Tuesday, June 21, 2011

in the image of (a Triune) God


“So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God he created them.”

I want to begin by introducing myself. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. It is really great to be with you this morning at Trinity Church on Trinity Sunday to preach a sermon on … drumroll … the Trinity. As John Wesley once said, “bring me the worm that can comprehend a man, and I’ll show you the man that can comprehend the Trinity.” Perhaps no Christian doctrine is more intellectually challenging than the Trinity. And so now that we’re clear that I don’t understand the subject matter, let’s dive in.

What I admire the most about kids is their questioning nature, because once they learn the word why they can’t really seem to unlearn it. “Time to go to bed. Why? Because I said so. Why? Because I’m in charge. Why?” Of course, those are all small why questions, but eventually we get to the big ones. Why are we here? Why did God create us? Why were we made? After all, those big why questions are built into our D.N.A.

I’ll never forget the first hopeless answer I ever got to that question. It was my first semester of college, and we had to read a British Philosopher by the name of Bertrand Russell, who got famous for his response to the big why question. “Man,” He said, “is nothing but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.” Why are we here? We’re here because of a molecular accident. A hopeless answer to the why question indeed.

But then again, most people throughout history have given such an answer. In fact, if you had been born in the ancient near east around 1200 BC, just before the Book of Genesis was written, your world would have been an incredibly hopeless one. There were many gods, or so it was believed, and they all were at war. And so as a kid, you probably asked your parents why the gods created you. After all, there’s not a kid in the world that doesn’t ask that question. But every answer had a similar hopelessness. We were created because the gods were bored; because they were lonely; because the gods were lazy and needed free labor. In other words, if you were born in the ancient near east, there was no why.

Well, it was into this horribly hopeless world that these words were first recorded. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good.” And then the kicker – “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” In other words, what we have in today’s reading from Genesis is an answer to that big why question that revolutionized this world. Why are we here? Why did God create us? Why were we made? We were created to reveal God. We were created to reflect God. We were created to image God.

You see contrary to the polytheistic beliefs of its time – where many gods existed that were all jockeying for power – the Bible reveals a supra-personal, loving God – a God that has three distinct personalities on the one hand, and yet at the same time is too unified to be more than one. And of course, I’m talking about the Trinity – that doctrine that says that the God we worship is a perfect community of love. And what our reading from Genesis reveals is that it was this Triune God that created both us and our world. As Genesis 1:1 tells us, “God created,” which we attribute to the work of the Father. And in verse two, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters, which is same language the Gospels use to talk about the Holy Spirit hovering over the water at Jesus’ baptism. And finally, Genesis 1:3 tells us that God creates by speaking His Word. Creation is not something that God thinks into existence. No, God speaks His word. And of course in the Gospel of John we learn that this “Word” is expressed fully in the person of Jesus Christ. And so it’s important to see that from the outset of our sacred story, we find one God existing in a relationship that is harmoniously intact and perfect.

We were not created because God is bored. We were not created because God is lazy. We are not a molecular accident. No, you and I exist because at the heart of all reality is this wonderful and dynamic life that we call the Trinity, and that because this God is generous and kind and good, He decided to create us to be what Karl Barth called, “a parable of His own life.” We were created to reveal, reflect and image God.

But here’s the catch – because God is a perfect community, we simply cannot reflect God alone. Because if God is a perfect community, and we were created to image this God, that means that the doctrine of the Trinity is not just an intellectual challenge – it’s an ethical one. Because to the extent that we grasp that the very thing that holds up this universe is a perfect community of love, we’re going to be challenged to be more thoughtful about how we relate to other people. After all, we were created for perfect, intact, and harmonious relationships – with God, and with each other.

And course that’s what the second chapter of Genesis is all about. Adam and Eve were both naked, but not ashamed – which apparently means that the Garden of Eden was the first nudist colony. The point being made is that both Adam and Eve were totally exposed and known. No masks. No hiding. No lies. They were in perfect communion with each other.

But at the same time, Adam and Eve were in perfect communion with God. After all, what the Bible suggests is that God was in the garden with both of them the entire time. In fact, a rabbinic tradition taught that every evening God and Adam would take a walk together. And I can only imagine they talked about how beautiful Eve was and about how great it was to be with her. And as for Eve, I bet she felt really safe and loved and cherished – not used or taken for granted – but appreciated and admired for who she was because she knew that she was seen for who she was. That is, after all, what Eden represents – perfect, intact, and harmonious relationships.

Now, I know what you could be thinking. “I’m not sure what world you’re living in, but the world you just described, that’s not the real one!” And you’re right, it’s not. Unless it is.

You see in today’s Gospel Jesus gives his disciples the Great Commission. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” What I’d like to suggest this morning is that the Great Commission has two meanings, and what I’d like to do is say a word about the interpretation you probably haven’t heard. You see that Greek word translated baptize – it doesn’t just mean to immerse in water. It also means to overwhelm. And that Greek word translated “Name,” – that’s not just a baptismal formula, because in the Bible, to do anything in someone’s name means to do it with their character – to do it with their spirit. Do you see how that changes our view of mission? “Go and make disciples of all nations overwhelming them with the character of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. That is our mission as a church – to overwhelm the world with loving character of this Triune God so that the world is irresistibly drawn to follow Jesus as their Lord.

The Book of Genesis revolutionized our world with its answer to the big why question. The question I leave us with this morning is has it revolutionized our lives? Because the world we live in – the people we work with, spend time with and live with – they are so desperate for a hopeful answer to the big why question. And what I would like to suggest today is that the most compelling answer to that question has little to do with what we say and much more to do with how we live. The Trinity is far more of an ethical challenge than it is an intellectual one. When we jockey for power and position, when we run around with a mask, when we use criticism or sarcasm or lies to shield people from seeing us for who we are, we are not imaging the Trinity. It’s when we form deep, vulnerable, and non-violent relationships; it’s when we invest in someone we don’t know; it’s when we stop seeking to live self-sufficient lives; those are the moments when we reflect God most clearly, the moments that make it possible to overwhelm the world with God’s love.

At the center of all reality is a perfect, intact and harmonious relationship. We were made to both experience and reflect that relationship to each other and to the creation in a way that is overwhelming. That is the reason we are here. And so here’s my question. Are harmonious relationships at the center of our lives and if not … why?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

what now?

To listen online


When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "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." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Aidan’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. Thank you so much for having me – it is really great to be with you.

Once upon a time, in a land of fear and confusion, some exciting news began to circulate. It was the good news of the big race. This race had long been anticipated by the people’s ancient oracles, and the prophecies were clear -- anyone that persevered in running this race was promised restoration, support and strength (1 Pet 5:10).

Well, the day of the big race finally arrived, and when the opening gun sounded, everyone began running with all of their might. But then something happened. There was this guy who, after just taking a few steps, fell to his knees, and began to rejoice. “This is the happiest day of my life! I’ve crossed the starting line.” And then all the others, sure enough, followed suit – they too stopped running and began to celebrate. “I’m a race runner! I’m a race runner!” they all shouted in joy. And on and on went their celebration just feet from the starting line. Well, the joy of that opening gun eventually wore off and, before they could even explain what had happened, they were all back in the land of fear and confusion. And so as the story goes, they stared at the sky and said, “What now?”

I don’t know about you, but this story resonates with my own experience, and I think it’s a pretty accurate portrait of where many of us find ourselves. We remember the initial joy that came with first encountering Christ – when that opening gun sounded and we took those first steps with all that we had. But before we could even explain what happened, something put us back in that inner place of fear and confusion, leaving us staring at the sky and asking what now?

Jesus’ disciples, of course, felt the same way. According to Luke – the author of the Book of Acts – the forty days following Jesus’ resurrection left the disciples scared, confused and not quite sure of what they were supposed to do next. After all, that first Easter week was spent in an upper room with a deadbolt lock. According to the Gospel of John the disciples eventually left that Upper Room, but only to return to a life of fishing. Scared, confused and uncertain, Jesus’ resurrection left the disciples not with an answer but with a question –
What now?

Could you hear it in their voice in today’s reading from Acts? “Lord,” they say, “is this the time you’re going to restore the Kingdom?” “No? Okay, uhh, and you’re flying away? What are we supposed to do now?” But you see, Jesus did not intend his Ascension – that is, his resurrected body leaving this earth – Jesus did not intend his Ascension to spark that what now question. Jesus intended his physical leaving to answer that “what now” question. What now? “You,” Jesus said to his disciples – “you,” Jesus says to us – “You will be my witnesses.”

And so what exactly does that mean – to be a witness for Jesus? It’s an important word. In fact, Luke uses it 13 times to sum up the Christian life. Well, the Greek word translated “witness” is martus, which is where we get the word martyr, and a martyr, as you probably know, is someone that loses their life for Jesus.

One can’t help but see the irony of these words spoken to the first disciples. Peter was crucified upside down. James was stoned. Bartholomew was beheaded. Of the eleven listed in today’s reading, only John died a natural death. The other ten lost their life for Jesus. Could they have avoided such a death? Probably – but what better witness could they have given to our world that their Lord was still alive? That’s what a witness is – someone that loses their life for Jesus.

CS Lewis, who wrote the “Space Trilogy” novels, was once asked to comment on the morality of humans living on other planets, assuming such a thing we possible. Lewis thought carefully before giving this response: “Let’s pray that the human race never escapes the Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere.” Here’s what I think Lewis was trying to say. This world that we live in is so desperate – so desperate – for witnesses who are willing to die to self to show the world that Christ is still alive. We live in a world of fear and confusion. War, famine, and violence are the realities that characterize life for many in our world. Now, we may be shielded from someone else tearing our homes and families apart, but many of us have experienced homes and families torn apart from the inside. We live in a world where the gentle art of being kind and thoughtful, sensitive and generous is going out of fashion, a world that believes that the secret to life is to get ahead, even at the expense of someone else. “You’ve got to look out for number one.” That’s the mantra of our world. And so in light of that, there’s something today’s reading from Acts raises for us. What is the nature of our presence in the midst of this world? In other words, if it’s true that our lives speak, what story do they tell? Because it’s never a question of whether or not we are a witness. The question is always what are we witnessing to?

In his book The Jesus I Never Knew Phillip Yancey writes about the connection between the Ascension and the mission of the Church, and this is what he says. “Jesus knew that the world he left behind would include the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, and the sick. The decrepit state of the world did not surprise him, and he made plans to cope with it. The long-range plan involves his return, in power and great glory, to straighten out this planet, [but] the short-range plan means turning it over to [the church]. He ascended so that we would take his place.” He then said something that blew my mind. “Where is God when it hurts, I have often asked. The [Ascension] answers that question by asking another – where is the church when it hurts?” In other words, we ask God – “Will you? Will you change this? Will you restore this?” To which Jesus replies, Will you? Will you be my witnesses? Will you now do what I’ve already done? I lost my life for you. Will you now lose your life to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel?

Now, I don’t know what losing your life for Jesus’ sake will mean for you. I seriously doubt it’ll mean capital punishment, though we shouldn’t forget that for many in our world it still does. But our faith should cost us something. As Bonhoeffer once noted, “grace is free but it certainly is not cheap.” We should be able to look at our friendships and our calendar and our bank statement and our reputation and be able to see the cross. Our faith in Christ should cost us something, and when we start to sense that, it’s little wonder we stop running after only a few steps in the Christian life. We look ahead in the distance and see a cross and get scared. But here’s what I think we fail to see, what I always fail to see when my faith grows stagnant. Rather than being something we have to endure or “get over,” the sacrifices we make to bear witness to the Gospel are not something that diminish our joy. They’re the source of our joy. To put it differently, joy in the Christian life only grows as we move away from that starting line and run towards that cross as Jesus’ witness along the way. As our reading from 1 Peter put it, “Beloved,” he says, “don’t be surprised when you suffer but rejoice for you are sharing Christ’s sufferings. Cast all your anxiety on Him, because he cares for you. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.”

The good news of the Christian Gospel is that there is a long-term plan to permanently end all fear and confusion. As the angels told the disciples, “this same Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, will indeed come back in the same way that you saw Him leave.” When will that be? “It is not for us to know,” Jesus said, “that time set by the Father’s own authority.” Because there is after all a short term plan – and that plan involves us – not because Christ is now absent from the world, but because we are the ones in whom Jesus now chooses to be present to the world. We are Jesus’ witnesses. Understanding the privilege of that call – and joyfully accepting it – that’s what the good news of the race is all about.

And so here’s the question I leave us with this morning – what now? I suppose we can stand still and just stare at the sky, or, as the author of Hebrews writes, we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” You see it’s never a question of whether or not we are a witness. The question is always what are we witnessing to?