Archives For Trinity

This weekend we’re concluding our recent sermon series, Revolution of the Heart, with Luke’s second story of resurrection: the encounter on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24).

looking_01As I do, I’ve been spending several hours a day studying the text as well as what other saints and sinners have had to say about it.

I still haven’t discovered the sermon for Sunday, but, as I do, I’ve come across several exegetical nuggets that, while they probably won’t find their way into the sermon, shed more light on the text.

For instance:

Luke 24 parallels Luke 2.

Whereas Mark’s frenetic pace, apocalyptic tone and disarming hero reminds me of Cormac McCarthy, with his carefully arranged plot and neatly calibrated scenes, Luke is the New Testament’s Charles Dickens.

In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph are leaving Jerusalem after the Passover. They discover their little boy is not with them. They run back to Jerusalem frantic and fearful. Only on the third day do they find them where the precocious little twerp has the stones to reply: ‘It was necessary to be in my Father’s house.’

In Luke 24, another couple are leaving Jerusalem after yet another Passover pilgrimage. A man named Cleopas and a companion not named- most likely his wife. They’re despondent that Jesus is no longer with them. They meet a stranger who check mates their sorrow by showing how “it was necessary” that the Messiah should die and be raised.” It’s the third day. They recognize in the breaking of bread that this stranger is the Jesus who’d been lost.

Another nugget:

Luke 24 is where Jesus becomes the ‘Lord’ (again).

There are things you notice more easily if you read the Gospel straight through like you would a novel or short story.

From beginning to nearly the end, Luke constantly refers to Jesus as the Lord.

Pre-magnificat, Elizabeth welcomes Mary “the mother of my Lord.”

The many sick who ask Jesus for a little miracle working make their request by calling him ‘Lord.’

When the disciples go out in pairs Luke says it’s the ‘Lord’ who sends them.

Peter doesn’t simply deny Jesus, according to Luke he denies the ‘Lord.’

But in Luke when Christ’s Passion begins, his of the ‘Lordship’ ends.

Before Pilate, on trial for claiming to be King of the Jews, Luke makes no mention of him also being the ‘Lord.’

Before the Sanhedrin, Jesus is just ‘Jesus.’ So too when he’s before Herod. Before the crowd, it’s even worse. ‘Jesus’ is now just ‘this man’ while the other prisoner’s name, ‘Barabbas,’ means ‘son of the Father.’

On the way to the Cross, Luke calls him Jesus. He’s jeered and mocked and spit upon for feigning to be the Christ, the Messiah. No one calls him Lord, not even Luke.

Through the taunting of the one bandit and the petition of remembrance from the other, he is derided as “the Christ” or simply called Jesus.

It’s ‘Jesus’ who’s taunted by the thief on the cross. It’s ‘Jesus’ who gives up his spirit to breath his last. It’s ‘Jesus’ whom Mary and the Beloved watch die. It’s ‘Jesus’ whose body is taken down and buried.

rembrandt_emmaus-maaltijd_grtBut then the 3rd day later, the 8th day of the week, which is the first day, when the women come to anoint his body and discover it gone, they’re not scared that Jesus’ body is missing. They’re upset the Lord’s body is missing.

Having been killed and raised, Jesus is Lord again.

And when run back from Emmaus, they’re not screaming excitedly about ‘Jesus.’ They announce ‘The Lord has risen indeed.’

Luke does in chapter 24 what he has Peter do in his first sermon in Acts: You crucified ‘Jesus’ but God through his resurrection God has made him ‘Lord.’

This little nugget probably makes for a better Easter sermon:

Resurrection = God’s enthroning Jesus as King and Lord of the Nations.

However, that Luke has the ‘Lord’ go dark during the Passion story begs the question:

Who it is that dies on the Cross?

God (in the flesh)?

Or Jesus (just the flesh)?

So much of our theology eludes the depiction of God making someone else suffer and die on the Cross by arguing that it’s God’s own self who dies on the Cross (thank you Trinitarian theology).

Luke though seems to suggest otherwise.

It’s Jesus who dies on the Cross.

It’s God who vindicates him.

lightstock_1219_max_user_2741517-e1382974207582We just kicked off a new sermon series ‘Revolution of the Heart’ wherein we’ll unpack the story behind our funny church name ‘Aldersgate’ as well as to explore what Jesus means when he invites us to ‘repent.’

The word repent in Greek, metanoia, literally means ‘turn around.’

A revolution.

Jesus’ Kingdom is about a revolution of the heart.

Here’s an old sermon on how what we mean by Trinity and Incarnation has very practical, every day consequences for how we’re called to live. You can also listen to on the side widget, on the mobile app or in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

      1. Kenosis in the Produce Section

Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English§1.8.3, §1.9.1-2

Okay, for all you Barth-haters out there I’ve got to admit that this section Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the Triunity of God, is- ahem- boring.

Head-scratchingly impenetrable you could say.

But what’s interesting to me is why Barth gets so unclear precisely as he attempts to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity. I think the confusion is the result of Barth’s very Western attempt to stress how the Three (Father, Son and Spirit) are of one being, substance.

Scripture clearly gives us the grounds to speak of God as Trinity.

Paul speaks of “God and his son Jesus.”

Matthew, Mark and Luke affirm that as the Son was baptized by John, God the Father spoke and the Spirit descended upon the Son.

Christians were baptizing in the name of the Trinity long before the New Testament was formed or before the doctrine of the Trinity was fleshed out formally.

Trinity, as I’ve posted before, is the Church’s way of holding the revelation of the Old and New Testaments together as one continuous witness.

It’s the Church’s grammar, securing the most fundamental of Christian convictions: God is at least as nice as Jesus.

The trouble comes when the Church attempts to go beyond the mystery of the biblical revelation and explain how the Father, Son and Spirit are one. karl-barth-with-iPod

In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox Church historically has been more comfortable speaking of the Three not so much in their (singular) unity but in their diversity or, better put, as community. In the West, where Christianity so often manifests itself as individual, private piety, I’ve always found the Eastern perspective on the Trinity a helpful corrective.

After all, if God is fundamentally a community of 3 persons and we’re made in this God’s image, then we’re most fully alive, most fully human, most who God intended us to be when we are in community with others.

karl-barth-with-iPodThe question is not ‘is there a God?’ but ‘who is God?’

So says Karl Barth in 1.1 §8.1-8.2 of the CD.

I’ve been negligent in my posting of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Life got in the way, but the great thing about Barth is that he’s always there.

Having begun laying out his understanding of revelation, Barth tackles the doctrine of the Trinity.

Favorite line in this section:

Any child knows that [the church’s doctrine of the Trinity] uses some of the philosophoumena of declining pagan antiquity.

I asked my boys, 7 and 10, and they report that in fact they do not know that much about declining pagan antiquity.

Apparently Barth’s children were a bit more advanced than my own.

Maybe this sentence is a bit more subtle in German. Actually the whole chapter here is about as dense and elusive as that line about philosophoumena. Perhaps there’s no other way around it because Barth’s attempting to do away with abstract categories of God’s identity and philosophical speculations about the necessity of God’s existence.

You can reason your way to God a la Anselm or Spinoza, Barth is saying, but the God at the end of that chain of reasoning will not be the God revealed to us in scripture.

The philosophers’ unmoved mover is not the One who set his people free from slavery in Egypt. As with his opening chapters on revelation, Barth insists that everything we say about God’s identity must begin in the particular story of the Bible.

It’s this insistence on particularity that leads to Barth’s rejection of liberalism’s reduction of Christianity to universal truths about general human experience.

Where I can see readers rightly pushing back on Barth is on his claim that the Trinity is central any understanding of God’s identity.

While Barth wants to make sure that the “who God is of whom we speak” is “the God who has revealed God’s self in this particular story,” the move away from the scripture narrative itself to the later reflection on it by the church undermines Barth’s point I think.

You don’t need to be preacher very long to know that A) the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t self-evident in the pages of scripture and B) it’s surely not self-evident to most lay people.

Barth cites scripture of the Trinity revealed in scripture (Peter’s confession, the baptismal formula in Matthew 28) but none of them are offered by the texts as what we’d recognize as the Trinity. The greatest difficulty is that Barth is in danger of imposing the Christian doctrine of the Trinity upon the Hebrew Bible.

Barth seems to forget that the Trinity isn’t a self-evident concept of God rather Trinity is the only way to speak of the God revealed to us in scripture for scripture speaks of Father, Son and Spirit.

Trinity then was the Church’s way of remembering that the revelation given to us in the New Testament was consistent with the revelation given to us in the Old. Trinity is less about philosophy and more a stopgap against Marcionism, the heresy which found the God of the OT to be different from the  God of the New.

I left this chapter feeling as though Barth fell into the very trap his liberal opponents get ensnared. Just as liberals freight their preconceptions into the scripture text, making it say things other than what it intended to speak, Barth’s affinity for the particularity of the Triune God leads him to run roughshod over the scripture text.

jam-circleI think we all know where I stand when it comes to bluegrass. The rest of you can have your Chris Tomlin pablum or your oppressive baroque toccatas or all that (completely) unironic tedium from the 19th century which fills the bulk of the United Methodist Hymnal.*

As far as I’m concerned, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, and Jesus Christ would be a fair second place substitute for the Holy Trinity and one that would make me reconsider my denominational affiliation.

I’m well aware its considered trendy now. If so, then consider me a round peg in the circular bliss that is the banjo. My church’s Bluegrass Easter Sunrise is the largest attended service of the year. As I often tell folks why bluegrass makes for good worship music:

‘It’s as soulful as white people can get without being cringeworthy.’ 

Paula Spurr at Geez Magazine (great publication by the way…it’s like a leftist, Canadian version of First Things, which I also love) has a great piece ‘In Praise of the Banjo.’

“Stand and sing with me, number 422 in your hymnal. Ladies on verse two; men on verse three; all together on verses one and four.”

This was how I experienced worship growing up. A man stood at the front and led us like a choir. We had no say in anything.
As the years went by, worship morphed from the choir experience to some sort of karaoke rock concert, the band leading you through its set list, the words projected on the wall. You could stand or sit as you wished, but it was still a very directed experience. As a member of the audience (I just can’t call it a congregation), I had very little responsibility for the worship experience and none at all for the music, which was so loud that I could sing off-key and it wouldn’t matter.

I don’t attend church anymore, and the main way I experience music now is in the bluegrass genre . . . banjos and doghouse bass, mandolins and fiddles.

I wish music in church was a lot more like bluegrass.

In the jam circle, everyone participates.

There’s no leader. Everyone gets a chance to pick a song, everybody plays and everybody takes a solo break. If you don’t want to, you can pass and nobody minds. Those who can’t play an instrument are encouraged to sing or clap along. Sure, there are the hot players who form bands and put on concerts, and we’ll go watch and sing along, but mostly we just gather every week and jam.

Wouldn’t church be crazy if it were like that? Each member sharing in the responsibility of the music, helping other members enter in?

But churches are too big. You don’t get to know the person beside you. You just sit and enjoy the show. It’s one of the many reasons I quit going. If you need me, I’ll be on the front porch pickin’.

Click here to see the full piece.

* for those of you whose feelings are hurt, this is what writers call ‘hyperbole.’ 

Myth_of_You_Complete_Me#2: What God Didn’t Give Adam

If you scratch at the surface of the doctrine of the Trinity what you learn underneath is that God didn’t create humankind because needed to create. Our existence doesn’t owe to some poverty, absence or need in God.

God wasn’t lonely.

As Father, Son and Holy Spirit God already is- and has been eternally so- a community of perfect love and friendship. The Trinity is, as the theologians say, a perpetual exchange of gift and grace.

So God didn’t create us because God needed someone to love.

And God didn’t need to be loved.

Rather God creates to express and share the love God already enjoys as Father, Son and Spirit.

As I illustrate for confirmands, God’s love within the Trinity is like a fountain of water that is so full it overflows and spills out all over the place. Creation, you and me and everyone else is like the water that spills out from God.

Now: if we’re made in the image of this God then it follows that we’re to love and (pro)create as this God does. We have children not because we need someone to love and not because we need someone to love us. We have children to express a love we already enjoy and share. With our spouse.

The love of our spouse is primary and foundational. 

The love of our spouse comes first. 

And it should always come first. Even when others come into our lives later on. 

This is a lesson I’ve learned by watching couples learn it the hard way. Too many husbands and wives, because their love for each is far from overflowing, turn to their children to give and receive the love they’re not giving to or receiving from their spouse. At best that’s unhealthy and at worst its idolatrous. And that’s not hyperbole. I see too many turn their children into idols because of a lack in their marriage. No different than the golden calf, we project onto our children a need they can’t possibly fill.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday: no child is big enough to fill what’s missing in their parent’s life.  And no kid should have to bear such a burden. They’ll only get crushed underneath your expectations. Because if you look to your children for validation, to fill an emptiness inside you, you’ll need them to be perfect. And when they’re not-because no child is- there will be conflict. 

When my wife and I began the adoption process for Gabriel, our son, we had to answer a battery of questions and go through several interviews assessing the health of our relationship, the depth of our faith and the strength of our self-image. Why?

To make sure we weren’t adopting a child because we needed to have a child to make us happy. I wish biological parents had to go through the same process.

Heard the wrong way this can sound harsh but its true: your primary commitment is to your spouse ‘til death do you part.

When God lamented Adam’s loneliness in the Garden, God didn’t give Adam a child.

God gave Adam a spouse.

The person to whom you’ve sworn vows is your spouse not your kids. If you’re a Christian, the only vows you make to your kids is at their baptism when you promise to raise them in such a way that they’ll share in the suffering, self-giving life of Christ.

You can’t cultivate a marriage, or even survive one, by loving your kids. However, you can raise loved, loving children by making a loving marriage your priority.

So that’s the #2 thing I’ve learned.

Marriage is about the person you’re married to. 

It’s got to be. 

If nothing else, do it for the kids. 

 

Disclaimer:

Let me repeat again what I’ve said elsewhere. I’ve got several Mormon friends. In some ways, I’ve more in common with them than secular friends of mine. Saying Mormonism is different from Christianity is not to call their faith or character into question.

And I don’t care for whom you vote.

Actually more important than the election, for Christians, is the issue of Christian leaders, like Billy Graham, suddenly changing their views on Mormonism out of political expediency. If Christians want to vote for Romney, they should vote Romney because he’s their preferred candidate. Christians don’t need to revise the Nicene Creed in order to vote for someone whose religion is different than theirs.

Stay with me.

Tony Jones, our Scholar in Residence from this summer, has this post on Mormonism and how it diverges from traditional (as defined by the historic creeds) Christianity. Jones says:

I am not on a witch hunt. I am not anti-Romney. I think there is some historical consensus as to what is considered Christianity, and this ceremony does not accord with that consensus.

Some of my friends say, “If a group says they are Christian, then they are Christian. That’s good enough for me.”

Well, that’s not good enough for me. 

The ceremony Jones refers to is this one, from the short doc Behind the Veil. It shows a Mormon baptism ritual for the those who’ve already died. Mormons, after all, baptize in absentia and after the fact.

But here’s my question and my pushback-

As is the problem with anything on You Tube, it’s hard to establish the veracity of the content.

This video may be a snapshot into rituals non-Mormons are forbidden from seeing. But in watching it, I noticed that the baptizer is baptizing, like we do, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Which strikes me as odd (getting back to my point about Billy Graham) since Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity.

So, is this video legit and Mormons do baptize in the name of a doctrine they disbelieve?

Or is this illegit and the name of the Trinity betrays its inauthenticity?

Married in the Image of God

Jason Micheli —  October 11, 2012 — 1 Comment

Marriage counseling isn’t one of my favorite parts of ministry. It’s not that I’m bad at it, I don’t think. I’m a passable counselor. And it’s not that I mind being available to couples during stressful junctures in their marriage.

Mostly its that whenever I find myself offering advice to couples, I can’t help but imagine my own wife listening in, smirking lovingly, knowing full well I’m less than a perfect spouse and hardly one to qualify as an expert.

A while back though I gave a couple advice. I seldom give out and out advice while counseling. I was trained not to advise but to offer active listening, which I know can seem passive to couples starved for something to try and salvage their relationship.

Having no other clue how to help them stop the spiral of resentment and recrimination in which they found themselves trapped, I told them:

‘I know you have every reason to think you’re right and every reason to be angry. I know you don’t he understands how he’s hurt you and you don’t think she’s ever going forgive you and let go. I want you to put that away for a week. Forget about it and instead just focus on loving and serving the other. Whenever the old words and feelings creep up, do something, anything, to pour yourself out and serve the other instead.’ 

In truth, I was desperate, had no clue how to help them and thought this sounded just Jesusy enough to leave them thinking I’d done my job. I was surprised when they told me the following week that trying to do that had been the best week in their marriage in  longer than they could recall.

‘Why is that?’ the husband asked me.

This week for our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, we’re talking about the Imago Dei, the scriptural notion that having made everything good in creation God creates us in God’s image.

The Imago Dei often gets treated vaguely- ‘we’re all children of God’- and left at that; however, Imago Dei cannot be abstracted from Trinity.

Christians often fail to recall that the God in whose image we’re made is three-personed: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the relationship that marks God’s own life, the love shared between Father, Son and Spirit, is the prototype for the kind of life and love we’re intended to share.

Theologians call it perichoresis. It means ‘mutual self-emptying’ or ‘mutual self-giving.’

When we talk about the Trinity, who God is internally and eternally, we believe God is perichoretic love. God is in God’s own life a community of self-giving, vulnerable love. God is a community, Father, Son and Spirit, where love is eternally given as a gift and nothing is expected in return.

We’ve been made in the image of this three-personed God. Moreover, as Karl Barth argues, we’re not made in God’s image as individuals. Rather it’s Adam and Eve together- their relationship- that comprises the image of a God who is, in himself, relationship.

Back to that couple.

The reason, I think, their vow to put resentments aside for a week and focus on loving and serving the other ‘worked’ is that such loving service best captures who, at their core, they were created to be. This is the image of God in them and that can mean no less than this is what it means to be fully alive. Any lasting healing that might come to their marriage surely must come by this route alone.

 

We’re in a sermon series on the ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ This weekend’s theme is Creation Ex Nihilo. I seldom reflect too much on creation theology, mostly, I think, because creation theology tends to be abstracted from the particularity of Christ.

But that doesn’t mean creation isn’t an integral part of our faith. It isn’t to say that creation isn’t a part of the Good News. There’s plenty of grist for reflection.

This week I’ve been thinking about those people I encountered on doorsteps and how impoverished their faith-view was because if there’s one thing the Genesis story makes clear about creation: It Really Is Good. 

Yes, creation is fallen. Yes, the present world as its splayed across the front pages of the Washington Post is far from what God intended with the opening salvo of the Genesis story. Yes, creation is, as Paul writes in Romans 8, groaning while it awaits Christ’s final redemption. And it’s true we’ve turned what God’s given as gift into an object to be used and abused at our pleasure.

Traditionally, Christians- no, Protestants- have been very faithful when it comes to affirming creation’s broken-ness.

So good, in fact, I don’t think we need to dwell on it anymore.

Traditionally, Christians- no, Protestants- have been sinfully terrible at affirming the goodness of God’s creation.

Christians have even neglected the goodness of creation in the name of faithfulness. Far too often Christians have emphasized the ‘spiritual’ at the expense of the material, thinking that true fidelity required a miserly disposition towards the pleasures of this world.

Misreading St. Paul, Christians have regrettably thought faithfulness required a distinction between the spiritual and the material, between the body and the soul, between the spirit and the flesh. Mistakenly looking towards the pie in the sky, Christians just as often have stressed the goodness of the next life at the expense of this life.

The variety and frequency of error notwithstanding, a Christian confession of God as Creator can abide by no division between flesh and spirit, material and soul. When we say God created the heavens and the earth, we remember that God declared our surroundings ‘good.’ God looked upon our earth, our bodies, our felt experience and called it ‘very good.’

Good food is very good. Love for another is very good. A beautiful vista, a deep friendship, a worthwhile endeavor- they’re all very, very good because that’s how God made them.

Christianity isn’t about practicing a sort of split personality syndrome when it comes to our religious versus everyday lives. Christian selflessness doesn’t mean we regard creation with a miserly disdain. An authentic Christianity sees every moment and every object in our lives as graced. Failure to enjoy life and creation is in a very real sense a theological failure.

Christians are so often so focused on the Cross they forget that God deemed our earthly, fleshly lives good enough to take flesh himself in Christ.

The temptation to divide existence into spiritual and material distinctions is a fourth century heresy called Manicheanism, which in St. Augustine’s day saw the created world as inherently corrupt, broken and even evil. The spiritual, heavenly, world precisely because it was not finite was desirable. Thus the goal of the spiritual life was to escape our earthly lives to the spiritual realm.

St. Augustine devoted a large number of years to debating and defeating the Manichees. Even though modern believers still exhibit a propensity to divide the spiritual from the material, Augustine believed the Trinity warned against any such inclination. If God is Trinity and if Creation is the result of God’s gracious, unnecessary self-giving, then to question Creation’s goodness is, in effect, to question the goodness of God.

The Way Up is the Way Down- Philippians 2.1-11

It might surprise some of you to hear that, as gentle and considerate as I appear to be, I have a tendency to be contrary.

And while I wouldn’t say that I have a short fuse exactly, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I can be cranky, maybe even a little confrontational.

For example-

There was the recent ‘episode’ that has since come to be known in my house as ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout.’

And before I tell you about ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout’ I should say first that, as a responsible preacher, I try hard, whenever sharing personal stories, never to present myself in a heroic light.

I try hard to avoid stories in which I appear to be the wise or faithful one. I usually avoid any anecdotes where I’m the good example or where I do the right thing.

You can take that as my disclaimer that ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout’ is an exception to that rule. In this instance, it’s the other guy who’s the idiot.

A couple of Sundays ago I fell asleep on the sofa watching Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince with the boys. I woke up from my nap to Gabriel staring at me, nose-tip to nose-tip, and saying ‘Daddy, it’s almost time for dinner.’

With just a yawn and a stretch, I headed to the grocery store. As I pushed my shopping cart through the entrance I caught my reflection in the glass.

My bed-head hair was mussed every which way.

My undershirt was covered with tomato sauce stains from lunch that looked a little like blood. My eyes were heavy and bloodshot.

And I had what looked like a scar across my face from the zipper of the pillow I’d been sleeping against.

In sum: I looked like a crazy person.

After picking up a few odds and ends, I stood in the produce section staring aimlessly at the bare Sunday shelves and wondering what on earth I could make with just japanese eggplant, jalepenos, and Italian parsley.

And I swear- it’s because I was trying to think of a recipe NOT because I was eavesdropping that I overheard him.

One of the store employees was sitting against the refrigerator, where the cabbage normally goes. Three other, younger, employees were huddled around him.

To protect the identities of the innocent and the idiotic, I won’t go into names or descriptions. I’ll just tell you what I heard.

“My best advice is for you guys to stay completely away from her’ the one leaning against the cabbage section said to the three.

And he nodded with his chin in the direction of ‘her.’

And again, I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop but I couldn’t help it. When he nodded in ‘her’ direction, like gravity was pulling me, I looked over my shoulder to see who the ‘her’ was he had in mind.

‘She’ was near the other side of the store, working a cash register.

‘She’ was a teenager it looked like. She couldn’t have been more than 18.

And ‘she,’ I could tell from the scarf wrapped around her head, was a Muslim.

That’s when I decided to eavesdrop.

‘How do we stay away from her?‘ one of Produce Guy’s three disciples asked.

‘Don’t talk to her. Period.‘ He said without equivocation. ‘Pretend she’s not there. If she says something to you, act like you didn’t hear her. If she needs help with something, tell her you’re busy with something else. If a manager tells you to work with her, say you’re in the middle of something.‘ 

His three disciples all nodded like receivers watching a quarterback draw up a play.

What I heard shocked me, but I didn’t say anything.

I didn’t say anything until I heard him say: ‘Remember, she worships a false god. That’s a sin, and God doesn’t want you associating with sinners. God hates sinners.‘ 

Thus began what’s come to be known as ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout.‘

I left my cart and stepped over to their huddle and said, in love: ‘Excuse me, it sounds to me like you don’t know what the blank you’re talking about and maybe you should just shut your mouth.‘ 

It was his turn to be shocked.

He stood up from the cabbage section and held up his hands as if to say ‘no harm, no foul‘ and said: ‘There must be a misunderstanding; we were just having a religious conversation.‘ 

And that’s when I lost it:

Misunderstanding? I’ll say. You’re telling these poor idiots that God doesn’t want them helping someone else? 

That God wants them to deliberately ignore someone else? 

That God wants them to treat someone like they’re not even a person? 

   You’re telling them that God hates sinners? 

And you call yourself a Christian? 

You’ve completely lost the plot. 

If you really believed in Jesus Christ none of those words would ever come out of your mouth.‘ 

And that’s when I realized I’d been poking him in the chest with my Japanese eggplant.

He gave me a patronizing smile, like I was the one who didn’t get it.

‘Do you go to church?‘ he asked. ‘Maybe if you went to church you’d understand…‘ 

‘Yeah, I go to church‘ I said. ‘In fact, I go every Sunday. I’m there all the time. Aldersgate United Methodist Church. We’d love to have you visit us sometime.‘ 

And that’s when I realized that all the other customers in the produce section were motionless, as though suspended in time, staring in shock at me.

And for a brief, sobering moment I was able to see myself as they must’ve seen me: a man with red, bloodshot eyes, wild hair, and what looked like a scar across his face and blood splatter on his shirt, screaming about God near the cabbages, with an eggplant in his hand.

pastedGraphic.pdf

Don’t let the pretty poetry and lofty language fool you.

This song, which Paul cuts and pastes into his letter here in Philippians chapter 2, it’s meant to shock you.

Because those last few lines of the song:

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend…
11 and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

      Those last few lines aren’t original- not to Paul, not to any other Christian, not to anyone in Philippi.

They’re lifted straight from the Old Testament, from Isaiah 45- which, in case you don’t know it, is one of the Bible’s fiercest statements against idolatry, against worshipping any other god but the one with a capital G.

And what does Paul do with this song from Isaiah?

Paul, a lifelong Jew, who for his entire life at least twice a day would’ve recited in prayer: ‘The Lord our God the Lord is One.’ 

Paul, a Pharisee, an expert in the Law who you can bet knew that the very first law, the law of all laws, was ‘You shall have no other gods besides me.’

What does Paul do with Isaiah’s song?

He sticks Jesus in the middle of it.

He says that:

Because Jesus knew power and might aren’t things to be grasped at but given up.

Because Jesus emptied himself of heaven.

Because Jesus made himself poor even though he was rich.

Because he exchanged his royal robes for a servant’s towel.

Because Jesus stooped down from eternity and humbled himself.

Because he forgave 70 times 7.

Because he blessed those who cursed him.

Because he went the extra mile for those who cared not for him.

Because he put away the sword and turned the other cheek and loved his enemies.

Because Jesus remained faithful no matter it cost him, no matter where it led him, no matter how it ended.

Because he did that,

God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.

And that’s the shock.

Because the name that is above every name…is Yahweh.

The name that is above every name is ‘I am who I am.’

The name that is above every name is the name that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush, the name that was too holy to be spoken aloud or written down.

That’s why, in its place, the ancient manuscripts always used the word ‘Kyrios’ instead: ‘Lord.’

The same word Paul attaches to Jesus here in the middle of Isaiah’s song.

It’s meant to shock you- that this God who appeared in a burning bush and spoke in a still, small voice, this God- the one and only God- comes to us fully and in the flesh as Jesus Christ.

It’s intended to shock you- that Mary’s son is as much of God the Father as we could ever hope to see.

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I was in the middle of ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout’ when I realized all the eyes of the produce section were on me, looking like they were waiting for someone- anyone- to taser me and put me back in my straight jacket.

So I looked up and smiled and it must’ve seemed more creepy than conciliatory because just like that all the shoppers scurried away to safety. So did Produce Guy’s three disciples, who went back to work.

But Produce Guy wasn’t ready to let me leave without proving how I was wrong and he wasn’t.

‘You must be one of those Christians who think we all just worship the same god’ he said dismissively.

‘No’ I said, and just like that I was shouting again.

‘You don’t get it. You don’t get it at all. I

 believe our God couldn’t be moredifferent

I believe our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

That means you can’t say anything about God that you can’t also say about Jesus Christ. 

So unless it makes sense to you to say ‘Jesus hates sinners; Jesus doesn’t want you to serve that person; Jesus wants you to treat that person like they’re not a person; unless it makes sense to you to say that about Jesus, then you should just shut your mouth.’ 

I said, in love.

But he didn’t follow.

He just squinted at me and said: ‘Maybe you should talk this over with your pastor. Maybe he could help you understand.’ 

     ‘Yeah, maybe. I’ll ask him about it.’ 

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I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that when it comes to the Trinity, our belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, most of you think it’s a hustle.

You think it’s some philosophical shell game that couldn’t have less to do with your everyday life.

But pay attention-

That’s not how Paul speaks of the Trinity here.

Paul’s not interested in philosophy or abstraction.

Paul’s concerned with your mindset. With your attitude. With your love.

The Philippians weren’t locked in any doctrinal disputes or theological debates.

They were just at every day odds with each other.

And so Paul sends them these words about the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For Paul, the Trinity isn’t about intellectual games.

For Paul, the Trinity’s more like grammar that governs our God-talk.

Trinity keeps us from saying whatever we like about God, doing whatever we want in the name of God, believing whatever we wish under the umbrella of a generic god.

Trinity is Paul’s way of making sure that we can’t say ‘God’ without also saying ‘Jesus’

I mean, think about it-

Think about how many people you’ve heard, after a natural disaster or a tragic death or the diagnosis of disease, say something like: ‘It’s God’s will.’

Trinity means that for that to be a true statement you have to be able to remove ‘God’ and replace it with ‘Jesus.’

Trinity means that it’s not a true statement unless you’re able to say:

‘My mom’s cancer was Jesus’ will.’

‘Hurricane Katrina was Jesus’ will.’

‘9/11 was Jesus’ will.’

For Paul, Trinity functions not as a philosophical concept but as a grammatical rule. Trinity binds us to the character and story of Jesus.

We can’t say or think or act like God hates ‘sinners’ because we know Jesus didn’t.

We can’t say or think or act like God doesn’t care about the poor because we know Jesus did.

We can’t say or think or act as if God is against our enemies because we know Jesus loved them.

We can’t scratch our heads and wonder if we need to forgive that person in our lives because know what Jesus said about it.

And the doctrine of the Trinity refuses to let you forget that his words aren’t the words of any ordinary human teacher.

Teachers can be dismissed.

But his words are 100%, 3-in-1, the Word of God.

When Jesus says to the woman about to be stoned for adultery ‘I don’t condemn you’ that’s God speaking.

And when Jesus offers living water to the woman at the well, who has about 5 too many men in her life, that’s God’s grace.

And when Jesus says to Zaccheus, a villain and a traitor and a sinner, ‘Tonight I’m eating at your house’ Trinity makes sure we remember that that’s an invitation stamped with the seal of heaven.

For Paul, the fact that this God couldn’t be more different- it couldn’t be more practical.

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I don’t freak out on people all that often.

But that’s not to say that I don’t run into people every day whose behavior doesn’t square with their beliefs, whose opinions are dearer to them than the mind of Christ, who are so set in their ways they refuse to conform to the Way.

And so if you want to make me less cranky.

If you want to make your pastor happy.

If you want to make my joy complete.

Give don’t grasp.

Serve don’t single out.

Don’t puff yourselves up with conceit.

Don’t fill yourselves up with ambition.

Don’t act out of selfishness.

Empty yourselves of the need to be right.

Regard anyone as better than yourself.

Pour yourselves out overtime for others.

Stay faithful to the Son’s words because that Son’s the fullness of the Father, and his name is inseparable from the name that is above every name.

And if that’s true then the way up in this world is by stooping down.

Through the years I’ve had friends and close acquaintances who are Muslim. As a prison chaplain I worked alongside a Muslim Imam. In every instance, I’ve always noticed how I actually have MORE in common with them than I do with many of my cultural (non-practicing) Christian friends. Given how radically secular our culture and my generation is how could it be anything but? In college, for example, the only other people I knew who prayed besides myself did so to Allah.

As many of you know, Islam is defined literally as ‘submission’ to God’s will and teaching. The closet Mennonite in me, which is to say the Methodist in me, has always admired the Muslims’ notion of submission. After all, most Christians define Christianity as what? Beliefs…faith in…Jesus as Savior? That’s part of it certainly but I’ve always been uncomfortable with how so many Christians define their faith in a way that conveniently sidesteps or makes optional the actual teachings and example of Christ.

I’ve been thinking this week about the doctrines of incarnation and trinity for the Sunday sermon and I’ve been struck once again how those beliefs work to secure Jesus’ place in the God-head. In other words, the one who gave the sermon on mount wasn’t merely an historical teacher whose words can be dismissed or ignored. He’s God. The sermon on the mount is, literally, the word of God.

So that’s why I’m thinking about submission. I’m wondering what the Church would look like, what the world would look like, if Christians understood THEIR religion as submission to the teachings of Jesus.

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ The ideas outlined in the book are like a greatest hits of what Christians believe; the book itself, however, is far from a hit. It, pardon me, sucks. Having said that, up next is the Christian belief- perhaps the most peculiar of all- that God once took flesh and walked the earth. So this weekend we’ll be talking about those big churchy concepts ‘incarnation’ and ‘trinity.’ And so that’s what’s on mind this week.

On one level the language of the Nicene Creed is beautiful and poetic: ‘…light from light, true God from God…’

On the other hand, jargon like essence and person are, in fact, antiquated philosophical concepts. Were the creed being hammered out in 2011 instead of 381 the Church would no doubt use different language. Nonetheless it’s critical (and life-giving) to appreciate exactly what the Creed is attempting to express.

By Trinity the creed wants to convey that God is not the God of the philosophers and civil religions (absolute power etc.). God is sovereign, costly love that liberates and reconciles. God’s love for the world in Christ and now at work in the Spirit is not accidental, temporary, secondary or incidental to God’s identity. There is no darker side to God’s character that is different from what we learn in the story of Jesus Christ. God just is self-giving, self-expending, other-affirming, community-building love. The exchange of love we see on the Cross, the declaration of delight we hear in Jesus’ baptism, the self-emptying we find in the incarnation at Christmas IS who God is and always has been.

In previous posts, I hit hard the point that who we are as creatures are persons who’ve been made to love, desire and worship God. To be human is to love, I argued, not believe or think.

We are these sorts of creatures because this is the sort of God who have in the Trinity.

Here’s a dusty, impressive word to add, one that comes straight from this Sunday’s scripture, Philippians 2:  Perichoresis

It’s means ‘mutual self-emptying’ or ‘mutual self-giving.’  When we talk about the immanent Trinity, who God is internally and eternally, we believe God is perichoretic love.

By saying God is three persons, what we mean is that God is in God’s own life a community of self-giving, vulnerable love. God is a community, Father, Son and Spirit, where love is eternally given as a gift and nothing is expected in return. This is why God pouring himself out into Jesus’ flesh and emptying himself of power on the Cross isn’t a seismic shift in God’s identity. God doesn’t change with Jesus. It’s who God has always been.

Remember, we’ve been made in the image of this three-personed God. So who God is has implications for who we are, or, at least, how we should understand ourselves as we were intended to be.

A few therefores:

By Trinity the Church confesses that God’s fundamental identity is personal love shared in relationship.

Therefore, to be human is to love in relationship. In a sense, every call to worship in a church service is a call to return to or discover our humanity. You can’t be human, and you certainly can’t worship this God, without loving relationships in your life.

God’s life is one of deep, profound, joyous communion.

Therefore, we embody God’s life and connect to it not as individuals but as a community. If the God who says ‘Let us make humankind in our image’ is a Trinity, then  we comprise God’s image not as individuals but as a human community. It’s all of us together that make up God’s image. This is why the most ancient iconography for the Trinity is not three circles or triangles but the portrayal from Genesis 18 of the three strangers feasting together at a table. The community feast as image of God’s immanent life.

God’s life is unchanging but is dynamic in that its a constant exchange of self-giving love (This is why the Spirit is often described as the exchange of the Father and Son’s love).

Therefore-

The reason so many feel alive and connected to God during experiences of sacrificial, self-giving love (the service, mission-trip high people often refer to) is because this is who God is and who we’ve been fashioned after.

God’s life is one in which difference (Father, Son and Spirit) exists in peace and harmony.

Therefore at the heart of creation, at the root of all things, is not chaos or violence but an original peace. Annie Dillard, the nature essayist, made famous the line that creation ‘is red in tooth and claw.’ Trinity reminds and stretches Christians to look upon a seemingly ambivalent and violent world and see a still deeper harmony and peace.

Because God is within God’s own life a community of difference and peace, peace among God’s creatures is not a hopeless ‘ideal’ but a part of the very fabric of creation.

We are creatures made to love one another because the Creator himself is a community of mutual, self-giving love; a community where difference and peace exist in infinite joy.