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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Nisi per gratiam per fidem (Lent 4B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 11th March 2018, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21; John 6:28-40

Today’s reading from the Jewish tradition is one of those texts that causes me bafflement.  I do not claim to have the full picture on this, and I challenge any of you who think you do to explain it to me later.  So, in this story the Hebrews are in the desert with Moses, somewhere between Egypt and Canaan, and they are sooking again about hunger, thirst, and poor leadership from God and from Moses.  So, God sends snakes, and those snakes bite some people, and some of the bitten people die.  The not dead people catch on that God is upset about their sooking, so they wisely repent of their sookiness, and God responds to their repentance by mandating a means of healing.  In a tick we shall hear how the bronze snake lifted in the desert for healing is an image used by Jesus in John to speak of his own being lifted on the cross as a means of healing: it’s a great image.  But for now, for the Hebrews their specific sin, the lesson that we are supposed to take away is that thing that needs healing even more than the venomous attack is the people’s speaking against God and against God’s appointed leader.  Death by reptilian poison is merely a symptom of the Hebrews’ shoddy attitude toward God their deliverer: once they understand that they repent and ask their embattled leader to intercede for them.  And Moses prays, and the snakes leave, and the people rejoice.

But did God really have to send actual deadly snakes for all that to happen?  Other times when the people complained of hunger God sent manna and quail and water from a rock.  So, what’s with all the bitey vipers?  That’s not very Jesusy of God, even taking consideration for it being 1200 BC at this stage.

Today’s psalm declares that all of God’s healing for the sick and stupid comes by God’s word, literally a diagnosis of “all clear” from the specialist.  The God of steadfast love delivers God’s people, so let them rejoice with sacrifices of praise says this psalm.  The Christian writer Selwyn Hughes once described the sacrifice of praise as “thanksgiving with blood on its hands”, a phrase I like.  This suggests that sometimes praise is hard fought, hard won, and worth hanging on to.  These are the songs of an overcomer sung toward the God who has delivered victory to him or her at long last.   Perhaps this sort of sacrifice of praise is the one sung by the Hebrews who received a harsh lesson in discipleship and who heeded that lesson to now stand and sing with awe of God’s power and deliverance.  Confronted by the one who can destroy, but who chooses instead to deliver, the people understand that God desires praise as a response to grace, but it is not a prerequisite.

Paul picks up the theme of Torah in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus writing in Ephesians 2:4-5 that debt has left them dead, but God has made them alive with Christ by grace.  All who belong to God are saved by grace through faith, not by faith itself he writes in Ephesians 2:8.  In other words you are not saved by what you accept as true about the universe, neither are you saved by what you accept as true about the Bible.  You are not saved by signing your name beneath or reciting every week the Creed of Nicaea; as if by saying “this document details what I agree to be the facts of Christianity” is what will get you into Heaven.  It won’t.  None of those things will.  It doesn’t matter what you accept as true says Paul, it matters only what God has done by grace, and by grace alone.

Salvation in the Christian tradition is by trust in Jesus and that what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross is sufficient.  The Christian tradition teaches that if you don’t trust the sufficiency of Jesus then you are un-saving yourself because you are taking yourself out of the hands of God who only ever saves by grace.  Jesus says this in John 3:17-18.  Every other means of salvation falls short, and salvation that falls short is salvation that doesn’t succeed in saving.  When a method of salvation doesn’t save then the thing is lost, or to use Jesus’ words the thing is left in the dark.

The message of Jesus who brought light to the world is choose not to walk out of the light; stay in the light and be saved.  To think and act as if you must earn your salvation is to walk away from God’s initiative which is the free gift of salvation by grace.  To receive salvation by grace through faith is not about praying a certain way or saying a certain formula, or even by being baptised, or by any other liturgical or traditional thing.  Salvation by grace is a trust exercise, it’s the heart’s acceptance that “Jesus did it” evident in the attitude that “I am safe because Jesus”.  Everything else we do as Christians can be only be because of one of two things: assured discipleship which is living freely within the reign of God, worshipping and serving out of gratitude and loving delight; or anxious despair wherein the cross is insufficient, and one must earn salvation through spiritual disciplines and altar-specific formulas.

In a Jewish devotional work written around the time of Jesus The Wisdom of Solomon 16:5b-7 says that it is not the symbol of the snake or even faith in the symbol that saved the Hebrews back in the day, rather it was God’s activity.  Today we might go on to add that God acted by grace to preserve the people.  When we look at images Jesus crucified, be that a crucifix or a painting, or a mental image since none of us were eyewitnesses, we see the evidence of our salvation.  God has saved us, and by grace alone are we saved.  Look at the cross and see how much you are loved: look at God hanging dying, and don’t doubt that you are overtly and utterly beloved.  But don’t think that hanging a cross on your wall or around your neck will do anything other than remind you of how much you are loved: possessing a renaissance sculpture or a piece of cruciform jewellery won’t save you any more than those formulaic prayers.

Flip over your Bible, if you’ve got one there, and have a look at a conversation Jesus had with the crowds.  In John 6:28 a Jewish crowd is listening to Jesus speak about salvation and they ask Jesus “what must we do?”  Judaism is a religion centred on practice and belonging rather than doctrine and belief: what makes a person a Jew is that he or she behaves like one and is accepted into the group who is behaving like Jews.  In other words, you are a Jew if you do Jewish stuff and other Jews invite you to join in.  You can’t earn salvation as a Jew, you don’t need to: you are saved because you are chosen, saved by grace just by being a descendent of Abraham.  As a saved one, a chosen one, you live that out by doing Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic things.  So, in that framework the crowd asks Jesus “what’s your kosher? your circumcision? your ritual? your psalms?” to which Jesus says in John 6:29 “trust me”.  Nothing else, no instruction for action, just “trust me”.  He doesn’t even say “accept these facts to be true, agree to the following doctrinal statements”, he just says…what does he say?  Trust me.  So, the crowd says in John 6:30-31 “okay, you want us to trust you?  Why should we trust you unless you prove it?  Abraham made us reshape our sex organs, Moses gave us laws, David wrote us songs with theology in them.  Give us something tangible so that we know you are telling us the truth: do something” they say, “or at least ask us to do something for you” they might have added.  And Jesus says in John 6:32-33, 38 “no.  It’s all about God’s generous grace and not about performance, indeed it isn’t even about my (messianic) performance,” and in John 6:40 Jesus says again “trust me and live abundantly and confidently, and I will look after you.”

What if Jesus said that to us?

What if our reasons for believing ourselves to be saved weren’t the reasons Jesus offers?  “But Jesus, I was converted at 27 when I repeated the special prayer line-by-line with Billy Graham-slash-Brian Houston.” Or “but Jesus, I was baptised because of my Christian parents at 3 months of age, confirmed in my local congregation at 12 years of age, hit with the Holy Spirit at a Charismatic Renewal convention at 13 years of age, and I’ve prayed in tongues since I was 35 after specifically asking my Pentecostal megachurch cell group leader to pray for me one night.”  What do you think Jesus would say to that?  My reading of John 3, John 6, and Ephesians 2, is that Jesus would say “doing those things didn’t get you saved, being saved lead you to do those things.”

Huh?  So, how then were we saved if not by a prayer of invitation and confession, or the waters of baptism following vows of obedience and faithfulness?  How were we saved?  How were we saved?  By grace.  Grace alone.  We know we were saved because God has told us, and also because we are actually safe.  If we weren’t saved then we’d be unsafe, wouldn’t we?  But we’re not unsafe, so we know we are saved.

So, here’s a big statement for you.  Don’t let your faith get in the way of your salvation.  By this I mean as soon as you try to work out what it is you did which actually got you saved, which specific belief, which specific action, you’ve missed the point.  It is grace that saved you, God did it all and you did nothing.  That you received the message that you are loved, and that you responded with joy or relief or whatever, and that you accepted the story of grace to be true, made your salvation effective and it put you on the path of growing in discipleship.  But the actual deliverance was all God’s work.

So, remember that.  And make sure that when you share your faith, and you should, that what you share is the free gift of grace given by God because of love.  And nothing less than love.

Amen.