Archive for Trinity Sunday

Quality of Life, Trinity Style

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2018 by timtrue

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus

John 3:1-17

1.

What do we mean when we talk about “quality of life”?

It’s not just how wealthy you are, though financial well-being is a part of it.

Nor is it just about your health, though physical well-being fits into the picture too.

And it’s not just about social status, though relationships play a part.

Quality of life, we know, is a combination of all these things—and some others—how they work together in an integrated way to make your individual situation, whatever it is, most enjoyable for you.

Some people have serious health concerns. If this is you, then you know you don’t just give up and say, “Oh, well, guess it’s just a thorn in my flesh.” Rather, you seek the best remedies available. Maybe you will never experience full health again. Nevertheless, by keeping other areas of life in balance you can experience daily a high overall quality of life.

Or . . . how many stay-at-home moms have never daydreamed about dropping the kids off at daycare in order to land a job and bring in some extra income—income that you know will both make ends meet and give your family some extra “play” money?

Yet the stay-at-home moms I know also willingly make the extra-income sacrifice precisely because they want their children to experience greater stability in home life.

Quality-of-life questions are tricky. But achieving that sweet-spot quality of life is just that: sweet!

2.

Well, thus far I’ve deliberately avoided the subject. But let’s bring it in now: religion. Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?

For Nicodemus, his faith was a crucial factor.

Today, Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus comes to Jesus confused. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks.

His confusion indicates, among other things, just how important to him his faith is.

Nico—can I call him Nico?—is a part of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership that, according to John, is so vehemently opposed to Jesus in the first place. That Nico comes to Jesus at night, under cover of darkness, suggests how risky it is for him to seek Jesus out; and how much of a risk he was willing to take on account of his faith. His health, his wealth, his social status—he lays his quality of life on the line for his faith.

And the conversation isn’t easy. Jesus talks about being born from above and Nico only understands what it means to be born from below. Jesus talks of the Spirit; Nico of the flesh.

Jesus teaches the teacher of Israel that for those born from on high, the highest quality of life is initiated by God the Father, available through the redemption of the Son, and continues through the ongoing, everyday presence of the Spirit.

Jesus teaches the teacher that God is not as he has always thought, but is instead Triune: Father, Son, and Spirit.

The conversation ends with Nico fading into the darkness, seemingly as confused as ever.

3.

We’ll come back to Nico. But first an excursus. I want to tell you about a book I’ve just read and found to be utterly and simultaneously fantastic and profound. It’s called Circe.

Any fans here of Greek mythology? If so, you probably recall the adventures experienced by the Greek hero Odysseus after the fall of the city Troy. One of these involved the witch Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs and back again; and at whose island home he stayed for a year as a guest.

Odysseus’ adventure enters this book; but only briefly. For he was a mortal; but Circe is immortal. She is a witch-goddess, to be more precise. And this is her story, covering some 10,000 years of ancient history.

She was born daughter of the Titan-god Helios. And thus, through her eyes as a bystander—for daughters didn’t dare interfere with their fathers’ schemes—the reader comes to know the Greek and Roman pantheon in an enlightening way: from a lesser goddess’s—that is to say a female’s—perspective.

These gods lived outside the moral universe of humanity. And thus they cared little for human beings. Truth be known, they cared little for anything but themselves, especially the most powerful among them, like Zeus and Poseidon and Helios.

At the same time, they loved to be worshiped—through the groveling prayers of humans and their sacrifices. And so, quite sadistically, as Circe relays, the gods of the pantheon inflicted pain and suffering on humanity in order that humans would grovel and sacrifice for their pity.

Point for the moment is the pantheon had no love—for divinity or humanity!—within it.

Circe, on the other hand, cared deeply for mortals. She thought it unfair and unjust for the gods to treat mortals with such contempt.

So, one of the things Circe does is find clever ways to rebel against the dysfunctional deities through favoring mortals, especially the weak and marginalized. Another thing Circe finds herself doing—and this runs much deeper to the heart of her story—is increasingly to desire mortality for herself; for only through mortality, she feels, will she be able to love as deeply and genuinely as possible.

In other words, she desires to be transformed through love.

It’s a brilliant book. I couldn’t put it down—I read 119 pages at my first sitting! The author’s name is Madeline Miller; and it’s only her second book. Her first—equally as brilliant—is The Song of Achilles.

Both are excellent reads for understanding the Hellenistic mindset so prevalent in Jesus’ world.

4.

And that is why I bring this book up.

This book captures the religious mindset of the broader world in Jesus’ day; which was of a pantheon of gods who cared little for humanity—other than their groveling prayers and sacrifices.

The Hellenistic world feared its gods—whether a pantheon or just one god over all. And such a mindset—fear!—does little to improve quality of life.

Now, Nicodemus was a part of this Hellenistic world!

As you know, Nicodemus didn’t worship the Greek and Roman pantheon. He worshiped the god of the Hebrews—the same God, he thought, that he saw in the man Jesus.

But there’s a crucial connection to draw here.

The gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were incapable of human love. So, too, in the minds of most people in the Hellenistic world, including most Jews—so, too, was a god who created the world and forever since watched over his creation as an aloof and distant king.

Thus was Nicodemus’s god to him.

Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, feared his god. Nicodemus—Nico—offered prayers and sacrifices to his god. Nico may have even loved his god in some way—in the way that we love a movement to which we belong—that is, with a kind of human love.

But, for Nico and most everyone else in the Hellenistic world, could his god actually love him? It was an entirely foreign thought. How was it possible that a god could love humanity? How could it be that a human being could be born from on high?

And yet, Jesus teaches Nico, today (my emphases, obviously):

  • “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
  • “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Father.

Son.

Spirit.

Love.

Today, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that God is not a pantheon of dysfunction. Neither is God absolutely monotheistic, unable to love co-equally and co-eternally. Rather, God is three-in-one, from eternity past, before there ever were heaven and earth and time and space, always loving and including the other, co-equally, co-eternally—forever and ever, God is love.

And the mind of Nico, the teacher of Israel, is blown.

5.

Fortunately, this is not the only place Nicodemus shows up in the Bible, fading back into the darkness whence he came, apparently confused. In fact, he shows up two more times, both in this Gospel.

In chapter 7, members of the Sanhedrin command the Temple police to arrest Jesus without probable cause. Nicodemus is there; and he calls the Sanhedrin out for their injustice—only to be ridiculed by them. He sympathizes with Jesus, not in the dark now but in the light, before his peers.

His social status, wealth, and even his health don’t seem so important to him now.

And he shows up again in chapter 19, in the full light of the sinking afternoon sun, to carry the body of Jesus with another formerly secret disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, to a tomb.

Through God’s love, Nico has been transformed. His quality of life is on a new plane. He has gone from a life of flesh to a life of the Spirit; from thinking God is distant and aloof to experiencing, first-hand, relationship with and even within the Trinity.

For God is love.

So then, to answer my earlier question, “Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?” it transforms it beyond anything you could ask or imagine.

No Triangulation in the Trinity

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

Romans 5:1-5

For preachers, Trinity Sunday is perhaps the most feared Sunday of the year.  It exposes us.  It shows our deepest, most hidden (and maybe even treasured) heresies.  For how does one talk about God—the divine—using human words—human symbols, subject to human error and finitude?

Ever try to explain the mathematical concept of infinity to a kid for the first time?  Where do you even start?

You think, ah, numbers; so you say, “Okay, think of the largest number you can imagine.  Can you imagine a trillion?”

Then you write out the number for a visual, a one with twelve zeroes following it, with a comma before every group of three zeroes.

Then you say, “So, what happens when we add one to a trillion?”

And the astute child answers, “Uh, well, I guess we get a trillion one.”

And you clap your hands and dance a jig and otherwise express your amazement at this special child’s display of absolute brilliance.

But then you mess it all up by asking, “So, what happens when you add one to infinity?”

And, naturally enough, the astute child answers, “Uh, well, I guess you get infinity one.”

But instead of clapping your hands and dancing a jig, now you say, unwisely, “Nope.  You still have infinity.”

And now the once astute child is left standing there scratching his head, confused, despondent, miserable, wretched, or worse!

But you’ve just tried to explain an abstract concept beyond all numbers by using concrete numbers.

Well, such is the preacher’s task on Trinity Sunday: to try to explain an abstract concept that is beyond our finitude and limitations only to leave us all, in the end, scratching our heads, confused, despondent, miserable, wretched, or worse!

But what if we do something a little different this year?  What if, instead of trying to shed a little more light on this difficult-to-see topic, I don’t try to explain it?  What if, instead, I ask us simply to accept it—to accept that the trinity, one god in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just is?

I mean, after all, this is our confession of faith, our creed.  We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.  We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.  One god in three persons.

So, what if the trinity is our starting point, our premise?  What sort of conclusion might we draw?

Well, let’s try it and see where we end up.

So, God is trinity.  This is our starting point.  God has always been and God will always be triune.

Another way to say this is that God in trinity exists both inside and outside our world, or, both inside and outside our dimensions of time and space.

So, let’s go back to the beginning.  No, let’s go back to before the beginning.  In the beginning, the Bible says, God created the heavens and the earth.  It stands to reason, then, that before the beginning—before any heavens and earth were created—God still is.

Now, I’m not trying to give some big lesson in cosmology here, saying that I have all the answers, that you better believe in a literal, six-day creation or you’re not saved; or that evolution debunks the Bible; or that, for crying out loud!, only the Big Bang theory makes any sense.

Rather, I’m trying to remove everything but God from the picture.  I want us to envision God entirely alone—entirely by God’s self, if you will—before any part of creation was created.  Picture God alone, outside of our physical dimensions of time and space.

And, when you do, yes, even then and there—even outside of time and space—God was, is, and will be triune.

This is our premise.

Now, what kinds of inferences might we draw from this picture of God existing by God’s self, outside of space and time?

I can think of at least three.

The first inference is that God is, was, and always will be in relationship.  And I’m not talking about with us!  God is in relationship with us, sure.  But outside of time and space, God alone is in relationship with God’s self.  This can’t happen if God is simply one god in one person.  But our premise is one god in three persons.

A second inference builds from the first: since God is in relationship with God’s self; and since God is three persons, God is community.

“Two’s company, but three’s a crowd,” the old saying goes.  This is because it’s much easier for two people to get along than for three.

An episode from my boyhood comes to mind.  I had a best friend growing up.  His name was John.  John and I met when we were four, in YMCA Indian Guides (a name that wouldn’t fly now).  We were close friends through high school, till we went our separate ways in college.

One Saturday we found ourselves together at a park, playing.  But there was a third boy there too, an older boy—we were maybe 9 and he was more like 14 or 15—a boy neither of us knew.  This third boy came up to me, said hi, introduced himself, and said, “Hey, that boy over there called you a liar.”  And he pointed at John.

A few minutes later I noticed this older boy pull John aside, whisper something to him, and point at me.

A few more exchanges like this took place and before we knew what had happened John and I were exchanging blows.  Yeah!  Fisticuffs!

After a few minutes we stopped our fray and asked each other why we were fighting.  When we realized why, that this older boy had been the cause, we looked for the instigator but he was gone.

Point is, two persons get along just fine; but bring a third into the mix and things can get nasty in a hurry.  The psychological term for this is triangulation.

But the trinity of persons in God gets along just fine, in triune relationship, without triangulation.  This is community the way it’s intended.

The third inference to draw sounds extremely familiar: God is love.  God exists in perfect relationship and community.  Each person of the trinity gives and takes exactly what he should, balancing self with others, a finely tuned triad.  And what is such harmony but love?

Love is and was and always will be.

Theologians through the millennia have put together these three concepts—relationship, community, and love—summarizing them with a fancy theological word: perichoresisPeri– is a prefix meaning “around,” like in the words periscope and perimeter; and choresis is where we get the word chorus from, meaning (originally) “dance.”

The word perichoresis, then, assigned uniquely to the trinity, signifies an extremely complex divine dance, where each person of the trinity knows his part and the parts of his two partners; each giving and taking just enough and not too much.  Perichoresis is continuous relationship, community, and love.  And it is beautiful.

And because these things exist beyond all time and space, we can say they are attributes of God: a part of who God is.  Relationship, community, and love have always been; just like God has always been!  They are not human inventions.

But when we return to the physical world we know of time and space; to our created order; to our day and culture; to the particularities and peculiarities of our day-to-day lives, we can sure mess these things up, can’t we?

Relationship, community, love—these are attributes of God passed on to us humans.  We tend to mess them up, yeah!  But don’t lose hope.  They’re gifts from God!  And when we grow in these areas, the result is beautiful.

And so here is the conclusion we reach: relationship, community, and love are attributes of God.

And this is why I’m a Christian.

There are many religions out there that make a lot of sense.  Have you ever wondered what if you’d been born into a different family, or in another part of the world?  Would you have accepted the religion of that culture over Christianity?  Where would you be today?

There’s a lot of talk in our culture about all spiritual roads leading to God.  I don’t know.  Maybe this is true.  Who am I to say?  If God is above all else a god of love, as our New Testament claims over and over; if love truly wins, then, yes, I can make room for this idea in my thinking.

But here’s the key point for me: what makes Christianity shine above all other religions is love.  Only in the Christian, trinitarian understanding of God can love be an actual attribute of God—a part of who God is.

You can’t say this about the other great monotheistic religions of the world.  In both Judaism and Islam, God is simply one god in one person.  Outside of time and space, one person has no other to love, no other to be in relationship or community with.  Love must therefore be a creation of God, not an attribute, existing only within the realms of time and space, not outside or beyond them.

The same could be said for the various sects claiming to be Christian, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They don’t believe in the trinity, but only in a god of one person, a god who by nature does not possess as an attribute a love toward the other, a love that is outward.

Moreover, you can’t say that love is a divine attribute for the pantheistic religions of the world.

Hinduism has more than 300,000 gods.  Yet it is ultimately reduced to one impersonal, apathetic prime mover, unable to love another.

It is similar for the Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons.  In each case, there is a multitude of divinities; yet created by earlier forces; which in turn were created by earlier forces still; and so on until at the beginning there was only one, dispassionate, unmoved and unmoving mover, incapable of outward love.

You can’t say that love is an eternal divine attribute for the Buddhist either.  Indeed, the Buddhist understanding of divinity is fundamentally at odds with the Christian understanding, more atheistic than anything else.

And, perhaps it goes without saying, love cannot be a divine attribute for the Atheist.  There is no god for the Atheist—with the possible exception of the self, or the human animal.  But even the Atheist can’t deny that we catch glimpses of love all around us in our world.  So, the Atheist must ask, where does love come from?  If the harsh theory of natural selection is all that governs us human animals, as most Atheists maintain, where can an other-focused love fit in at all?

For all other religions, love can only ever be a human invention.  It is only the Christian religion that understands love to be a part of who God is.

So, too often on Trinity Sunday we preachers try to argue a case for the trinity.  How can we be sure there even is a trinity?  How can we prove that one god exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  How can we even begin to understand this idea?  And so, too often, we try to explain using words and analogies that are always and everywhere subject to finitude.

But if we just accept the doctrine of the trinity, that we don’t know how or why but the trinity just is, then we end up at a remarkable place.  God is love.  Love is, has always been, and always will be.  It’s not a creation.  It’s not a human invention.

And it’s why Christianity makes sense.

WWYD (What Would You Do–and Why)?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on June 15, 2014 by timtrue

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

I begin today with a story about a man named Joe; and his dog, named Reebok.*

Joe is a twenty-nine year-old, single real estate attorney.  He’s been working with the same firm now for almost four years, his first job since graduating from law school.

Reebok, Joe’s dog, is a five year-old yellow Lab.  Joe has owned Reebok since he was a puppy.  At first Joe got Reebok as a sort of trophy pet.  Joe had never had a dog growing up.  In fact, his dad told him that a pet dog would be a burden, despite however cute you may think he is as a puppy.  Nevertheless, Joe had wanted a dog since he was a small boy.  And now, just about to graduate from law school, Joe reasoned, it was high time to get a dog.

By “trophy pet” I mean that Joe viewed Reebok as a possession, something he owned and could treat however he wished.  This was his long-hoped for dog, emphasis on his.  He would show his dad just how responsible and capable he could be.  So he cared for Reebok, feeding him just the right amount of food at just the right times of the day, took him along on daily runs—which is why Joe named him Reebok, by the way—and spent long hours training him to obey and perform a few interesting tricks.

But in time, as often happens, Reebok became more of a friend to Joe than a trophy.  The runs continued.  So did the training and interesting tricks.  But the disciplined routine of feeding ended: Reebok ate his science diet, sure.  But an abundance of human scraps were added to this, not to mention the times of meals grew far less routine.  These two, man and best friend, became something like stereotypical bachelors.

That’s when Joe landed his job with the law firm.  New days with long hours meant running with Reebok and other social times suddenly became mostly a weekend affair.  Joe built a doggy door in his back door and fenced in a rather small backyard so that Reebok could at least have a modicum of liberty during the long hours of absence from his beloved master.

Add to this that Joe was sometimes required to travel overnight, to meet with a client in another state or whatever.  On these occasions Joe would simply leave three or four meals’ worth of food in a bowl for Reebok along with a full and rather large water bowl.

It seemed to be working; although, granted, this new routine was something of a compromise.  And always on these occasions Joe would hear a voice in his head, as if his father’s, saying things like, “I told you so: dog’s are too much responsibility”; and, “aren’t you a bit ashamed that you cannot care for your dog like you used to?”

So, on this particular morning, Joe is running five minutes late.  He set up an important meeting for 8am, a meeting with a high profile client at which two senior partners would be present.  But during the night his furnace stopped working.  Worried his pipes would freeze, he contacted an emergency repairman who arrived, at last, at 7:20.

That was fifteen minutes ago, the amount of time it took to explain the situation to the repairman.  Backing out of his driveway, he is more than a little nervous about leaving his house and things in the care of a stranger.  No matter.  His commute takes 30 minutes and he has only 25.

He races to work, hoping against hope to make it by 8:00.  Maybe, if he goes just five mph faster, and if he can just make a few more green lights than usual. . . .

Fifteen minutes later he has indeed made those green lights—or perhaps yellow, or even orange if you catch my meaning.  It’s looking more and more like he will make it on time after all.  He begins to breathe easy; he reaches over to his passenger seat to check his overnight bag.

Did I mention?  From the 8:00 meeting he will go to the airport, where he will to catch a 10:15 flight for another important meeting a time zone away.  This meeting is in fact more important than the 8:00 meeting, just as high profile but without a senior partner present to support him if necessary.

And right then it hits him.  Reebok!  He’s forgotten to feed his dog!

Hundreds of thoughts swarm in Joe’s mind all at once.  Can a Labrador go 36 hours without food and water?  Joe isn’t sure.  But he already feels somewhat guilty for neglecting his pet over these past several months.  Well, can he go to the 8:00 meeting and catch a later flight?  But this will most likely botch the later meeting, a possibility that will likely result in losing his job.  So, what about the 8:00 meeting?

Can you picture it?

What should Joe do?

What would you do?

Well, I’ll tell you what Joe did.  After agonizing for almost ten more minutes, and at only a hundred yards from the firm’s parking lot, he pulls over, calls his secretary, and informs her that he will not be in for the morning meeting, that the senior partners will have to conduct it without him.  That’s right.  He decides to return home and take care of Reebok before going to the airport for his second, more important meeting.

That’s what Joe did.

But this leads to a larger, higher question.  Why did Joe decide to do this?

Perhaps it was out of fear.

Perhaps Joe couldn’t stomach the thought of returning home from a business trip to a sick, dehydrated dog—or worse.

Perhaps Joe was afraid of what his friends and neighbors might say if they were to find out about his negligence.  What others think of us is a powerful motivator.

Or perhaps he was afraid of compromising his own honor.  He was not the type of person who would neglect or abuse animals, especially his own pet.

On the other hand, maybe Joe was motivated by love.

Maybe Joe cancelled his important meeting in order to demonstrate an outward, selfless love to Reebok.

Maybe Joe had allowed himself a healthy level of emotional attachment to Reebok, resulting in a tender and compassionate love that generated sympathy, even empathy, toward another creature.

What motivated Joe?  Fear, or love?

What motivates you?  What would you do in Joe’s shoes, and why?  Are you motivated to act out of fear, or love?

This reminds me of a certain parable Jesus taught us.  In this parable there is a wealthy man who must go away for a time.  He leaves three stewards in charge, entrusting each according to his ability.  To one steward, the wealthy man leaves ten talents of gold.  To another, he leaves five.  And to the third man he leaves one.

After some time the wealthy man returns.  The first steward comes forward and reports that he has used the ten talents of gold to gain ten more.  The wealthy man says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

The second steward comes forward and says the same thing: with the five talents he has made five more.  And again the wealthy man says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

But the third steward—do you remember what happened here?  He was brought forward to make his report and he said to his master, “I know that you are a harsh taskmaster.  For that reason I buried your talent in the dirt.  Here it is.  Take it.”

A “harsh taskmaster”?

I wonder, how do you view God?  Is God a harsh taskmaster for you?  Do you seek to honor God out of some sense of fear, or guilt?  Or are you more motivated to serve God out of affection, emotional attachment, tenderness, compassion, love?

What motivates you?  Fear, or love?

So: why do I bring all this up on Trinity Sunday?  What does this “either fear or love” scenario have to do with the Trinity, one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

The Bible does not say God is fear.  Neither does it say God is guilt.  No!  Rather, the Bible says God is love.

God is not some harsh taskmaster, holding rules and regulations over your head to be obeyed lest you lose your salvation.  If you view God this way, it’s time to stop.

Instead, God has always existed in loving, tender, compassionate relationship.  Think about the ramifications here.  God has always existed—long before any of us existed, long before humanity existed, long before the universe existed.  And yet, even then God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—Trinity—a perfect relationship in perfect love with each other.

Always!  That means before Adam and Eve.  That means before sin entered the scene; before humanity fell, before any covenant was made between God and humans; before the ten commandments were written; before the rules and regulations of the Old Testament became norms for a chosen people; before Jesus came to earth as a baby; before the Church ever was established; before the Gospel spread from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria to the ends of the earth.

And God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will continue to love each other after Jesus’s return.  That means after all the rules and regulations of our world will be utterly obsolete.

Do you see?  Love wins!

Rather than allowing fear to be our motivator, love!  Love!  Love!

Do whatever you do out of God-honoring love.  Pray from a heart of love.  Give because you love Christ and his Church.  Serve out of your emotional attachment to God and God’s people.  Feed your dog because Christ’s love won’t allow you not to.

This is grace; this is love; this is communion.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

________________________________________________________________________

* I am grateful to Martha Stout for this story, which she tells in her book The Sociopath Next Door (MJF Books: New York, 2005).