Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Trinity Sunday

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us
your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to
acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the
power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep
us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to
see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with
the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

Today is Trinity Sunday. We, together, with Christians all over the world acknowledge in our worship in a focused way that we worship the mysterious one God who exists in three unique and distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Since the early church, preachers and theologians have noted that at the heart of the gospel is the movement of God in redemptive love towards the world he has made and that this movement is a movement of one God in three persons. Today we will consider why this is important. Why is a confession of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit crucial to our understanding of the Gospel?

The mystery of the trinity reveals to us a God who is who is who he is as he pours his love into the other. Before he poured his love into creation, love was given and received perfectly between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Daniel Migliore of Princeton Seminary puts it this way: “that God is the power of self-giving love.... this is the deepest meaning of God’s triune life-in-relationship. This is what decisively marks off the living God from the dead idols. They cannot give life because they cannot love. They cannot love because they cannot enter into communion with and freely suffer for another.... The coming of the Son of God and his sacrificial death on the cross are neither chance happenings nor emergency measures nor out-of-character actions on God’s part. The self-giving love of God is grounded in God’s eternal triune being.... God’s liberating and reconciling activity in the world is the free-outward expression of God’s own eternal life of self-giving love...... “

Let me put it to you this way: what Jesus does, how he lived, how he died, why he died, God’s resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the reasons for that - the entirety of God’s redemptive work in Christ is what the love that God shares perfectly within himself looks like when it goes to work on our behalf (this is what Migliore means when he talks about the quintessence of God’s self-giving love as the ability to freely suffer for another).

On Trinity Sunday the lectionary points us to the creation narrative, the psalmist’s reflection on it in Psalm 8, and Jesus’ great commission in Matthew, thus reminding us that the same love shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, before the foundation of the world, is the love that created, the love that makes a new humanity in Christ, and the love that renews the fallen creation. Moreover, and staggeringly, God has made us to share in this very same love. He has, in the thoughts of Psalm 8, made us to be queens and kings of creation as we receive and give God’s love on his behalf for the sake of the whole world. In the 8th Psalm, when the Psalmist ponders, who are we that God should take notice of us, he does respond by saying that we should sit around and feel good about ourselves because we have been made in God’s image. His answer is that human beings have an awesomeness because, as God’s image bearers, we have been given a job to do and work to share, with each other, and with God. As God’s apprentices, if you will, we are to do God’s work in this fallen world. Other preachers have said what I am about to say before - they must have all had toddlers when they were thinking in this direction - our three year old is really in the “wants to help” stage of life - oh may this continue into the teenage years! There is not an egg to be cracked, a dish to be washed, a floor to be cleaned that she does not want a part in. She beams with pleasure when she has been co-pilot of whatever project has been undertaken. May we respond to God with the same awe and joy as we ask him for an even greater desire to share in his work as the bearers of his image.

Questions for discussion:

1. If someone were to ask you to give them an example of what difference it makes to believe in the Trinitarian God what might you say to them? Does Migliore’s point about God’s ability to share love in his nature help you think about this?

2. Do you think much about the dignity you inherently possess simply because you are made in God’s image? Do you think of this enough when you think of other people?

3. Is there value in thinking about creation and redemption in that order? Does thinking about the fact that the God who created all people help you think about how to start a conversation with someone about Jesus in a different way than you might have otherwise? If so, how?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ascencion into Pentecost

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life
to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy
Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the
preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the
earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

We continued this week to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ ascension and considered its theological relationship to the outpouring of God’s power at Pentecost. Jesus had told his disciples, if somewhat cryptically, that it was to their advantage and the advantage of the whole world that he depart from them physically (this is said in different ways in John 14-17). What helps us begin to make some sense of that promise is what God says to us through Jesus’ ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church at Pentecost. Here is how one fine preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, thinks about it:
“No one standing around watching them that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped looking into the sky and looked at each other instead. On the surface, it was not a great moment: 11 abandoned disciples with nothing to show for all their following. But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent what had happened to them. With nothing but a promise and a prayer, those 11 people consented to become the church, and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them.
The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers. The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit, and nothing was ever the same again.
That probably was not the way they would have planned it. If they had had it their way, they would probably have tied Jesus up so that he could not have gotten away from them, so that they would have known where to find him and rely on him forever. Only that is not how it happened. He went away—he was taken away—and they stood looking up toward heaven. Then they stopped looking up toward heaven, looked at each other instead, and got on with the business of being the church.”

Jesus’ ascension may at first have felt mainly like an absence and a loss to the disciples but his disciples were soon to learn that Jesus’ human presence with the Father is a sign of judgment and hope for this world. Why judgment and hope? Because in much more than words, God has shown his love for our human flesh by judging and condemning everything that moves against human flourishing. So mysterious is the incarnation, the resurrection of Jesus’ flesh, and the ascension of the man-God that we don’t often think enough of how the ascension of human flesh speaks the gospel to us. God, in Christ, loves the flesh and blood you; he loves the messy you who thinks thoughts you should not think and sometimes acts on them; he loves the you who overeats and struggles with his temper; he loves the you that is impatient with her children. Jesus did not become incarnate, die, rise from the dead, and ascend to the right hand of the father on behalf of an “ideal” you. He did it for the flesh and blood you.

The ascension means judgment and hope. When I say judgment I mean it in the sense that all enemies of human flourishing have been judged for what they are, judged and condemned, defeated and banished from God’s world to come. Growing in God’s wisdom and holiness, in part, consists of being able to see what is judged and condemned and, by God’s grace, to treat it as condemned. Perhaps this is what St. Paul meant when he said we should consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to righteousness (Ro. 6). What I mean by hope is found in the grace that enables us to yearn for Jesus’ triumph as a human being as our guide for this life, yearning for that vision to more and more guide us in how we see what makes for human flourishing in our lives and for those around us. I might rather be self-indulgent and skip an opportunity to serve at the homeless shelter partly because I have not yet grown enough to see this participation in God’s self-giving love as more lovely than doing simply what I want to do and when I want to do it. Sacrificing for others becomes more lovely and desirable to us as we come to see human selfishness as judged and condemned.

So, we see that Jesus’ ascension has brought us closer to God. Rowan Williams puts it this way: “Jesus hasn’t just gone away. He has gone deeper into the heart of reality – our reality and God’s. He has become far more than a visible friend and companion; he has shown himself to be the very centre of our life, the source of our loving energy in the world and the source of our prayerful, trustful waiting on God. He has made us able to be a new kind of human being, silently and patiently trusting God as a loving parent, actively and hopefully at work to make a difference in the world, to make the kind of difference love makes.”

And this is where we pivot from Ascension to Pentecost, when we long to make the kind of difference that love makes. Here again is Williams: “So if the world looks and feels like a world without God, the Christian doesn’t try to say, ‘It’s not as bad as all that’, or seek to point to clear signs of God’s presence that make everything all right. The Christian will acknowledge that the situation is harsh, even apparently unhopeful – but will dare to say that they are willing to bring hope by what they offer in terms of compassion and service. And their own willingness and capacity for this is nourished by the prayer that the Spirit of Jesus has made possible for them. The friends of Jesus are called, in other words, to offer themselves as signs of God in the world – to live in such a way that the underlying all-pervading energy of God begins to come through them and make a difference. If we are challenged as to where God is in the world, our answer must be to ask ourselves how we can live, pray and act so as to bring to light the energy at the heart of all things – to bring the face of Jesus to life in our faces, and to do this by turning again and again to the deep well of trust and prayer that the Spirit opens for us.”

The event of Pentecost itself was a wild day with wild things happening. The main take-away for us, I submit, is not to look for events that look a lot like that but instead to look for the Spirit to enable us to communicate God’s love to others in the power of the Spirit and not according to our own wisdom or power. New Testament scholar, Will Willimon, has great insights into what was going on with Peter and the crowd on Pentecost: The power being offered here is not that of Peter’s homiletical ability to get the crowd worked up into an emotional frenzy or in the crowd’s sincere inner-determination to get themselves right with God.... the story of Peter’s Pentecost sermon is told in such a way as to make it clear that the power at work is God’s power ...the response of the people is neither something they have derived from within themselves or part of their natural human inclination, for they are, as we all are, part of a crooked generation....what saves them is the story of what happened... that God was in Christ was reconciling the world to himself.... they have not been looking for Jesus... God has come looking for them (adapted from Willimon’s commentary on Acts).

And so the challenge to us is to indeed be signs of the hope of a new humanity but to be these signs by humbly telling our stories of how God has sought us out for restoration to himself and, in being restored to him, being restored to our true humanity.

Question for discussion:

1. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you consider that God loves the real you and not an ideal version of you? How would you put this aspect of the gospel message in your own words?

2. Can you think of a time recently when you were demanding an ideal version of a friend or loved one in a way that caused you to be impatient or unloving to her or him? Can you think of a time recently when someone was dealing with you in that mode? What could help you apply the truth that God loves the real you in your relationship to others - what sorts of thing should you do and think about to help you get your head and heart more fully engaged with that aspect of the gospel?

3. What is your greatest concern or fear that comes to you when you think about being God’s sign-posts in this world? Which concerns are well founded and which are, perhaps, based on a misconception you may have of what that means? How can you tell the difference?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ascension Sunday

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ
ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:
Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his
promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end
of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory
everlasting. Amen.

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son
Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to
strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior
Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and
the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of* James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. - Acts 1

This is the Sunday that we consider the ascension of Jesus. We don’t know too many of the details about Jesus’ life after the resurrection before the ascension but what we are confronted with in the ascension is the moment where the disciples experience the loss of Jesus’ physical presence with them. Interestingly, Luke tells us what was on the disciples’ minds and hearts when Jesus sat down with them just before the ascension; it was a burning question - is this the time you will restore the kingdom of Israel? Jesus gives an answer that was perhaps quite unsatisfactory to their ears, at least on first hearing. What he says is basically this: It is not for you to know the times and periods of history set by God. The disciples, like you and like me, were wanting God to act quickly in bringing promises of redemption and restoration to completion. Jesus says, it is not for you, or us, to know the times, In effect, he is saying, be humble, be patient, and wait.

I was telling someone in the church recently, as we talked about the struggle to believe, the struggle to have deeper faith, that I woke up in the middle of the night about two weeks ago and had this overwhelming feeling of darkness and hopelessness. My feelings and thoughts in my half-asleep state were centered on that very sort of question the disciples put to Jesus: is now the time, God when you will act to bring about final healing to this broken world? This is how it played out in my half-awake mind: God, if the whole point of Jesus’ resurrection is to bring about an end to human suffering, to bring about the world to come where judgment will result in renewal and shalom for those who respond to your offer of forgiveness and newness of life, then why don’t you get on with it?! I’m tired of hearing stories of the suffering of children, of human violence, and of the glorification of human violence, etc. I would imagine that all of us followers of Jesus have these moments when we question why God doesn’t just roll things up, say enough is enough, and get on with the new heavens and new earth. Interestingly, the Scriptures tell us that there was a time when God did think about rolling things up, and rolling them up once and for all, a sort of un-creation. In the Genesis narrative comes this from the sixth chapter, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Let me say as a side note here that I don’t understand the mind of God period and certainly not as glimpsed through this highly anthropomorhpic telling of his sorrow over creating in the first place. However, quickly in this same narrative, we get a glimpse of what God does want us to know and understand about his character when God does not settle on the thought of wiping out his creation but works through Noah to set human history on a redemptive path. Beginning with his covenant with Noah, in every subsequent move forward in the redemptive record of the Old and New Testaments, we find God again and again binding himself to his creation, not giving up and not turning away but pulling everyone and everything towards his goal of new creation and redemption. All along the way he binds himself to his creation more deeply until that means taking the very sin and evil that offends his justice and love the most, absorbing it into himself and breaking its back in the mystery that is Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. And so now, still in my half-asleep moment of extreme doubt and frustration with the way things are, including my own sin and temptations, still wondering why God just doesn’t roll things up already.... but I come to a place where I hear Jesus’ words to the disciples a little differently. “It is not for us to know”, means that it is not just that we don’t know or can’t know but that there is deep mystery here. It is more than we don’t know - we have no idea what we don’t know and we don’t, I think, even know how to question properly about this sort of thing. I mean really, come on, a God who did not need to create, who created to share his love with an immense family of human beings who bear his image.... well, who are we really to say when he should be finished with the progress of the human race and finished with this epoch of human history?

And so this text reminds us that there is a great and tremendous mystery with regard to how long God will suffer with and love the world in the midst of its brokenness.... and in this age we will share with all of humanity a sense of frustration that God is not present in the way that we would like him to be, at least not present according to our deepest desires for wholeness. And so we stand with those who do not profess any faith in God and say to them, we too have these feelings of God’s absence; we too are frustrated with the way the world is but we have learned humbly to recognize in Jesus’ absence a restless hopefulness about what he intends to do in and through us.

What happens next in this passage and in the lives of the disciples is shocking and sobering in a different way because the word to them and to us is that we are responsible to be God’s presence in this fallen world... more about that next week.

Questions for discussion:

1. Luke tell us that the angels told the disciples not to look up for Jesus. Next, we find them in prayer together. Do you think Luke is telling us something about the role of prayer and community in telling the story in this way? If so, what do you think he is saying?

2. Why is it important to acknowledge the questions and frustrations we have towards God and his timetable with human history? Why is it important to acknowledge this, when appropriate, to people who do not share our faith in God?

3. If someone were to ask you why God doesn’t just bring everything to an end and get on with the business of “heaven”, what would you say to them? Where would you start? Would you start with your own life? If so, what would you start to say?