Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sermon: The Feast of the Holy Trinity (3 June 2007)

The Feast of the Holy Trinity: 3 June 2007
(Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31/Psalm 8/Romans 5:1-5/John 16:12-15)
Now These Three Remain

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of my earliest and fondest memories of church center on food: the vanilla wafers in Wilsie Fletcher’s Sunday School Class; the great pitch-in dinners prepared by Daisy Frei, Pauline Williams, Ruth Widner, Merl Roop, and other saints of kitchen and table at Lonsdale; the church picnics in Cades Cove. More recent were the weekly coffee hour “banquets” following morning service at St. Thomas’, and now the meals we share together each Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening– all expressions of Christian ministry, fellowship, and hospitality. We are a feasting people.

Liturgical churches even make it “official” by building feast days into the calendar – twelve principal feasts in the Orthodox Church and varying numbers in other expressions of the faith. Anglicans – at least those in the Episcopal Church – celebrate seven principal feasts. For the most part these commemorate events in the life of Jesus or in the church. Just a mention of the name of the feast recalls the event, which is, of course, a large part of the purpose: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost. All Saints is less tied to a particular event but instead connects two of them: Pentecost, the formation of the Church as the universal body of Christ extended in space and time, and the Parousia – the second coming of Christ – when that body shall be gathered together from all space and time into the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

There is one more feast – the one we celebrate today – the Feast of the Holy Trinity. It is the odd man out. There is no specific event to which we can point and say, “There it is. There’s the Trinity.” There is not even a specific scripture we can read which defines the Trinity or even uses the word. No, this feast commemorates not an event but an idea, a doctrine of the church. Even that’s not quite right. The Feast of the Holy Trinity acknowledges and celebrates not just an idea, but the reality of the unique being and nature of our God expressed as a doctrine of the church. And though there is no event or single scripture underlying the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the realization was present in the earliest expression of the church – in the letters and gospels of the New Testament, in the patristic writings, in the creeds of the church – that our one God exists in unity of essence and trinity of persons: one God in three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What the Father is in essence – in divine DNA, if you’ll pardon the anachronism – so, too, is the Son and the Holy Spirit. The “members” of the Trinity are identical in their divine nature; none is more or less God than the others. Yet, they differ – they are distinct – in their personhood. Though all are eternal, the Son is begotten from the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Though all authority in heaven and on the earth has been given to the Son (Mt 28:18), there will come the end when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when the Son himself will also be subjected to the Father, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15:24 ff). Though the Holy Spirit is equal in divinity, he is sent by the Father, in the name of the Son (John 14:26) to speak not on his own behalf, but only what he has heard; to glorify not himself, but Jesus the Son. In essence unity, in persons trinity: one God in three Persons.

Certainly not everyone in the church agreed or agrees with a particular expression or understanding of the Trinity. Our history is littered with ideas propounded, defended, refuted and rejected – sometimes willingly, sometimes under threat of excommunication. Many, if not most, of the modern popular descriptions of the Trinity are actually heresies vigorously rejected in the 4th century. The remaining ideas are often penny wise and pound foolish, containing an ounce of truth and a pound of error. For all I know, I might have been denounced by the Nicene Fathers for the “explanation” I have given – though I try to be, and think I am, fully orthodox. The doctrine of the Trinity is a theological mine- field unlike any other. Perhaps the best we can do – any of us – is humbly to pray,

Lord Almighty, God of our ancestors in faith,
glorified and worshipped in the Holy Trinity,
whom neither mind can comprehend
nor word have power to express,
whom no one has anywhere seen,
of whom we only learn from the Holy Scriptures,
thus we believe and thus we confess You to be God:
the Father without beginning
and Your only-begotten Son
and Your Holy Spirit (, adapted).

Given the historical and theological complexity of this doctrine you might wonder why, some two and a half years ago, I proposed Trinity Church as the name for our community. And here I have a confession. I didn’t. I didn’t propose the doctrine of the Trinity as the basis for our name. I had something entirely different in mind, something more humble, but something equally challenging in its own way. I had in mind a classic text of St Paul.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:11-13, NET).

That’s the trinity I had in mind: not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but faith, hope, and love. It’s there in our motto,

Ancient Faith
Present Hope
Eternal Love,

and in its explanation

We exist by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,
the hope of the world,
who showed his love
in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection
for us and for our salvation.

Without ever diminishing that Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – it is this trinity – faith, hope, and love – that I wish to celebrate with feasting this day.

Faith – what is it? Let’s start with two quotes that answer that question very differently. The first is from a recent book Jim & Casper Go To Church, by Jim Henderson. Jim is a minister, author, and church critic – critic in the sense of interested observer and evaluator, like a movie or restaurant critic. He hires an atheist, Matt Casper, to travel with him to several churches throughout the country in order to rate them through the eyes of a non-believer. It’s an interesting premise and an interesting book. In an afterword Jim summarizes his conclusion about Christian faith, a conclusion he holds in common with his atheist friend, Casper.

There is a difference between certainty, and confidence or hope. As followers of Jesus, we put our faith in a set of beliefs that we choose to think of as real. We cannot prove any of them – that is why it is called faith. What bothers nonbelievers is when we assert that we “know” something, when they know that none of us can know anything until we die. I am very comfortable asserting my faith and my hope and my confidence that Jesus is God, but I will not say that I know he is God in the way I say I know there is gravity. I hope the story I have bet my life on is true, but neither Casper nor I will know for sure until both of us are dead (Henderson, J. Jim & Casper go to church. pp. 166-167. Tyndale House Publishers.).

The second quote is from the New Testament, from the anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1, NKJV).

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1, NRSV).

Could any two definitions be more different? For Jim Henderson, faith is choosing to accept – as if real – a set of beliefs; it is a bet on something quite uncertain. For the author of Hebrews, though, faith is the very substance of our belief, the evidence for the promises not yet seen. People sit around coffee shops discussing Henderson’s definition of faith. Christians go to the cross, to the arena, to the stake, to the gallows, to the prisons, proclaiming Hebrews’ definition of faith.

Perhaps the chief difference is one of focus. My faith often looks like Henderson’s: flaccid, tentative, more bet than certainty. But Jesus’ faith – now that’s another matter entirely. What if, instead of focusing on my faith, I focused on the faithfulness of Jesus?

We know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:16, 20, NET, emphasis added).

I can doubt my faith, but how can I doubt the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who embraced the cross for me? And it is, after all, not my faith – weak and uncertain – that saves me; it is the faithfulness of Jesus as Paul insists repeatedly in Romans (e.g. 3:22, 26) and Galatians (e.g. 2:16, 20) and Ephesians (e.g. 3:12) and Philippians (e.g. 3:9). It is not their own faith that inspires martyrs, but their firm belief in the visible, tangible, substantive faithfulness of Jesus. And the outcome of his faith, the vindication of it, was his resurrection on the third day. That is not a belief that we accept as if real; that is reality itself.

Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also (1 Cor 15:1-8, NET).

So testifies Paul – the Paul so certain of the reality of the resurrection that he willing gave his life and his death for the gospel of Jesus Christ. My faith is not the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen – but the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is, the vindication of his faithfulness through his resurrection is. Let us then hold fast to the faithfulness of Christ, for it is our hope.

Hope. We use that word mainly in an ephemeral, emotional way: this thing – whatever it is – would make me so happy, I hope it happens. Maybe it’s the lottery. Maybe it’s that boy at school. Maybe it’s the promotion. Whatever it may be, that’s a far cry from biblical hope, from Christian hope. William Sloan Coffin knew the difference. He was a Presbyterian minister and noted peace activist. When, toward the end of his life, he was asked how he felt about the state of the world and the outlook for peace he replied, “I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful.” What’s the difference between the two? Optimism is emotion. Hope is proclamation – proclamation that, in the face of everything that might seem to suggest otherwise, Jesus is Lord.

V. The genocide in Darfur continues unabated.
R. Yes, but Jesus is Lord.

V. The war in Iraq is spiraling downward into chaos.
R. Yes, but Jesus is Lord.

V. The hope of the poor and the alien is being taken away.
R. Yes, but Jesus is Lord.

I am optimistic about none of these things, but I am hopeful about all of them; for, in spite of everything that suggests otherwise, Jesus is Lord and he is our hope. Yes, Jesus is the hope of the world: not America, not the Republicans or Democrats or Hillary or Barak or Mitt or John, not power, not money, not the military, not the diplomats or the World Bank or even Bono. Jesus is Lord and he is our hope. Now, let’s be clear. That’s not an excuse for passivity – Jesus is Lord so he will take care of all these issues and we need do nothing. Absolutely not. It is a clarion call to action. Because Jesus is Lord and we are his disciples, we have work to do. We must be about his business as he was about his Father’s business. “As the Father sent me,” Jesus said and still says, “so I send you.” As Jesus to Israel, so we to the world. Jesus is the hope of the world and that hope is realized, in part, through you and through me.

This hope will never disappoint because it is based upon God’s very nature. This hope is the firm conviction that what God has been in the past for others he will be in the present and in the future for us.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in the province of Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of living. Indeed we felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against us, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He delivered us from so great a risk of death, and he will deliver us. We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again, as you also join in helping us by prayer, so that many people may give thanks to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us through the help of many (2 Cor 1:8-11, NET).

God delivered us in the past, Paul writes, and so we have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again. This isn’t emotion. This isn’t optimism. It is firm conviction based upon God’s demonstrated and unchangeable character. It is Christian hope based upon God’s love shown to us through Christ our Lord.

Love. Such a vague term. Often fleeting, self-serving, manipulative. But when it’s genuine – what power! Genuine love is from God and through God.

The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love. By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God has sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:8-10, NET).

Once again, as with faith and hope, the focus shifts from me, from us – What feeble love I have! – to God, the source of all love. I believe in the power of love not because I’m capable of it, but because God loves me and will love you through me.

Dear friends, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God resides in us, and his love is perfected in us.

And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in us. God is love, and the one who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in him. By this love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as Jesus is, so also are we in this world (1 John 4:11-12, 16-17, NET).

And right in the midst of this glorious passage on love, John adds,

By this we know that we reside in God and he in us: in that he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world (1 John 4:14, NET).

And there it is! That Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the very source of this trinity that we celebrate with feasting this day: faith, hope, and love. Amen.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Sermon: Living As the Elect In the Last Days (Pentecost/27 May 2007)

Pentecost: 27 May 2007
(Acts 2:1-21/Psalm 104:24-43, 35b/Romans 8:14-17/John 14:8-27)
Living As the Elect in the Last Days

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have a friend who reads my sermons. Sometimes I find both parts of that statement absolutely amazing – that I have a friend and that someone actually reads my sermons. He reads them mainly, I think, to agitate his own minister. When he finds something in a sermon that might challenge a traditional southern, United Methodist ethos, he forwards it to his minister with a barbed request for comments. Then, of course, in a two-for-one ploy to agitate me also, he forwards his minister’s comments to me.

I’ve learned this through my friend’s shenanigans: frequently the obvious truths of Scripture aren’t – aren’t obvious to others, I mean. What constitutes a faithful, orthodox reading in one context may be viewed as “unscriptural…a challenge to the veracity and authority of God’s Word,” in a different context. We grapple with issues like inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and authority and often use these as litmus tests for fellowship. We treat the Bible as a rulebook – when convenient. We use it to support political agendas and to promote social programs. We quote the Bible to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We use it and abuse it in perhaps about equal measures.

Sometimes when I hear people quote – or misquote – Scripture and use it as a bludgeon to beat down their opponents, I desperately want to ask, Have you ever read the Book? It’s no simple thing, reading the Bible. It’s no simple book: an expansive timeframe, multiple authors, foreign and ancient cultures, archaic languages, diverse genre (history, law, poetry, philosophy, prophecy, apocalyptic) – just to name a few of the complicating factors. It’s little wonder that we struggle with it, that we fail oftentimes to get it quite right. Perhaps we should be kinder to our fellow-strugglers, a bit more generous in our assessment of their motives. As Tom Wright said in commenting on the death of Jerry Falwell:

Within the strange, large economy of God’s grace, which filters the truth of scripture through all of us imperfect interpreters, it may be that I make just as many mistakes as I think he did, but we are each called to be true to what we find in scripture and I have no reason to suppose he was not as obedient to that imperative as I struggle to be.

May he rest in peace and, with the rest of us, rise in glory where we shall look back on present disagreements like an adult looks back on childhood squabbles in the playground (

I understand Scripture best as a grand, sweeping saga, as the story of the Creator God and his good creation gone wrong through the refusal of one of his creatures – man – to bear God’s image in obedience and holiness and stewardship before the rest of creation; as the story of the relentless pursuit of God for those rebellious creatures; as the story of God’s sovereign determination to put creation to rights and to have a holy people; as the story of the reckless, raging, fury of the love of God that brought him into creation to live and die as one of those creatures that all creation might be reconciled to God. This is the metanarrative – the over-arching story – that encompasses and explains the smaller stories of Scripture with their covenants and laws and prophecies, and which explains and gives meaning to the smaller stories of my life and yours. Scripture is certainly more than this; but, it is never less than this.

There are themes woven into this story that give it structure and focus, that drive it forward toward its climax. Two of the most important themes for the Jews –the most important people in the story – were, and perhaps still are – election and eschatology. These themes are central to any understanding of Jesus.

Election refers to God’s sovereign choice of the Jews as his holy people, as the people he would bless and make a blessing, as the people he would use to sort out creation and deal with the problems of sin and death. Paul writes of the election of his fellow countrymen:

To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen (Rom 9:4b-5, NET).

The working out of this election was neither simple nor straightforward. Read the Book, it’s all there. In his providential ordering of creation God dignifies his people – even the elect people on whom so much hinges – with freewill, with real power to make real decisions, even if those decisions do not promote God’s purpose. So Jewish history is one of peaks and valleys, of good decisions and bad, of faithfulness and idolatry, of obedience and rebellion, of blessing and curse – because those elected to put creation to rights were themselves part of the problem, those elected to deal with sin were themselves sinners.

During a particularly low ebb, when the elect had forsaken God for idols, when the chosen had treated the poor and powerless among them as so much property and refuse, when God could no longer allow his name to be profaned among the nations on account of his elect, God called forth the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the temple in an act of judgment and cleansing, and to deport his people into exile. The Babylonian exile and the subsequent political and religious exile of Israel under first Syrian and then Rome confronted the elect with a difficult question: How can God allow the elect to suffer under pagan domination? Surely the pagans who worship no god or many gods or themselves as gods are not better than the elect?

In the midst of this perplexity the elect returned to their history, to what they knew of their God. At the heart of their history lay a tale of exile, oppression, and deliverance – a tale of slaves in Egypt, sorely burdened and crying out to their God; a tale of their God coming with mighty hand and outstretched arm to rescue and redeem the elect. And they were convinced that what God had done for them in the past he would do for them again, at the climax of history, at the eschaton – in the last days. This hope is the life-breath of the prophets. God will draw all history to a great climax – a turning point – at which the elect will be vindicated – declared to be in the right and to be God’s holy people – at which the nations will be judged for their wickedness, idolatry, and oppression of the elect, and at which creation will be renewed and God’s image restored. This is the theme of eschatology – the great vindication of God’s elect and the renewal of creation in the last days.

These themes of election and eschatology form the religious and political backdrop for the ministry and gospel of Jesus, and they lie at the heart of the first Christian Pentecost. Pentecost marks a redefinition of the elect and a declaration that the climax of history has come in and through Jesus.

The elect is limited no longer by ethnicity but is thrown open to all who call on the name of the Lord. All these who gather around Jesus and proclaim him as Lord are and will be vindicated – declared in the right by God and part of his holy people.

The climax of history, the eschaton, has occurred on the cross where the sin and wickedness of all the nations – including the elect – was judged and condemned and defeated.

The creation, which awaits its own renewal by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, is witnessing the firstfruits of it in and through the transformed people of God.

These are the themes of Pentecost, themes which have given form and impetus to the great saga of God from the beginning, themes now realized in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. These are the themes of Peter’s magnificent Pentecost sermon – a sermon which should be read and which should agitate us!

This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power (Acts 2:16b-25, NRSV).

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear (Acts 2:32-33, NRSV).
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified’ (Acts 2:36, NRSV).

What God’s elect, Israel, could not do, Jesus has done: he has perfectly borne the image of God, he has defeated sin – all the powers of this dark world – in his life and supremely through his death, and he has been vindicated – declared in the right and righteous – through his resurrection and his ascension into glory. Jesus became the elect of God – a nation and ultimately all humanity focused at one divinely human point – through which God acted to sort out creation and deal with the problems of sin and death. And Jesus has formed around – actually in – himself God’s new elect comprised of all those who in faithful obedience proclaim Jesus both Lord and Christ. Thanks be to God, we are now among the elect! Once we

were … without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus [we] who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
So then [we] are no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom [we] also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God (Eph 2:12-13, 19-22, NRSV).

Yes, we are now God’s elect: sons and daughters; men, young and old; women; slave and free – the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all who call upon the name of the Lord binding all the elect into one new body, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. This elect, this church lives in the last days.

Western culture tells us that history reached it climax in the 17th century: the Enlightenment we call it, the age in which man came of age and cast off the shackles of superstition and religion – relics of the dark ages – for the freedom of reason and self-determination. Progress, the Enlightenment promised us, toward Utopia, an Eden of our own making. You can decide for yourself whether the heirs of the Enlightenment have kept their promise. Pentecost puts to lie the very premise of the Enlightenment. History reached it climax not in the 17th century but in the first, not in Europe but in Israel, not among the affluent and educated but among the poor and dispossessed, not in the halls of power, but on the cross. That climax was announced by resurrection and ascension. That climax was announced by the sound of a mighty, rushing wind, by the vision of tongues of fire, by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

In the last days it will be, God declares,that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.

We live now in those last days. Election and eschatology are the twin themes that give structure and impetus to our story. Which bring us around to the question, How are we, the elect of God in Jesus Christ, to live in these last days? It’s not a new question, though it must be answered anew by each generation. It must have been on the minds of the three thousand people who responded to Peter’s Pentecost sermon, because we find them immediately beginning to live in a new way as God’s elect.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42, NRSV).

In short, the elect became a worshipping community formed around Jesus Christ: nourished by the apostles’ teachings, supported by the fellowship of the community, sustained by the Eucharist, and empowered through prayer. Life as the elect is the distinctive life of Trinitarian worship.

Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to his people on earth.

Lord God, heavenly King,
almighty God and Father,
we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.

For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen (BCP 356).

We have nothing more important to offer the world than the presence and example of a worshipping community that intercedes for them before God and intercedes for God among them. There is nothing more important to offer.

But that’s not all. As the elect we must offer a clear alternative to life under the powers and dominions of this present age. Where nationalism is rampant we celebrate and live as the people of God drawn from every tribe and tongue and nation and people. Where fences are built to keep some out and others safe within, we destroy all barriers that separate people: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. Where the poor are ignored and the weak abused we proclaim welcome to the Jubilee community of God, where the poor and weak and broken inherit the kingdom of God.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy (A Prayer attributed to St. Francis, BCP 833).

It will take a lifetime to unpack the meaning of life as the elect in these last days. But we start here with worship and with the very fact of our existence as an alternate community, a community that rejects the powers-that-be for the one Power who was and is and ever shall be.

It is neither the politicians nor their armies that direct the flow of history toward some uncertain end. It is neither the capitalists nor the communists, the terrorists nor those who oppose them. It is neither the monied nor the powerful. It is the elect of God – a Spirit-filled and empowered, worshipping community aware of living in the last days – that, by the foolishness of the gospel, by their faithful obedience, by their worship and prayer and service and example, will move us forward toward the great Last Day when Christ shall be revealed, when his people will be vindicated, when all creation will be put to rights and released from its bondage, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

This is election. This is eschatology. This is Pentecost.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Sermon: The Ascension of Our Lord (20 May 2007)

The Ascension of Our Lord: 20 May 2007
(Acts 1:1-11/Psalm 47/Ephesians 1:15-23/Luke 24:44-53)
The Feast of the Advocates

Almighty Father, maker of heaven and earth,
set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
have mercy on us sinners.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew us and all the world.

If I were traveling abroad and ran into some serious legal or bureaucratic problem, I would immediately contact the American Embassy. The embassy is an outpost of the United States on foreign soil: a place where our flag flies, where our language is spoken, where our laws prevail, where our rights are protected. In a real sense, it is the United States brought forward into another place.

The ambassador, working in and through the embassy, is the representative of the government and people of the United States, the incarnation, in foreign territory, if you will, of the United States. And, the ambassador is the chief advocate for the interests of the United States and its citizens, the one who comes along side to help those in difficulty, to plead the case of those wrongly accused, to make quite sure that foreign powers know that they are dealing with a United States citizen – with all that implies.

Diplomatic relations are typically reciprocal; there is an exchange of ambassadors between two countries – a tangible expression of goodwill and a pledge of mutual respect. In the case of formerly estranged countries, an exchange of ambassadors signals a normalization of relations, the end of hostilities, a putting to rights of what went wrong between them. If the nations are still on war-footing the ambassador may be sent as an emissary, an agent of peace and reconciliation.

Today the church celebrates the Ascension of Our Lord. It actually falls on Thursday, forty days after Easter, but many, perhaps most, churches celebrate it the following Sunday – today. It has always seemed to me a strange celebration, akin to a going away party – bittersweet. A dear friend is leaving and a relationship is changing. You celebrate what was but may not be again, happy for the birth of the adventure but sorry for the death of the familiar. Or maybe it’s like the high school graduation I attended this week – an even mix of laughter and tears. Jesus’ disciples were almost certainly conflicted: what a roller coaster of emotions they had been on! First the Triumphal Entry – a pinnacle of acclaim – followed in five days by betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. Three days later the Resurrection – unexpected and almost unbelievable joy – followed by forty days of appearances, leading the disciples to hope that the return of the kingdom to Israel was immanent. And then the Ascension – another goodbye: no kingdom, no Jesus, just clouds and an empty sky and back to Jerusalem and the Upper Room, alone again. Laugh or cry? It’s hard to tell.

In this midst of this ambiguity it helps me to think of the Ascension of Our Lord as the Feast of the Advocates – as a celebration of the establishment of embassies and the exchange of ambassadors, of the normalization of relations between estranged parties – between God and man. And before Christ, we were estranged from God, separated from him by our own choosing – enemies (Rom 5:10). But – thanks be to God! – Christ made the peace.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven (Col 1:19-23a, NRSV).

Through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, the hostilities have ended; God and man have been reconciled. But the reconciliation must still be ratified by the exchange of advocates – ambassadors – and by the establishment of embassies. We need a man at the court of heaven – a representative, an incarnation, if you will, of humanity – a chief advocate of our interests, someone to plead our cause. Whom shall we send and who will go for us?

Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him (Luke 24:50-52a, NRSV).

And now? Now Christ is seated at the right hand of God,

in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And [God] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:20b-23, NRSV).

And this same Christ, this same Jesus, is our ambassador with God, our advocate with the Father.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2, NRSV).

Our advocate – the one placed by God above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. Our ambassador – the one placed by God as head over all things, for the church which is his body. The position Christ holds, he holds for the church, for his body. He is truly our representative at the court of God, the incarnational presence of humanity reconciled to God.

Jesus can serve as our representative, as the ambassador and advocate of humanity precisely because he is man. The incarnation was not temporary; “flesh and blood” was not a disguise Jesus wore for a time and then set aside to take up again his unencumbered divinity and reign in heaven. No. In his ascension Jesus carried his humanity – our humanity – into the presence of God, where we shall be for ever with the Lord. For the writer of Hebrews Jesus’s continuing incarnational ministry is crucial. Though he uses a different analogy – high priest instead of ambassador or advocate – his meaning is the same. Like an ambassador the high priest represents man before God and God before man. Jesus can do this uniquely because he alone is fully God and fully man.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:14-16, NRSV).

Jesus has passed through the heavens – in both incarnation and ascension – and now ministers on our behalf at the throne of God. Because of his presence there – and only because of his presence there – we may approach God boldly, confident of mercy and grace. He is our high priest, our ambassador, our advocate.

What about reciprocity? We have our ambassador, Jesus, at the court of God, advocating on our behalf. But what of God? Has he an ambassador on earth – someone to represent his interests in having a holy people and a creation put to rights? Yes; on the night of his betrayal, Jesus assured his disciples that God would indeed send his ambassador.

‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you (John 14:15-17, NRSV).

But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: 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. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

‘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 he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 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 16:5-15, NRSV).

The Holy Spirit is God’s advocate on earth – the one who pleads God’s cause and promotes God’s interest. God will have a people – a holy people, a kingdom and priests. God will have a world put to rights – a world of righteousness instead of sin, of life instead of death. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, acts on God’s behalf to create this reality by the transformation of people and the renewal of the world. The Holy Spirit seals us as God’s own and proclaims to the powers and dominions of this present evil age that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven – with all that implies. The Holy Spirit assures all creation that its present groaning is the prelude to birth, that it, too, will be born again – as a new heaven and a new earth, subject no longer to futility. All this is God’s cause. All this is God’s interest.

Reciprocity between nations usually involves the balancing of competing interests, with each nation trying to maximize the benefits to its citizens. But not so the reciprocity between heaven and earth. The Holy Spirit pleads God’s cause and promotes God’s interest, yes. But, we are God’s cause; we are God’s interest. The Holy Spirit is God’s advocate to us, but also God’s advocate for us. For those in Christ, for those indwelt by the Holy Spirit, there are no competing interests: that which is “best” for God – that which is his good and perfect will – is also that which is best for us and for all creation. And so we pray,

Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew us and all the world.

And there you have it. The Ascension of our Lord marks an exchange of ambassadors between earth and heaven, between man and God. Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, is our advocate before the Father’s throne in heaven. The Holy Spirit, breath of God, is God’s advocate within us. The Ascension of our Lord – the Feast of the Advocates.

There is yet one advocate, one ambassador, to consider – an ambassador of a different kind, an emissary of reconciliation and peace between estranged parties.

So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come! And all these things are from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us. We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God!” God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:17-21, NET).

We are the ambassadors of Christ through whom God is pleading with the world, “Be reconciled.” We are advocates of God before the world and of the world before God. We are the emissaries of God speaking words of peace, holding out the promise of the end of hostilities through the death and resurrection of our advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. We are the disciples of Christ gathered on the mountain longing for a kingdom, the disciples to whom Christ said,

“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” (Acts 1:7-8, NRSV).

Witnesses. Ambassadors. Advocates. In his final commission and in his Ascension the Lord appointed us to this ministry. And if you don’t feel quite up to the task, don’t worry overmuch; neither did the Twelve. They just stood there, mouths agape, scratching their heads, staring blankly into the sky until two men – we have every reason to believe they were angels – reminded them that Jesus would return one day and that in the meantime they had work to do. And so do we. Our work – as theirs – starts with worship, with a celebration of the Ascension of our Lord, the Feast of the Advocates. And we return from that worship with great joy, to take our place as Advocate beside our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, to the glory of our God and Father.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sermon: "Don't Make Me Come Down There" (13 May 2007)

Easter 6: 13 May 2007
(Acts 16:9-15/Psalm 67/Revelation 21:1-10, 22-22:5/John 14:23-29)
Don’t Make Me Come Down There

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

You’ve seen them: stark black billboards, white block lettering, messages from God. They’re not deep theology – it’s hard to do that on a billboard. They’re more like clever bits of folksy religious wisdom – homespun proverbs to encourage or admonish or just to provoke thought.

Let’s meet at my house Sunday before the Game. – God

C’mon over and bring the kids. – God

What part of “Thou Shalt Not…” didn’t you understand? – God

We need to talk. – God

That “Love Thy Neighbor” thing … I meant it. – God

They’re cute. They bring a smile and a thought of God, neither of which are bad things – especially when caught in rush hour traffic. They generally follow the primary rule of first aid and preaching: First, do no harm. But not always. Sometimes in their attempts to be clever they get the message exactly wrong: wrong in a harmful way, wrong in a way that shows a real lack of understanding of God, wrong in a way that borders on using God’s name in vain.

The particular billboard I have in mind is one I pass several times each week.

Don’t make me come down there. – God

That message is not from God. It is exactly wrong, and wrong on so many levels.

The message projects a false image of God. “Don’t make me come down there.” Now, what story could have that as its punch line? A weary father – or mother, but since the thrust of the story is negative and it is Mothers’ Day I’ve chosen to make the father the villain – a weary father comes home from a devastatingly bad day at work and wants nothing more than to sit down, have a cup of coffee, read the newspaper and be left alone for just a few minutes. The kids are downstairs playing when the ruckus begins; it sounds like they’re tearing down the house. “What’s going on down there?” the father yells. “Quiet down.” This works for just a minute or two and then the racket begins anew. The father hollers. The noise stops then starts again shortly. This cycle repeats three or four times until finally the father has had enough. “Don’t make me come down there,” he bellows down the stairs. And his message is clear: If I have to come down there, there’s going to be hell to pay. Weary, exasperated, angry, bent on punishment – this is the image of the father in our story. And it is the image of God projected by the billboard. God is world-weary; he just wants to be left alone for an age or two. He is exasperated by our refusal to pay attention, angry at our disobedience, and bent on punishment. “Don’t make me come down there.” The message is clear: If God has to come down here, there’s going to be hell to pay – literally.

But is that it, really? Is that what we think about God – and, more importantly, is that a right image? Let me propose another billboard: same black background, two simple, intersecting white lines – one vertical and one horizontal. A cross. You see, we did make God come down here, or rather his love for us made him come down here. And there was hell to pay – and he paid it.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9-10, NRSV).

“Don’t make me come down there.” Not only does this message project a false image of God, it is the antithesis, the negation, of the most fundamental of all Christian prayer – of the prayer that Jesus himself gave us, of the prayer that we are bold to say.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

“Thy kingdom come,” we pray, come on earth. Lord, come down here! is our prayer. We are taught first to make God’s name holy and second to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom to earth. We have a God who loves us – the cross is proof enough. And we have a God whom we love and for whose immanent presence we long and pray.

Don’t make me come down there, the billboard says. And why not? Because we seem to feel instinctively that when God comes it will be in judgment and because judgment is a fearful thing, a thing no one in his right mind wants. Right? Wrong. Here the billboard gets it exactly wrong once again. Let those with ears hear.

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth’ (Luke 18:1-8, NRSV)?

The point of this parable is not that God is to be compared to an unjust judge. The point is that, if even an unjust judge will finally relent and grant justice to the oppressed, how much more will our good God and Father grant justice to his oppressed people. So, pray continually, Jesus says. Pray for God’s justice. Pray for God’s judgment. This is the predominant view of judgment throughout Scripture – not an arbitrary meting out of punishment, but a vindication, a rescue, of God’s oppressed people. When God heard the cry of the Israelites in Egypt – a cry of oppression and bondage – God came in judgment. And that judgment meant liberation and deliverance. When God heard the cry of the exiles in Babylon – a cry of homesick longing – God came in judgment. And that judgment meant release and return.

126 In convertendo

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”

4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

This is the biblical picture of judgment – a dream come true, a bountiful harvest in a time of famine, our God doing great things for us. Judgment is justice. Judgment is rescue. Judgment is liberation. Judgment is deliverance. Judgment is vindication of the righteous – proof that they have been right all along, declaration that they have been the people of God all along. And judgment is a thing devoutly to be desired. Unless, of course, you are the oppressors of God’s people. Unless, of course, you have perverted justice. Unless, of course, you have rebelled against God and against his anointed. Then judgment is, indeed, a thing to be feared.

But would we really have it any other way? Do we really want a God who makes no distinction between good and evil, who looks humanity’s wickedness in the face – all the abuse, cruelty, war, genocide – and says, “That’s all right; let’s just pretend it never happened”? Do we really want a God who leaves the just grievances of the righteous unredressed for all time? Or do we really want the God we have – the God in whom mercy and justice have embraced; the God who is outraged that sin has despoiled his good creation; the God who has destroyed – in Christ – the power of sin and will one day eliminate its presence; the God who will ultimately exclude from the kingdom all that defiles it, all that harms it, all that opposes his perfect and sovereign will; the God who alone has the wisdom to judge rightly? The billboard says, “Don’t make me come down there.” We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As God’s holy people, we do not fear judgment; we long for it.

“Don’t make me come down there.” This message gets the end of the story exactly wrong. “Stay away, God,” it says. “Go do your own thing and leave us alone.” The legacy of the Enlightenment is the story that ends precisely with God going away and doing his own thing, leaving us entirely on our own. That’s the story Western culture has inherited and embraced. “Go away, God; let us worship the gods of progress and science.” And what do we do now that science and technology have outpaced our ability to manage them ethically? How do we answer questions of stem cell research and dwindling energy supplies and climate change? “Go away, God; let us worship the gods of silver and gold, the power of our wealth.” And what do we do now that our greed has outpaced our compassion? How do we answer questions of crippling third world debt; the growing disparity between rich and poor; the looming industrialization of India and China and Eastern Europe; the economic refugees on our borders? “Go away, God; let us worship the gods of power and war.” And what do we do now that war has failed to end war, now that a new type of war – terrorism – threatens us all and consumes our attention and resources and the lives of our young men and women, now that we are beginning to see that the gods of war require an unending stream of blood sacrifices from our young and old alike? “Stay away, God. Go do your own thing and leave us alone,” is the wrong end to the story.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden (Gen 2:4-10a, NRSV).

This is how the story begins: with God’s good creation, with a garden, with a river, with two trees, with God and man together. And though soon the story goes wrong, though soon we find ourselves – all of us – expelled from the garden and wandering the face of earth in exile, we know deep in our bones, deep in our God-given spirits, that the story cannot end until we find ourselves once again in the presence of God, with a river, with a tree.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,‘See, the home of God is among mortals.He will dwell with them;they will be his peoples,and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more,for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life’ (Rev 21:1-6, NRSV).

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever (Rev 22:1-5, NRSV).

That’s the end of the story. God comes down here. God lives with us. God puts to right all that is wrong with creation and with us. We wake from the dream of exile to find ourselves once again in the garden. And there is a river – the river of the water of life from which all may drink freely. And there is a tree – the tree of life bearing fruit which all may eat freely and leaves which heal the wounds of all the world: one tree and only one tree. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil – the tree that brought the curse – is nowhere to be found. We have known a little of good and more than enough of evil. We are no longer tempted to play at being God. We are finally content to embrace life as God has given it and to look to God and to the Lamb to be our light. This is the right end to the story.

And here are the final words in the story – the final message to replace the billboard, “Don’t make me come down there.”

The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.