world cannot fully comprehend why we exist at all and what will be our telos, a term that in the New Testament counts among its meanings ‘purpose’ or ‘goal’. Because God is holy, there are moments in which the wonder and the tragedy of our lives overwhelm us with a sense of something more happening in these events than any human philosophy or religion can account for. Because God is holy, we are often left speechless in the face of events that can make us feel that our lives are part of a greater story, that our lives matter even when we know that the story is so vast and stretches beyond our horizon.

Yet this ‘otherness’ of God, this holiness, does not keep God away from us nor from the creation that God has made and is making. All of Scripture tells the tale of a God who engages the world in many and various ways: dreams and visions, signs and miracles, speech and silence. Abraham is promised a son and Sarah laughs, but the child is born and a new role begins for this family. Moses flees from Egypt and a bush burns but is not consumed and he is sent back to be God’s agent of liberation. Mary has a vision of an angel and Joseph is confronted with an inexplicable fact and a child comes into the world who changes all of human history. Peter goes to have a nap and has a dream that commands him to many of the traditions he believes God has commanded him to follow and a Roman soldier is paid an unexpected visit by a Jewish fisherman causing the Jesus-movement to spread beyond Judea until it reached Port Moody. Because God cannot keep the divine hands off of creation, God summons people like you and me to undertake tasks we would never imagine being set before us. We often cannot explain why we know that we have been called nor why we know what we are called to do is right, but we know we are called and we do what we are bidden all the same.

Today throughout the Christian world congregations are hearing the same readings and keeping the same feast: The Feast of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. No doubt there will be sermons preached that seek to explain how Christians have come to believe in this God who is one-in-three and three-in-one. No doubt some of these sermons will be amazing in their ability to open the mystery of God to the congregation and other sermons will lapse into either banality or heresy. In my own small way I want to avoid amazement, banality and heresy. I want to suggest to you that the world is tired of Christians talking about what the Christian faith is, what our doctrines are and how our ‘take’ on Christianity is better or clearer or more orthodox or more generous than other Christians ‘take’. I want to suggest to you that the world is not as interested in the doctrine of the Trinity or in Christian views of human sexuality or in how we understand Jesus to be both human and divine. These are not unimportant because what we believe about these aspects of Christian faith has something to say about how we understand the God whom we experience as seeking unity while honouring diversity and as being beyond us while always being present to and active in us and the creation.

I have come, reluctantly at first but now more enthusiastically, to the belief that our non-Christian sisters and brothers as well as most of our so-called ‘lapsed’ sisters and brothers are more interest in what the faith of Christians does than they are interested in what the Christian faith is. n fact I might go so far as to say that the only way we know truly what the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth is is by choosing to model the conduct of our lives more closely to what we believe Jesus does. To some this may sound simplistic and to others a matter open to considerable controversy, but there is no point, I believe, in talking about the mystery of the Three-personed God when we are reluctant or unable to talk about what that God has summoned forth from us.

‘The Father and I are one’: Jesus and the God who sent him into the world are united in the work that God is doing in Jesus and continues to do through the Spirit. What God has been doing from the very beginning, what God was doing in Jesus of Nazareth and what God does in the Spirit through us is

* to challenge unjust structures,
* to respect those who are considered outsiders,
* to choose mercy over religious correctness,
* to offer one’s very self for the life of the world,
* to forgive those who are caught in other people’s webs,
* to give sight to the blind and to choose service rather than prestige.

This is what God, the One-in-Three and Three-in-One, the holy and undivided Trinity, does.

At the end of the Nicene Creed we confess that we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Over my fifty-seven years of being an Anglican I have heard many a sermon and a lecture about what these words mean. I am the mind that we say this about the church because we understand the church to be an agent of God and that our God is a God who cares about unity, holiness, diversity and mission. We say these words about the church because we believe them to be true about the God whom the world needs to see in us.

Prior to the seventh century North Africa was a Christian region of the Roman Empire. But as Islam moved out of the Arabian Peninsula and moved east along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, many Christian converted to Islam. The reasons for these conversions are complex, but I would hazard to guess that Christian fatigue was relieved by a new faith that allowed Christians to believe in Jesus as a prophet without all the theological baggage and conflict that came with the endless trinitarian and Christological controversies that began in the fourth century.

I think that there is a growing fatigue among non-Christians and lapsed Christians with the endless theological squabbles and the religious imperialism that characterize North American Christianity. Our neighbours want to see Jesus at work in their neighbourhoods and to see what God is doing in this world that needs so much care. We can wait to talk about the Trinity for the day after we hear our neighbours say, “When we meet you, we meet Jesus. Can you tell us a bit more about who he is and more about the God who inspires you to do these things?” And may that day come soon and come often. Amen.

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