Sunday, May 22, 2016

Holy Trinity C

John 16:12-15

 

THE GLORIOUS MYSTERIES OF THE TRINITY

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

Our focus today is on what is referred to on the Catholic Radio Station as the glorious mysteries of the Trinity. Holy Trinity is the only Sunday of the Church Year named after a doctrine. For centuries the mysterious math of the Trinity has preoccupied many of the best theological minds in our Christian tradition. Do we believe in one God or three Gods? You do not need a Ph.D. in math to know that three does not equal one.

 

Over the years many illustrations have been used to explain how God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit can be three persons and yet one God. For example, the Trinity has been compared to the skin, flesh, and core of an apple. The triangle is a common illustration for the Trinity in liturgical art and on paraments and stoles. A triangle has three sides, points, and angles; and yet it is one triangle. As nifty as this Trinitarian symbol may seem it still has not solved the math of the Trinity. One of the goofiest illustrations I saw recently is to compare the Trinity to three-in-one shampoo.

 

I often use the image of a family for the Trinity. There are three persons, but they are one family. These images of the Trinity may seem helpful, but they can get us sidetracked.

 

Make no mistake: our belief in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is crucial to our faith. That is why Brian Cheney and Harper Culligan are being baptized today in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— that is, in the name of the triune God. But getting caught up in Trinitarian math is not the effective way to uncover the glorious mysteries of the Trinity. The glorious Trinitarian mysteries focus more on who God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are and on what they are up to in the world.

 

What insights into these mysteries can we gain from our gospel reading from John? God and Jesus tend to be the members of the Trinity that get the most attention. Someone has referred to the Holy Spirit as the silent member of the Trinity. Today, however, in the afterglow of our joyous Pentecost celebration last Sunday we want to make sure the Spirit of truth, highlighted by Jesus in our gospel, receives our full attention. For followers of Jesus to attend to the truth is impossible apart from the work of the Spirit.

 

Our gospel reading, John 16:12­–15, contains the fifth promise of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. In this reading Jesus begins by telling the disciples that they have not been taught everything. In fact, he asserts that they are not able to bear everything that he has to teach them. They were still expecting a warrior king and were not prepared for a suffering servant who dies on a cross. They were not ready for their own burdens that lay before them— they would face imprisonment and beatings— some would even be crucified for their faith. They had no inkling how rapidly Gentiles (non-Jews) would become followers of Jesus in the early church.

 

God is amazingly aware of what level of truth we can handle in a given time and place. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 Paul writes: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and [God] will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing [God] will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

 

A second insight from our gospel into the glorious mysteries of the Trinity is that God and Jesus are still speaking to us. They have many things to share with the faithful in every generation. In 2004 the United Church of Christ embarked on a “Stillspeaking” campaign. “Stillspeaking” is the short form of "God is still speaking." The purpose of this campaign is to remind its members “that God still has a lot more to say.” In recent years the most powerful message they have been hearing from God is to extend “an extravagant welcome to all.”

 

That is also a powerful message being heard here at St. Andrew— as our “Welcome Statement” attests to. Currently God is speaking to us, exhorting us to practice extravagant welcome toward a Muslim family from Syria.

 

To be sure, God’s message of welcome for refugees is rooted in scripture. In Leviticus 19:33-34 the Lord exhorts the people of Israel: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” As you will read in my 2016 annual report, this passage leaves no doubt about how the people of God are to treat refugees: they are to be to us as the citizens among us. Echoing the golden rule the Lord God affirms that the people of God are to love the resident alien as themselves. God reminds God’s people that they were once resident aliens in the land of Egypt. All of us are descendants of people who were once resident aliens in this land.

 

In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:31–46, written many centuries after Leviticus was, Jesus affirms the importance of welcoming the stranger. Jesus taught that in welcoming the stranger, it is as if we are welcoming Jesus himself. It was another way of affirming a message of welcome for refugees.

 

So God’s message of welcome for refugees may be rooted in scripture. But obviously our context has some distinct differences. One practical difference is that in biblical times refugees could not be flown across the ocean in less than a day— that’s why we are having to prepare so quickly for the Alajrab family. Another difference is there were no electronic social media available to broadcast messages in an instant all over the world. A more challenging difference, however, is that there were no Muslims back then. We believe God is speaking a new word to us, exhorting us to reject all inflammatory anti-Muslim refugee rhetoric. We believe God is telling the people of St. Andrew to treat a Muslim Syrian family as we are to treat any citizens among us. We believe Jesus is teaching us to welcome the Alajrab family as if they are Jesus himself.

 

A third insight is that the Spirit will guide us into all truth. Indeed, the Spirit of truth is the Spirit of God and of Jesus. This Spirit has guided the church in every generation and continues to guide us today. As Richard Donovan writes, “our circumstances change daily with new technologies and politics, but the Spirit of truth stands ready to help us relate God’s truth to new situations. In every new circumstance, the same faithful Spirit guides us to re-learn old, faithful truths and to apply those old truths in new and faithful ways.”[1] As we grow in our faith and our ability to understand, the Spirit of truth will teach us new things. This process is lifelong.

 

This lifelong process is an essential part of baptism. We tend to think of baptism as what happens at the font on Sunday morning. Today God is declaring publically that Brian is God’s beloved son and that Harper is God’s beloved daughter. We rejoice as they receive the gift of baptism. They are experiencing part one of the baptismal experience. Part two is the lifelong process of being guided into all truth by the Spirit of God and Jesus.

 

Some may ask how we know that the Spirit of truth is guiding us and not some other spirit. There is no exact formula. Early Christians faced a similar challenge. In 1 John 4:1 we read: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone into the world.” The special challenge in our time is that our multiple forms of media allow all sorts of would-be prophets to inundate us with their messages. More than ever we need the Spirit of truth to guide us. Fred Craddock offers this question to help in discerning the Spirit of truth: “Are [our] actions and words in accordance with what we know of God and Jesus?”[2] In teaching ethics I encourage people to speak and act with their eyes fixed on Jesus. The good news is that the Spirit of truth is in the process of guiding us for the long haul. If we don’t get it exactly right, the Spirit will continue to guide us, prompt us, judge us, and nudge us or sometimes even push us in the direction God and Jesus would have us go. We can venture forth with confidence knowing that the Spirit of truth will find a way to call us to account when we go astray and get us back on track.

 

A final insight from our gospel reading is that God and Jesus are glorified in this process of being guided by the Spirit of truth. One common definition of “glorify” is “to honor with praise, admiration, or worship.” We can glorify God, but we can also get caught up under the influence of false spirits and glorify a person or a nation or a war— that is, someone or something other than God and Jesus.

 

Here in John 16 “glorify” seems to have more to do with the Spirit of truth making visible the presence of God and of Jesus. The Spirit of truth guides us in the process of seeking to make the presence of God and Jesus visible in the world. Making God and Jesus visible under the guidance of the Spirit is a glorious experience of the mystery of the Trinity.

 

Welcoming a Muslim refugee family is one way of making the presence of God and Jesus visible in the world. The baptism of Brian and the baptism of Harper are making God and Jesus visible to us today. When our confirmands Alex, Dominic, and Emily presented their statements of faith to the Council, they made God and Jesus visible. They did not have to have everything all figured out to do so. We could sense the Spirit of truth guiding them. And surely God and Jesus were present among us as we gathered together with our Taiwanese brothers and sisters to worship and enjoy table fellowship on Pentecost Sunday. It was a glorious experience of the mystery of the Trinity! Such glorious experiences are worth pondering and savoring on this and every Sunday.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] http://www.lectionary.org/EXEG_Engl_WEB/NT/04-John-WEB/John%2016.12-15.htm

 

[2] Preaching through the Church Year C, 283.