26 May 2013

Love Poured Forth

Andrei Rublev's "Trinity" icon, 15th century.
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 & Romans 5:1-5

Trinity Sunday, 26th May 2013

According to the liturgical calendar, today is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost.  It’s the Sunday we lift up the Triune nature of God:  One in Three and Three in One. If you want to see eyes glaze over fast, spark a conversation on the Trinity.  If you want to see a congregation quickly doze off during a sermon, try preaching on the Trinity. 

 I don’t mean to be flip about it, just honest.  This central doctrine of orthodox Christianity is a tough one to wrap our heads around.  Logic and reason make certain demands.  How can one be three?  How can three be one?  One substance, three persons or manifestations of the one:  Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  Mathematically it doesn’t all add up. Maybe the problem is math itself, using numbers to characterize the Living God.  Such reflections can be abstract, cold, calculating.  And let me tell you, the theological literature on the Trinity is pretty abstract and, at times, cold and calculating, and depending upon the theologian, pretty boring.

            Yet, the doctrine is central to Christian orthodoxy.  It’s one’s the theological claims that sets us apart from other world religions.  And other religions look at us with great puzzlement, as a result.  Take Islam, for example.  Early on Muslims and Christians actually worshipped in the same buildings.  It was difficult to tell Muslims apart from Christians. There are many affinities between Islam and Christianity and Islam itself has great respect for Jesus and his followers. But when it comes to the Trinity, from their perspective it looks like we are polytheists, that we have three Gods, not one God, such as Allah.  Allah is one. God must be one.  How does one have three in one and three in one?

            It’s tough for them to understand.  It’s tough for us to understand.  I know many Christians who overlook this aspect of the faith and don’t affirm every article in either the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds (or they recite the creed with their fingers crossed). When these creeds were written, for example, the church was wrestling long and hard over the theological question of the Trinity.  It wasn’t abstract for them.  It was real and critical.  The church expended a lot of emotional energy and considerable intellectual acumen in the hope of getting this right.  It’s difficult for us make sense of this.  Some Christians give the Trinity lip service, but, to be honest, this image of God is not all that important for them.  Many Christians are really more Binatarian in their thinking – focusing on God and Jesus, not sure what to do with the Spirit.  Other Christians are Unitarians – it’s all about God, Jesus wasn’t divine and the Spirit is not a separate entity of the Godhead.  Unitarians, however, are not really considered orthodox by a majority of the Church. It’s a subject for debate and disagreement.  There was a time when Unitarians were refused admittance to Princeton Theological Seminary.  One of my friends at Rutgers College was denied admittance to Princeton Seminary because he was a Unitarian.  He went to Yale Divinity School instead.

            So, can you see why preaching on the Trinity is problematic?  And there’s another reason.  The word Trinity is never found in the New Testament.  It’s not there.  We have Trinitarian formulas, as in Paul’s benedictions.  But there’s no reference to the Triune God.  That comes centuries later.  The first of the early church fathers to use the word "Trinity" was probably Theophilus of Antioch (d.183-185) writing in the late 2nd century. He defines the Trinity as God, His Word (Logos) and His Wisdom (Sophia), and refers to the Trinity in a discussion of the first three days of creation.  The Word (or Logos) was with God at the beginning, according to John’s Gospel (John 1:1-5).  And so was God’s Wisdom or Sophia.  We heard echoes of this in the reading of Proverbs 8, with reference to Divine Sophia whom God calls forth in the creation of the world.

Beyond Paul’s benedictions we have texts like Romans 5, especially verses 1-5.  While we don’t have a systematic definition of the Trinity here, which comes centuries later, all three persons of the Trinity are featured here.  And what we find here in the text, I think, paints for us unique and distinctive image of God.  It’s the one thing I want to lift us here.

Look closely at the text:  We are justified by faith – justified meaning declared righteous, meaning forgiven, cleansed by God, made one with God.  And it’s done; it’s already achieved through Christ.  We are justified, therefore “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”    Peace with God.  And we have more than peace.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ we have gained accessed to something.  We have obtained access to God’s grace, “in which we stand.”  We stand in grace, through Jesus Christ.  Not only do we have peace and grace, we are given a promise: the hope of sharing in the glory of God.   All this is true because we are now with God through Christ.  We stand with Christ before God. 

            And because of this, other things are granted to us, especially to those who suffer:  suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.  The follower of Jesus is able to move through sufferings because she knows that she’s not alone, that we stand in God’s grace, at peace with God.  There’s a kind of spatial dimension to Paul’s message here.  We live in this knowledge that saves.  And such knowledge yields hopes.

            And hope does not disappoint us—why?—“because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

            And there you have all three: God, Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit.  God at work through Jesus Christ offering something to us.  Jesus Christ sharing in the glory of God that is offered and promised to us.  We, standing in grace, surrounded – by God, in three manifestations, yet related.  The use of the word “related” is very intentional here because this is the one thing I really want to lift up today.   Because essentially what we are given here is an understanding, an image of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit relating and working for one another, serving one another, relating to us, and working for us and even serving us.  What we’re being offered here is an image of God as essentially a relationship. God is a Divine Relationship, literally a Holy Communion, a Holy Community of persons in relation, persons motivated by love.  It’s love that pulls them together.  It’s love that defines them.  And it’s love that is being poured forth from them, through the Holy Spirit, to us.   God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  This implies, therefore, that through this love we too are part of the Divine Relationship, we get to partake of the Holy Community, we get to share in Holy Communion.  We exist in that relationship.  When we pray, when we worship, when we share in the sacraments, when we love, even when we suffer, the love of God is pouring through us and we discover the power and the beauty of the simple word “with,” we are doing all of this with God.

            Many theological works on the Trinity are cold, obtuse, and technical, which is a shame, really.  The Trinity is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be celebrated and encountered. Our analytic minds have reduced the mystery into a puzzle to be solved, we’ve dissected it and torn it apart instead of celebrating and embracing the mystery.   And what are we celebrating?  “We have a God who is relational - who expresses a dynamic living pattern of relationship. And - WE are made in this image! WE are made relational. WE are made to be a dynamic living caring pattern of relationship with others and with All.”[1] And it’s only through our ongoing encounter and relationship with God does the mystery take on life and relevance.

            There was one theologian, however, who wrote a magisterial work on the Trinity that was different.  It was Augustine (354-430) and the title of his book, simply, was The Trinity (De Trinitate).  It was written while the battles over the nature of God were still raging around the Roman world.    It’s a long and complicated book.  It was his contribution to the debate.  He had some ideas to share, but he also knew his limitations and approached the subject with great humility.  He wrote:  “Dear reader, whenever you are as certain about something as I am go forward with me; whenever you hesitate, seek with me; whenever you discover that you have gone wrong come back to me; or if I have gone wrong, call me back to you.  In this way we will travel along the street of love together as we make our way toward him of whom it is said, ‘Seek his face always.’”[2]  Wise counsel for every Christian in every age.

            That phrase –Seek his face always—is a quote from Psalm 105.  Augustine cites this psalm at the beginning of his work on the Trinity.  He cites it again half way through, with a special accent on always.  He quotes it a third time toward the end, this time in full:  “Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice; seek the Lord and be strengthened; seek his face always” (Psalm 105:-34).  And then he cites it a fourth time in the concluding prayer, this time adding passion, urging the reader:  “Seek his face always with burning desire.”[3] 

            What it’s striking here in this demanding theological text is that Augustine is not interested in intellectual acrobatics, great feats of technical theological engagement.  This is not a cerebral, academic exercise for him.  He’s seeking understanding, but also something more.  Augustine is not looking for a theological concept or an explanation of the Trinity.  He’s searching for the living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Most of al, it’s a desire of the heart. It’s a desire to participate in and live in and with the living God, to enter the relationship.  It’s love that drives him forward.  It’s love that draws him searching toward the Trinity. 

            And “Finding means more than simply getting things straight or discovering the most appropriate analogy in human experience for the Triune God.  There can be no finding without a change in the seeker.  Our minds, Augustine says, must be purified, and we must be made fit and capable of receiving what is sought.  We can cleave to God and see the Holy Trinity only when we burn with love.”[4]

            And if Paul is right – and I trust that he is – God is already at work in us preparing our hearts and minds.  Love is being poured out through the Spirit all the time, right now: a love that draws us into the Divine Relationship, into Communion, into a relationship, a space, a place where we know grace and peace.   When we are alive in that relationship, when we view God relationally, when we see the world relationally, then love pours forth into our hearts and into “the street of love” and into the hearts of the people we love and have difficulty loving. The Trinity is relational and relevant and personal.  There’s nothing abstract about any of this.  The images we have of God and the images that have us make all the difference in the world.



[1] The words of Alexander Shai, founder of Quadratos:  www.quadratos.com.  On relationality and the Christian experience, see also Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter & Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011).
[2] Augustine, The Trinity 1.3.5., cited in Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2003), 37.
[3] Wilken, 106.
[4] A summary of Augustine, The Trinity, 9.1; 1.1.3; 8.4.6, in Wilken, 108.

19 May 2013

The Wide Space


Valles Caldera, near Los Alamos, New Mexico

John 14: 8-17(18), 25-27

Pentecost/ 19th May 2013

In John’s Gospel we’re missing all the things often associated with Pentecost:  an upper room, locked doors, frightened disciples, rushing wind, tongues of fire, preaching in different tongues.  All the dramatic events of Luke’s account of Pentecost, found in Acts, are missing in John.  They’re not there.  Nothing.  John was probably written around 90 AD, so well after what Luke described in Acts.  There are some scholars who suspect that John was written as early at 70AD.  Even still, John must have known about Luke’s story, he must have heard what happened in Jerusalem.

            Instead, in John we have Jesus breathing on his disciples on the day of resurrection, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). For John, there’s a strong connection between resurrection and the coming of the Spirit.  That’s John’s version of Pentecost.  A breath.  And what a breath it is.  The breath of Jesus breathed into his disciples.  Breath, meaning life, is breathed into the life of the disciple. And Christ’s breath enables a fuller unfolding of life and truth.  His breath leads us into life and truth.  That’s what the Spirit does.

            John’s account is not as colorful as Luke’s. Where John lacks in drama he makes up for in depth: what we find in John is an articulation of who the Holy Spirit is and what the Spirit does and is doing.  Jesus tells his disciples before his death that he will need to leave them, but not to worry.  In fact, he says, in John 16, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7).

            It’s in John’s Gospel that we discover the Spirit has other names:  Advocate or Helper.  Paraclete, in Greek, meaning the one who is beside you, the one who is at your side, and on your side, who helps you.  That’s who the Spirit is.  The Spirit is companion, “God with us,” who serves the mission of Christ.  The Spirit enables our capacity to follow Christ, who gives us the power to really love and suffer with and for one another, like Christ; it’s the Spirit who empowers us to do the things that Jesus did and then some, and it’s the Spirit who reveals to us the truth we need to hear, who allows for the expansion of our world and our sense of self.

            Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John14:12).  Did you hear that? Empowered and equipped to do greater works than Jesus. 

            Two chapters later, Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;… [for] all that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12-13a, 15).  And did you hear that?  We can’t assume that we have Jesus and his message and even God all figured out.  We can’t assume that we know it all, because we know very little.  We can’t assume that because we’ve heard the stories and went through church school and have attended worship all of our lives that we know all about Jesus, that we understand what Jesus is teaching us and trying to do through us.  Because, as Jesus makes very clear here, we’re all still learning, we’re all still in discipleship school, we’re all growing – should be growing – and there are things still to learn and discover about the truth.  There are things that we cannot bear at the moment, things we cannot understand, and things that don’t make sense, but will in time.  There are aspects of God’s grace we cannot know at the moment.  We’re not ready.  Either because we’re not wise enough or experienced enough or we haven’t lived enough or even suffered enough, but, through the work of the Spirit, in time we will know. 

            The Spirit in John is essentially a teacher, like Jesus himself. What is true for the best teachers is true of the Spirit:  a good teacher reveals the truth. Right?  A good teacher accommodates what is taught to our level of learning and experience.  Right?  But, more than anything else, a good teacher desires that we grow, desires our education in order to move us from one place to another place, from one grade to the next, from one way of viewing the world to a more expansive vision of world and our sense of self within the world. A good teacher opens the world to us.

            What I love about John’s description of the Spirit here is the way he lifts up this notion that to be a follower of Jesus means that we are always learning, always being schooled.  And it’s dynamic.  The Spirit doesn’t make us omniscient or know-it-alls.  By truth John doesn’t mean concepts or ideas or opinions.  “The Spirit is a Spirit of truth, [and] it’s the truth, Jesus said, that makes us free (John 8:32).”[1] What Jesus is talking about here is how we see the world, and order reality, how we make sense of things and the meaning of our lives in the world.  This is truth.  We never have it, but are always on our way toward it, and he is the way (John 14:6). We’re always developing, evolving, changing, growing, opening ourselves up to the new things Jesus is teaching us, showing us.  The poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) captures this beautifully when he said:

            We must be still and still moving
            Into another intensity
            For a further union, a deeper communion.[2]

To walk with Jesus means, well, walking, it means moving.  He graciously takes us each by the hand and leads us to where we need to go.  And we all have places to go. There’s no room for stasis, according to Jesus, for remaining in one place in the life of faith. There’s still more to learn, more to discover, more people to love.  Truth itself is “journeying,” like a pilgrim.[3] 

            Before our Calvinist pilgrim forebears, the Puritans, left the Netherlands, seeking freedom in New England, before the sailing of the Speedwell, their pastor, John Robinson (1576-1625) preached a sending sermon in which he said, “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.” That’s what it means to be open to the movement of the Spirit.

            David Benner is a psychologist who is writing a lot these days about spiritual growth.  In one of his books on the Christian journey being essentially about personal transformation, he insists:  “At all times the Spirit is inviting us to be more than we are.”  “At all times the Spirit is inviting us to be more than we are by calling our attention to that which lies beyond the boundary of our present sense of self.”[4]  We don’t have to ask the Spirit to be this way; the Spirit is always self-giving in this way.  What we’re called to do is this:  breathe.  Inhale. Receive the Spirit.  Or, in other words, receive what the Spirit wants to give us.  Or, to put it a different way:  Consent!  Yield!  Say, Yes!  Be open to what the Spirit longs to show us.  It’s nothing less than “a fullhearted yes! to life, to love, to others, to the world—to that which is beyond or transcendent to our self.  By responding in these ways, we open ourselves to the possibility of becoming more than we presently are.”[5]

            We so we can say that the Spirit is expansive.  The Spirit is always at work moving us from where we are to where we need to be, from slavery to freedom, from tight, constrained places out into open, vast spaces of life.  It was theologian Jürgen Moltmann, in his book on the Spirit, who, years ago, first helped me to see this aspect of God. It’s been important to me ever since. It’s not something I learned in church school or growing up in the church or in even seminary, for that matter.  It was Moltmann who drew out the significance of this obscure verse from Job for me, in which God is understood as the one who allures us out of “distress into a broad place where there is no cramping” (Job 36:16).   We heard a similar image in the psalter reading: “…you have set my feet in a broad place” (Psalm 31:8).  The Spirit creates a space for us to live and thrive.  And we heard this reflected in the last stanza of the hymn we just sang:

            For none can guess God’s grace
            Till love creates a place
            Wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.[6]

Love creates the space. Love always creates a space. Then Moltmann ties this understanding of God to the Kabbalistic Jewish tradition, a mystical branch of Judaism, which claimed that “one of God’s secret names is MAKOM, [meaning] the wide space.”[7]  Now, I don’t know how they came up with this, how they discovered this, but it rings true; experientially it resonates with an experience of God.  For life in God’s Spirit means to exist in a wide space, a vast, broad space where there is no cramping.  That’s what I believe God intends for each of us.

Martin Laird teaches in the theology and religious studies department at Villanova University.  He’s the author of two companion volumes, short, but profound and beautiful books on contemplative prayer:  Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. (I highly recommend them both.[8])  In one book he tells a story that really spoke to me when I first read it and every time I share it with folks it has a way striking a chord in them too.  Laird recounts an encounter he had walking along open fields (presumably in England).  He always took the same route through the fields whenever he needed to clear his head.  And on his walks he often saw a man walking his four Kerry blue terriers.  “These were amazing dogs,” Laird recounts. “Bounding energy, elastic grace, and electric speed, they coursed and leapt through open fields.  It was invigorating just to watch these muscular stretches of freedom race along.”  Three of the four dogs acted this way.  The fourth, however, always stayed behind and, off to the side of its owner, and ran in tight circles.  Laird couldn’t understand why this dog did this. The dog had all the room in the world to leap and bound, but he stayed close.  One day Laird asked the owner, “Why does your dog do that? Why does it run in little circles instead of running with the others?” The man shared:  “before he acquired the dog, it had lived practically all its life in a cage and could only exercise by running in circles.  To run meant running in tight circles.”[9]

            This conversation stayed with Laird; it was a “powerful metaphor of the human condition” for him.  This is how Laird puts it:  “For indeed we are free, as the Psalmist insists, ‘My heart like a bird has escaped from the snare of the fowler’ (Ps. 123:7). But the memory of the cage remains.  And so we run in tight, little circles, even while immersed in open fields of grace and freedom.”[10]

            Even while, …the open fields of grace and freedom are there.  They’re always there, for all of us. Always have been.  Yet, how many try to put God in a box (of our own making)? How many of us stay confined in constricting, closed spaces, running in tight circles, even when we know the cage is gone?  Still, we hold back, stay close, play it safe, comfortable with confinement, reluctant to take risks, to step out.  For some the trauma of living in a cage continues to shape their lives.  Memories of the past make it difficult to venture out.  It’s tough for us to trust.  But God’s grace means that history is never destiny.

            And the good news is that the vast open fields of grace and freedom are all around us.  They’re always there, for all of us. We’re already in them.  We’re immersed in them.  The wide space, the vastness is there.  In fact, God is the vastness, an overflowing vastness.  And to exist in God is to exist in this vastness.[11] 

            And so to pray with the Church on this Pentecost—“Come, Holy Spirit! Come!”—means, in part, that we are allowing ourselves to be sent by Spirit out into the fields.  When we pray this prayer we are consenting, yielding, saying Yes!, releasing our death-grips on reality, and falling into he arms of God.  And then we trust and see where the Spirit will take us. For it’s the Spirit—with us, for us, at our side, as our helper— who summons us and calls us and lures us and entices and challenges us to step out, to run, live, risk, grow, expand, breathe, journey for the sake of the Risen Christ toward the truth, into the abundant life that’s already there in him. It’s the Spirit who calls us into the very life of God, to move and live and grow in him.  That’s Pentecost.  That’s what it means to be set on fire, with Holy Fire.  Not once, but now and always. Forever and ever. Alleluia! Alleluia!  Amen.




[1] Raimon Pannikkar, Christophany:  The Fullness of Man (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2011), 123.
[2] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets
[3] This is Pannikkar’s idea, truth understood as as “journeying” (123).  It’s reflected in one of the epigraphs in Christophany:  Ad lucem hoc in saeculo peregrinatibus qui sperant se ambulatores ess in luce.  “Dedicated toward those traveling toward the light in our time in the hope that they may be walking in the light.”
[4] David G. Benner, Spirituality and the Awakening Self:  The Sacred Journey of Transformation (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2012), 156.
[5] Benner, 156.
[6] From the hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine,” with text written by Bianco da Siena (d.1434).
[7] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life:  A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 43.
[8] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land:  A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2006) and A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (Oxford:  Oxford Univeristy Press, 2011).
[9] Laird, Into the Silent Land, 19-20.
[10] Laird, 20.
[11] Laird, 49, “…that overflowing vastness whose ground is God.”