Sermon Transcript 7.31.22 Membership and What We Believe (God as Trinity)
In addition to our readings from John 14:8-11, Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, we started the service with three voices reading a wide collection of passages that helped the early church come to understand God as Trinity.
1st voice: (Deuteronomy 6:4)
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!
2nd Voice: (Genesis 1:1-2)
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
3rd Voice: ." (Deuteronomy 4:39)
"Know this day, and take it to heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is none else!
1st voice: John 1:1-3a
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.
2nd Voice: Exodus 3:14a and 15b
God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’* God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites,
“The Lord,* the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
3rd Voice: Luke 1:35:
"The angel answered and said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.' "
1st voice: John 1:14
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
2nd Voice: Acts 17:28
For ‘in Him we live and move and have our being.’
3rd Voice: Romans 8:15b-16
When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
1st Voice: Isaiah 44:6
"Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer,
the LORD of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god."
2nd Voice: Matthew 3:16–17:
"As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.
At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and landing on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' "
3rd Voice: John 20:21-22
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
1st Voice: Revelation 1:17
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
2nd Voice: Matthew 28:18-20
And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
3rd Voice: 2 Corinthians 13:13
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
We've been talking about what it means to be a member of the United Methodist Church, to be a United Methodist. And one of the things I have emphasized is that our movement started not with a creed. But with a pledge of action. We pledge our prayers, our presents, our gifts, our witness, and our service We pledge to live out our faith I believe that's important and yet sometimes we talk about it not being particularly important What that faith is, what we believe, and that is not the case. We are apostolic Christians. We are part of the universal church. the Catholic Church, small letter c.
We trace our origins to the incarnation, to the Word made flesh. Jesus walking the streets of Jerusalem and the hills of Galilee gathering disciples, teaching them that not one iota of the law would be lost… and yet challenging them and the religious authorities about how to understand Sabbath, forgiveness, healing. What it means to encounter and worship and follow God. Jesus acts sometimes in unexpected ways. He got in trouble with the religious authorities whose understanding had become rigid and even punitive. And yet we in the church have repeated that error too often through the centuries.
Wesley's Methodist Movement was a movement of renewal within the Anglican church. And so one of the reasons he didn't, like most renewal or denominational starts, they who come up with a statement and you're one of us if you believe this… Wesley didn't do that, in part because his assumption, in his context, was that everyone he was talking to was already Anglican. They already had the Articles of Religion. Wesley’s focus was to renew the Anglican church. It got a little more complicated when we came over to the colonies and then the colonies rebelled and became the nation and the Methodist movement in America became not just a renewal movement, but the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. It was one thing for Wesley to say, here is our standard and if you don't adhere to this, you're not invited to the band meeting or the society meeting but you are certainly still invited to church. When we became a church, enforcing those standards became harder because what is it to say, you're not one of us if you question a particular understanding.
We have, therefore, traditionally had a very wide tent as United Methodists and we have focused on that action sometimes to the detriment of proclaiming what it is we believe. We believe the historic creeds. We just try not to be dogmatic about it. If you have a question about a particular term of phrase, you can still be an active in faith as a good standing member of United Methodist Church because we understand that faith is a journey. We don't have it all figured out yet and so we welcome questions and even differences of opinion within the broad confines of Christian faith. Wesley set out, for this new church in America, 25 articles of Religion. There were pared down from the 39 articles of religion of the Anglicans. He took some things out that he had questions about. He took some things out about loyalty to the King, for example, because we kind of demonstrated we weren't going to do that. He added a more fitting for America clause about citizenship.
These Articles outline what it means to be a United Methodist. You can find these in the Book of Discipline. They are not alterable by our General Conference. I mentioned last week, we gather as a General Conference. We can rewrite the Discipline every four years, but these statements about the core of our faith, we are not authorized to change - and the very first article of faith is understanding God as Trinity. That is understanding God as one God whom we encounter in three persons. The mystery of faith.
I have on the screen our cover image from today If you're listening along, I invite you to look it up. It is an icon known as the Trinity by Rublev, one of the greatest iconographers, a Russian in the 15th century. It's also known as “the Hospitality of Abraham?. because what Rublev did to depict and convey an understanding of God as Trinity - as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was turned to the story in Genesis 18, of Abraham expressing hospitality to visitors who announced the Sarah would be pregnant with Isaac. It's the story where Sarah laughs. Because she doesn't think it's possible. The story that challenges us to live out our faith, to recognize that God can do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine and in that story in Genesis 18, it says, very clearly, that the Abraham encountered “the Lord.” Abraham knows that he has encountered the presence of God. But what Abraham sees is three men. and he says, let us provide you with food and drink. Make three rolls of flour and provide hospitality for these men. They have this deep conversation of things of faith. Abraham is told that God will honor God's promise that the son will be born, Isaac. and then if you continue to read that story, two of the men go on to visit Lot. We may come back to where that story goes in the coming weeks, but there's a mystery here. Are they men? Are they angels? Are they God's presence himself? Throughout the Old Testament, we have that kind of dynamic mystery. I preached on Jacob wrestling where he's all alone. And he encounters a man and he wrestles with that man and he comes to understand that that man is a messenger, an angel, and they continue to wrestle all night seeking blessing and, when the light comes in the morning, Jacob understands that he has wrestled with God.
There's a mystery here of how we encounter God. We Christians believe that Jesus is fully God We Christians believe that Jesus is fully human. Those categories don't overlap – how can he be both?. Christians believe that Jesus promised us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would continue Christ's work.
How do we understand one God when we encounter the fullness of God in the son, when we encounter the fullness of God in the Holy Spirit. We read the Nice Creed, which is organized in a Trinitarian fashion with the statement about the church appended on. We believe in one God. We believe in Jesus Christ, begotten, of the same essence. We believe in the Holy Spirit, proceeding from – fully expressing God – yet one God. We believe that they are co-eternal not made. Christ is not the first creation of God, rather Christ is present as God creates. Our verse we heard, one of the voices read in the beginning when God created, a wind from God hovered over the void. In Hebrew, wind, breath, Spirit. We wrestle with how this could be.
Are we still, like our Jewish brothers and sisters, monotheist? Hear O Israel, there is one God. The lord is one! … or have we become like the Greeks and the Romans, worshipers of a pantheon, of greater and lesser gods. No, the church said, there is one God. And that God who created became flesh, fully human, still God. and that fully human man was crucified, truly died, yet lives. and in his resurrection, he promised to us the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit the prophets spoke of. the Spirit that was present at his baptism, the Spirit that cause Mary, with her consent, to bear the Holy child.
The fullness of God, encountered a Spirit, the fullness of God encountered in Jesus, the fullness of God encountered in creation, one God, and we continue to argue about this is trying to find ever more precise reading, precise language and the council of Nicea in 300 and then the Council of Constantinople in 381. They finalized that creed that we read.
That was not the end of it. We continued to fight and struggle. We continued to ostracize one another. Those who followed areas Arianism, who believed that Christ was a created being know the church said because if Christ is a created being, then his sacrifice and his resurrection don't truly cleanse us of our sin. Only God can truly forgive sin. Only God can truly offer the sacrifice. It is important that Christ is not a created being but the fullness of God. It is important that the Spirit that we follow is fully God.
And It is important that we remember that this is ultimately beyond our understanding and a mystery and too often we become rigid in our understanding and if you didn't pronounce your understanding of the creed in exactly the right cadence and exactly the right understanding. you were ostracized and punished and excluded and dare I say crucified. We became the very thing that we had hated We humans want certainty.
We want to know that we are in and the easiest way to know that we are in is to define who is out. Christ shows us another way. God shows us another way. God shows us a way of compassion, of healing, of wholeness. It's not that the boundaries don't matter. Yes, those who are ill should be set outside the camp so that they don't infect others. Yes, purity rituals are important. We should bring our best to God and yet when those lines become too rigid, when we assign other people our sin, our uncleanliness. When we refuse to let others in, We distort the holiness of the community just as much as any other impurity would.
We are called to be like Christ. We are called to be compassionate, to suffer with, to take on, not to set heavy burdens on others, but to bear her cross, and to help those who suffer. We are called to be like Christ, to have the mind of Christ Two of the most profound moments in my journey. Not long after I became an active member at University UMC Started finding a place where I could ask my questions, be taken seriously, and find answers that led to more questions and deeper faith. When I started being able to express what had happened in my life through a lens of grace and healing, and wholeness, Reverend Gayla Raff asked my Sunday school class as a question. She said, what do you believe about Jesus? And we gave some standard answers. Some of us quoted creed. Some of us quoted Scripture. She said, no, no, no. What do you believe about Jesus? Don't just parrot back things you've heard or been taught or read – go deep. What do you believe? What do you give your heart to? Which is the root word of the Latin word we translate as believe What do you love about Jesus?
I took that question seriously and I went home and over a couple of weeks, I started writing up everything that I believed about Jesus. Bits and pieces from my childhood and from Scripture and from the creeds and from my own questions and I wrote it all down. It turned into like a seven or eight-page document and I'm sitting there with it and I realized that it didn't all fit together. If I took this very seriously and fully, then, this didn't seem to fit. and I went deeper into Wesleyan theology. One of the things I love about how John Wesley approached theology. is it's not about either war, it's about both/and. It's often about holding in tension, things that are apparently opposites, yet both true. Recognizing that we encounter in God a mystery that we cannot fully explain, but that we are called to engage with in Scripture, in tradition, in our own experience, and with the reason that God gave us but we're not called to become fundamentalist about it, to become absolute about it, to say, my understanding is better than your understanding or even that your understanding is therefore evil.
To wrestle like Jacob did with ideas, these understandings, these claims. God is all powerful and yet God doesn't arbitrarily change outcomes. God is omnipresence but sometimes I feel so alone… to wrestle with what it means to be created in the image of God, to be surrounded by God's grace that calls us and equips us and sends us and yet have free will… to be able to say no. Even to be able to hide from God. In the midst of the church sometimes… really the easiest place to hide from God. When you're going through the motions and looking to everyone else like you're religious but you're not taking it very seriously or going very deep. I did that for a long time.
Another of the really crucial moments on my journey was earlier than that was in college. I've talked a little bit about my journey and how I was approaching faith trying to condemn my father. I was looking for absolutes. I wanted something concrete. The day my best friend invited me to go to catechism with him, I had expressed exactly that. I just want some answers. I want something concrete. He picked up a piece of verb, a broken piece of curb and said “like this?” I said, yeah… but I took it too far. I got absolute. I got about punishing other people with my right answers… and I also wrestled with those right answers that I had questions about. About that time, I had a couple of advisers and I was really getting under their skin. I was driving them nuts. One of was an activities director at Wichita State and the other was the orientation supervisor and they had a meeting together that I didn't know about… the topic was what to do about Christopher because I was really driving them nuts. I was apparently worth having on the team… but I was driving them nuts. They had this meeting and they don't remember which one of them said this… which I think is the sign of the best, deepest conversations, but they both me down and told me that they had decided what the problem was. “The problem with Christopher,” they said, “is that you not only have to agree with him, you have to agree with him for his reasons.” It hurt to hear. That was hard… and they were right.
I was trying to cover over my own questions with a projected certainty and if you didn't share that, you were condemned. Their words were so helpful… even as they were challenging. What I did was back away from that. But initially backed away from church altogether… since my answers weren't right, there weren't any right answers, none of it mattered. Obviously, I continued to struggle. I continued to wrestle. I continued to read church history. It's fascinating I met Robin. We got married. She had grown up in the Federated Church - Methodist and Presbyterians cooperating in Erie, Kansas. She invited me to church and I started going. I just kind of went through the motions. I didn't take it very seriously. I drifted away again and then years later, my five-year-old son asks if he can go to Sunday school. Yes, of course.
We wound up at University UMC and I was home. I had matured enough to hold in tension these different understandings, to be curious, to advocate a faith without making it concrete. To begin to understand, and more importantly, to share God's grace. Where do we get this understanding of a certain faith, of an assurance of faith that's not dogmatic, that's rooted in the mystery of the Trinity, not a certainty, certainty to be imposed on others. but a mystery.
Well, we start with Scripture. We heard a variety of verses that proclaim God as one that proclaimed Jesus as fully God, that proclaimed the Holy Spirit as fully God. A wind from God, hovering over the void. From chaos, God created an order. God creates light. Day and night And it is good - morning and evening the first day. It's not absolute poles. The light and the darkness are poles. They are opposites but they are part of a created whole and the places in between the twilight, the dawn - they're holy too.
This is an icon on the wall of the Orthodox Cathedral in Wichita. I've only ever seen this icon there. It is a depiction of the creation of a’dam. The first human from Genesis 2. You probably know the story. The face of the earth has not yet been watered. There are no plants. God gathers the dust and God forms a’dam. The first man and God breathes into a’dam and Adam becomes a living being. Last week, I preached about abortion. Our Jewish brothers and sisters defined the beginning of life as the first breath. They have a point. Until we breathe, we are not truly alive. When we stop breathing, as we know all too well from some of our friends here at First. We are no longer alive. In our nation’s abortion debate we've started centering on heartbeat, that's also important. If we don't have a heartbeat, we're not alive. If we don't have brain function, we're not alive. We need mind and heart and breath to be fully alive. When we become too dogmatic about any one of these things, we become harmful. When does an electrical pulse become a heartbeat? As an aside, If that becomes our legal standard, we're going to cease the ability to do organ donations. Because for most organ donations, the heart still needs to be beating or stopped only a moment. So, we generally take organ donations from those who are declared brain dead. We do so with their permission in advance directives and with the permission of their family. If we get too rigid about this as a standard of live, we'll never have another heart transplant. After all if the standard is a beating heart is life. but we also don't want to go too far the other direction, do we? When does life begin? When does life end? Scripture has multiple answers for us. Our bodies have multiple answers for us. It's not yes / no, it's not a clean, neat division, it's mystery. We're supposed to wrestle with it, I think.
Moses encounters the fullness of God in the burning bush. God doesn't overwhelm Moses. God sets to the side. Moses notices and draws closer. Take off your shoes, you are on holy ground. Who are you, Lord? I'm the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Who do I say sent me?
God doesn't give a noun. God doesn't give a definition. God gives a verb, an experience. I Am what I Am. I will be what I will be. An active God, a relational God, not distant, but present, unchanging and yet involved in the creation that is changing. I Am!
In the New Testament, Jesus over and over again uses that phrase, I Am. It's intentional. It's intentionally provocative. I Am the bread of life. I Am the way, the truth, the life. I Am the gate. I Am the good shepherd. I Am the living water. I Am. The fullness of God encountered in flesh. the fullness of God sacrificed by religious certainty, by violence and control. The fullness of God taking on the brokenness, sin and suffering of humanity and redeeming it. Taking an instrument of torture, the cross, and making it a symbol of hope that we wear our necklaces around our necks. We put up in our sanctuaries to proclaim the goodness of God.
I will pour out my Spirit In the Old Testament, in the New Testament, God promises the Holy Spirit that that Spirit will be poured out on us - on old and young, on male, and female the very Spirit that descends on Jesus as his baptism, the very Spirit that was present at the beginning of creation. God in three persons.
God beyond time and space. and yet present with us in the midst of creation. Intimately in relationship with us. Us, created in God's image. God abiding, dwelling with us. The literal reading of the Hebrew is to cast one's tent among the tribes. God who creates light, God who is light. and yes, in the creation story, if you ever notice on the first day, God creates light. On the fourth day, God creates the sun and the moon. When we think of light, we tend to think of the sun, but God's light is beyond the created universe. Yet, God is with us. Jesus is the light of the world. In recent weeks, we have had the privilege of seeing images from the new Webb space telescope. With a deeper depth of range and even clearer focus than Hubble has had. We continue to explore creation. We begin continue to see how small this tiny blue dot that we live on. On one edge of the galaxy known as the Milky Way, orbiting around a fairly minor star even within that galaxy. We can see billions and billions of galaxies. Each different from the next. The light that the Webb telescope is looking at, scientists estimate comes to us from 13. 5 billion years ago. Our fundamentalist brothers and sisters look at the Bible and they add up the ages of the patriarchs and they say, the creation can't be any older than… I don't I don't remember the number exactly. It's like 6,400 years old and they take that seriously, they must because it's in Scripture, right? The Bible says… So, it must be true and we have to take that literally which means fossils are a test. We can't believe when science tells us they're older… so clearly they're a trick of the devil. We United Methodist don’t believe that approach. When we become too absolute about things, we have to start denying what our own reason tells us.
What is light? What does it mean to observe a distant galaxy from before the time humans began to walk on this earth? What is it to believe in a God who lovingly creates us and forms us and knits us together in the midst of this kind of vast diversity? In a creation where we have yet to encounter any life like us at all. Does that mean we're alone? Does that mean are others. I don't know and I don't think it's all that important
But let's talk about light for a minute. We know scientifically, we can prove that light is a particle. Particles move in straight lines. The easiest proof of that, Newton elaborated this. We noted intuitively before that. When you shine a light and it encounters an object, it casts a shadow. That’s proof of our understanding of light as linear, as particle. It casts a shadow. We can prove it and yet… we can also easily prove that light refracts – that means light acts as a wave. The easiest proof is refraction. If you stick a straw on a clear drink, it looks like it's broken. Even though we know it's not broken but boy, it looks like it's broken. That's light acting as a wave. Waves are one thing. Particles are another thing. They are not the same thing. They have different properties. They can be manipulated and used in different ways.
And yet light is demonstrably both things.
And the best science can do is the same thing that John Wesley did theologically. We just say it's both/and. It has all the properties of a particle and we know what a particle is and it we can prove these things. It has all the properties of a wave. We know what a wave is. We can prove these things. It's just both. We don't understand it fully? Is it a particle? Is it both? Our understanding of God is somewhat like that.
All analogies ultimately fall short. Saint Patrick famously tried to teach the natives of Ireland about the Trinity using the shamrock and it's a decent illustration as far as it goes but we fall into a trap of certainty and we make it about parts and we try to be too certain how the parts of God are different. That's a heresy. God is one. No “parts”
Some people use an apple, the skin, and the flesh and the core… but again, we fall into parts or an egg. Three parts that make one… but that's not ultimately a good understanding of the Trinity. My own favorite illustration is water – but first we must remember to recognize that it is an illustration and a metaphor that falls short and the second to recognize that this illustration often falls guilty of the hersey of modalism - which was a heresy in the early church that said that God changed from one to another. No, the early church said - God is unchanging. God is eternal. God is not sometimes this and sometimes that - God is eternally God…
and yet we encounter the fullness of God in Father, in the Son, in the Holy Spirit. God is beyond time and space yet we encounter God in our times and places.
So – my favorie illustration is water. Just as we encounter water in different ways. The difference is not to focus on what we do - we can take one small amount of water and we can heat it and make it a vapor or we can chill it and make it ice and we focus on the change and our part in it. That's not what this illustration is about.
This illustration is about the chemical formula H2O. When we encounter two hydrogen molecules bonded with an oxygen molecule, we know we have water. It doesn't matter what state it's in. We have water. It could be a liquid, it could be a solid as ice, it could be a vapor, a gas. but it is water. The important thing is not the way that we encounter it. It's that we know H2O.
God in God's fullness is beyond our understanding, but we encounter the fullness of God. We encounter that fullness in the creator, in the person of Jesus, the Christ, and the person of the Holy Spirit, all of whom are co-eternal, all of whom are ONe. God says, let there be light. The thought, the voice are God - not parts - one created whole, one uncreated whole.
It's so easy to do what I just did and misstate yourself. The councils began to try and be ever more precise. and we became ever more exclusionary… if you had one word off you’re out.
We missed the point. It's not that the differences in understanding is unimportant. As I said earlier, if we hold that Jesus is a created being, then the fullness of his salvation work is incomplete. It matters what we believe.. and yet when we become too dogmatic about it, when it becomes more about what we believe and how we say it than how we live it out, we've ceased to be Christlike. We do have to be particular. We have to follow our particular path. We have to work within the limitations of our time and space. Recognizing that we follow one who is beyond time and space. and one who intentionally creates us… who charges us to be like Christ, to have the mind of Christ.
When are we ever done learning and growing? If that is our task, if we are created in the image of God, male and female, in the image of God, and we are to be like Christ, when are we done? We're never done. One of the things that draws me closest to Wesleyan theology is Wesley mused about heaven. not as angels with harps eternally singing but as a great library with all of the knowledge of God that we could continue to explore and grow. I love reading and asking questions. Now, I had a seminary friend who was an accomplished harp player. We came to an agreement. When we get to heaven, I will open the library window and read all the things while she plays the harp forever without blisters. It'll be glorious. ….It'll be nothing like that at all.
We're incapable fully understanding the fullness of God and yet, we have to use language and metaphors to express it It's only when we become too dogmatic and say, if you don't understand Ice exactly the same reason as I do, for my reasons, when we become unbearable, we become unchristian. We want to put things as boxes and those boxes are in fact in fact important.
That's how we categorize and reason but when our faith comes about our box to the exclusion of anyone else's, we miss the point. Over and over, God tells us I don't fit in your box. I am greater than you can understand and yet I am with you. I express myself not in nouns but as a verb. I express myself not in one answer but in relationship, in an eternal dance.
Wesley believe that the living core of Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, confirmed by reason, and made real and vital and personal experience. We encounter the trinity in Scripture, in tradition, certainly in experience, and in reason, and in reason that knows its limits, not an absolutes, but in mystery. Faith is not a means to something further, it is, it's not something we do in order to get to heaven. Faith is its own end. To have faith is to already have come alive. That is a Wesleyan faith. One that calls us to live out here and now rather than trying to control others answers or experiences. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.