Three (Trinity B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell for Sunday 27th May 2018, Trinity Sunday in Year B.

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

I don’t know about you, but for me the Doctrine of the Trinity seems like a mixed blessing.  It’s one of the big-ticket items that really sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam, let alone the religions that don’t worship the God of Abraham and Moses.  That’s not really a bother for me, that Christianity is unique in this way, it’s good to be unique.  It doesn’t bother me that the Doctrine is somewhat baffling; I want God to be a little bit mysterious because God is apparently all that is and was and ever shall be, and it’s kind of disappointing if I can grasp all of that, even at 46 years old and holding a Masters degree.  So, a God who is beyond my imagining and rationalising is a solid point for me: a God who is beyond is a God who is what a God is supposed to be.  No, the mixed part in the blessing is the question of the point of it all.  So, God is infinite, and God is Three-fold in Unity: but why does that matter?  Why do we actually need a Doctrine of the Trinity, can’t we just let God be God, awesome and eternal?  Why can’t the Church just get on with saving the lost, raising the dead, and healing the sick, and leave what is above the clouds above the clouds?

In this morning’s reading from the scriptures of Israel the vision of God given to the Judahite prophet Isaiah is of God is The LORD high and lofty, the subject of seraph worship and adoration.  Isaiah doesn’t have a vision of God in Heaven; no God is enthroned on earth inside the room which is the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The seraphim are also present on the earth and they cry out in awe of God, the majestic one.  The whole temple shakes to its foundations with the sound of seraph worship as the seraphim heed the injunction of Psalm 29:1-2.  Now, let’s remember that the foundation of Solomon’s Temple is actually the summit of Mount Zion; so, it seems that the whole mountain and with it the whole city of Jerusalem is rocking at the experience of divine anthems of adoration.  It is not that the seraphim are singing loudly, no, what is occurring is that the response of God to worship is so resounding, and the response of all creation to the display of God’s glory as it fills the whole earth is so violent.  This is God in all of God’s God-ness, this is undeniably God the earthquake and not God the gentle whisper: indeed, we read in Isaiah 6:3-5 that God’s glory is volcanic in its sound, sight and stench, and that it is utterly terrifying for the self-consciously human Isaiah who stands before it.  In the first five chapters of his book Isaiah has been denouncing the sins of Judah, especially of the city, and now here he stands in the first verses of chapter six at centre of Jerusalem in the holiest place on Earth with the memory of his prophecies; he knows that not only is he unworthy to be in the presence of The LORD enthroned he is in a dire predicament as a sinner in the presence of so imposing a display of holiness.  However, he is not in imperilled at all, and with a seraph’s touch Isaiah’s sin departs and is blotted out: Isaiah is justified just as if he’d never sinned, and he is considered worthy not only to stand in the presence of The LORD but to step closer to the throne and volunteer for a mission of proclamation.

Now on Trinity Sunday we can see some obvious links.  The cry of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 is “holy, holy, holy”, so that’s three holies.  Three, eh?  Eh!  And look at Isaiah 6:8a where The LORD asks Whom shall I send, who will go for us?  “Us”, eh?  Eh!

But have you missed what has just happened with Isaiah?  Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God The LORD is personally present in Jerusalem.  And God The LORD forgives and forgets a man’s sin, and God The LORD commissions this renewed man to proclaim the Word of God to Judah.  I mean, wow, that’s a lot more pervasive an idea than a three-fold refrain in the liturgy.  God does what Jesus is supposed to do, but God does this before Jesus gets a chance to do it.  Maybe The LORD God and the messiah are not only on the same team, maybe they are following the same game-plan because today we have seen God act like Jesus.

In today’s prescribed part of the letter to Rome, Romans 8:12-17 Paul is admonishing the Church to be active in the outworking of their faith.  Grace introduces not just a new mood (forgiven), but a new way of being in the world.  Now life is by the Spirit of God and those who heed the Spirit’s wisdom are saved from the desires of the flesh.  It is this Spirit, capital-S, who empowers those who take up godliness to act in this way.  In other words, God is active in the life of the believer, and because of God’s action through the Spirit so the believer is supposed to be active in the work of God, calling upon God as Abba and living as children who serve, worship, and obey.  “God’s spirit in you is God’s voice testifying that you belong to God” is what Paul is saying.  And when the Spirit, big-S, is acting in you and on you when you suffer for Christ then God is in effect suffering with you.

So, another of today’s readings offers obvious connections to the idea that God exists in the plural as a unity rather than in solitude.  The Spirit in you points to God who is your Father, the two are working as one to guarantee your identity as son or daughter of the one you call Abba.  When you, son or daughter of Abba suffer for the sake of Christ who is the true Son, the Spirit who is in you also suffers alongside you.  So, the Spirit within you as you live for Jesus who is called Emmanuel (God-Brings-Salvation and God-With-Us), draws you close enough to God The Father that you can speak of God as Abba, or my own dearest daddy.

In John 3:1-17 the gospel author tells us that Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, recognises in Jesus’ activities the action of God.  Jesus confirms this, and says that all who trust God in the way that he trusts God will do the work of God as they empowered by the Spirit, capital-S.  However, as he makes clear in John 3:13 Jesus is not ordinary disciple, he is The Son of Man who alone has descended from The Father, and he is the vehicle of trust.  To trust in the work and word of Jesus is to trust in the work and word of God, because as John 1:1 reads Jesus himself is The Word of God.  Those who exalt the LORD when Jesus the man is crucified are those whom God is saving through the blessing of a full life: Jesus is making a wordplay in John 3:14-15.  See Jesus lifted up and lift high the name of The LORD as you look at Jesus.  Those who lift high the name of The LORD will live a life of eternity: not just a life that goes to infinity but a life that is literally a “life of the eons”, the biggest, brightest, boldest, most abundant life possible, a life full of God because it is filled with and by the Spirit.

So, what is the point of all of this?  And even if we have somehow proved by this skip across the top of the Bible that God’s essence is expressed as a unity of three co-eternal persons, existing of the same substance distinct from all created things, why does that even matter?  In some ways that’s a deeper question than we can address in the forty minutes remaining in my sermon: some of the greatest minds in Christianity spent their lives examining this question and never got to the end.  The triune nature of God is literally an eternal question: infinite and beyond all proportion of space and time to tell.  So, I won’t even begin, except to say that if you’re keen to follow the theological pathways start in the Bible and go next to the Cappadocian Fathers.

In the meantime, let’s remind ourselves of what we have heard this morning.  In Isaiah 6 we heard God act like Jesus, forgiving sin and commissioning a missionary with the gospel.  In John 3 we heard Jesus speak with patient correction to an expert in scripture, a community leader whose love for law and ritual had misdirected his heart away from those for whom Jesus’ compassion was greatest, the spiritually orphaned.  In Romans 8 we heard Paul instruct a local church to be more like Jesus, especially to live in the world with the fullness of the presence of God, and to love like a brother-sister everyone in the Church and every woman or man who entered the local congregation’s space.

So, in a grossly unfair oversimplification, (but on the other hand why complicate things), the Doctrines of The Trinity tell us that whatever God is made of God is internally and eternally consistent.  God is always the same.  Three points, because of course there must be three.

  1. God is love and God loves. The Father in all God’s glory has the same character of Jesus in all Jesus’ simplicity; Jesus lived and proclaimed love for neighbour, love for friend, and that greater love has no one than Calvary.  That’s God, not just Jesus, that’s all of God who loves with greater love.
  2. Christians who claim to trust Christ for salvation, and who proclaim Jesus as the Way, not only as “the way to Heaven” where the Nicene Creed is the password to unlock the gate that St Peter holds shut, but the Way as in a way of life, should live like Jesus lived. God is abundant and sacrificial love: we should do the same.  We cannot be the love that God is, but we can express the love that God expressed in Jesus.
  3. Christian love, the love that God is and the love that the Church expresses as people who walk in the footsteps of Jesus, is hard. Love cost Jesus his life, and it may well cost us our lives too: or it may cost us something even worse than death, it may cost us embarrassment.  Martyrs sometimes have it easy, they only have to be brave for a few minutes and then they die gloriously even if somewhat messily: we have to stand fast for decades in faithfulness.  It can be a lot lot harder to live for Jesus than to die for him, I am in no doubt of this, but that is where the Spirit comes in.  The paraclete of Pentecost, the helper, counsellor, and advocate, is also God Godself and the Spirit is the one who helps us to call The Father “Abba”, to call Jesus “lord”, and to call others “brother-sister”.  The same one who is God lives in you; equipping, encouraging, and comforting you in the life-long ministries of worship and hospitality.

And that’s why all this Trinity business matters: because not only does God want you to act like Jesus, remembering that God acts like Jesus, but the Spirit who is God is given to you to make it happen.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow: praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Amen.

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Pentecost (Year B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Uniting Church gathered on Sunday 20th May 2017 at Yallourn North, Pentecost Day.

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Many of you will be aware I hope (because we didn’t read it this morning) of the story found in Ezekiel 37 where the prophet speaks at God’s command to a valley of desiccated bones.  In Ezekiel’s first-person account the hand of The LORD comes upon Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:1) and he is lead to the place of revelation.  This is not a story of resurrection, rather it is the story of the renewal of a whole nation by the Spirit of God.  Can God raise the dead: of course God can, there is no question of it and we saw that in Jesus.  Not only can God raise the Messiah but through Jesus we have seen God raise otherwise ordinary people such as the unnamed daughter of Jairus, the unnamed son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus the brother of Mary and Martha.  The question asked of Ezekiel is whether God can renew a devastated people, an entire nation cut down such that there is nothing left of it, left of them, but dried and dislocated bones on the one hand and shattered exiled slaves on the other.  The still alive ones have been taken far away, the only occupants of the land are the dead in the form of bones in disarray.  “What can God do here”, asks God, “God alone knows”, answers Ezekiel.  The story of the bones coming together and being re-fleshed is the first stage of the sign, and the lifeless corpses being inspired with breath and spirit and rising to their feet is the second stage.  It’s a great image of renewal because there is both reconnection and resuscitation going on; what has been lost is returned and restored, and the new thing goes on toward the future.  It’s as great an image for the Church as it was for the people of Israel: and that is the point made by all who preach on Ezekiel be they priest, pastor, professor, or rabbi.

But today there’s something more to be had, because today is Pentecost Day.  So, recalling all of the above, and mindful of the restorative and revitalising power of The Spirit of God consider this: God chose to act through a man’s voice.

In our key reading for Pentecost, Acts 2:1-21, we read the story of The Spirit’s intrusion into room full of believers expectant in the message and person of Jesus Christ.  The Spirit comes as and when the Spirit wants to come, and like the Risen One The Spirit has no need of a door. When The Spirit of Holiness comes, when the wind of purification blows through, when Ruach haQodesh fills the room, it is ordinary women and men who are empowered to speak the news of God’s revelation.  Ezekiel prophesied to bones and again to corpses, which is an allegory of God’s word coming to the exiled Judahites in far distant Mesopotamia.  Peter and the ten, and the other one hundred and nine, prophesy to the nations within Judaism; to Judeans for sure but also to Mesopotamians, and to Mediterranean Europeans and to Africans and to Arabians and to Asians with words of reconnection and renewal.  In the scriptural accounts the Spirit moves when men and women of God speak at God’s command.

In John 16:4b-15 we read of the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest and of his promise that his going would prompt the coming of the Helper, capital-H.  The word paraclete in Greek also carries the meanings of Comforter, Counsellor, and Advocate; capital-C, capital-C, capital-A.  When such a one comes, one we rightly identify on Pentecost Day as God the Holy Spirit, the work of the Spirit will be to convict the world.  The Spirit comes with power, we saw that in Acts 2, and with miracles, (also Acts 2), but importantly for Jesus it seems, since this is the bit he specifically mentions, the Spirit comes with challenge.  The Spirit confronts the Church with a call to repentance; not just confession of guilt since our last sorrowful prayer, or our rites asking for forgiveness, but of completely reassessing our lives regarding our vocation.  The sin Jesus speaks of here is not random acts of human naughty, but of the unforgiveable sin, the decision to not believe Jesus who is The Word of God.  The righteousness Jesus speaks of here is not our random lack of human good behaviour, but of the broken relationship between each woman or man and the whole of Creation.  The judgement Jesus speaks of here is not an eternity in Hell from the point of human death for everyone other than baptised-by-full-immersion Evangelicals, but of God’s verdict regarding the entirety of Creation and what it has become since Adam.  Our Christian testimony by deed and word is all of the above, guided by the Holy Spirit, who alone speaks truth to us and to the world through us (John 16:13).  Therefore, we are not to be despondent that Jesus has died and ascended out of human sight (John 16:6), rather we rejoice that his Spirit is with us, empowering us in loving acts of worship of God and the service of Creation.

So that’s much more than a one-off event of preaching in Swahili and fire above our heads!  Pentecost, the coming and dwelling of the Spirit within and amongst us is a now and forever event, continuous present-tense.  The Spirit is with us and always will be, and one indication of this is our continual proclamation of the gospel of belief in Jesus and reconciliation with each other, and our continuous immersion in the blood-and-dust world, the world in-the-wrong respecting who Jesus is and who the Church is and what justice is, as ambassadors of loving grace.  More than Swahili in Jerusalem, the Spirit descending gifts us to speak the language of justice in Yallourn and compassion in Moe.

So, Swahili is optional, Strayan is preferable; and God’s character made word and flesh is mandated.

And then, in Romans 8:22-27, we read how we who have the first portion of the Spirit’s pouring out are aboard with the Spirit’s work of interceding for Creation to the Father who loves it.  The Father who loves “it”, it being both the Spirit who intercedes and the Creation who is loved by the Spirit as it cries out in labour pains.  We who are creatures, and therefore part of Creation, and bearers of the first portion of the Spirit and therefore part of what God is doing in love, are intermediaries of sorts.  We are that part of Creation which is in tune with the Spirit’s work, and we are the first portion of the world for God, even as we have the first portion of God in the world.  In Romans 8:25 we read that hope is only hope when the hoped-for thing remains unseen; if you see it it is not hope it is existence.  No, instead we have hope because we have seen and been the first portion of God’s acts of blessing in the world, our hope, our trust-fuelled desire is that more is coming.  And this more is not just more of the same, but a more which is taller and brighter and louder and more pungent than what we have received from God even now.  No wonder we are groaning with Creation, “bring it on LORD” is our desperate and ecstatic cry.

Such a cry of exaltation and exhortation takes us beyond words, beyond Strayan and Swahili words, beyond even the prayer languages of Shalom.  The Spirit is groaning like a woman in labour, like a man trying to shift a stubborn boulder or wheel-nut, like a child trying to convince dad of the need for this lolly or toy because dad is our only hope in a world where mum always and only says no.  Groan!  Desperate groan!  Wrenching groan! Nh-mn-ll-fr-st-rh!  Groan beyond words, where only consonants thrust through gritted teeth and bulging eyes can express it.  This is the desperation of the Spirit for the Kingdom of God to come on Earth as it is in Heaven.  This is the desperation of the Church for the Kingdom of God to come to Earth such that the God of the Kingdom will walk with us in Eden once more, an Eden to which are readmitted by the grace of God.  An Eden which is the restored Creation for which all of Creation is already groaning and moaning in grief and necessity and labour pains.

Pentecost is about the gift of God of the Spirit to the Church.  It is, and we cannot forget that it is.  But there is so much more to today than that our forebears and founders spoke in languages not their own and that 3000 people were won for Christ by a single sermon.  That’s an everyday occurrence in some parts of the world even today.  What should be an everyday occurrence in all parts of the world, especially today, is the gift of God of the Church to the world.  God gives the Church the Spirit, and therein gives the world the Church, a Church empowered and emboldened by the Spirit to make the world aware of who God is and what God desires.  Who God is is Saviour and Lord; what God desires is trust, reconciliation, and passion for renewal.

That is what Pentecost is about.  That is what God can do with a valley of dried bones and a Brown Coal Mine.

Amen.

The Son’s Life (Easter 7B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Uniting Church gathered at Newborough on Sunday 13th May 2018.  It was a communion Sunday and the last Sunday before Pentecost.

Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19.

In the time between Ascension and Pentecost the Church lives alone.  As far as the lectionary is concerned the Easter season is almost at a close and today is our last Sunday in white.  According to Luke’s timetable in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus returned to Heaven for the final time last Thursday and he will no longer appear amongst the disciples in the way that he has been doing since he surprised the Cleopas family in Emmaus.  Next Sunday is Pentecost, coinciding with the Jewish festival of Shavuot, and we shall celebrate with all the churches of the West the sending of the Spirit upon the women and men in Upper Room.  But that’s last Thursday, and next Sunday.  Today and for the week to come, we live waiting for the fulfilling of the promise.

So, with Jesus gone and the Spirit yet to come, how should we live?  What is the Way of Christ when the Christ is no longer among us?  How do we live Life in The Spirit when The Spirit has not yet brought God’s new life?

Well, in 1 John 5:12 it says that “The Way” and “The Life” are found in having the Son of God.  If you have the Son you have life, but if you do not have the Son then you do not have life.  Many scholars agree that First John was written about a group of people who had once participated in the life of the John church, but who had left the church to follow another philosophical movement called “Gnosticism”.  These people were still in contact with some of their old friends who had remained with the John church and they trying to draw these friends away from the gospel and into their gnostic fellowship.  Hence this letter wherein the writer, speaking to people personally brought to faith by John or by people who had themselves been brought to faith by John, writes to keep the core of faithful ones still holding to Christ focussed even more strongly upon Jesus as the only saviour.  To have the Son is to believe and trust the story about God that you have been told, the story told by John, he writes.  The message for them applies to us gathered today: you have heard the truth and you have committed yourself to that truth by choosing to life your life as if what you have been told is true is true.  And what have we been told, what is it that those who heard John and those who have read the scriptures in the twenty-first century have believed?  In what have we placed our trust?  The gospel that God came in human form as Jesus, and that in Jesus we see modelled the ways of God in the world.  We who have seen Jesus, or who have believed the testimony of those who saw Jesus, believe that Jesus lived as if God were on earth.  Jesus lived like God would live if God were human.  And, Jesus lived like a follower of God would live if God were true.  Now since we believe that God is true, and that the life of Jesus was the life of God-as-human, then the way ahead is clear.  Believe what Jesus said about God, live as Jesus lived with respect for God and God’s creation, and model and teach this for others so that they can believe and trust as we came to believe and trust through the modelling and teaching of others.  Those who have God have eternal life, not just life after death (although there is that) and not just life which goes on forever (although there is that too) but life without restriction.  Not just a long life, but a wide life and a tall life and deep life and a rich life – this is the promise whereby God gave us eternal life…and life in the Son we read about in 1 John 5:11.  The key is believing that Jesus was who the Church says he was – Emmanuel, God in dusty skin.  Not just dusty in that Jesus was a brown skinned man, olive at least, not Anglo-Saxon, but dusty in that Jesus lived in a rural area in first century Palestine where there was dust in the wind and Jesus would have copped a face-full at times.  God lived on earth, and God lived well; there’s your model for life but also there’s your message.  God loves us too much to leave us at a distance, God came close and God lived amongst humankind, pitching a tent and hanging around for more than thirty years of anonymity and about three and a half years of modelling the God-oriented life and revealing God-directing truth.

In our prayers this morning we heard how Psalm 1 speaks of happiness, which is delight in the ways of God and not in the way of human wisdom or arrogance.  More fully it means the delight of blessing arising from being in a right relationship with God and living as one whose steps are laid upon the right path.  “Blessed are those who walk with God” might be the theme of the entire Psalter, and here it is found in the very first of the Psalms.  Those who feed on God will not wither says Psalm 1:3, rather they will flourish and be fruitful.  Fullness of life, stability and productivity are found in a life oriented towards God.  The wise person Psalm 1:2 tells us is the one who studies Torah, who hears and reads and meditates on the precepts of God.  The Orthodox tradition sees Psalm 1 as an accurate description of the life of Jesus prior to his coming, a prophecy of Jesus who is “the man” of Psalm 1:1.  This is the testimony of John Chrysostom and St Augustine and this passage sets out how Jesus the blessed man was different to all other men.  In Psalm 1 we therefore get a clear example of how to live, and how not to live.  I’m not entirely convinced by the Orthodox argument, which probably why I’m, preaching here today and not across the river with the Serbian Orthodox congregation; I don’t think the Psalmist in the tenth century before Christ was primarily writing about Christ, but the idea of parallel ways to live where Jesus is the ikon pointing towards the way of illumination rather than the way of darkness seems like a good fit.  So, if you want to fulfil 1 John 5 you could do worse than emulate Psalm 1, but you probably couldn’t do much better.

Or could you?

How could we possibly be better followers of God than by emulating scriptural imperatives for the holy and blessed life?  Well it’s quite simple, we read the gospels and we emulate Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong, Psalm 1 is a brilliant model, but since we are Christians why don’t we take it a step further and model ourselves on John 17 and the Jesus we find there?

Jesus made God known to everyone God brought into Jesus’ life (John 17:6) by speaking the truth of what Jesus knew about God (John 17:8).  Then, having done that and everything else that he did, Jesus prayed one last time for his band of brothers, the eleven of them who remained, before he lead them all into Gethsemane where the will of God took over.  The task of making God known was given to the eleven, and to those to whom the eleven preached.  The whole life of Jesus was about proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven, or we might say today the Commonwealth of God.  God desires shalom for the world; unity, peace, grace, restoration of what has been lost and broken and damaged and hurt.  Jesus taught this, and he modelled it by his compassion and his miracles.  But Jesus’ work was left incomplete in that he did not speak to every living member of creation.  Jesus’ death and resurrection as a means of grace was sufficient for all, but the lived-out message of proclamation and example was left to the Church, the beneficiaries of redemptive love and revelatory life.

So, in grasping all that let go of none of it.  As 1 John 5:13 says, having obtained eternal life through grace you must maintain your obedience.  You will not lose eternity through disobedience, but you will lose fullness and depth in life through apathy toward God’s instruction.  Christian life is not a one-off moment where you do the altar call thing with Billy Graham or Brian Houston, and then go on with nothing changed except an “Admit One” ticket to Heaven in your spiritual pocket.  You who have heard the story of Jesus and believed the story of Jesus must live the story of Jesus and be Emmanuel to someone else: God-with-him or God-with-her as the case may be.  Remember that God-with-us is God-with-you, for you and for those with whom you live and move and have your being.

So, get about it, for love’s sake.

Amen.