Sunday, May 30, 2010

Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s something of an anniversary for me, because it was on Trinity Sunday 1979, 31 years ago, that I delivered my first official, public, Sunday sermon. Those of you who are familiar with my biography will realize that 1979 was some years before I put on a black shirt and a white collar and was legitimately authorized to preach. Indeed, my first Sunday sermon was as a layperson. It all started one weekday afternoon in early May or late April of that year. At that time, I wore the hat of music director at St Timothy’s Church in Salem, Oregon. I was meeting with the rector in his office, as was our custom every few weeks, to pick hymns and otherwise plan the upcoming Sunday liturgies. Father Rick just casually mentioned—half in jest, perhaps; I really don’t know to this day whether he was serious—Father Rick mentioned that he didn’t think he would give a sermon on Trinity Sunday. After all, what can one say in the face of so great and wondrous a mystery as the Holy Trinity?

Well, as an amateur theologian and a strict constructionist of Prayer Book rubrics, I objected. After all, how can one simply say nothing at all in the face of so great and wondrous a mystery as the Holy Trinity? “If you’re not going to preach, I will!”, I said—half in jest, perhaps; I really don’t know to this day whether I was serious.
I’m kind of fuzzy on just what happened next. But I do know that, come Trinity Sunday, as a 27-year old lay person with no degree in theology, I found myself in the pulpit of St Timothy’s Episcopal Church! And, I have to say, I did a masterful job. I examined the theological implications of the doctrine of the Trinity with subtlety and refinement. I read from my own journal, and shared my own inner struggle in my relationship with the God who is one-in-three and three-in-one. I quoted from well-known hymns and from the writings of the saints and doctors of the church. When I stepped down from the pulpit, and made my way back to the choir to lead the singing of the Nicene Creed, there was a holy hush over the congregation. “That went pretty well”, I thought to myself. “Maybe I should consider doing it professionally.”
My sense of accomplishment was short-lived, however, for as I was directing the choir during creed, I glanced at my watch, and did a double-take. To my horror, I saw that it was 10:55, in a service that began at 10, about the time that we should be in the middle of communion, and we were only at the creed! Most Episcopalians are only too happy to have theological mysteries explained to them, but never if it means listening to a forty-five minute sermon at a Sunday Eucharist! You can only imagine ribbing I took after the service; it went on for years!

I assure you that today I do not intend to be either as lengthy, or, probably, as profound, as I was on this day 31 years ago. So let me just cut right to the heart of the matter. It has often been said that Trinity Sunday is the only festival of the church year that celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person. Don’t you believe it! Trinity Sunday is not about celebrating a doctrine. In a way, I wish it were. I’m personally quite fond of doctrine in general and the doctrine of the Trinity in particular. I enjoy trying to wrap my mind around it, and I believe it is absolutely essential to the well-being of the Church and a right relationship with God. To my dying breath, I will struggle to confess and uphold the doctrine of the holy and undivided Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as it is proclaimed in the scriptures, creeds, and liturgies of the historic church. So passionately do I feel, and so resolutely am I convinced of the correctness of the traditional doctrine. But I do not for one instant fool myself that either my passion or the correctness of my belief will deliver me from the power of sin and death and make me worthy to stand in the presence of the triune God! Only the triune God himself can do that. And it is this God, not the doctrine of him, whom we celebrate on Trinity Sunday.

The Old and New Testaments contain any number of commands pertaining to our relationship with God. We are told, among other things, to love him, obey him, serve and follow him, trust and put our faith in him, worship and adore him. But nowhere, as far as I can tell, are we commanded to understand God.

Does that come as a relief to any of you? It certainly does to me! Most of the time, I enjoy trying to understand God, but I’m awfully glad my salvation doesn’t depend on how well I do so, because I’m often not very successful! Among the varied gifts of the Holy Spirit is the inclination and ability to penetrate, to a point, the mystery of God’s identity, and to articulate that mystery in fresh and compelling ways. Those who have this gift should indeed exercise it for the benefit of the rest of us. We can all enjoy God more as a result.

But we will never solve the mystery, and, in the end, our job is to simply rest in the joy of his love for us and in what he has done to reconcile us to him. Trinity Sunday is not about a doctrine. Trinity Sunday is about the triune God. Doctrines are for understanding. The holy and undivided Trinity is for worshiping and adoring and loving.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise him, all creatures here below,
Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.


Monday, May 17, 2010

C: Easter VII

John 17:20-26

Imagine, if you will, a United States Army as it might exist in the wishful fantasy of an infantry soldier. In this army, enlistees would be permitted to “shop” for a convenient basic training location, and for a compatible drill sergeant. They would then be allowed to pick which unit they wanted to serve in. If things don’t work out the way they expect, if there is bad personal chemistry with their commanding officer, they can look around for more suitable arrangements, and approve their own transfer. There is a broad consensus that this is the Army, and it’s supposed to be about defending our national interests, but beyond such generalities, there is little concrete agreement about what the mission and objective of the army is. Orders are given—sometimes they’re obeyed and sometimes not, depending on the disposition of the one receiving them.

While this might be a wonderful daydream in the mind of Beetle Bailey peeling a mountain of potatoes, subject to the whimsical wrath of his sergeant, it’s not any kind of army you or I would want defending us. As a fighting force, it would be completely undisciplined, lacking integrity, and totally ineffective. It would not be one army, but a collection of essentially self-absorbed individuals and informal coalitions … with guns! Potential attackers would hold it in contempt, and rather than being deterred from attacking our country, they would be encouraged to do so.

Throughout scripture, the people of God are many times portrayed as an army. In the Old Testament, this was often true in a literal sense. In the New Testament, it’s only a metaphor, but a very significant metaphor. Just like an army, the Church’s credibility in the eyes of the world depends on internal discipline, a coherent sense of mission, and an effectiveness that comes only from unity of purpose.

In the creeds, we profess our belief in ONE holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. In our present circumstances, however, it takes a tremendous amount of imagination to make that statement. In the New Testament itself, we read of division in the church, of jealousy and rivalry and competing ministries. In the fourth century, more than a few cities had two bishops, neither one recognizing the other. In the eleventh century, there was the Great Schism that divided east from west. Even today, the Pope can’t visit Greece without arousing all kinds of hurt feelings from that schism of nearly a thousand years ago. In the sixteenth century, the western half of the church was dashed on the rocks of the Protestant Reformation, starting a chain reaction of division that is still growing in size and intensity. Today, the number of distinct Christian denominations numbers in—are you ready for this?—distinct Christian denominations number in the hundreds of thousands.

It is in such an environment, such a context, that we encounter the long and poignant prayer offered by Jesus on the eve of his death, and recorded for us in St John’s gospel. It is known as the “High Priestly” prayer, because, in it, Jesus intercedes with his Father as a priest on behalf of us, his people. And the one thing he prays for, above all else, is the unity of the church. But he has a very specific purpose in this request: “I do not pray for these only...” —in other words. it’s not just for the sake of the church’s members that he prays for the church— “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus is quite clear here—is he not?—that the Church exists primarily for the sake of those who are not yet part of the Church. Outreach in evangelism and service are not ancillary to the church’s mission; they are the church’s mission. Most of us know this intellectually, but it’s a challenge to put into practice. When considering a change in parish program, clergy and vestry members and program leaders are more apt to ask, “What will the members think?”, rather than “What will most effectively advance our mission?” For clergy in particular, it takes some degree of courage to begin to treat parishioners as co-laborers, members of the same team, with a common objective, and a disciplined attitude in pursuit of that objective. Too often, it is an irresistible temptation to revert to a mental model in which parishioners are clients in need of professional services, as passengers on a cruise ship, rather than as crew members. Even more damaging is the model which we so easily import from our secular experience, in which the Church is seen as a voluntary association which we can join and unjoin—or go “inactive”— as we see fit, much like a fraternity or sorority or service club or lodge or sports program. Only the church generally makes fewer demands than such organizations!

What Jesus is telling us, however, through his high-priestly prayer, is that God’s loving disposition toward mankind is clearly revealed to the precise extent that the Church is One—united as a highly-disciplined and well-trained army in the pursuit of an unambiguous objective. To the extent—and we have to admit, for the time being, it’s only a partial extent—to the extent that the Church manifests concrete, visible unity, our witness to the world has integrity and power. In Eucharistic Prayer ‘D’, we ask God, on behalf of His holy catholic Church, to “reveal its unity.”

Reveal its unity.

When the late Pope John Paul did visit Greece about ten years ago, his purpose was not to stir up resentment and competitiveness between churches, but because he hoped that, as an eastern European himself, he might be instrumental in the healing of the thousand year breach between east and west, that the Church may yet, in his words, “breathe with both her lungs.” What a wonderful image that is, not only for the east-west division, but for all our divisions—between churches, within churches, even within dioceses and parishes. The unity we seek has many levels—it must begin with simple charity and goodwill and mutual respect. But we must not be content with that level of unity. We want it to proceed to unity around the essentials of the gospel, the fundamental beliefs revealed in scripture and expressed in the creeds.

But we must not be content with even that level of unity. We want it to proceed to the level of sacramental fellowship, in which we fully recognize one another’s members and ministers and gather around the same table to share fully in the liturgy of the Eucharist, which is itself the very sign of unity. That would indeed be a level of unity which surpasses any of our presently realistic hopes for our own lifetime.

But even if that level were to be achieved, we would not want to rest on our laurels. We would want to press on to full visible, institutional, and organizational unity, so that there is but one Church of Jesus Christ in the world, speaking with one voice, that the world may know God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.

Such unity will require humility and courage of the sort that can only be a gift of divine grace. It will require the attitude expressed so eloquently by the Anglican bishops gathered in the Lambeth Conference of 1888, where they said that, once unity in matters of substance has been achieved, matters of style must not be allowed to keep us apart, and that toward such an end, “this church stands ready to forego all preferences of her own.” For our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends, this will require a hard look at their claims of exclusivity, each believing itself to be “the one true church.” For Lutherans, it will mean accepting the ministry of bishops in the historic apostolic succession. For evangelical Protestants, it will mean a lot more structure and accountability than they might presently be comfortable with. And for us, as Anglicans, the challenge is to make peace once again with the idea of a universal earthly leader of the Church, and it makes as much sense as any other idea for this leader to be the Bishop of Rome, in whatever way the role of the Pope might need to be reconfigured. We all have room to give, room to grow.

When, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are able to indeed lay aside “all preferences of [our] own,” the effectiveness of the Church’s ministry and mission will explode. We will see the continuing evangelization of Africa and Asia. We will see the re-evangelization of Europe and North America. Jesus’s high-priestly prayer will be answered, and God will be glorified. Pray, brothers and sisters, pray. Alleluia and Amen.