I will begin with some background of today's scripture lesson which comes from the 16th Chapter of John. The passage, verses 12-15 comes near the end of a very long discourse of Jesus with his disciples. The discourse begins in Chapter 13, on the night of the last supper, after Judas had departed. Jesus was explaining to his disciples what his life had meant and what was to come for him and for them. In John 14:10 he says, "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? Verse 16 "I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever." Then verse 26 "But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said." Chapter 15, v 26 "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf." The discussion continues until the end of Chapter 16. It must have been a very long evening.
This brings us up to our selection for today, Chap 16, v 12-15. CEB
John 16: 12-15
12 "I have much more to say to you, but you can't handle it now. 13 However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won't speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and proclaim it to you. 15 Everything that the Father has is mine. That's why I said that the Spirit takes what is mine and will proclaim it to you.
You've probably heard the expression, "In for a penny, in for a pound." That is what came to me as I contemplated today's scripture. There is a lot of theology that I don't understand or that just doesn't lend itself to knowing by reasoning or logic. Jesus understood that, so he said to his disciples, and to you and me, you can't handle it right now. That is the way I feel when it comes to some of our Christian doctrines. I can't handle it right now. Paul expressed the same idea in his first letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says (in the KJV) :For now we see through a glass, darkly" or in the CEB "Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known."
Today is Trinity Sunday. In Jesus long discourse, from which today's text is taken, he established the basic structure of the the Trinity by talking about the Father God, and the Holy Spirit, whom he gave several names. The Trinity has always been one of those hard to understand and hard to explain topics. Trinity Sunday marks the culmination of the season of Pentecost which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit and the foundation of the church. We are moving to the season of Ordinary Time. We will not celebrate a special season again until the beginning of Advent in November when we begin the anticipation of Christ's coming. We move through Epiphany, Christ on earth, and then into Lent, a season of contemplation and preparation for his death and resurrection. We pay attention to these seasons to remind us of God's story of his relationship with us and all of humankind.
These seasons mark events that we accept on faith, because we have no empirical or scientific way of knowing what literally happened. This lack of empirical evidence presents a problem to me because I am the kind of person who wants the facts. Concepts like virgin birth, resurrection, ascension, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity - these are mystical, supernatural events and are not subject to factual proof. But I feel like if I put my penny in the plate and accept the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, mystical, supernatural God, then I'm as in for the whole pound of theology, even if some of it doesn't make sense to my rational mind.
Today we affirmed our faith using the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed is the oldest and most definitive statement of faith used by the church. It was adopted by the Council of Nicaea in 325 and was revised to the contemporary version in 381 AD. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, wrote about it at the time saying, "Just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments." You may want to look again at #880.
"We believe in one God" – the first paragraph describes the nature of God
"We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God" – the second section goes on to describe the character of Jesus, his holy birth, his human nature, his death, resurrection and ascension.
"We believe in the Holy Spirit" - it defines the Spirit of God with us, and the nature of the church universal.
I have to admit that I have never particularly liked using the Nicene Creed in our worship service, but I selected it for today because of its historic definition of the Trinity. It seems so formal and stilted and I'm not sure I understand or really believe everything in it, at least not with my rational mind. John Wesley did not encourage it's use in the early American church. He thought it too strongly tied to the Church of England and not understandable to the common people to whom he preached. So in American Methodist churches, the Apostles Creed, Wesley's choice, is the standard. I really like the Modern Affirmation of Faith. I can say it without any mental reservations.
What these three statements of faith have in common is an affirmation of the triune nature of God. I encourage you to compare for yourself, #880, #881, and #885 in the UMC Hymnal. Triune simply means three-in-one. Sort of like WD-40, that mystical 3-in-1 lubricant that penetrates, lubricates and protects. Sort of like my toothpaste that cleans my teeth, protects them from decay and freshens my breath. But the Holy Trinity is orders of magnitude different from these common examples. Theologians through the centuries have struggled to explain the three-in-one nature of God.
There is a Greek word, Perichoresis, which literally means “dancing around” or “dancing in a circle.” That's what I've been doing with the Trinity this morning, dancing around it. Christian theologians have used this concept of perichoresis, dancing in a circle, since the third century to describe the dance of the Eternal-Three-in-One, each person distinct yet interpenetrating the other, each pouring out grace and love to the other in the dance. It is into this eternal dance of the Eternal Trinity that we have been invited.
I can't explain Trinity in logical terms to you. But I can confess it when we say together as a church family and as part of the church universal what we believe. I can sing it. Today, together with multitudes of other Christians of all varieties, we have confessed in song, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end." We have praised the Trinity in song, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise God all creatures here below. Praise him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost." We have affirmed it in song with the beautiful hymn that celebrates the Trinity, "Holy, Holy, Holy."
Even with all that said, the Trinity remains a mystery - to be explored and experienced, not explained. Here's how Bishop Ken Carder describes it. (I'm sure some of you remember him as Pastor at Concord, Oak Ridge and Knoxville before becoming Bishop). He wrote a great little book called, "Living Our Beliefs " in which he describes the Trinity as "a narrative description of God who is a communion of love and freedom into which we are invited to participate. It is the framework for understanding the nature, character, purposes and presence of God. At its core meaning is the declaration: God, the Father, who is before us; God, the Son, who is for us; God the Holy Spirit, who is with us…. Faith is fundamentally a relationship with God…living in relationship with God." We know the Trinity by our relationship with God.
Bill and I recently saw the movie "Life of Pi." I recommend the movie. It is PG, but not for kids. It is the story of a boy and a tiger, shipwrecked and stranded together on a small lifeboat, but there's not that much action. It is really a story of a boy's search for God, and his search for himself. The boy, Pi, is born into a Hindu family. He has a great hunger for God. He says he is lucky to be a Hindu, because there are so many gods, and as a Hindu, he is free to believe in all of them, some of them, or none of them. Hindu is not strictly a religion because there are no core beliefs. You may have heard that said about Methodists. Things like, "you can believe anything and be a Methodist," or "Methodists are so broad-minded that they're empty-headed." Anyway, while remaining a Hindu, Pi discovers Islam, and begins to know God from the Muslim perspective. He learns and follows the prayer rituals among other things. But he is still hungry for God and curious when he wanders into a Christian Catholic church. He develops a relationship with the priest and learns much about Christianity. In one of my favorite lines of the movie he says that Christianity is a religion that makes no sense. A God of Love who kills his own son to prove how much he loves us. How crazy is that! Yet he couldn't get that son out of his head. Near the end, the adult Pi tell another version of his shipwreck story, one more logical and believable. And in the end, the interviewer asks him which version of his shipwreck story is true. He, in turn, asks the interviewer, "which one do you prefer?" "The one with the tiger, of course." And Pi responds, "And so it is with God." The movie ends.
And so it is with God. We have a God story that makes no rational sense. We have multiple versions of the story to choose among and not just from among the 'religions of the world' but from among our own protestant denominations and even within Methodism. Which one is right and true? We have United Methodist doctrines and creeds that were formulated in the very beginning of the church. Some of these doctrines are very hard to believe. I just can't wrap my mind around some things. Pi said “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
One of the things I like about being a United Methodist is that I don't have to believe exactly like everyone else. I can think about my faith, be different, and still be a faithful member of the church. John Gooch, in his book "Being a Christian in the Wesleyan Tradition" has a chapter entitled 'Don't check your brains at the door.' I like the idea that reason is one of the ways of knowing what is right and true, along with scripture, tradition and experience. I like that there is no "anti-intellectualism" in Methodism. I like the idea that beliefs are to be lived out, faith to be experienced in relationships. I like the idea that I can stand before you and say I don't understand. I have doubts about some of the theology. I can't honestly say all of the words of all of the creeds.
Is that OK? Can I be a good United Methodist member of Trinity Church and have doubts about some of the basic doctrines. Bishop Ken Carder, in the book I mentioned earlier, reassures me and I will quote, "Doubt is sometimes the most honest and authentic affirmation of faith. Questioning is a gift of God by which we "test the spirits to see if they are of God." Then he goes on to quote the poet Tennyson: "There is more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds." So is it OK with you that I have doubts? It's OK with me.
But doubt alone is not a faith. My reasonable mind tells me that there must be some bottom line of belief if I claim to be a Christian. For me that is summed up in Jesus declaration of the greatest commandment. Mark tells it in Chapter 12, verses 28-31.
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" 29 Jesus answered, "The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
The doctrines of the church have grown out of theologians understanding and explanations of scripture. The Trinity, God in Three Persons, is the most fundamental doctrine for Christians. Christianity really makes no sense without it. We don't have to be able to explain all the whys and wherefores. If we put our penny in with Jesus greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbor, then we're in for the whole pound.
Eternal God, your have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit - God the Father before us, God the Son for us and God the Holy Spirit with us. Grant that we my always hold firmly and joyfully to this faith. Amen