Sunday, June 15, 2014

Experiencing God the Trinity (a sermon for June 15th, Trinity Sunday)

Today in the church year is Trinity Sunday, and preachers all around the world – those who follow the lectionary, that is – will be scrambling to try to explain the unexplainable to their congregations. Some people will bring out St. Patrick’s shamrock with its three leaves; some people will point out that H2O can be ice, water, and steam, all of which are still H2O. Some people will refer to the ancient Christian creed called the ‘Creed of St. Athanasius’, which tries to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. At one point it uses the phrase ‘The Father incomprehensible; the Son incomprehensible; the Holy Spirit incomprehensible’. Many Christians have been tempted to add ‘The whole thing incomprehensible!’

I believe in the Trinity, and it’s part of the official doctrine of the Anglican Church. To me, it’s an attempt to make sense of what the Bible teaches us about God, about Jesus, and about the Holy Spirit. But I also believe that when we’re talking about God, we need a large dose of humility. We’re tiny human beings living on a tiny planet in God’s enormous creation; it’s not surprising if the Creator of the universe sometimes seems a little hard to understand! The Bible talks about the glory of God, and glory is often illustrated by light. To me, contemplating the glory of God is a little like trying to look at the sun with the naked eye. And that’s why I think we should be wary of attempts to define the Trinity too precisely; after all, we’re screwing up our eyes to avoid being blinded by the light of God’s glory, so it’s not surprising if we can’t always see too well.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the last verse of our epistle for today, from 2 Corinthians. This is the closing greeting of the letter. Listen to what Paul says:

‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all’ (2 Corinthians 13:13).

Paul is describing the Trinity here in terms of our experience of God. He’s not giving us an intellectual exercise; he’s inviting us into a deeper daily walk with God. For each of the three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – he’s identifying what you might call a defining characteristic of the way we experience them. The three characteristics are ‘grace’, ‘love’, and ‘koinonia’, a Greek word that’s hard to put into English; we might try ‘communion’ or ‘fellowship’ or ‘participation’ or ‘sharing together’. Let’s think of these three defining characteristics, and our experience of them.

First, Paul talks about ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ’. I once read that at a British conference on comparative religions, experts were debating what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. The conversation went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s all the fuss about?” he asked. When he heard that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution to world religion, he replied, “That’s easy – grace”.

What is ‘grace’? Nowadays we tend to use it in the sense of ‘gracefulness’ – we might say that a dancer moves gracefully, or that a person has a very graceful way of speaking. But in the Bible it has a different meaning: it means unconditional love, love that you don’t have to earn; it comes to you as a gift, because God is love. It’s called ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’, because the life of Jesus illustrates it so powerfully.

You may remember that one day some Jewish leaders brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery. They pointed out to Jesus that the law required that someone caught in the act of adultery be stoned to death, and asked him what they ought to do. Jesus simply replied, “Let the one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. One by one they slipped away, the oldest first. When they were all gone, Jesus looked at her and asked, “Where are your accusers? Is no one left to condemn you?” She replied “No-one”. He said, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go – and sin no more” (see John 8:1-11). That’s grace, you see, and that was the sort of thing Jesus did all the time; it was a defining characteristic of his life.

We see the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ most powerfully in the story of the cross. We think of the pain of betrayal, the injustice of an unfair trial, the agony of crucifixion. We can imagine how easy it would be in a situation like that to scream with rage against your torturers. But Jesus doesn’t; he prays “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The one who taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who hated them actually put his own teaching into practice. That’s what grace looks like.

Grace means that instead of waiting for us to shape up, God takes the initiative, loves us as we are, and walks beside us to help us change. As Philip Yancey expresses it, grace means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less. God already loves you infinitely, and he always will. That’s what God is like.

Secondly, Paul talks about ‘the love of God’. I find it interesting that Paul doesn’t follow the order we might expect: the love of God, the grace of Christ, the communion of the Holy Spirit. He puts the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ first. Why? I think it’s because we Christians come to experience God as Father through Jesus. It’s Jesus who brings us into a living relationship with the Father. ‘Father’ was the distinctive name that Jesus used for God, and the name he invited us to use as well.

Interestingly enough, when Jesus talks to his disciples in the Gospels about ‘your heavenly Father’, it’s often in the context of God providing for their needs. For instance, in Matthew 6:6-7 he says,
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him”.

The idea is that God is a good Father who knows the needs of his children and will provide for them. He provides for them by setting the world up in such a way that, if we use its resources wisely and justly, it will give us the necessities of life. And he also promises to hear the prayers of his children and give them their legitimate needs.

The problem, of course, is that God and I are not always agreed on what constitutes a legitimate need! I suspect that when God balances the need to bring an end to child poverty around the world against my perceived need for a vacation in Florida, child poverty might be slightly higher on his priority list! And of course no good father gives his children everything they ask for! What if your twelve year old comes asking for the keys to your car? But try explaining to them that your refusal is for their own good!

So our wise and loving God has promised to provide for our legitimate needs. How do we tap into this resource? Jesus gives us the answer in Matthew 6:33:
“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”.

Paradoxically, our needs are met when we focus our life on something higher than our own needs – on God and his kingdom. We’re told to make God’s kingdom the core value of our lives, which means working to implement his will in our personal lives, in our homes and families, in our communities, our country and the world. When we lay down our worries and put God’s concerns first in this way, he promises to look after us.

Let me tell you a story about this. Andrew van der Bijl was a Dutchman who travelled to Scotland to go to Bible College in the 1950’s. He had almost no money and had many experiences of God providing for him when he was at the end of his resources. One day when he had no money left at all, a beggar knocked on his door and asked for help. The beggar was not a stranger to him; he was someone Andrew had helped in the past. As they were talking at his doorstep, Andrew looked down and saw a coin on the ground at his feet. Then began the struggle; he wanted that coin for his own needs! But eventually the voice of conscience won out; he stooped down, picked up the coin, gave it to the beggar and sent him away. Later that morning the mail came, and in it there was a cheque from a friend, which was more than enough to cover Andrew’s needs for the next few weeks! You can read this story and many others like it in Brother Andrew’s book God’s Smuggler.

So this is what God is like, and this is how we experience God. We come to God as broken people, as sinners needing forgiveness. We might expect a holy God to turn us away, but he doesn’t; he forgives us and accepts us and pours out his grace on us. This is what we mean by ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ’, the friend of sinners. And then there is the love of God, the good father who provides for the legitimate needs of his children and challenges us to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Mind you, I sometimes think most of us in Canada are too well off to be able to experience that part of God’s character! Those who hardly have a penny to call their own, like Brother Andrew in the story I told you, have no option but to trust in God, and they tend to be the ones who tell the amazing stories of God’s provision for them.

The third thing Paul talks about is ‘the communion of the Holy Spirit’, or, in the more familiar translation, ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. What’s this all about?

The Greek word ‘koinonia’ means ‘sharing together in something’ or ‘having something in common’. I belong to the folk music community in Edmonton, which is made up of many different kinds of people – rich and poor, young and old, liberal and conservative, people born in Canada and immigrants like me. We’re a very diverse group, but we have ‘koinonia’ with one another because we all love folk music. The thing that we have in common is so important to us that it can help us get past our diversity and shape us into a real community.

So what is the ‘communion’ of ‘fellowship’ or ‘sharing together in’ the Holy Spirit. I think there are two things here we might like to think about.

First, the gift of the Holy Spirit enables us to share in the life of God. In John’s Gospel Jesus often uses the language of being ‘in’ someone; he talks about the Father being in the Son, and the Son being in the Father, and he also talks about the Holy Spirit being ‘in’ us. This is obviously describing a deep sense of connection that we have with God. The Holy Spirit is God, and the Holy Spirit makes his home in us and in all who believe in Jesus. And so, in a sense, we are caught up in the life of God; the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, the Holy Spirit is the love they share together, and God puts that love in us so that we too experience the love of God by the Holy Spirit.

As we saw last week on the Day of Pentecost, the New Testament believers experienced a ‘baptism’ in the Holy Spirit – not a water baptism, but an immersion in the power and love of the Holy Spirit, something that transformed them and gave them the power to be witnesses for Christ. This isn’t just a one-off thing; it’s something we’re called to grow in every day. “Go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit”, says Paul in Ephesians 5:18. And so we pray each day that he will fill us, and then we walk through our day intentionally trying to keep in step with him.

So the Spirit lives in us and fills us and helps us to share in the life and love of God. But the Holy Spirit also creates a human fellowship, a community of people who all share in the gift of the Spirit. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13:
‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’.

This is the thing we have in common, you see – that deep down in our hearts, God is alive in us by his Holy Spirit. So when I look at you, I don’t only see a human being: I see a human being who is a temple of the Holy Spirit. We may have different jobs and different backgrounds and different opinions, but at the deepest level of our lives, we’re one with each other, because the one Spirit lives in all of us and draws us together.

And of course, that can’t be just a nice idea or a feeling; it has to be earthed in real practice as well. How do we preserve the unity of the Holy Spirit? The book of Acts tells stories of how the early Christians did it. Those who were well off sold their excess houses and lands and brought them to the apostles, and the apostles distributed them to the poor and needy.

What would that look like for us today? Imagine if the world saw a Christian church where those who were better off sold their vacation properties or their huge houses, embraced a simpler lifestyle, and gave the money to the church – not to build a bigger building or hire more staff, but to share with members of the congregation who were poor? That’s what the early Christians did, and that’s why so many people were attracted to their community. They saw that the fellowship of the Holy Spirit wasn’t just an idea; it was a concrete reality and it led to practical actions of love and care for one another. All of which, of course, shows the world what God is like.

Let’s go round this one last time. Trinity Sunday is reminding us of what the Gospel is, and what the Gospel calls us to. The Gospel is all about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ: God loves us infinitely and unconditionally, forgiving us and restoring us to fellowship with him. The Gospel is all about the love of God, the one Jesus called ‘Father’, the one who provides for his children, the one who assures us that if we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, the things we need will be provided for us. And the Gospel is all about sharing in the Holy Spirit, so that God himself comes and lives in us and draws us into a real community of love – love that isn’t just an idea, but a practical reality, shown by the way we care for one another, and share with each other, and provide for each other’s needs.

This is what God is like. This is what the Gospel is all about, and so, brothers and sisters, may ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all’! Amen.

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