Archive for Trinity

From Spigot to Rivers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2017 by timtrue

Water_spigot[1]

John 7:37-39

“‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit.

1.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus says, like living water, will flow out of the believer’s heart.

It won’t just be the trickle of a low-flow spigot, he says; but rivers.

However!

Is this what we see in churches today? When we look around, do we see rivers of living water flowing forth from Christians, quenching the spiritual thirst of this parched land?

Yes, our land is parched. Yes, we’re thirsty.

We see spiritual thirst, for instance, in our individualism.

Culture tells me to be independent, self-sufficient, and confident in my own abilities. It’s a tempting message, especially when society is so accommodating to my independence.

I get in my car. I drive to the Starbucks I choose. And I order a café mocha, my favorite drink, except not as it appears on the menu but as I prefer it, with half the sweetener and twice the chocolate! Then I return to my home to watch my TV programs that I’ve pre-recorded to suit my schedule—after I run through my favorite apps that I’ve customized to my iPhone.

Ever wonder why it’s called the “i” Phone?

But, notice. This message is not all it’s cracked up to be. The “i” on the iPhone is lower case. You are actually quite dependent on others, whether you care to admit it or not.

And have you seen what this message does to relationships—or, should I say, to individuals trying to have relationships with other individuals?

“It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said. And yet that’s all most people seem to want anymore: to be left alone.

In the end, the water that independence sells us leaves us thirsty.

Likewise, there’s spiritual thirst in society.

Perhaps our societal spiritual thirst is seen best in the decline in mainline church attendance over the last four decades. Other spiritual are waters out there—spiritual waters that today seem more attractive than church. Their sellers have done a good job at marketing them, at making them more attractive.

I think we Christians are more to blame for this decline than those sellers though. For, if the unchurched or de-churched could actually see our living water, like the woman at the well, they would want it.

But they don’t see it. Which is our fault. Because—my thinking anyway—it’s not flowing out of us.

Oh, it’s there all right—living water. It’s just not flowing out of us. Instead, it’s bottled up inside our independent selves.

Thus we see spiritual thirst all around us; thirst that can only be quenched by the living waters of the Holy Spirit, by the living waters that we possess. So, let’s get it out there already!

2.

Speaking of the Holy Spirit, today is Pentecost Sunday. It is the day in the Church when we recall the Holy Spirit descending from heaven and entering all peoples.

This is a big day on the Church calendar, right up there with Christmas and Easter!

Now, God sent his Son to be Incarnate from the Virgin Mary. And we definitely see this remembered and celebrated in our churches today—also in the world around us. Christmas and Easter festivities abound!

But God sent the Holy Spirit too. And the Holy Spirit is a lot like Jesus: another Advocate; God dwelling with us.

So, when’s the last time you walked into CVS and heard Pentecost carols playing from the speakers overhead? (For that matter, just between us, Pentecost hymns in our own hymnal are few and far between–and not very catchy!)

When’s the last time you walked down the greeting card aisle to buy some Pentecost greeting cards to give to your beloved friends and family members?

And why don’t we practice longstanding cultural traditions that involve a big, cuddly dove? A dove to descend our chimneys, maybe, and give us gifts? Doves fly better than reindeer, after all. Or red plastic dove egg hunts in our church courtyards? Doves actually lay eggs, after all, unlike bunnies.

No, by and large, we forget about Pentecost.

Maybe we should just get rid of it then, eh? Time to move on already—get with the times! Maybe we should just give up trying to figure out who or what the Holy Spirit is and just eliminate him, her, or it from our theology, liturgy, and practice.

3.

Who is the Holy Spirit anyway? Or, to frame it another way, what if we were just to get rid of the Holy Spirit altogether?

The Creed tells us who the Holy Spirit is. We say the Creed together most Sundays, including that section about the Holy Spirit: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” and so on.

But what do these words really mean? They all seems rather nondescript.

There’s this line: “He has spoken through the Prophets.” I get that one. Sort of. I mean, there were these fringy people in the Old Testament stories who stood their ground against dictators and despots; and how could anyone have done that unless they were empowered by something divine—or at least something supernatural, or unnatural?

But how do we make sense of the lines that follow?

“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. / We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. / We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

What in the world do these words have to do with the Holy Spirit?

Maybe nothing. Maybe they’re just some important bullet points that the Creed compilers felt compelled to include somewhere—like a kind of faith appendix statement.

Anyway, why couldn’t the Creed compilers have been more concrete, like they were with respect to Jesus?

Jesus! He was born of the Virgin Mary, tried before Pilate, crucified, died, and rose again on the third day. Also, he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Yes, Jesus is easy to believe in. It’s all right there in the Creed, concrete, before our eyes.

So why do the words about the Holy Spirit have to be so abstract?

To which I say, yes, they are abstract. The Holy Spirit is a bit confusing—and has been for the entire history of the Church.

But notice this: everything about the Holy Spirit in the Creed has a communal focus.

The Holy Spirit spoke through individual prophets, yes. But why? It was to rouse a collective people, a nation: to pray as a people; to convict a nation of its societal sin; to rouse the nation to justice—which is just the profile of corporate love’s face.

And as for those other statements?

One holy catholic and apostolic Church means our communal faith with all the saints of all the ages.

Our baptism is our entrance rite into the one fold of God.

And as for the resurrection of the dead? Every single person who walks this earth will die. You cannot get more communal than that!

So, what happens if we just get rid of the Holy Spirit altogether?

We lose our prophets, our teachings, our conviction, our prayers, our communion, our baptism, our justice, our love.

You see, a god without the Person of the Holy Spirit is like a swimming pool without water. What’s the point? It has form and function but fails to serve its purpose.

If the Holy Spirit is not flowing from us like rivers of living water, what’s the point? We might testify of God’s form and function; yet what good are our testimonies when we fail to accomplish Christ’s mission?

4.

So, how do we get the living water of the Holy Spirit to flow out of us?

Well, it looks like the stuff I just mentioned—Spirit stuff, I call it: corporate belief, prayer, communion, baptism, justice, and love. Or, to use the words of our patron, it looks like “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”—the things St. Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”

And that starts with each of us, as individual followers of Christ.

What? Did I just say individuals?

Yes!

I know many of my messages talk about our salvation, faith, belief, and so on in a corporate way. I’m not waffling on this theme! The Bible is clear throughout: Jesus’ mission is not to save individual souls from a world that is hellbound; but to save the world, the cosmos, all of it, by redeeming and restoring it to its rightful state. He’s already redeemed it, by the way; and now it’s up to us, his corporate church, to restore it.

But here’s the thing.

Do you remember what I said about that spigot? Jesus did not say, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow a trickling spigot of living water.” He said rivers.

But an individual, trickling spigot is better for a dry and parched land than nothing at all.

The living water of the Holy Spirit starts with each one of us. Each one of us would do well to live a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit. See what this looks like in Galatians 5. And to help us, St. Paul also includes a contrasting list, “the works of the flesh,” he calls them, the things that shouldn’t flow from us.

And when this living water begins to trickle from you, even if you are a low-flow spigot, well, hey, at least it’s something! And when a second low-flow spigot opens up nearby, why, its trickle joins yours and the two become a bigger flow.

And a third trickle combines to make the flow bigger still.

And so on, each one of us intentionally committing to live a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, until our individual, low-flow trickles become a brook; our brooks a stream; our streams a creek; and our creeks, eventually, mighty rivers of living water, to renew and revitalize a parched and dry land.

Come, Holy Spirit!

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.

2014 Lent 28

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2014 by timtrue

NGC6960

I Corinthians 13

Love never ends, says Paul.

But what about its beginnings?

Seriously, this is a question worth pondering.  Has love always existed?  Or is it something that came into being somewhere in time, back in the ancient past, maybe when the first rational animal committed a selfless act?

It seems reasonable to say that love has always existed, doesn’t it?

But be careful.  Especially if you’re an atheist.  For if you want to say that love has always existed, to do so is akin to saying it is not a created concept; or to saying it is eternal, that it has no beginning, regardless of whether there ever was a big bang or not.  That puts love beyond time, and thus likens it to the trans-religion concept of God: existing both within and without the dimensions of space and time.

So if you want to say that love has always existed (as I do), then you’re somehow connecting love to God whether you admit it or not.

Perhaps then the being we call God should instead be named Love.  Not a bad idea.

But there is another way of seeing love; namely, as an attribute of God.  Love never ends, yes.  But love never begins either.  It has always been, is now, and will always be.  And this is because it is a part of who God is.  In this sense love is not a god, but similar to truth, beauty, and goodness, three other eternal attributes of God.

Are you with me?

But here is what makes love different from anything else, including truth, beauty, and goodness: it is outward.

Put yourself in that beyond-time-and-space realm mentioned earlier.  Here is where God alone dwells.  God has always dwelled here; God will always dwell here.  This means that God was here forever in the past, infinitely and eternally, before creation began–sun, moon, stars, planets, supernovae, all of it!

Now, here, in this beyond-time-and-space place, God could possess infinite truth, beauty, and goodness easily enough.  But how could God possess the type of love described in I Corinthians 13?  God could have thought it up, sure.  God could have determined to create a world in which beings existed in God’s own image, male and female, and that these beings would selflessly put one ahead of the other, that they would love one another.

But that would make love a created concept.  And that would mean that love is not really attached to God’s being–unless God took on that attribute after it had been created, which would mean that God was at one time less complete (and thus less perfect) than God is now.  But this is impossible.

No, love has to be an eternal attribute of God.

But, to return to that infinite and eternal beyond-time-and-space place, God could not possess love unless God had some way of expressing love, of putting another first, selflessly.  But God dwells here alone.  So with, for, and to whom can God express love here?

Tricky conundrum, eh?

For the atheist, love has to be a human invention, by definition.  But humans are no more than rational animals that operate by the same Darwinian principles as any other species.  They should be self-centered, not selfless.  Yet agape love, a love humans are capable of showing to one another, puts others first: it defies survival of the fittest.

Love also baffles the concept of a monotheistic God.  The God of the Jews and the God of Islam have always existed, eternally and infinitely in the past.  But they are alone in that beyond-time-and-space place.  So for them love cannot be an eternal and infinite attribute.

Love is indeed a baffler.

Only the Christian God provides an adequate answer.  For only the Christian God is seen as triune, three-in-one, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, existing infinitely and eternally in perfect perichoresis (a kind of divine dance).  Only the Christian God possesses community.  Only the Christian God allows for one person to put another first eternally and infinitely.

Love, then–the kind of love explained in today’s reading anyway–is what convinces me more than anything else that Christianity contains the truest expression of religious faith.

Love never ends.