A Gentle Invitation
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 30, 2021
Psalm 29; John 16:12-15
Joe is searching—searching for answers, searching for hope, searching for something. Over the past couple of years, Joe has begun to realize that his life hasn’t turned out like he thought it would—and now Joe is afloat in the world like a ship without a sail. He always thought he was one of the lucky ones. He graduated from college, got a good job, and began building a life. But even with so much success, life felt empty. Joe had a hunger that he could not name—a deep hunger for hope, for truth, for something. Joe grew up in church but when he went off to college, well church didn’t seem to be important anymore. Religion—he thought—that’s for old folk—religion—well, it just wasn’t for him. But lately, Joe had begun to have second thoughts. Maybe there was something to his mother and father’s faith. All these things had been weighing on his mind and then one morning he woke up with a hymn playing in his head, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…” Yeah, a little grace—that would be a good thing right now—Joe thought—that would be a very good thing.
So Joe began to look for a church home. He started with the church just down the road—The Church of Only the Father—it was called. Joe visited for a few weeks. He sat in the back, hoping no one would notice him, and sure enough, no one did. The preacher was loud, and he yelled a lot about hell and damnation. He preached about God as a Judge who would one day burn wicked sinners in a Lake of Fire because they had not heeded the Law. Amazing Grace—they sang the song, but Joe didn’t sense much grace. Something was missing. What about Jesus? The One who gave his life for sinners? What about the Holy Spirit that can transform lives—even the lives of people who have somehow lost their way? No, this wasn’t what Joe had in mind. So, Joe stopped going. No one noticed his absence. No surprise since they had hardly noticed his presence.
And Jesus said, “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.”
Yes, Joe needed truth in his life. He still had a void in his heart so, he got up the courage to attend another church, The Church of Only the Son, it was called. He watched and he listened. The focus of the church was doing—doing things for Jesus. But after a while, Joe realized that the teaching wasn’t just about being the hands and feet of Jesus. The teaching and preaching was more like, it is in the doing that people find favor with God—that people earn God’s love. Joe listened carefully. In the church of his youth, he had been taught that salvation is found through grace—not through works righteousness. No, Joe didn’t believe he could earn his salvation. He didn’t believe that at all. And he didn’t believe that living faithfully was only about doing, doing, doing. Something was missing. What about God the Father who created humanity and loves humanity still? What about the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—stories that demonstrate God’s love and grace throughout history? What about the Spirit who convicts us, prods us, and prompts us to walk into light and truth? No, this wasn’t what Joe hungered for—being faithful is about more than “doing” so Joe stopped going.
And Jesus said, “The Spirit 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.”
A few months later, still searching for a church home, Joe heard about a church on the other side of town that had been creating quite a stir—The Church of Only the Spirit, it was called. Now, to be honest, Joe walked in and wanted to walk right back out. He could not believe he was putting himself out there again. But no—he wanted to be fair—he wanted to give this church a try, so he did, for several weeks. He mustered up the courage and showed up—sat in his favorite place—the back pew—just in case he felt the urge to leave. He watched and he listened. And there was a lot to see and hear—this was a rowdy bunch—there was shouting and dancing in the aisles—speaking in tongues. Joe had never seen anything like this before. Prayers were prayed to the Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit is about all the preacher preached about—the Spirit was about all the church sang about. And if there was any glory and honor being given—it was to the Spirit. What about the God of the Old Testament and the New? What about living life as Jesus did—showing compassion to the least of these? What about sacrificial love—costly love? Something was missing. Surely religion is about more than spiritual highs and spiritual “feelings.” So, Joe stopped going—or so the story goes.
And Jesus said, “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
The story of Joe’s search for a church—well, I am sure you noticed that it includes huge generalizations. Most churches are not so obviously aligned with ONLY the Father, ONLY the Son or ONLY the Holy Spirit. And let’s face it—most seekers are not like Joe—quickly observing on the front end the inner teachings of a church’s theology or doctrine—that takes some time. Still, the story may provide us a way to reflect on the challenges of being a church that embraces the Triune God and lives out a balanced faith.
Today is Trinity Sunday and let me be honest. Preaching about the Trinity is a tough task. Why? Because on Trinity Sunday we are challenged to preach a teaching of the church rather than a specific teaching in Scripture. The word is not in the Bible. It is a term coined in the 3rd Century to explain our experience of God as the Creator of the world, God as the Son who entered the world as a baby, and God as the Holy Spirit, ever-empowering and present. The doctrine of the Trinity was meant to help give words to our faith, and, over time, it became a natural way to speak about what God has done among us, what God is doing now, and what God promises to accomplish. We worship a Creator who is still creating among us. We worship a Savior who redeemed us and works among us, sometimes in spite of us. We worship the Holy Spirit who is in our midst—moving and working. Our Holy God is still powerful, still working, now and forevermore.
The bulletin cover image created by Andrei Rublev, is the artist’s attempt to explain the Trinity through the story of the hospitality of Abraham found in Genesis chapter 18. You may recall that Abraham is sitting by the oaks of Mamre at the entrance of his tent when he looks up and sees three men standing by—three men who turn out to be Angels of the Lord—Angels who proclaim that in one year Abraham and Sarah will be blessed with a child. Abraham welcomes the strangers—water is brought, food is served—it is hospitality at its finest. In portraying this act of hospitality, earlier artists included Abraham and Sarah, a servant killing the fatted calf, and a tree of Mamre, but Rublev eliminated all those narrative elements. He made a conscious decision to illustrate the story of the hospitality of Abraham—but to convey through his image the idea of the unity and indivisibility of the three persons of the Trinity. Rublev’s “Trinity” beckons us to dig deeper into our own understanding of God and it offers a gentle invitation to enter that sacred space to love, to be loved, and to go forth to live faithfully in the world.
One day, God may put it on Joe’s heart to visit First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta—either in person or online. What will he find? Will he find a church that teaches one way of knowing God at the exclusion of other ways? Or will he find a church that seeks to understand God as fully and wholly as we can in our thinking, in our feeling, and in our doing? Will Joe find a home with us? I pray that he will. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.