Sunday, May 27, 2018
The Holy Trinity
When we say God is the triune God, we are saying something about who God is beyond, before, and after the universe: that there is community within God. Our experience of this is reflected in Paul’s words today. When we pray to God as Jesus prayed to his Abba (an everyday, intimate parental address), the Spirit prays within us, creating between us and God the same relationship Jesus has with the one who sent him.
Prayer of the Day
God of heaven and earth, before the foundation of the universe and the beginning of time you are the triune God: Author of creation, eternal Word of salvation, life-giving Spirit of wisdom. Guide us to all truth by your Spirit, that we may proclaim all that Christ has revealed and rejoice in the glory he shares with us. Glory and praise to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 6:1-8 Isaiah’s vision and call
Romans 8:12-17 Living by the Spirit
John 3:1-17 Entering the reign of God through water and the Spirit
Title: Theology Vs. Faith
Heresies abound today. Around the globe, preachers everywhere will, (inadvertently of course,) include some heretical statement in their sermons today as we all strive and struggle, search and stutter trying to articulate this central doctrine of the Christian church celebrated today – The Holy Trinity. In a few minutes, Isabella Marie will be baptized using the three-name formula. This representation for the mystery we call God is used in the naming of many churches. (Today our sister congregation Trinity Lower East Side is celebrating 175 years of ministry under the name Trinity.) We bless ourselves in the name of the Trinity. Some of us bow or reverence when it is sung in a hymn. But it has also been the cause of wars, excommunications, forced exiles, burning of books, and even burning of people. It is a dangerous day on our liturgical calendar. Maybe it’s a good thing you are so young, Isabella, as we welcome you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
But, in spite of the danger, I would like to jump into the Trinitarian hot water with enthusiasm and state my heresy flat out. Here it goes: Too often, theology hinders faith. Theology can be an obstacle to faith. Flat out, theology gets in the way of faith. Faith admits there is mystery. Faith lives with unexplainable truth. Faith walks with doubt and is at peace. Faith finds hope that is beyond human understanding or explanation. On the other hand, theology is always looking for answers. Striving for the language that will define and explain what is beyond words and explanation. Language that is as limited as our imaginations and too often ends of limiting God. For example, our expressions of God suggest that God is in someway confined to our gender definitions.
A case in point for how theology gets in the way of faith. While at seminary, I heard a classmate say “I love looking atonement theories.” (Okay it is a exclamation that you will only hear at a seminary.) For those who do not share my classmate’s passion, basically, atonement theories have been developed through the centuries as theologians struggled to explain just how Christ’s death served as the atonement for our sins. There is the scapegoat theory, the sacrifice theory, the substitution theory, the government theory, the ransom theory, the moral influence theory. I’m not going to confuse you with their details, suffice to say these competing theories argue whether Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins, or a substitution for us, or to pay a ransom we owe to either God or the Devil, or to show us a different way of being.) Now, this is an example of theology – in its struggle to explain – getting in the way of faith, because some of these theories have had detrimental effects on people and their faith journey. Some have found it difficult to believe in a loving God who would demand a blood payment be made, or who would force suffering for the sake of atonement. Not to mention that the way some of these theories separate out God from Jesus, God doing something to Jesus, or demanding something of Jesus, they start to sound very un-trinitatian. Now I have gone way deeper down this atonement rabbit hole that I should have. But I offer it as proof that there is some validity to my heresy that theology hinders faith. Regarding atonement, can we not just say that God through Jesus Christ – the one who is the love of God in the form of our flesh – saves us from ourselves and our sinful nature (not important how, most important that God does, freely, unconditionally, withholding absolutely nothing to bring us this gift of life) and that we come to this truth through the work of the God’s Spirit that is working in us? (Please note the working of the fulness of the Trinity in this.)
One of my mentors loved to say – anxiety craves details. Let us still our anxious, explanation-obsessed, detail demanding, theologizing minds and stand with Isaiah in the temple and take in the majesty and the mystery, the glory and the grandeur, the awesomeness and the almighty, that is our God who creates, recreates in love, and renews with grace.
Isaiah is seeing a great vision of God’s wonder that is beyond words or explanation. He knows that he is only seeing but a few threads of all that God is. He knows it is a blessing and a gift to be seeing even that much of the God he worships. And he also understands the proper posture of humility in God’s presence as he speaks of his own unworthiness. Not unworthiness that chases him from the presence of God, but rather that seeks the healing presence of God. The angel gives him a sign of God’s purifying presence. Isaiah knows that this does not mean that forgiveness is achieved by going out and touching a burning coal to everybody’s lips. He does not question the gift or seek to explain it. Instead he responds to all that God is and all the God has done for Isaiah. The question: Who?, is spoken. And Isaiah is response – able. Not with clear understanding, but with trusting faith he says: Here am I, send me. (Probably doesn’t even know what he is getting himself into.) Witnessing God, not explaining God, Isaiah, in faith, answers the call with a “send me.”
Nicodemus is the theologian. There he is again, in that very familiar story of the night time visit, recorded in the third chapter of John that results in the well-known verse John 3:16. The old theologian and religious leader comes, secretively to Jesus. He probably doesn’t want the other theologians to know that he is coming to this most controversial teacher who is speaking of faith in ways that are new and troubling. Troubling to the theologians who thought they had it all figured it, who were most comfortable explaining things is ways that they could understand.
Jesus’ replies to old Nicodemus’ request for clarity with the mystery of faith. You must be born anew, he tells the old man. Who responds as the fact-finding theologian he is: How is this possible? You can hear the wheels turning in Nicodemus’ mind. How do I make this happen? How do I teach this to others? How do we control it with well defined practices? But Jesus is using the image of birthing. A great mystery of life that we play no active role in but is an event, and essential, life-giving event that happens to us, that is the beginning of some wonderful journey that in that moment of birthing, we have no clue what is to come. But we do have the promise of who births us, and who goes with us. The promise that is made for all the days of our life and on into the next life. And the only explanation that we need to hear or know is: For God so loved the world that God gave. And just so we don’t burden this expression of perfect love with explanations and requirements. Just so we don’t limit this unconditional love with the way we practice and parcel out our love, Jesus adds that he did not come into this world to condemn but to save. It’s a gift, receive without explanation. Embrace it without theologizing.
Isabella Marie – today you are joined to this great mystery through the gift of baptism. We will hear words that seek to articulate what is happening here. We will see plain water being splashed on your head, anointing with oil and the lighting of a candle. All simple signs that seek to express something beyond explanation. But most important, what takes this water, oil, and light beyond our understanding is that they are joined to the perfectly, love-expressing word of God. God is making a promise to you today. A promise that is beyond theological explanation, but that is at the heart of the faith that is being planted in you today. The faith that your parents are committing to teaching you about as you grow older. Faith that is shared and nourished in communities of faith like this one.
And as we all hear these promises again, as they are spoken to Isabella Marie for the first time, may that calm us and bring us peace, not because we understand or can explain, but because we are trusting in the God who creates, recreates in love, and sustains with grace. But how? askes the theologian one more time. In infinite ways, responds the faithful who witness even a thread of the majesty of God, and know even a measure of the peace and hope that is ours in the completeness of our loving God.
The Rev. Mark Erson,