Trinity Sunday, Year C
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Some years ago, I found myself struggling with the doctrine of the Trinity. A lot of people do, I know. I responded to it in typical academic fashion: I applied for a summer research grant, and spent much of the summer studying what theologians from the ancient world to the present have to say about the Trinity. Now, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, a number of theologians rush to my memory: Jurgen Moltmann, Desmond Tutu, Athanasius, Tertullian ... and The Simpsons.
It's true that The Simpsons never explicitly discuss the Trinity, to my knowledge, but there is one episode that often leaps to mind when I think about any of what can rightly be called the 'mysteries' of faith, and the Trinity is certainly one of them. The episode "Dead Putting Society" from Season 2 has Bart participating in a mini-golf tournament, and Lisa coaching him in Eastern philosophies and martial arts to help.
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Lisa asks Bart. "Piece of cake," he says, bending his fingers down to hit his palm. "No, Bart, it's a 3000-year-old riddle with no answer. it's supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought," she replies. "No answer? Lisa, listen up!" Bart fires back, still bending his fingers toward his palm.
Bart is clearly missing the point. He's after a snappy answer that makes it all make sense, that resolves the question in a way that requires no further wrestling with it. I've heard a lot of people try to do similar things with the doctrine of the Trinity. In high school (and several times since -- the latest of them being last week), I listened to someone explain the Trinity as being like H2O, which can be found as ice, water, or steam; God is one substance, like H2O, but can be found as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Great explanation -- makes sense, easily understood -- and an excellent example of the ancient heresy of Modalism. Orthodox Trinitarianism doesn't say that God is one person found in three forms, but that God is one Being and three distinct 'persons.'
Every illustration I've heard that makes the doctrine of the Trinity easy to understand ends up falling similarly into some ancient heresy. I actually think that most of those ancient ideas of Trinity rejected by church councils spring from the same impulse that makes preachers want to use the ice/water/steam analogy: They want to make it possible, and preferably easy, to understand the Trinity. After all, every Sunday we stand up and say "we believe" with respect to it, and it's very natural to feel uncomfortable saying, "we believe" if we don't comprehend what we're talking about.
I'm using the word "comprehend" intentionally; it's got that 'hend' root that's about grasping, about having something 'in hand,' literally or metaphorically. And like Bart opening and closing his hand rapidly to try to "solve" the 3000-year-old riddle, I think when we try to 'comprehend' the Trinity, we're missing the point. It's a mystery. It doesn't make logical sense. When we try to chase it and pin it down, we end up running around in logical circles like a dog chasing its tail. That's a process that can be fun (if dizzying) for a while, but is more frustrating than not if it's kept up for very long.
That's not what I think we're called to do with faith's mysteries. They're not something that can be grasped in one's hand or encapsulated in one brilliant analogy that leaves us comfortable or even smug in our confidence that we "get it" and therefore don't have to struggle with it any more. If we are part of God's people, we have been grafted into Israel -- the name Jacob received after his encounter with the angel as one who "wrestles with God." Any intellectual fancy footwork designed to eliminate wrestling, puzzling, and pondering and to settle all questions forever is bound to be unhelpful to a people called to "wrestle with God."
Or let me put it this way:
Most explanations of the Trinity are made to resolve questions and, in effect, end conversation. But the mysteries of our faith are, in my thinking, meant to do almost the opposite. Because they cannot be "solved," they invite conversation. Because they cannot be encapsulated and apprehended by human intellect, they inspire humility. And because they are an integral part of the faith we confess as a Body, we cannot simply say, "oh, I don't get that," and lay them aside; we are rather called together as a people to wrestle with one another as well as with God, to listen deeply to one another as well as to the saints who preceded us and to remain in that creative but sometimes uncomfortable tension that challenges us to love God with our mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength.
Our readings for this week, then, are not explanations so much as invitations. Proverbs 8 doesn't encapsulate a doctrine of the Trinity. It paints a picture of Creation taking place through a personified Wisdom that philosophers and theologians writing in Greek (such as Philo of Alexandria in the first century) called the logos. Much as John 1 poetically describes a logos through whom all things were made before declaring that this logos became flesh and dwelt among us, Proverbs shows Wisdom as God's agent in creating the world and sharing in God's joy in its goodness. Proverbs differs from John, however, in saying quite clearly that Wisdom was created by God, not "begotten," as John says; Proverbs' Wisdom is "with God," but Proverbs wouldn't say that Wisdom "was God."
Neither do our New Testament texts hand us a neatly wrapped doctrine of the Trinity. Our text from Romans presents Jesus as one through whom we have peace with God and the Holy Spirit given to us as means through which God's love is among us. John 16 shows free and full interplay between what we will eventually call persons of the Trinity: Jesus, who is the Truth, sends the Spirit who guides us into all truth, declaring to Jesus' disciples all that belongs to Jesus, which is all that belongs to the Father. But neither of these texts -- indeed, no text in the New Testament -- gives us anything quite like the "one God, three persons" articulation we see in the Nicene Creed. That formulation came after hundreds of years of searching the scriptures and wrestling with them in community, and whatever intent the emperor Constantine had for the council that produced the Nicene Creed, it certainly didn't end conversation or conflict. The wrestling went on, some of it shaming the Spirit as bishops marched against one another in war with troops of armed monks; some of it building up the Body of Christ with theological riches that still speak to the church today.
I'd say we're not done wrestling either -- not for as long as we are grafted onto 'Israel.' There are still people around trying to come up with some single formulation in a creed or a "covenant" that will resolve the questions, ending discussion that includes difference. When we say "we believe" in the creeds, we're not saying, "we've got it." This is not "Constantine (or even Athanasius) said it; I believe it; that settles it." I sometimes wish that the Greek word pistis that often gets translated as "belief" were translated (more accurately, in my opinion) as "trust." We're not saying that we've solved the mystery of the Trinity like Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo, in which all has been explained and all loose ends neatly tied up. We're saying "we trust." We trust God: the Father who created us (and I think that Mother language of God birthing the world is equally appropriate), the Wisdom made flesh to dwell among us and redeem the world, and the Spirit who, as we gather in reconciling communities, is always guiding us more deeply into truth. We trust one another as a result; if we trust the Spirit whose gives gifts to all seeking to follow Jesus, then we must trust the community of disciples in all its diversity enough to stay in relationship and keep wrestling.
God didn't give us hands, after all, so we could try to clap with one of them and show someone that we've got the answer, "piece of cake." God gave us hands so we could use them as Jesus did -- offering them to one another, healing, engaging God's mission together. God didn't give us words to end conversation, but rather sent the Word made flesh to dwell among us -- a living paradox of particularity and transcendence, of strength in weakness, of power in self-offering to empower others, of death on a cross and resurrection life for the world. And so the life of the Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but love we are called to live into, filled increasingly with God's joy and peace.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C
John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text
If you haven't seen it already, I encourage you to check out my reflection for Christmas Day this year, which deals with John 1:1-14 as well as the two passages in Luke for earlier Christmas services.
That earlier entry was in part on the theme that the Incarnation is NOT how a distant god became close to humanity. The prologue to John's gospel, which we read again this Sunday, makes that much clear in saying that the logos or "Word" Jesus incarnated was with God in the beginning and that all things were made through the logos. Indeed, Hebrew scripture -- like the Christian "New Testament" -- has plentiful representations of God as present among and intimate with God's people. Psalm 139 is just one example among a great many.
This week, I want to talk about another misconception I've heard in many a sermon, and that the prologue to John's gospel ought to put to rest. The misconception goes something like this:
God is righteous. Righteousness means not only avoiding all wrongdoing, but avoiding all wrongdoers. Therefore, God fundamentally can't stand humanity -- at least as long as humanity is sinful. Indeed, God wants and needs to punish wrongdoers with something worse than the death penalty: death plus eternal suffering. Only blood can satisfy God's sense of justice. The Incarnation solves this problem as God the Son, who wants to have compassion for humanity but knows that only the shedding of human blood will satisfy the Father, becomes human to suffer and die for humanity's sins, after which God can stand to be around humans who accept this blood sacrifice on their behalf.
The above is a particularly crude version of what some call "substitutionary atonement." There are versions out there that are not so crude, and at the very least, any view that Jesus' blood was shed as a full and perfect sacrifice for sin ought to have at least one implication that would be very helpful were we to live into it: namely, that human beings cannot demand blood or even suffering from another as punishment for wrongdoing, since Jesus paid the full price for all human sin, and further suffering from others is neither necessary nor efficacious. Can you imagine a world in which everyone who claimed to be a Christian refused absolutely to participate in any kind of vengeance, punishment, or shedding of human blood? That would be a radical shift.
But our gospel passage for this Sunday asks us to contemplate something far more radical:
"No one has ever seen God. It is God the Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."
In other words, as my dissertation supervisor puts it, God is like Jesus.
That might not sound so radical at first. In many circles in the U.S., we're accustomed to or even fairly jaded with respect to theological language about Jesus. But what I've observed over the years is that our thinking about the Incarnation and what it means tends to run in the opposite direction from what John 1:18 suggests. We start with our ideas about what God is like (those far too often being simply our cultural values writ large), and then assume or project into the New Testament that Jesus is like that.
We believe that family (defined in our usual cultural manner of those closely related to us by blood or marriage) should be a person's chief priority (other than God, perhaps), so we believe that God commanded as much, and therefore Jesus did too. We scratch our heads a little if we come across most of what Jesus said about family in the biological or legal sense, but figure the text couldn't possibly mean what it says and quickly move on.
We inherit a "Protestant work ethic" from our culture; we project that onto God; and then we find ourselves saying things like, "well, didn't Jesus say, 'the Lord helps those who help themselves'?" (That was Ben Franklin, by the way.)
We embrace a kind of individualistic faith that says that God is concerned primarily with the state of our hearts rather than what we do with our money and power, and then invent all kinds of interpretive contortions with texts about the "rich" and the "poor" in the New Testament so we don't have to think that Jesus has any problem with the poor remaining poor and the rich remaining rich.
In a particularly subtle way that's therefore particularly difficult to become aware of, we believe that God is basically a nice guy who made a nice world and then got out of the way, sending Jesus as one of many occasional reminders to humanity that we should also be nice and not do anything really bad to one another -- in other words, that following Jesus will not require anything more than church attendance from someone who's basically a good and respectable guy or gal.
Or we start with a firm idea of what God likes and doesn't like (usually pretty similar to what we like and don't like), and that God wants and needs to punish those who do the latter, and then we assume that Jesus is like that too. But what does John's prologue do to this way of doing theology?
If Jesus is God the Son, close to the Father's heart, who has made our Creator known to us, then we don't start with ideas about what God is doing in the world and project them onto Jesus; we start with what Jesus does in the world and know that this is what God is doing.
That's yet another reason that we can't chart the significance of the Incarnation without talking about what happened between the lines of the creeds -- after "he was made man" and before "he died and was buried." If it is Jesus, the Word made flesh, who makes God our Creator known, then we know what God is like by looking at what Jesus in his life "in the flesh" was like.
Jesus taught and healed. He confronted the powers and the power dynamics that kept some people shut out of the villages as feared demoniacs. When people were hungry, he fed them. Indeed, he broke bread with them, without checking first, second, or later about whether they were the "right sort of person." He broke bread with the person he knew was betraying him to suffering and death. He spoke words of invitation and forgiveness even from the cross on which he died. Those last invitations -- to the thief on the cross in Luke's gospel, for example -- came without precondition; there was no "as long as you don't mess up again," or "as long as you're sincerely sorry for what you've done," or "assuming you don't have any major nasties in your history that I don't know about." He also challenged people -- not just the "sinners," but the respectable people -- to grow into the fullness of discipleship, receiving and caring for all who came to Jesus' table as their own flesh and blood.
Had he just behaved that way, he wouldn't have been particularly threatening to anyone. Some people are completely indiscriminate about the company they keep. Some people treat their enemies in pretty much the same way they treat their friends and family. They won't be elected president any time soon; they're weirdos whose hanging out with those on the margins of society renders them marginal as well. Jesus would have been similarly unimportant if that's all he did.
But he did more. He said that God -- the Creator of the universe -- behaved toward humanity just as he did. He acted with God's power to bring those at the margins in to the center as empowered and beloved children of God. And so John's gospel very aptly says that his glory is "full of grace and truth" -- properties not at all in contradiction in Jesus' ministry, or in the kingdom of God.
All of those who take the Left Behind books as gospel and are therefore expecting Jesus, or the God whom Jesus proclaimed, to undergo some kind of eschatological personality shift to gleefully kick his enemies' butts are going to be disappointed if John is right. Those who worship a god who poses no threat to the empires of this world will be surprised by the God revealed in the life of Jesus, who gathered people to live in a way that threatened Roman rule enough to get him executed for treason against the emperor.
But for those who are attracted to the ways in which Jesus challenges the rulers and embraces the marginalized -- those who glimpse abundant life in Jesus' way of life -- the news that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who makes the Creator known is Good News indeed -- the best news there is.
Thanks be to God!
Christ the King, Year B
Last week, I had a lot to say about why we shouldn't dodge preaching on and wrestling with the apocalyptic texts like those in the lectionary this week, and that we are called to engage in Advent. This week, I want to concentrate on the payoff for doing so.
In a sense, these texts are talking about "the end of the world." Only the most jaded reader can encounter the kind of vivid imagery of power in passages like our reading for this Sunday from Daniel without a sharp intake of breath and a slight skip of the heartbeat. That's not merely normal; it's necessary, I think, to appreciate what these texts are talking about. The biblical books of Daniel and Revelation are both talking about the judgment of the nations, history's end. I want to underscore that word 'end,' and at least two resonances it has, because I think it points to the heart of Christ the King Sunday, the gateway to our Advent anticipation.
'End' means the passing away of what is. It means a transition so pronounced that we can say, "things will never be the same." Facing 'the end' means that we must finally acknowledge our attachments to what is and our limitations in perspective and power as mortal human beings. 'The end' means that we will no longer be able to deny or dodge them, and we will -- we must -- let go. This is frightening for us -- and the more we cling to illusions that what we know is all there is and can control all we know, the more frightening 'the end' will be.
That's why I want to suggest this week that when Pilate hears Jesus say, "my kingdom is not of this world" and then sends Jesus to be crucified as guilty of treason against the Roman Empire, it is not because he fails to understand Jesus: it is because he understands Jesus.
The reign of God that Jesus proclaims, that in Jesus' ministry is breaking through among us even now, is not just a reshuffling of this world's cabinet while worldly power structures continue mostly as they are. Jesus is not seizing Caesar's throne. A plan to do so, leaving Caesar or his heir and his generals in exile to plot a return to power, would have been more than enough for Pilate to send Jesus to the cross. But Jesus' plan is far more radical than that.
Jesus is not seeking a throne in the world as it is; Jesus is inaugurating the end of this world.
I'm not talking about the destruction of the planet; that just doesn't make any sense from a biblical perspective. God made this world and said it was good. God made humankind and said it was VERY good. God so loved the world that God sent the Son that we might have abundant, eternal life. Read Left Behind for amusement or to dialogue with others who have read it, but its theology has no substantial claim to be "biblical." God does not intend destruction for Creation or for humankind.
So what do I mean, then, when I talk about "the end of the world" in the prophetic thrust of Daniel, Revelation, and the canonical gospels?
I do mean that a sharp transition is on the way. Someone who, like Pilate, likes the world best to the extent that it is ordered by empires will probably receive the news of the world's end as very bad news indeed, at least initially. After all, the world order of empire works out very well, at least superficially, for many of us. I'm hardly the richest person in America, for example, and yet I consistently make the top tenth of better in the ranking of the world's richest people. By virtue of my skin color, the country of my birth, and my education (to which my skin color and the country of my birth helped provide access), I have a great deal of power in the world as it is.
And yet I long for change. My heart aches for children whom the world as it is leaves without a chance -- those without clean water, good food, medical care, basic shelter, primary education. But my longing for change isn't just a generous impulse. Maintaining this world order is costly beyond my ability to add. It is polluting our atmosphere with such abandon that one way or another, it will come to an end within a generation or two -- whether because we change how we live to slow the global climate change, or because the devastation that change causes -- devastation we've already observed in weather patterns causing drought in some places and flooding in others unparalleled in our time -- so profound that our planet will never recover. And there are less immediately measurable costs to maintaining this world order as well. Our children inherit our all of our anxieties that unless we work harder and longer and are very lucky besides, the hyper-competitive and never-ending quest for achievement that's a part of the world in which many of us live will leave us without resources and without community in a world of hostility. I've preached about the cost our children pay here and now for maintaining our world of privilege before in communities profoundly privileged by worldly standards, and I encourage you to take a look at this sermon if you're wondering what I mean when I say that the world order of empires -- even for those of us now living in the world's richest empire -- imposes a very steep cost in body, psyche, and spirit to ALL of us. And yet who or what can disentangle us from all of the tangled webs we and our parents' parents have woven that have made this world so many of us think is all there is? We might well cry with St. Paul, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24).
And, if we have claimed the story of the prophets and apostles, the story proclaimed by Jesus as the story of the world God made and loves, as our own, we can also answer with St. Paul: Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus, our and our only Lord! The world of empires, the world that places the Pilates in palaces and so many children in the grave, the world of endless scrabbling and scrapping for resources and power, the world of anxiety and domination, is passing away.
Think I'm dreaming? Well, I'm happy enough to be guilty of that; it would place me in the company of the prophets who proclaimed God's dream for the world even in the midst of the greatest darkness, the ugliest violence of intense persecution. But the dream is close enough to reality. Many of the world's brightest economists tell us that the world in which thousands upon thousands of children die in extreme poverty -- the world into which I was born, and through much of my life the world in which I thought I'd die -- could see its end by the year 2015. Extreme poverty GONE in under ten years. Imagine the dancing at the party where we celebrate that!
And, by the way, please check out my earlier sermon, "Dancing at the World's End," if you haven't already. I was born in 1970, and by some people's reckoning (especially among U.S. Episcopalians!) am still young. And yet I've seen in my own lifetime empires fall, rules change, "certain" destruction averted, new worlds open. I've seen enough poverty and suffering in my travels to be glad enough at the news that a kingdom not of this world is coming to change everything. The judgment of the nations sounds like bad news -- but not to those who know Jesus, and who identify him as the Christ, the anointed king, the one of whom Daniel spoke with awe as "one like a son of man" who would judge.
Jesus is coming. Each time two or three of us gathers, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim the Good News of the prophets and apostles that the world of empires is passing away, and God's dream for Creation is breaking through it even now, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim Jesus the Christ and not any worldly power or principality as our Lord, Jesus' kingdom breaks through that much more.
The kingdom of God. The peaceable realm in which all are free from anxiety, as all have what they need -- the bread and wine, the water and power, the love and joy.
It's not just the end of the church year, we're anticipating this Sunday.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel FINE.
Thanks be to God!
November 21, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Christ the King, Christology, Current Events, Daniel, Eschatology, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Prophets, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)
Proper 12, Year B
2 Kings 2:1-15 - link to NRSV text
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16 - link to NRSV text
Mark 6:45-52 - link to NRSV text
"They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52).
But what was it that they didn't understand? I've heard a lot of sermons over the years that suggest that the line of thinking that would have indicated Jesus' followers did understand would be something like this:
"Hey, this guy managed to make a few loaves and fishes feed thousands of people. He must be powerful. Heck, only God has that kind of power. I know ... he must be God!"
But that's not really the issue, and that's not how Jesus' followers would have thought or ought to have thought. Jesus' followers knew something that I think we also know intuitively -- and if not intuitively, by cold hard experience in the world:
Not all power in this world is used benevolently.
A lot of it isn't. Indeed, we tend not to think of power when we have it, or when it's used to our benefit; we think about it a lot when it's being used against us. That's also when we tend to think about justice as a category; power is used to an end with which we don't agree, and nine times out of ten we'll call it unjust, or at least unfair. Ask any teenager, and you'll probably hear a lot about it: the powers of this world can be capricious or malevolent ("out to get you") as well as just and good. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I so much enjoy ministry alongside teens. They're willing to speak up when they think they see power used capriciously or destructively; they understand that the powerful aren't necessarily good, and often they haven't bought in to the idea that the distribution of power in the world is pretty much as it ought to be.
Jesus' followers certainly knew that. You'd have to be living under a rock since infancy not to see it. The Roman Empire occupied not just Palestine, but the whole world as they knew it, and they cared mostly if not entirely about whether taxes were paid, commerce uninterrupted (see the "taxes paid" point), trouble minimized, and their power acknowledged as supreme on earth (sounds familiar, actually -- the same could be said of most empires). The same goals applied when it came to appointing local authorities -- building a city dedicated to the glory of Caesar (and paid for with taxes on the poor, not from compromising the lifestyles of the rich -- another phenomenon that sounds familiar to us) earned you a lot more points in the competition for Rome's favor than sweating about the welfare of peasants. And spiritual powers came in the same range as worldly ones -- some good, many capricious or malevolent. When a wonder-worker came to town, people would be asking not whether maybe he did it with wires or mirrors, but whether it was done with good or evil power. Miracles proved power, not goodness or godliness, and levitating around the town square would inspire more fear than worship or trust.
That's a theme we see in Mark from the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It comes up explicitly in Mark 3:20-27, when the scribes from Jerusalem question whether Jesus is casting out demons with the power of other evil spirits, and comes into play in many explanations of the so-called "messianic secret" in Mark -- Jesus' telling those healed by him not to tell others. But I've been thinking lately that the "Beelzebub controversy" in Mark 3 is a part of a broader theme prominent in Mark: the theme of power and its proper and godly use. It's a theme that comes up repeatedly, and on the day before our moving van arrives, I don't have time to treat it with anywhere near the attention it deserves, except to point to the discussion that sets the context for Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, namely Mark 10:32-45, in which Jesus talks about death at the hands of Gentiles and new life to follow, and answers the request of James and John to sit at his right and left with what I believe is the centerpiece of Jesus' teaching in the gospel of Mark:
You know that among the nations those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
So what does all this have to do with this Sunday's gospel? Our lectionary editors' wise choice of Hebrew bible readings for this week is a clue: the way in which Jesus uses his power over waters and the deep evokes, as does Elijah's parting the Jordan, the story of the Exodus, of a tiny and enslaved people being led out of slavery to a worldly power and into the desert where they are free to become a people who use power differently -- to feed the poor and care for the widow and orphan, or, as the prophet Micah sums up what Israel was formed as a people to do, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. What Jesus' followers didn't understand about the loaves wasn't that they showed that Jesus had access to power -- Jesus' enemies said that much.
What they didn't understand was what their response ought to be. They didn't understand what it meant that God was, through Jesus, feeding all the people such that each had enough and no one accumulated too much -- much as God fed the Israelites in the desert with manna. They didn't understand that God's power over winds and waters in Jesus was like the parting of the Red Sea. They didn't understand that in Jesus, God was fulfilling the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15-19 to raise up a prophet like Moses to do what Moses did. They didn't understand that what God was and is doing through Jesus is no less than forming a motley and marginalized crowd into a people, one people, God's people -- a people called to do with power what Jesus does with his: healing, empowering, self-giving even to the Cross, to knit together a whole Body joined in love and building up its weakest members.
That's who we are -- what we have been freed through Jesus to become.
Thanks be to God!