A Whole God for the Whole World

A Whole God for the Whole World

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 27, 2018

Trinity Sunday

Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17

 

 

Some years ago, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to bring us the Indiana Jones trilogy, beginning with Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Do you remember the hero in the movies—Indiana Jones?  Played by Harrison Ford, he was a courageous, somewhat single-minded archaeologist. Whether Indy was on a quest to obtain the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, the adventure was sure to have many obstacles—crypts full of mice, underground caves and castles brimming with snakes not to mention narrow escapes from enemies aplenty! Danger was everywhere, but in the end, the treasure was found—usually bathed in a mystical light.

 

Today is Trinity Sunday, or “God Sunday,” and preparing to preach about the Trinity is much like going on an archaeological dig with Indy. There are obstacles and danger aplenty. Yet, if we are brave, we may bypass what hinders us and reach the sacred treasure of a deeper understanding of the Trinity—a deeper understanding of God.

 

What is it that makes preaching about the Trinity so difficult?  First, for a church that generally follows the lectionary, this is the only day of the year that calls us to examine a teaching of the church rather than a teaching of Jesus. No doubt, our reading from Romans reflects the Three-in-One doctrine, but it is biblical support for a word (Trinity) that cannot be found in Scripture.

 

Second, how can we mere mortals even attempt to explain the mystery of God?  Gregory Nazianzen says to speak of the Godhead is like crossing the ocean on a raft.  Augustine, one of the greatest minds of the western world, wrote about the Trinity. It took a decade and 15 books.

 

Third, how important is it for us to explain the mystery of God, anyway—God revealed in three distinct ways: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  Mysteries explained cease to be mysteries, right? The truth is God’s ways boggle our minds. And, we don’t need to try to explain all the mysteries of God—as if we could!  But we do need to explain, in faithful and articulate language, what God has done among us, what God is doing now, and what God promises to accomplish. For many Christians, the language of the Trinity has been a useful tool for doing just that.  It’s how the doctrine of the Trinity began in the first place.

 

Although the term “Trinity” wasn’t coined until the 3rd century, there were hints before then. Take our scripture passage from Romans, for example, in which Paul notes our connection to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Here, and in other places in Scripture, building blocks were formed from which the historic doctrine of the Trinity was crafted. We experienced God’s extravagant Triune Love, and as a result, we naturally started speaking of God as Trinity. It was the same God that we had experienced as the Creator of the world, the Father of Israel.  Now we experienced God in the flesh as Son, and as the power flowing from God—the Holy Spirit.  In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity began as a way to give words to our faith. The early Christians, living in a hostile world, needed to find some definitive language to express what they believed Christ had revealed to them. For the sake of unity, they needed a common language, a common confession.

 

This is still helpful for us today.  As Christians, we claim that there is one God—in three Persons—all of the same substance, the God-substance. We worship a God who is still creating among us, who has redeemed us through Jesus Christ, and who works among us through the Holy Spirit. God is still powerful, still working, now and forevermore.

 

William Willimon recommends that we think of the Bible as a long story of God’s attempted conversation with humanity. We keep rejecting God’s words. We keep turning away. We worship false gods. We run, and we hide.  But this doesn’t stop God. God keeps coming back to us. God comes to us in the lives of the patriarchs, the prophets, in the gift of God’s law. Then, stopping at nothing, God comes to us as the Son, comes to us as Jesus. Then, even when we kill his Son, hang him on a cruel cross, thinking that probably ends relations between us and God, in three days, God comes back to us as the risen Christ. God keeps coming back, again, and again.

 

But here is where it can get a little messy. Our theology—what we perceive to be true about God—can become hazy—so much so, communicating it to others can cause more harm than good. Allow me to offer an illustration. Once upon a time there was a boy who attended a revival. He had been going to church all his life, but this night he heard something new. The preacher placed a dirty glass on the pulpit and said, “This is you, all dirty and sinful inside and out.” Then he raised a hammer and said, “And this is God in his righteousness and God’s justice can only be satisfied by punishing and destroying sin in the world.” Then the preacher slowly drew back the hammer to make the deadly blow, but a miracle happened. At the last moment, he covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck the pan with a crash. The preacher held up the glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other and said, “Jesus died for your sins. He took the punishment that should have been yours and by doing so, he satisfied God’s righteousness.”

 

The boy couldn’t sleep that night. (Imagine that!) After thinking about what he had seen and heard he decided he could not love a God like that. He could love Jesus who had sacrificed himself for him, but that hammer-swinging God—no way!  Other thoughts troubled the boy. Was it right for Jesus to be punished for what other people had done?  And what good had it all done in the end since the glass was still just a dirty glass?

 

Now we sense that there’s something wrong with this theology—but what is it?  Is this a picture of the whole God who loves the whole world?  The illustration comes from Shirley Guthrie’s book, Christian Doctrine. In it, Guthrie continues by providing a clearer picture of God the Father and God the Son, in regard to the doctrine of atonement. He begins by acknowledging how painful it is to imagine God as a wrathful God demanding a blood sacrifice for our sins. The picture he paints is of God as the Judge who looks over the bench and pronounces the death sentence, but the death of Christ for us means that this same Judge comes around to the other side of the bench to accept the sentence on behalf of those who deserve it—on behalf of us. The Judge rules that the debt must be paid—then the Judge pays the debt. To complete the picture of the Trinity on this God Sunday, this same Judge leaves the courtroom with us to lead us to abundant life—now and forevermore.

 

This is the extravagance of God—this overflowing quality of God. Everything in creation screams the extravagance of God. Not one kind of flower—thousands of flowers.  Not one star—millions of stars. Though God is often beyond our understanding, historically, it has been through the Trinity that the church has spoken of this extravagant God who loves us beyond our imaginings.

 

Over the years, the Trinity has been expressed in many ways:  as water that may be present as a liquid, a solid, or a gas; as an apple that consists of the peel, the flesh and the core—yet all is of the same apple.  Also, the Trinity may be expressed as a circle where God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are in community with one another—interacting with one another—the Father giving to the Son, the Son offering praise to the Father and the Holy Spirit constantly drawing everything back to the Father and the Son. Within this community, we are invited to experience the flow of God’s endless love.

 

No doubt, the doctrine of the trinity is complex—feels a bit like going on an archaeological dig with Indiana Jones with obstacles and danger aplenty. But it’s worth the effort. Eugene Peterson proposes that using “Trinity” language can help us keep our conversations of Christian life personal and focused. For as the Christian community, we are people called into a personal experience in personal terms of love and forgiveness and hope. Everything about us—our worshiping and learning, talking and listening, teaching and preaching, obeying and deciding, working and playing, eating and sleeping—everything takes place in the presence and among the operations of our Triune God.[i]

 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” What an incredible picture of our Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

 

God the Father made you.

God the Son redeemed you.

God the Spirit empowers you.

This is the good news that is ours to share.

A whole God—for the whole world!

 

[i] Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

*Cover Art “Trinity” Andrei Rublev; Public Domain

The Breeze Remains

The Breeze Remains

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 20, 2018

Day of Pentecost

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21

 

For weeks I’ve been searching for a guest speaker to deliver our Pentecost message. Neither Peter, Paul, nor Mary was available. However, Joanna, a witness to the resurrection mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, has accepted the invitation to come and share her story.

<Put on head covering>

 

Shalom and thank you for allowing me to be with you this morning—crossing time, space, culture, and all that implies. Oh, do I have a story to tell you—a story of wind and spirit and hope! Where shall I begin? How about long, long, ago, sitting at the feet of my father. As a little Jewish girl, I adored my father. So did everyone else because my father was a great storyteller. He had a love for our Hebrew Scripture and he had a dramatic flair that could make the old stories come to life. I think, tucked away in his heart, he had every tale of our people. Although I loved all the stories, nothing held my attention like Yahweh directing Ezekiel to prophecy to the dry bones.

 

A little background is in order. This story is set at a time when disaster had fallen on Israel. Because of the unfaithfulness of my people, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. The traumatized survivors, who witnessed the massacre of loved ones, were taken into captivity. Ezekiel was among them. In Babylon, Ezekiel the priest became Ezekiel the prophet to the exiles. The people were dejected. They had lost all hope. The Temple, the home of the Presence of God had been destroyed. What of the spiritual life now?

 

In retrospect, the truth is my ancestors had developed a pattern in their behavior toward God. In times of desperation, they cried out to God and God heard them and came to their assistance. For a while, my people worshiped God and obeyed God, but after a while, they forgot God’s goodness and God’s laws and returned to their own stubborn ways. Essentially, they thought they could handle God, manage God, call upon God like a genie in a bottle and all their wishes would come true. But Yahweh would have none of it. The destruction of the nation, the city, the Temple—well, it was inevitable.

 

It is into this dark, hopeless place that God sent Ezekiel, setting him down into a valley of dry bones. My father would tell this story with such energy and enthusiasm. I can hear his voice even now:

 

Our people had given up saying, “All is lost. We are dead.” But Yahweh was not finished with Israel. God said, “No! There is still hope.” Then Yahweh provided a demonstration. He put Ezekiel down in the valley of dry bones and God said to Ezekiel, “Prophecy to these bones, and say to them: ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God…I will cause flesh to come upon you…cover you with skin…put breath in you and you shall live.’ Ezekiel prophesied and suddenly the bones began to rattle and the bones began to shake—clickety-clack—as if finding a long, lost friend, they came together, bone to bone. Then tendons appeared, and muscle and then skin that wrapped it all up, just so. Again, God spoke, telling Ezekiel to prophecy to the breath and say, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these…that they might live.” Ezekiel did as he was told and the breath, the wind, the spirit, the ruah came upon them and they lived and they stood at attention.

 

What a wondrous scene—a prophecy and a promise of things to come for the people of Israel—for the people of God. To be sure, all hope was not lost. I remember my father saying that in another place Ezekiel spoke these prophetic words of God: “A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you…and you shall be my people and I shall be your God.”[i]

 

I grew up hearing stories like these but how could I know that they would one day become my story and that I would witness their fulfillment when God’s holiness came to dwell among mere mortals? From the first time I saw Jesus, hope began to grow in my heart. I watched Jesus change lives, heal the sick, feed the hungry, work miracle after miracle. He walked the streets of Galilee and Nazareth and Jerusalem. Everywhere he went people flocked to him. People began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the dry bones of God’s people might rise again. However, many could not accept this humble king of kings. They wanted another kind of ruler—one who would give power to the powerless with a shield and a sword. But Jesus refused to bow to their limited understanding. Jesus had another plan—a plan for all people—a plan provided by his Abba Father. Looking back, it was inevitable that Jesus, the humble Son of God, would be silenced. The rulers of the world were not ready for his message. Would they ever be?

 

I was there. I saw my Savior hanging on a cross and, like everyone around me, I thought it was the end. But God had other plans. God—who will not be managed—managed to breathe life into his Son once more. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? A new day dawned when on that morning, I, along with Mary Magdalene and other women arrived at the tomb to find it empty. Empty! And then Jesus appeared—alive and well. He walked among his followers and spent time with us. But soon, too soon, he told us he must return to his Abba Father’s side.

 

Beforehand, he gave us instructions to wait to be clothed with power from on high. Even though we didn’t really know what he meant—we waited. Once Jesus ascended into heaven, there was some business to take care of. Matthias was chosen to replace Judas, and the disciples—representing the tribes of Israel—once more numbered 12.

 

Before we knew it, the Jewish festival of Pentecost was upon us. In our tradition, on Pentecost we remembered the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai so there were people from every land wandering throughout the city. Those of us who were followers of Jesus were all together in one place. Then, suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. And the wind, the spirit, the ruah ripped through the house. Divided tongues like flames of fire rested upon each one of us. We were glowing with the Spirit of God and we began to speak in languages we did not know! It was like a roll call of nations that symbolized how God’s Spirit would be for the whole world.[ii]

 

Devout Jews heard the commotion and came to investigate. In their own language, they heard the gospel message of God’s wonder-working power. They were amazed. They were perplexed. Some even claimed: “They’re drunk, that’s what this is!” But it wasn’t true. Oh, we were drunk, all right, but not on wine from the earth’s bounty. We were drunk from the heavenly wind that swept through us, giving life to dry, weary bones.

 

Peter jumped up, raised his voice, and proclaimed to the people gathered around that this was nothing less than the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken long ago from the lips of 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…Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

The Holy Spirit rushed in and changed everything. The Temple of the Lord now came to dwell in the heart of every believer—man, woman, child. No more class, race, or gender distinctions! Radical equality in the making! The church was born! What a day of celebration!

 

There are those who criticize the church today, saying that if the church was obedient to the will of God, every day would be like that day. But it isn’t so. The Spirit moved and changed the world with thousands added to our number. It was the beginning of God’s presence in the world in a new way. But God is still present, and God’s good work will continue through the church until Christ returns in all his glory. These days, the wind may not be so thunderous, so earth shaking, but the breeze of the Spirit remains.

 

Churches, small and large alike, can still impact their communities and their world for Christ. Some people have given up hope saying that churches are no more than dry bones. It isn’t so! Here in this church and in churches throughout the world, faithful people continue to work on behalf of God’s kingdom. It’s what you do with every prayer, with every act of kindness, with every act of love. Every time you share with someone what a difference God has made in your life, you proclaim the salvation story again.

 

The church must continue thinking wondrous thoughts and dreaming marvelous dreams. God is a nudging, urging, moving, creating God. To what new work might God be calling your church? To what new work might God be calling you? Watch for it. Wait for it. And when you feel the Spirit move—have courage and ride the wind wherever it leads. You never know! Those old bones may begin to rattle and those old bones may begin to shake and the four winds may blow and the breath, the spirit, the ruah may give you new words to say and new works to do that prove to this old world—the Temple of the Lord has come to dwell in the heart of every believer! Hallelujah! Amen!

[i] Ezekiel 36:26, 28, NRSV.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, 4.

*Cover Art © Stushie Art; used with subscription