Wednesday, June 27, 2012

'In any man be in Christ, he is a new creature', Trinitytide Sermon

Epistle Lesson: 2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Gospel Lesson: St. Mark 4:35-41 / St. Mark 5:1-20

The Gospel lesson begins with the rather ordinary phrase, “let us pass over unto the other side.” There is no foreshadowing of what is about to come upon their ship. It is as if he said, let’s grab a bite to eat or let’s go for a walk. Our lives too are characterized by the mundane, the ordinary, the quotidian details of life. But, of course, our lives also are seemingly interrupted by accidents and catastrophes. We never know what sort of wind, what sort of driving rain will come upon us unexpectedly. The disciples’ reaction to an accident of nature is fear. They believe their lives to be in jeopardy by a storm. Fear makes sense in a world of freak accidents and blind justice. In such a view, storms—both literal and figurative—are the playthings of chance, and we are all victims of a god who is more like a capricious child than a loving father. But God of the Bible is a loving Father. In the opening chapter of Genesis, God’s Spirit broods over the waters, transforming the chaos of the unformed world into an ordered and good creation. The Book of Psalms says—and this is unsettling for an Oklahoman—“Praise the LORD from the earth. . . Fire and hail, snow and vapours, * wind and storm, fulfilling his word” (148.7-8). Jesus teaches that his Father sends rain on the just and on the unjust; he makes his sun to rise on the good and on the evil. From the standpoint of faith there are no accidents. God is not asleep at the wheel in the storms of this life. Jesus chastens his disciples for their lack of faith. Now, what Jesus does not say is that we will always in all situations know and understand why something has befallen us. Or why we have come into the heart of a storm with our master seemingly asleep? As a man, I would like to know why hail hit our church and my home, but as a Christian, I have to trust that God is working everything together for his purposes, mysterious as they may seem to us. I can assure you that this view is much better than the alternative of seeing ourselves in a chaotic and purposeless world. My favorite image of God’s providence is that in this world, God’s good providence appears to us like the back of tapestry with unsightly knots and a rather chaotic pattern, but in the world to come, it will be as if that tapestry were turned around and we will understand how even the unexpected worked together in God’s great design. From the standpoint of this faith, we can trust that Jesus is in the storm with us, and he has power to deliver us because he is God. This passage puts before us one of the most compelling images of our Lord’s divine nature, as he calms the water and the storm in a way reminiscent of God as Creator in the book of Genesis. From the standpoint of faith, we can move from being victims of life’s storms to realizing that in Christ, we are children of God, children who know that nothing of this life—not even death—can separate them from his love. 

But we can see more about our lives. Yes, our outward lives are often assailed by storms. In fact, we seem to move from one storm to the next, and are in a relatively constant state of chaos. We know storms and catastrophes but there is also another power working in this world: the power of sin and spiritual evil. While outwardly we are assailed by storms, inwardly we are assaulted by our own inner demons: addiction, self-hatred, anger, greed, malice towards others. All these kill us and others. Notice in the second part of the Gospel lesson what the swine do when the demons from the possessed man are cast into their midst: “the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea. . . and [they were drowned] in the sea.” The demonic is self-destructive, as is sin. We think sin will make us happy or at least will not harm us, but on another cognitive level we are usually aware of how unhappy sin makes us and how sin robs us of spiritual joy. Clinging to that rage will kill you. Ask any doctor, and he will tell you that the stress of anger increases blood pressure and the rates of heart attack and stroke. Ask any Christian, and you will be told that anger roots out joy and peace. And yet in a kind of insanity we cling to that rage and anger. Addiction to alcohol or pornography will do the same thing: driving one to self-destruction. Part of the nature of sin is that it causes self-destruction. St. Augustine makes a profound statement on this point. In explaining what it means to love yourself in the command to love your neighbor as yourself, he says that to love yourself is to have compassion on yourself; to have compassion on yourself is simply not to sin because sin is that which kills us. Our Lord saves the disciples from storms, but he also delivers those who are afflicted by inner demons. In this miracle, the kingdom of God breaks into human existence. In the kingdom of God, there is liberation for the captive, freedom for the possessed, joy for those who are cast down by sorrow and despair. Listen to this beautiful succession of actions attributed to God in the Psalms: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. . . the Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow.”  Our Lord’s ministry is the manifestation of these works of God, exemplified in this miracle. Our Lord reveals God’s dominion over every spiritual evil in his coming kingdom. If our Lord delivers the man who cuts himself with stones, he will deliver you too from your self-destructive behavior. Your deliverance may not come overnight—the implication is that the man has been possessed for years—but seek the Lord in prayer of the heart, gather together in Christian fellowship, study in the Bible to hear God’s word to you—and your deliverance will come. As a young man out of university, I went through a period of debilitating depression; in a situation like this, it is so easy not to see beyond the present feelings, and to let the despair become the only thing that seems real. The God whom we worship, revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, wants to deliver us from every demon, addiction and sin. We are his children, and our self-destructive behavior grieves him as much as a young person’s self-destructive behavior grieves his parents. 

Here is the good news. In the epistle lesson, Paul writes—in one of the most profound statements in any of his letters—that, “we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Jesus died. He died in an ignoble, humiliating way. But remembering his death is not simply a recitation of a profound and moving tragedy. Rather, we believe and confess that he died as our representative and as the representative of all mankind. When he died, he took away the sting of death, and as our representative, we are freed from the fear of death. “one died; therefore all are dead.” Why is this so profound? Because the whole complex by which the world defines and divides humanity—male, female, white, black, rich, poor—has come crashing down in our Lord. Henceforth we know no man after the flesh, that is, we don’t think primary in terms of man, woman, white, African, or Jew. He is not saying that there are not real differences between men and women, Jews and gentiles, but that differences are of a secondary order when compared with the fact that all humans are those for whom Jesus died; in him, those distinctions that are the source of prejudice, oppression, violence and war are undone. The biggest difference between people is that there are those who know Jesus died for them and those who do not yet know this. All are brothers for whom Christ died. “If one died for all, then all are dead.” In that we have died with him, Paul can make the profound assertion—which words might have echoed the man delivered from a legion of demons: “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” As a new creature, we do not need to fear the literal or figurative storms of this life because we trust that in the words of the Bible, “all things work together for the good of them who love God”. As a new creature, we are delivered from every spiritual and oppressive evil and have died to self-destroying sin to live a new life of spiritual joy and love. As a new creature, we know the gathering of Jesus Christ crosses political, ethnic and economic lines; in the kingdom of God, there can be, there is no “us and them,” only the brothers and sister of the one who died for all. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trinity Sunday Sermon

Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity. It is not the day in which the doctrine of the Trinity should be reduced to palpable images or figures. No doubt you've heard of the ice, liquid water, and water vapour image as a metaphor for the Trinity. In a children's book on the Trinity I came across this week, the author states that the Trinity is like an apple which has a peel, flesh, and core with seeds. But when we speak of the three persons of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—we are not speaking of different parts of God, or in the case of the water metaphor, of changing states or masks of God. One of the most helpful phrases on the doctrine of the Trinity comes from what is called the Athanasian Creed which historically, together with the Apostle's and Nicene creeds, was considered to be the basis of Christian confession. The Athanasian Creed states in part, “the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons : nor dividing the Substance.” To confound the persons is to blur the distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity and their role in salvation history. That which makes them distinct is their relation to one another: the Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. On the other hand, to divide the substance, is to emphasize the differences of the persons to such an extent that the result is a belief in three gods. The Tri-une God is one Lord, one Almighty, one Being that is not created, one Being that is eternal. This one phrase uproots most of the images of the Trinity that will be heard from pulpits today: “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.”

The purpose of the feast day becomes more when we consider where it falls in the course of the church year. The church year begins with Advent around the first of December. Advent anticipates the second and first comings of our Lord Jesus. His nativity is celebrated at the end of Advent with the 12 days of Christmas. Epiphany—the manifestation of Jesus as both God and man, especially to the wise men—follows in January and February. In the next season Lent, we recollect our Lord's temptation—in which he faced and overcame all the temptations common to man. The climax of Lent, of course, is Holy Week and the commemoration of our Lord's last days, his crucifixion and triumphant resurrection on Easter Day. Forty days after Easter Sunday, we remember that Jesus ascended into heaven where he intercedes for us and from where he sends his disciples the Spirit. Ten days later on Pentecost—last Sunday—the church gives thanks for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and church. From Advent to Pentecost we remember the events by which we confess that God entered into history to save humanity from sin and death. The crown of these successive events is Trinity Sunday. Do we have Trinity Sunday now because we are turning from events to ideas or philosophy? Not at all. Trinity Sunday follows this yearly re-telling of salvation history in order to remind us that our belief in a Tri-une God is shaped and formed by God's self-revelation in these saving events. For example, we confess our Lord to be God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, because we are confronted by the reality of Jesus, a man, yes, but a man so unlike his contemporaries, so unlike us, that he stands out in the Gospel narratives—from birth to crucifixion to resurrection—as more than perfect man, being perfect God as well. Even the best of men do not claim to have power over spiritual evil, to heal and raise the dead and even to forgive sins. This man Jesus also claims that God is his Father in a way unique and exclusive to him. If untrue, this is the worst kind of arrogance or perhaps insanity, but if true, we have to reckon with this man, this perfect human who is also the only-begotten Son of God. We also confess the Holy Spirit to be the third person of the Trinity because we are confronted by the Holy Spirit. According to the Bible we know the invisible Spirit because we have a desire to love God and others and because we have a desire to do that which God commands. The Spirit leads us to Jesus, transforming us into disciples of Jesus. The Spirit can speak to us in a still small voice in our hearts or be manifested in powerful and dramatic ways as the book of Acts witnesses. All this leads one to conclude that the Spirit is not it, but thou, a personal presence even as Jesus was personally present with his disciples. So, you see, the doctrine of the Trinity is not really the speculation of philosophers who have discovered something new about God; the doctrine of the Trinity is the natural and logical result of reflecting on  the saving events we've commemorated over the past six months.

This begs the question: why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? Isn't it enough simply to believe in God? A hymn that is often sung on Trinity Sunday is known as St. Patrick's Breastplate—it's hymn 268. The text traditionally attributed to St. Patrick is a statement of faith in God as a sure protector from all the evil that we encounter in this life. The words are a figurative breastplate for the Christian who devoutly recites them. The hymn opens with these words:
            I bind unto myself today
            The strong Name of the Trinity,
            By invocation of the same
            The Three in One and One in Three.
Each today, when we wake up, we do not know what will to happen to us. Some days, maybe even many days are predictable, but there are a lot of days that are filled with twists and turns, interruptions and accidents, at least from our limited perspective. Each day can often feel like an obstacle course. The conviction stated in St. Patrick's Breastplate is that we can face this obstacle course through the strong name of the Trinity, and here is where we come to the reason why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important. The doctrine of the Trinity is important and the Trinity is invoked in the Breastplate of St. Patrick because the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is a trinity of persons, Father, Son and Spirit, recalls for us the saving events wrought by the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God the Father so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that Christ has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that our Lord has ascended into heaven and has sent to us another Comforter to lead us into all truth and to bear witness with our spirit that we children of God. The Trinity is invoked in St. Patrick's Breastplate because we are to live our lives in the context of these saving events, our Lord's incarnation, baptism, and temptation, his passion, crucifixion and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We are to see the birth of a precious child in the context of the birth of God's son in a stable in Bethlehem. We are to see our awakening to the things of faith in the context of Jesus' baptism as he opens the way for our new, spiritual birth; we are to see our temptations and failures in the context of our Lord's temptation and his victory over that temptation, a victory that we share in, in as much as we belong to him. We are to see our death and mortality and the death of our loved ones in the light of the cross of our Lord Jesus, who by his death has taken away the sting of death. We are to see our hope for a future, greater life, in the context of our Lord's triumphant resurrection and his ultimate defeat over sin and death. It is, thus, no surprise that the second verse of the Breastplate continues with these words:
            I bind this today to me forever
            By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
            His baptism in Jordan river,
            His death on Cross for my salvation;
            His bursting from the spic├Ęd tomb,
            His riding up the heavenly way,
            His coming at the day of doom
            I bind unto myself today.
The alternative to seeing our lives in the context of the saving events worked by the Holy Trinity is startling: without his blessed passion and precious death, without his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, without the coming of the Holy Ghost, our lives become unmoored, a meaningless sequence of events that tend toward chaos, decay and destruction;  sorrow after sorrow we move from amusement to amusement in order to anesthetize our loneliness and spiritual emptiness. On the other hand, our lives find their true purpose and meaning in the life of the Trinity and in the light of the redeeming work of the Trinity. In our confession of the Trinity, we embrace and find our lives in the life of the Trinity and in the confidence of this faith in overcoming every trial, temptation and evil of this life.
            I bind unto myself the Name,
            The strong Name of the Trinity,
            By invocation of the same,
            The Three in One and One in Three.
            By Whom all nature hath creation,
            Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
            Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
            Salvation is of Christ the Lord.