Friday, May 27, 2016

The Trinity Unexplained

I went to Wheaton College in Illinois, better known as Billy Graham's alma mater. Though part of the Evangelical subculture, Wheaton professors at that time were allowed a certain amount of latitude in their expression of the Christian faith. I had one Bible professor for instance who refused to affirm the Trinity. He said that he believed, as the Bible said, that the Father was God, the Son was God, the Holy Spirit was God and that there is one God. The Trinity, he said, was the church's working hypothesis of how those 4 statements could all be true.

And he is right. The word Trinity does not appear in the Bible, nor is the relationship of the three divine persons spelled out in a systematic way. But then the official definition of the Trinity, usually called the Athanasian Creed, doesn't actually explain it either. Rather it says what it isn't (three gods, or 1 god in 3 guises). What the church did in the definition of the Trinity is preserve the paradox by rejecting the ways people usually try to oversimplify the problem.

Why did people come up with the idea? Because they experienced God in 3 different ways. And even non-Christians have experienced God in at least 2 of these ways.

When most people think of God, they think of him as creator. They look at nature, at the universe, at their own bodies and think, “This isn't the result of an unimaginably long and unlikely series of accidents. Everything fits together too well. Some things have very clear purposes. God created this.” For most people God is the cause and the architect of all that is.

Some people sense God within themselves and/or within creation. Some religions see God as primarily an inner light or spark.

Christianity says, yes, God the Father is our creator and God the Holy Spirit works within us. But we also experience God in another way.

We affirm that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate. He is God become human, one of us. He knows from firsthand experience what our lives and our world is like. God is not remote or removed from us. He knows what it is like to suffer and even to die. As the saying goes, he's been there, done that.

But because he is God, in Jesus we see what God is like in terms we can understand, in terms of time and space and human personality, as J.B. Phillips put it. God is not an abstract force we can't relate to but a person with whom we can have a relationship.

And because we were made in God's image, and because Jesus is the image of God undistorted by sin, in Jesus we can also see what we were meant to be and can be if we let his Spirit work in us.

Jesus is the bridge between the Creator God above us and God within us, the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God beside us, so to speak. As the song says, “What if God was one of us?” The answer to that question is he'd be Jesus.

But how is it that we are not worshiping 3 gods? Or how do we know that God is not just appearing in 3 different modes or masks?

This is where 1 John 4:8 comes in. It says, “God is love.” It doesn't say God is loving, but that God is love itself. God is three divine persons in an eternal love relationship, so united as to be one. When we get married we try to achieve what it says in Genesis, that the two become one flesh or one organism. We humans fail to fully realize that but God is perfect love, perfect unity that does not mean the eradication of individuality.

I cannot explain the Trinity, not the way I can explain how an internal combustion engine works. But you know what? We can't even explain how a collection of neurons give rise to the awareness that I am a person. I think if we can't understand how human consciousness works we can hardly expect God to be easier to grasp. Surely God is an even bigger mystery than we are. If not, he wouldn't be God, but our creation.

What we can know is this: God created us, God lived and died as one of us to save us from our sins and rose to give us hope of new life, and God has come to dwell within us to guide us and make us into the people he always intended us to be. And we can know that God is love, the kind of expansive love that invites others into that divine relationship.

The best way to understand our Triune God is to experience him. Look upon his creation with awe and interact with it. Read and inwardly digest the accounts of his life as one of us. Absorb his teachings and appreciate his sacrifice for us. Open your heart and mind to his Spirit. Let him work within you to renew your mind and remake you into a new creation in Christ. And if you do, you will know the love that made us and that is the beating heart of all that is. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Loud and Clear

I am reading a fascinating book on child development and the author points out that very small children have a hard time understanding that just because they think something is true, it doesn't follow that everyone else feels the same. Most of us grow up to realize that other people have their own perceptions of the truth, though, let's face it, we secretly think that if other people were as smart or as knowledgeable as we are they'd agree with us. Some people however seem to feel strongly that only their point of view is legitimate.

Sadly a lot of people who feel this way are very committed to their political party and/or their religion. And when you think of religious fanaticism you may think of the Dark Ages. So the person we are honoring today is a breath of fresh air.

Alcuin of York was an English deacon who was a scholar, teacher, and poet. On a trip to see the Pope on behalf of the English king with the wonderful name Elfward, Alcuin met the Emperor Charlemagne. He was asked to join a group of scholars who were part of what is called the Carolingian Renaissance. That's right, in the middle of the so-called Dark Ages, there was a flowering of learning and the arts. Alcuin actually educated the Emperor's sons as well as Charlemagne itself.

But what endears Alcuin to me is that he got Charlemagne to abolish the death penalty for paganism. Alcuin said, “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptized but cannot force them to believe.” So in 797 Charlemagne ended the practice of forcing pagans to convert on pain of death.

Religion is about ultimate values and so it is extremely hard to change people's minds. But if you really want them to dig in their heels, get belligerent with them. Unfortunately the only people who will convert when faced with force are usually those who were lukewarm about their original faith and are making the change for purely pragmatic reasons. They are hardly likely to become model members of their new belief system.

I prefer doing what author Madeleine L'Engle said about the matter. “ We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

It is said that St. Francis told his followers to “preach the gospel always. If necessary use words.” That's a challenge all Christians should live by. Can people tell you are a follower of Jesus just by what you do? Do not just your words but your every action reveal your love for God and for every person made in his image? Do they show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?

You can motivate people by fear. In fact, it is a easy, lazy way of getting people to act, which is why a lot of politicians and certain religious leaders use fear. Fear literally bypasses the rational part of the brain. But as Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

You can motivate people by hate. Focus on what disgusts or angers people and then demonize your opponents. Make them out to be less than human. But as Ezekiel writes, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his ways and live...” (Ezek 33:11) God does not hate anything or anyone that he has created. It is we who have so often rejected his love. Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So to whom should we show God's love? Everyone we encounter. And how should we do so?

There were no mass media in Jesus' day. There was no standardized sign language. Yet somehow the deaf learned of who Jesus was, what he preached and what he could do. And he was able to heal them so that means they put their trust in him. Jesus communicated God's love so perfectly that even the deaf got the message.

You are the only Christ some people will ever encounter. Live your life so that even if they could not hear, they would see Jesus in all you do. That will speak louder than all the words in the world. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Wind and Fire

My son paid the latest Mad Max movie probably the biggest compliment any movie can get: it made him want to go out and drive in a stock car race. In other words, it got under his skin. It made him want to do something in the spirit of what he's just seen. I remember as a kid having the same experience, watching “The Three Musketeers” and then wanting to fence in that same elegant and athletic way.

Every creative person wishes that what they make—films, paintings, music, poems, sculpture, dance, even sermons—would both stay with the audience after it's over and better yet, inspire them to respond in some positive way. Most creative people have a moment when what they saw or heard or read something that gave them the desire to do the same thing. Something about it electrified them and they said, “I want to do this too.” Things that resonate deeply with people have a lasting effect on society.

For most of us though, the initial spark we get from an experience tends to die out. We want to be an artist as a child and when we become an adult, we rarely if ever draw or paint anything. We all have had in in the rooms of our childhood musical instruments or science kits or crafts or notebooks or tap shoes that gathered dust, relics of passions that died.

What kept Christianity going? Part of the reason is the resurrection of Jesus, as I said at Easter. There were many others who called themselves messiahs. Their movements died when they did. But Jesus' movement did not. His followers didn't either go back to their old lives nor switch to following the next messiah to appear. They insisted that Jesus rose from the dead. And they insisted on it even when it got them killed. The resurrection of Jesus explains what made the disciples go from frightened men hiding in a locked upper room to fearless proclaimers of the good news of the risen Christ and his offer of eternal life.

The other part of why Jesus is still finding followers today is the subject of this Sunday's lectionary: the Holy Spirit. Human passions fade. Our enthusiasms evaporate. Jesus could have become merely of interest to historians and philosophers after a few generations, his movement as removed from current influence as Mithraism, a popular religion of the Roman troops.

But God sent his Holy Spirit into those who opened their hearts to Jesus in order to transform them into his children and to equip them to do the work he has given us to do.

In the Old Testament God sent his Spirit chiefly to the leaders of his people and to prophets who often chastised those leaders when they led the people astray. But under the New Covenant, God sends his Spirit to all who are in Christ. As the Spirit gives physical life to all God's creatures, so too he gives us new spiritual life. The Spirit gives us the ability to trust in God, to obey him, to repent, to pray and to praise God. He produces in us the spiritual and moral qualities we call the fruit of the Spirit. He puts God's love in our hearts and binds us to Christ and to other Christians. The Spirit reminds us of what Jesus taught us and leads us to the truth.

Without the Spirit, Christianity becomes merely a religion, a cultural artifact made up of rules and customs and structures and innumerable factoids to archive and argue over. The Spirit makes our faith a living thing that grows and reproduces itself in others.

We can quench the Spirit, according to Paul, and I think that during the dark periods of the history of the Church, that's exactly what people do. Because the Spirit can be a headache for those who like to have everything nailed down and categorized and compliant. But the Spirit is like the wind, as Jesus pointed out, moving where it will and disturbing what we have neatly laid out and organized. The Spirit prepared Peter to extend the gospel to the Gentiles by giving a vision of unclean animals being lowered from heaven so he can eat them. This went against the kosher laws that Peter, a good Jew, observed. He had to receive that vision 3 times. And he still wasn't convinced until the Gentiles he was preaching to began to speak in tongues. That was when Peter truly realized that his narrow idea of who made up the church had to be changed.

When life stops renewing itself, when the cells of the body stop replacing themselves, we die. The Spirit gives life and that means we must expect change. Not everything changes. I no longer look like I did as a child but I still have one head, 2 eyes, 2 arms and 2 legs. But I am bigger, my brain is bigger and I hope my thought processes are better adapted to understanding this world. In the same way, though the church must grow not everything will change, but it must get bigger and think bigger and better thoughts. Its heart must expand as well. We are commanded to love everyone and if you are at all perceptive, you realize that is a bigger and more complex task than we used to think. In fact, it is too big for us to do on our own. But with God's Spirit working within and among us, nothing is too big, nothing is too hard, nothing is impossible.

Let us pray.

Holy Spirit of the living God, source of Pentecostal fire, purify our souls, illumine our minds, and set our hearts on fire for the God of love revealed in his son Jesus that we may ignite this same spark in others and keep the flame of the faith burning as a beacon to all who love the light. We ask this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Looking Up

The scripture referred to is Luke 11:1-4.

Today we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord back to his Father in heaven. You might wonder “Why?” If he came to redeem the world, to bring it back to what it was intended to be, why did he leave? Why come back later? Why did he not immediately make the kingdoms of this world into God's kingdom?

Earthly rulers do that. They extend their domains by conquering others. They invade and kill and subjugate people. You don't have to love such a ruler; you just have to obey him... or else. You really don't get a choice. But Jesus' kingdom is built on love. Love doesn't force itself on others. Love offers itself but lets the other person accept or reject it. Entrance into the Kingdom of God is voluntary and God has given us plenty of time to decide if we want to be included. But it isn't like joining Amazon or Sam's Club, where you simply pay your dues and you're in. God's kingdom is, Jesus said, within and among us. It is a matter of being in tune with God's Spirit, the Spirit of Divine Love. If you hate God or his creation or any of his human beings, who were made in his image, you cannot part of his kingdom, no more than you could be a part of Alcoholics Anonymous while simultaneously buying a liquor store and passing out coupons during the meetings.

One way in which we get ourselves in sync with God is by conversing with him in prayer. When his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus gave us what we call the Lord's Prayer. It is not a magic formula to get God to act as our genie. It is a model for how we should approach God.

It starts by calling God “Father.” We are all created by God but not everyone is a child of God. A child will take after his father in some ways. We see a lot of people who call themselves Christian but are hardly Christlike. When we respond to the love shown us in Jesus, turn to God and offer ourselves to him, he adopts us as his child. He gives us his Spirit. Because of that we can call him Father. We are his and he loves us.

Then we hallow his name. We recognize that God is morally and spiritually on a very different plane than we are. He is holy. He is pure. He is perfect. We need to remember that when we approach him. You wouldn't come in the house from working on your car or digging in the garden and flop down on the couch or even give your spouse a big hug. You're dirty; they're not. You've got to get cleaned up first.

We next pray that God's kingdom come upon earth. We want everyone to stop fighting and cheating and robbing and harming themselves and one another. We want everyone to find the love and peace that we see in Jesus. Since his ascension, spreading that kingdom of love and peace is our task. We need to remember that.

We are not wholly spiritual beings like the angels. We are not merely physical beings like the other animals. We are, as C.S. Lewis put it, amphibians, beings at home in both the physical and spiritual realms. So it is appropriate to ask God for our physical needs, like our daily bread. God has not forgotten that we require food, sleep, shelter and all the rest. He does not resent us asking for them either, anymore than you would be upset if your child said he was hungry and ready for lunch.

We then ask for forgiveness. We spoke of how we need to get clean when approaching God. We can't undo all the evil we have done. Only Jesus can and on the cross he has taken upon himself the brunt of the spiritual damage we have done to this world. So we can boldly approach the throne of grace and ask for forgiveness.

But notice that there is a condition. We can only be forgiven our sins if we forgive those who sin against us. Why? Because whole point is that we become new creations in Christ. We are to become like him. We are to be merciful and forgiving like him. We are to be peacemakers like him and that's impossible if we bear grudges. If we don't forgive others then we really don't understand forgiveness or what it cost Jesus to forgive our sins.

Finally we ask God not to lead us into temptation. God tempts no one to do evil but we will find ourselves in times that test our faith and commitment to God. What we are really asking is for God to help us get through those times without succumbing. Remember that bad times not only bring out the worst in people but can bring out the best. War affords opportunity for cowardice, corruption and treachery but it also provides opportunity for courage, moral integrity and self-sacrifice. We pray that God will help us to reflect his love and character in all circumstances, both pleasant and trying.

Jesus has passed the baton to us. He has given us our mission: to spread his kingdom by inviting people to respond to the gospel, the good news of God's love, forgiveness and healing through his son Jesus Christ. But we don't have to do this on our own. God has given us his Spirit, the same Spirit which empowered Jesus during his earthly life. And because of that we have direct access to God in prayer. We can ask him for whatever we need and he will provide for us. We also know that he will never leave us or forsake us. He will be with us now and to the end of this age, when we will see his kingdom come on earth. And on that day, as it says in Revelation 21: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Lord, start by making us new. Amen.