Sunday, June 07, 2009

Trinity Sunday

Romans 8
12 So then, brothers and sisters,* we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba!* Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

We traveled 950 years through time on Tuesday and we didn’t even break a sweat. The intrepid little group that is studying the history of the Christian church made it through the longest and most comprehensive evening without complaint, and gave every indication that they’re coming back.

Now, I never promised a chronologically balanced study. It would be tempting to divide 2000 years evenly, but it wouldn’t work: too little to say about 500 to 1000 (not much to see in the Dark Ages) and far too much to say in the last 500 years. It appears that human history unfolds in fits and starts, with long periods of ho hum followed by lots of drama.

The second evening, the 950-year odyssey from 400 to 1350 could best be described as the era where we learned a great deal and then forgot everything we learned. Important religious ideas emerged from the chaos of the early church period and the church promptly failed to live up to the promise found in these ideas. The church came to resemble the surrounding culture in a way that continues to inform how others perceive us.

The purpose of our study, and I hope all study of the history of Christianity, is to see the ways in which we have evolved beyond the past and also to point out the dangers of allowing the past to recur. Allowing American missionaries to follow the army into Iraq, as an example, demonstrates a profound ignorance of church history, and reckless disregard for the faith of others. Suddenly the bumper sticker that reads, “Please Jesus, save us from your followers” makes a lot of sense.

So why has the church has become such a tough sell in our society: one reason is clearly the sins of the past. Other reasons might include the false contest between science and religion, ambivalence toward institutions generally, another false contest between spirituality and religion and many other reasons. However you frame it, we need some better PR, or a makeover, or a reboot if we’re going to continue in a form that resembles today. The next 500 years is looking a little murky, but so is the next 50, and the next 5 for that matter.

One of the things we learned in the period of learning (before the period of forgetting) was the nature of God as revealed in scripture. Church fathers and mothers combed the Bible looking for clues as to how to understand their risen Lord. Where did Jesus fit into the vast tradition? How does he relate to God, truly? How is the church maintained, and how does the church continue to be a vessel for the truth we hold? Important questions, and questions that resemble the ones we ask today.

When we cry, ‘Abba!* Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

So here is Paul getting a head start on the debate that will continue for more than a few decades. Here Paul is trying to understand how Jesus’ own prayer reveals what we need to know about the realm we cannot see, the realm we struggle to comprehend.

First, to paraphrase: When we pray, as Jesus did, to God as a heavenly parent, we bear witness to the reality that we are God’s children. Praying together, the Spirit reveals that we are heirs to all that God has made and all that God has done. And when we pray, as Jesus did, to God as heavenly parent, we become siblings with Christ, heirs together of the great love that God shows us.

Praying Abba, we are God’s children.
Praying with Christ, he is our brother.
Praying together, we have the Spirit.

The earliest among us searched the tradition and found a way to understand God hiding in plain sight. They read and reflected and found a model for the divine that frames our fellowship and allows us to see the unseen and know the unknowable. They found in Paul and in the words of Jesus the kernel of doctrine that we call the Trinity.

Now there I did it, I dropped the “d” word, and the place didn’t fall in. We don’t preach doctrine much anymore, sad to say. Back in the day, in our Presbyterian tradition at least, the Sunday evening service (most churches had one) was the service dedicated to preaching doctrine. The Westminster Shorter Catechism had 107 questions, so there is 107 Sunday nights right there. I wonder why the Sunday evening service ended?

We don’t preach it for the same reason schools in Ontario stopped teaching grammar in the 1970’s: too boring, the people in charge thought. They’ll pick it up anyhow, they argued, so why bother to trouble the kiddies with teaching the stuff. Thank goodness I went to Queen’s, where mandatory Hebrew and Greek meant I finally learned the grammar I didn’t learn in the third grade.

So we’re going to talk Trinity, because doctrine is nothing to be scared of, and because informed Christians are better Christians, better able to take their faith into the world and do the important things we were created to do.

So we begin at the beginning: all of life is loss. It has always been so, with each day a little death, and every experience drawing to a close and becoming something new. The idea that all of life is loss should not come as a shock to you, because for all of you the growth and development you have experienced is also always loss. You were small, and now you’re not. Somewhere, in that transition, there was and is loss.

We accept the smaller losses and we struggle to accept the larger losses. We lose the things that matter most from time to time and we are often consumed by sadness and anger, and we direct that anger to the most logical places we can. The illness had a cause and the accident had a cause and the malice had a cause and we look for reasons why. But the biggest loss, the loss of our own life is the one we struggle with all our life, and the only place that seems appropriate to put that anger is on God.

So from the beginning of time, to this moment, we’re kind of mad at God and the world God made. We love our lives, the things we have and the people we love, and one day all of this will be dust. If you’re not mad about this you should be, and it’s okay to let God know because God is big and can handle it.

This anger toward God is not new. It has been a human theme as long as there have been humans, and therefore we know that at one unique moment in time God appeared in our midst and we took the chance to act. We took all that bottled up anger and resentment, all that accumulated loss and sadness and we set upon God and did the only thing that seemed appropriate at the time: we nailed God to a tree. We killed God, and in killing God we tried to end the loss that we lived with from the beginning of time.

Ironically, we succeeded. Jesus’ death on the cross meant an end to death, and an end to loss insofar as the narrow way we viewed reality came to an end. It took the death of Jesus to allow God to fully enter our experience, to know the loss we know and become fully a student of the human way. Unless God died on that cross, there is not intersection between God and us, and no communion that allows us to see God’s willingness to die.


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