May 22

Blessed Trinity

By Marsh Chapel

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John 16:12-15

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Triune God

For this Sunday our lessons evoke a Triune God, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.   I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers.  We have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.  

My friend attended another, here unnamed, divinity school, which at the time was blown about by many if not every wind of doctrine, so much so that my friend, with a bit of whimsy and humor,  described their theology thus:  ‘God in seven persons, blessed heptopoly’.

Here, today, we shall limit ourselves to three, the three persons of the traditional Godhead.  Psalm 8 evokes God as Creator.  Romans 5 evokes God as Redeemer.  John 16 evokes God as Sustainer.  Father, Son, Spirit.   These are choice, endlessly lovely passages, any one of which, and any verse from any one of which should deserve 22 minutes of preaching attention and acclamation.  Memorize them.

The Christian doctrine of Trinity is of course a deeply mysterious matter, out of reach of most of us most of the time.  How can God be, both one and three?   Faith we must guess involves more than math.  Not less than math, but more than math.  If nothing else, about the Trinity, we remember this:  God is relational, on this teaching.  At the heart of the divine there is relationship, of First to Second to Third to Second to First.  This is what the early church found in Jesus:  the God to whom Jesus prayed, the God who guided and inspired Jesus, and the God in Jesus.  This is what the early church found in the Scripture:  Psalm 8, Romans 5, John 16.  This is what the early church found in Life:  the rush of creativity, the joy of love, the breath of spirit.  In our Gospel today, the Scripture goes even further, in a way giving privilege, at least here, to Spirit that guides into truth.  Once the creation has emerged; once redemption has been offered; then it is a matter of spirit, Spirit, wind, breath, gusting Spirit of God.

We preach and pray at the crossroads of faith and culture.  This is true for every congregation, pulpit and place, but especially and keenly so right now at Marsh Chapel.  In a new, perhaps conflicted way, across the country, we may be listening this summer for words of grace, out of our holy scripture, out of our traditions, out of our sacred history, and wondering, hoping, perhaps doubting but still hoping, that these as preached may help us make some sense of what is becoming of us, as a people and as a country, in our time.

We desire a faith amenable to culture, and a culture amenable to faith.  For what good is a baptized cleansing if we are simply thrown back into the mire? Personal and social holiness are married to one another.  Loving faith expects loving culture.

For all the attention we—rightly—give to politics and economics, it is really the cultural realities that have most impact on individual lives, over time.   When an 8 year old bursts through the back door, crying, saying that her school friend, from Mexico, we will be deported, hers is a culturally inflicted wound; when an 87 year old woman, in a nursing home, rues the collapse of her life long party, and surveys its demise and damages with the word ‘dismaying’, hers is a cultural assessment; when a candidate, given to insulting his competitors, and branding them with epithets, reflects on defeating one by calling him ‘low energy’ and, months later, in reflection,  saying, ‘that was a one day kill’ and then adding, ‘words are beautiful things’ (as my Dad said, ‘its one thing to be tough, but its another to be mean’), we suffer a cultural decline; when a great Christian denomination lacks spiritual leaders, general superintendents, who could simply say, ‘gay people are people’, and then keep silent (only one active UMC Bishop in the Northeast, Peggy Johnson, did so this week), this is a cultural measurement;  when only 24% of 17-24 year olds are eligible to seek admission into armed forces (the other 76% ineligible due to obesity, lack of a high school diploma, drug use, criminal record, failure of physical exam or other), here we trace cultural influence;  when forms of worship, meant for enchantment, give way over two generations to a pseudo-worship aimed at entertainment, with direct connections to features of Reality TV, professional wrestling, and beauty contests—the same social expressions now driving some political selection and debate–we face a cultural deficit; in short, when a culture, like ours,  has a mirror held up to it, as has happened this calendar year, and the image is more appalling than appealing, then some among us may begin to return to, revert to, a reconsideration of our more ancient repositories of wisdom:  scripture, history, thought, and scrutinized experience.  In an age of broad cultural malaise, some may seek more steadily the reassurance, peace, insight, and resolve to be found in moments of truth, goodness, beauty—and ordered worship. Those in the pulpits across this country have our work cut out for us in 2016.   How shall we invoke and evoke faith fit for culture and culture fit for faith?  How will we address incivility in a civil way?  How do we oppose demagoguery with democracy?  How do we contrast buffoonery with beauty?  How does one supplant cultural disorder with liturgical order?  How do we combat fear with faith?  We have our cultural work cut out for us this year.

Thank goodness we are not alone!  Blessed Trinity blesses us, especially as Trinity leans to Spirit.

There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the Universe, leading us.   Next week we shall begin hearing, along with Luke, from Galatians, chapter by chapter, speaking of spirit and truth, speaking of relationship, speaking of the new creation.  The Trinity leans toward Galatians, on this Trinity Sunday.  Here is your preparation for the Holy Scripture of the next month, your shake down cruise for the trip to Galatia, your introduction to Paul, Freedom, Spirit and New Creation, and the Magna Charta of Christian freedom.  Such beautiful verses:  I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefor and do not be enslaved again.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, self-discipline.  Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Here is the story behind the Epistle lessons you will hear through June.

New Creation

Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is one of the great high peaks of the New Testament.  It is about a whole new life, a new creation.  In fact, it may be the highest peak in the whole range, the Mount Everest of the Bible.  It is written to address this question:  “Must a Gentile become a Jew before he can become a Christian?”.  Is there a religious condition to be met, prior to the reception of God’s apocalypse in Christ?  

After Paul had been converted to Christ, he spent 17 years in unremarkable, quiet ministry.  We know nothing of these two decades spent in Arabia.  All the letters we have of Paul come from a later decade.  Paul was converted to Christ, as he says earlier in this letter, “by apocalypse”.  Christ revealed himself to Paul.  Thus, for Paul, the authority in Christ, is not finally in the Scripture, nor in traditions, nor in reason, nor in experience.  Christ captured Paul through none of these, but rather through revelation, the apocalypse of God.   In short, Paul was not a Methodist.

There is a singular, awesome freedom in the way Paul understands Christ.  We have yet, I believe, in the church that bears His name, to acknowledge in full that freedom.

After these 17 years, Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet with the pillars of the church.  Can you picture the moment?  All in one room:  Paul, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Titus, Barnabas.  And in that room there was argument, difference.  Paul preached the cross of Christ to unreligious people, and they heard.  What would the Jerusalem elders say?  Jesus was a Jew, and had been circumcised.  So also were all the first Christians, including Paul himself.  But God had done something astounding.  It was the Gentiles, not the Jews, who fervently believed the Good News. Should these unreligious children of God be brought back into the Covenant of Circumcision?  No, they all agreed, no.  God had done something new.  So, Peter went to the circumcised, and Paul went to the uncircumcised.  Peter went to the Jews, and Paul to the Gentiles.  They agreed to disagree, agreeably.  And the meeting ended and it was settled.

But you know how sometimes it’s not the meeting but the meeting after the meeting that counts?  What was settled in Jerusalem was unsettled later.  Peter couldn’t be counted on to hold the line, and Paul told him so, to his face.  Peter was inconsistent about freedom—sometimes he ate with the unclean Gentiles—that’s all of you by the way.  Sometimes, when somebody was watching, he backed away.  And Paul caught him at it and as he ways, “opposed him to his face”.  I wish all opposition in church was so clean, direct, personal, and honest.  “One of us is wrong and I think it’s you!”  Paul doesn’t talk about Peter, he talks to Peter.  There’s a life lesson.  Said Paul:  ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither Slave nor Free, there is no Male or Female’.  Not religion, not wealth, not gender—no, all these give way before Spirit.

In the resurrection, in Christ, in faith, in the new creation, there is no gender.  At least, according to Paul in Galatians.  In Christ, there is no ‘male and female’. Gender is swallowed up in victory.  The Oneidas and the Shakers could sense this, odd and contrasted as were their ways of living it out.

We have yet, I doubt, to take seriously the Good News of liberation found in these passages.   Your identity does not come from your sexuality, your gender, your orientation.  

In this passage, in the Bible, Paul points to a clue, as well, to one of our great arguments today.  Here, your identity is not to be inferred from creation….but from new creation!  This apocalyptic baptismal formula declares the erasure—who says there is nothing radical about Christ?—of the distinction we so heighten, that between male and female.  

So, my teacher, J L Martyn:  “In Rom 1: 18-32, Paul uses an argument explicitly based on creation, drawing certain conclusions from the “things God has made” in “the creation of the cosmos” (Rom 1:20). In effect, Paul says in this passage that God’s identity and the true sexual identity of human beings as male and female can both be inferred from creation.

“What a different argument lies before us in Gal 3:26-29, 6:14-15! Here the basis is explicitly not creation, but rather the new creation in which the building blocks of the old creation are declared to be non-existent. If one were to recall the affirmation ‘It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18), one would also remember that the creational response to loneliness is married fidelity between man and woman (Gen 2:24, Mark 10:6-7). But in its announcement of the new creation, the apocalyptic baptismal formula declares the erasure of the distinction between male and female. Now the answer to loneliness is not only marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ (Gal 3:28). The result of such a radical vision and of its radical argumentation is the new- creational view of the people of God…It is Christ and the community of those incorporated into him who lie beyond religious distinctions…Baptism is a participation both in Christ’s death and in his life; for genuine, eschatological life commences when one is taken into the community of the new creation, in which unity in God’s Christ has replaced religious-ethnic differentiation. In a word, religious and ethnic differentiations and that which underlies them—the Law— are identified in effect as the “old things” that have now “passed away”, giving place to the new creation (2 Cor 5:17).” (Martyn, in passim, Anchor Bible Commentary:  Galatians).

God is calling into existence a new community of faith working through love.  There is your identity.  Not what is natural but what is heavenly about us forms our primary identity.  That is, the Bible itself, from the vantage point of this great mountain passage, opens the way for an understanding of identity that is not just nature or creation, but new creation.  This is the community of faith working through love.  Here, there is a place where God may be doing something new, revealing something new.  And, most strangely, it may be those who are not so easily confined by the creational categories of male and female, those who are both or neither, who are on the edge of the new creation.  I know what Paul writes in Romans, but you still must ask yourself, at this point, which is Mount Everest:  Galatians 3 or Romans 1?  I think it is Galatians 3.  I have come to believe that gender and orientation do not provide our primal identity.  No male and female means no gay and straight, no homosexual and heterosexual.  God is doing something new, which includes all in the community of faith working through love.

We worship on Trinity Sunday.  The Triune God summons us to relationship and complexity and courage to seek the truth.  The Spirit of God leads us into all truth:  Come Trinity Sunday we recall that there is, by God’s triune grace, a self-correcting spirit of Truth loose in the universe. The trajectory of Paul’s preaching in Galatians, and thus in total, makes ample space in our churches for gay people.  If you love Jesus, and especially if you love the Bible, then you may just find courage not only to defend a moral life in a post-moral culture, but also to preserve freedom for those who have found a whole new life, and so are very harbingers of the new creation.

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.   I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers.  We have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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