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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Resurrexit B

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster of the Uniting Church for Easter Day 2018, Sunday 1st April.  On this day they gathered at Yallourn North.

Isaiah 25:6-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Mark 16:1-8

The disciples who gathered (and scattered) on Holy Saturday did not know it was a day of vigil.  They did not know Sunday was coming: they thought it was all over.  When the women approached the tomb just after sunrise, whispering amongst themselves about how they were going to move that huge stone, they were doing so because they hade no expectation that the stone had been moved.  They were carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ corpse because that is what they expected to find, if they were actually able to move that huge stone in the first place.  No-one was expecting the stone to be moved and the body to be gone, and even when they arrived and found it thus their first thoughts would not have been resurrection but desecration and grave robbery.  Do not be mistaken, the women’s first impressions of the empty tomb were not joy and worship, but heartbroken desolation.  “First, they crucify him, and then this.  They open his grave and steal his battered body to do God-knows-only what horrific things to him.”  It was with this mindset, this anguish and agony, this anxiety tinged with outrage, that the women meet the young man dressed in white.

Unique among the four gospel writers Mark relates only an empty tomb story and not a resurrection.  Jesus is not in the tomb, the tomb is open and empty, but unlike Matthew, Luke and John Jesus is never seen alive.  In one way we should not expect to see Jesus there, since in Mark 14:28 we read how he instructed the disciples to meet him in Galilee; so that’s where he will be.  To see the risen Jesus the disciples must go to Galilee, to the home of Jesus the Nazarene as Mark and the young man in white tell us in Mark 16:6.  Strangely, uniquely, Mark doesn’t tell us about that event and he finishes his story here.

Jesus’ final instruction to his followers in Mark’s gospel is to go home: to his and their home, which Mark 1:16-20 tells us is Galilee and the place where it all began.  Jesus will appear again, but he will do so away from Jerusalem, in private, and among the “True Believers”.  The message is reiterated at the empty tomb to the women; and these women are also Galilean.  The next big thing in God’s plan of coming into the world in creaturely form is given to three women; Galilean females far from home, standing in front of a tomb which has been ransacked, and if they are seen there, women who are liable to prosecution and execution on suspicion of being the grave-robbers themselves.

I bet you weren’t expecting that from the first page of your Easter Sunday sermon, were you?  So baffling, so threatening, so many unanswered questions, so abrupt a conclusion to the story of Immanuel that it hardly constitutes a conclusion at all.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 says what Mark 16:1-8 does not, which is what happened on and after that first Easter Sunday morning.  Jesus does appear in person to Peter and then the twelve, and to a crowd of 500, and to his brother James, and to the apostles, and then to Paul himself.  So, not to the women then: and since Paul doesn’t actually say where all of this took place then perhaps it did all happen in the Galilee somewhere.  Maybe the women did eventually tell Peter what they saw, and maybe he lead the group back to the lake where he and they found Jesus waiting for them.  Perhaps this is where the 500 were, and James as well.  Maybe James as the next brother in the family has assumed the duties of the eldest with the death of Jesus and he has taken the grieving Mary home to Nazareth.  Thanks to Paul, we get a sort of seventeenth chapter of Mark in 1 Corinthians, and all is good with the world.  All is good for the moment at least.

You don’t need me to tell you that for Christians the resurrection of Jesus is a central idea in our religion. It’s arguably the central idea, and the fact that you have each come to congregate in this building on this morning suggests that you get that.  The idea that Jesus returned to Earth in human likeness yet newly different; not as a disembodied and enlightened soul but as a real-yet-not-like-us person, is what 1 Corinthians 15 is all about.  The facts and faith of the resurrection of Jesus is the future of the Church; and that God is the one who does it is central to our understanding.  By God I am not saying that Jesus had inherent power to raise himself, but that The Father displays Jesus to whomever The Father chooses to reveal him, and hides Jesus from whomever The Father chooses to hide him.  God’s promise to the Church and to all who believe in Jesus is new life, a fuller life which is still recognisable as human life.  When Jesus appeared to each of the groups described by Paul, and those described by Matthew, Luke, and John in their gospels, and Peter in his testimony, he is not a ghost.  The resurrected one is not a phantom, neither is he an angel; he is a man transformed by the power of God.  When we leave this life and enter the next, fuller life in the perfection of the Kingdom of God neither will we be ghosts or angels: like Jesus we will be men and women transformed, transfigured even, by the power of God.  The resurrected Jesus is for Christians the definitive sign and the visible evidence of the promise of the Reign of God.  We shall become what Jesus became when Christ returns as king.

This is what it means when Paul writes that we are being saved through the good news we have heard (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).  This is the good news, this is the message to which we hold firm, this is the promise where if we don’t get it then all else of our faith is in vain.  Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and was raised to life in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  Christ Jesus was vindicated by the resurrection: the prophets had said centuries before that the victory of justice over violence was coming, it came, and now we hold to it as true and valuable.  Jesus really did live, really did die, and really was revealed by God as a resurrected and transformed man.  The Christian gospel in its entirety is proved right by this, and it is shown to have power to transform the world, starting with our self-identification as sinners and traitors (1 Corinthians 15:3).

So, what does this mean for us?  Our Old Testament reading offers that with the resurrection of Christ the promises made to Israel to bless all nations through them came into effect.  Isaiah 25:6-9 speaks to how what was first promised to Judahites is released into the world for all to take benefit.  In the Kingdom of God celebration will replace mourning, comfort shall replace disgrace, and restoration will replace destruction and all who choose to attend will be welcomed at the place of God’s revelation.  Just as Jesus was restored and vindicated in the resurrection so the hope of deliverance for all who gripped on to faith with tenacity and desperation as all else faded shall be vindicated when they are brought home to God and to freedom.

So that’s what today is all about, because that is what Christianity is all about.  The central message of Jesus was the inconceivably generous and gargantuan love of God for creation, particularly for women and men, and the eternal plan for reconciliation and the restoration of God’s rule on Earth as it is in Heaven.  That is what “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” means, the first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  Change your mind about God, because overwhelming love is coming, and when it comes you will still be you, but you will never be the same again.

Amen.

So, you good?

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster for Good Friday, 30th March 2018.

Psalm 22; Hebrews 5:7-9

So, you good?  How’s your Friday been so far?  How’s it looking for this arvo?  Good Friday can be one of those days when you can’t get your head around much else, if you really get in to it.  It can also be one of those days that is best skipped over.  Go to church, sing “The Old Rugged Cross”, look sad for a bit and then go home to watch Channel Seven for the Royal Children’s Hospital Telethon, or since 2017 some AFL.  It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

Psalm 22 begins with a cry of desolation in the midst of an episode of feeling forsaken.  Why is God acting so much out of character as to abandon the one who is screaming out to the deliverer, with faith, for deliverance as we read in Psalm 22:1-2.  Yet, there is praise and acknowledgement that God is exalted in Psalm 22:3-5, and humanity is not, even at the best of times, let alone from the place of despair we are told in Psalm 22:6.  So, despite how its opening line has been perceived this is actually a prayer of faith and confidence in God.  The desperate one is so confident in God’s ability to deliver that he is ashamed of his own situation because it is causing God to be mocked.  The unbelievers see the believer shamed, the deliverer has patently not delivered, and blasphemy is arising we read in Psalm 22:6-8.  Think of the Pharisees with their “he saved others, why doesn’t he save himself” taunts.  Today Christians face similar mockery when life stumbles for us and the secularists cry “ha-ha, he believes in the flying spaghetti monster, but now he’s bereft and there’s no pasta-ral care forthcoming for him.  Wattanidjit!”  Still, according to Psalm 22:9-11 the desperate man believes, and he believes because of God’s prior record of faithful deliverance.  On and on the man describes his predicament, and on and on he reasserts his praise for God and his absolute confidence in God’s faithfulness to deliver.  This is seen in Psalm 22:12-21a. God is capable, and God is willing, and I shall be delivered, and when I am delivered I shall praise you all the more says the man in Psalm 22:21b-31.

When Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1 out loud from a Roman cross every Jew who heard him would have been reminded of the Psalm, even the positive bits.  I wonder what it means that this whole prayer is in the mouth of Jesus as he crucified.   I wonder what is actually going on for Jesus here, and what we are supposed to learn from this.  Well, in Hebrews 5:7-9 we read that while Jesus was alive as a man he prayed boldly and loudly to God, with passion and volume, and that because of his faith God was faithful to Jesus and responded to Jesus prayer.  Jesus was a Psalm 22 sort of person, a man of relentless, resilient, resolute hope in God. And we are assured that Jesus understands humanity because he lived as a man among women and men; Hebrews 5:8 clearly says that Jesus learned about human life through living a human life of his own. So, the perfection in Jesus that we read about in Hebrews 5:9 is not only that Jesus completed the work of salvation; that he submitted to God at Gethsemane and held that commitment right through all that occurred at Golgotha, and that by dying on the cross as a bloody sacrifice and representation of all created things he opened a path to human reconciliation with God and the possibility that we might be made perfect.  Yes, there is that, but there is more because Jesus understands perfectly. Jesus has completed and perfect experience of all created things because he lived like a created thing, a man.  So, the message of Hebrews 5 is that we are perfected by redemption because Jesus perfectly understands us; and he understands us because he was one of us.  See?  Do you see?

To think of God as “friend of sinners” is to assert that the pure and righteous God is not so far removed from the impure and unrighteous. We don’t need to protect God or God’s reputation from dirt, as if God lives in some Oxy-Action brightness and turns into a Dickensian gentlewoman at the sight of dust: the crucifixion tells us how God in Jesus got right down into the mud with us so as to lift us out.  That’s what the cross is about; the holy one who embraced lepers and allowed unclean women to embrace him, the foot-washing rabban, got bloody and muddy to rescue us from the grot and snot; even the grot and snot of our own making.

But don’t believe that this wasn’t hard.  Even with the faith that Jesus expresses and how he never drops his dependence and confidence in God The Father, Friday hurt.  The word “excruciating” was invented for this day, ex-Crucis literally means out of (or from) the cross.  Jesus died of shock and asphyxiation after six hours of excruciating pain as he hung all his bodyweight from nails through his wrists and ankles.  “Ouch” doesn’t come close.  His back from neck to knees had been torn open to the bone from the Roman flagellator, and you’d better believe that that would not have been comfortable.  Add to that the psychological, emotional pain of anguish and shame of hanging naked and alone while the whole city spits abuse at you and your sobbing woman friends (including your mum) who scream with broken hearts at the foot of your cross.  It was hard, bloody hard, bloody and hard for Jesus to die like that.

And God The Father?  Evangelicals like us often sing of how “the Father turns his face away”, but I cannot believe that.  I have no doubt, no doubt and every confidence, because I am a Psalm 22 person, that The Father watched every livid second of Jesus’ last 24 hours of mortal life. I am sure you’ve been told before about the torn veil in the temple, shredded at the very moment of Jesus’ last breath, as a prophetic sign of access.  Our traditions teach that with Christ’s death we can meet the Father at any time, and God is now on the loose in the world never again to be domesticated behind a curtain.  We have access to the holiest place, and God has access to the rest of the world: we can enter in and God can run amok. But perhaps the tearing of the veil was also a prophetic sign, or even an actual physical manifestation of our interventionist God’s anguish as the grieving Father, Abba Daddy, rends his garments in grief at the sight of what has been done to his beautiful and best-beloved son.

Or maybe it means that on a day like Good Friday that no place is holy, no place at all.  After all, how can our priests conspire to murder God yet hope to maintain a holy of holies in the temple of the holy city?  And if our priests can’t maintain a temple, how on earth can we scum-of-the Earth poor sinners lay people manage to achieve such a thing?

It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

So, how’s your Friday going?

Amen.

Hidden Figures

The 2017 film Hidden Figures gives rise to questions of what minority members of the professionals in other fields might have to offer.  If an African-American woman can use her mathematics to facilitate safe space travel in the dawning decade of such endeavours, I wonder where the leading edges are now, and who is being cut-off from riding those edges because of hubris and prejudice.

My field is the Reign of God.  I want to understand the nature and implementation of the Kingdom of Heaven, and I want to repeat and reinterpret for today the central message of Jesus concerning what life is like within God’s intent for the world.  What does it mean that there is a dawning reality where son-daughters of God live in a world which has been recreated to promote life without evil or distress?  How do we go about welcoming and facilitation such a realm’s arrival?

So, first I ask who is being excluded and who is the “nigress” of today’s theology.  Is she even in the Church, I’d say yes, is she in some form of ministry, again yes.    The “Colored Computers” worked for NASA, just not in the location of their most effectiveness.  So, then I ask, who do we have in the Church but in the back room, who do we insist drink from a segregated coffee pot and relieve herself in a segregated, isolated toilet?

Who is doing the work while today’s theological Anglo Alpha-males get the credit?

Who is heralding the change, bringing “the math” that would help us all to reach the moon?

Perhaps I’d better find out.