I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4:13-18: “We would not want you to be uninformed”

Reading:  I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4:13-18

1 Thessalonians was most likely written before 1 Corinthians. Some scholars date it as being the first book written in our New Testament — but, whether it is these two books are among the earliest. Like 1 Corinthians, it is likely that this is the only part of what we call the New Testament that the church at Thessaloniki would have seen when they read it. Also like 1 Corinthians, Christianity started a little less than 20 years ago, and is not yet big enough for the Empire to notice that it exists. Many of the people who saw Jesus personally are still alive, but there are Christian communities scattered around the world trying to figure out what it means to be Christian as they go along.

While I have not talked much about Friend’s doctrine — and even less about American programmed Friends I think it might be good to point out a couple items from the late 19th and early 20th century. I will start by observing that “Essential Truths” by Rufus Jones and James Wood, which has served as a short statement of faith for many FUM meetings starting about 1922, list several items in historic Christianity that are “held by Friends as essentials of Christianity. Jones lists the following: Fatherhood of God, Deity and humanity of the Son, the gift of the Holy Spirit, atonement through Jesus Christ, the resurrection, the high priesthood of Christ, and the priesthood of believers.

Of course this brief mention does not tell us anything except that Rufus Jones considered the doctrine of the Resurrection ‘essential’. As can be expected, the “Richmond Declaration of Faith” gives a much longer essay, but I will only quote a small portion of it:

We sincerely believe, not only a resurrection in Christ from the fallen and sinful state here, but a rising and ascending into glory with Him hereafter… We shall be raised out of all corruption and corruptibility, out of mortality, and shall be the children of God, being children of the resurrection.

What stands out to me is that the Resurrection is affirmed as an essential doctrine, and that it is something that needs to be taken as something more than a metaphor. This is something we all need reminded of, because resurrection is an excellent metaphor; and it is one that is used throughout the New Testament. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes our former state as being dead in sin; and goes on to tell us that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we are raised up with Jesus and given a new life.

But, Paul also points out in 1 Corinthians 15 that if there is no resurrection, then not even Christ was raised and there is no gospel and no hope. I don’t know why the Sunday School lesson decided to jump to 1 Thessalonians instead of continuing in 1 Corinthians. Paul found it necessary to explain that our hope is in the resurrection in both of these early letters. One might say that this is one of the first things that scripture was written in order to clarify; that we are people who believe in resurrection.

In the Sunday School class reading, Paul gave a pretty solid reason why this belief is important; it is not only true, but it has implications in what is called pastoral care. The day after I got back here, I had my first pastoral conversation with somebody who lost a brother — there is nothing more pragmatic for the church than what happens when somebody dies. It seems that somebody is always dying.

Paul told the Thessalonians that we believe that there will be a resurrection, and this is important, because the resurrection is a source of hope and comfort. It is very hard to say goodbye. There is something about death that offends us. We plea, we bargain, we get angry, and we try to get on with our life. Sometimes it seems like death can strip life of meaning. I cannot imagine what it would be like to strip away hope. Paul is telling people that holding on to the doctrine of resurrection provides hope to those who need it most — it is a pastoral relevant doctrine.

One of my professors at Earlham School of religion talked about bad theology. It took me a while to realize that these judgments were not based on whether or not he thought the theology was right or wrong (though, he clearly viewed the bad theology as also being intrinsically wrong) — in order for something to be bad theology, for him, it had to be theology that took away hope, or brought shame, or dehumanized somebody. When he spoke about bad theology, he was speaking about theology that could be used to make the world a darker place — not only was it wrong, but it was also malicious.

In the same sense Resurrection is good theology. Not only is it one of those essential things that is core to Christian belief, but it is life giving. The Christian doctrine of resurrection invites us to participate with the resurrection of Christ. If we have the type of sin in our lives that kills relationships and destroys hope — the promise of resurrection is something that can be applied to our current life. Christ resurrection, heals, forgives, and makes whole. We who were dead in our trespasses and sins can be made alive in Christ. Resurrection gives hope, not only to those of us who lost somebody to death — but, to those who see a need for a brand new life.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about how denying the resurrection makes little sense when the practices of the church are looking forward to it. 1 Corinthians specifically talks about the baptism of the dead. Now, I know what most Americans think when we hear about the baptism of the dead! I myself have joked that after I die, I will be baptized a Mormon, just like everybody else.

I seriously doubt that this was anything like a proxy baptism; more likely, it had to do with the traditions of the early church. Our earliest sources on Christianity tell us that normally adult converts would spend time learning about Christianity before they would be baptized. We call these learners ‘catechumins’, and Catechism is the coursework of catechumins. Unfortunately, I don’t know about the process in the 1st century, nor do I know how much changed between when Christianity was 20 years old and when Christianity was 120 years old — but, by the 2nd century, Catechumins had to wait at least 2 years before they were baptized. These people had special classes, and their behavior was closely monitored. Baptism was not just an initiation rite, it was a rite of passage — a graduation. By the time a person was baptized, she was no longer a novice Christian.

With such a long period where people were part of the church, yet not yet baptized I believe I can understand why the dead were baptized! If a catechumen died, would that person be considered fully part of the church? By baptizing the dead, the answer is made clear — yes, this person is completely recognized as being one of us.

Paul asks the Corinthians, so, if you don’t believe in the resurrection, why baptize the dead? If they are dead, this baptism is too late for them, the church has already done everything the church can do for them. I know that this argument makes very little sense at first glance, but it is still very much a valid argument.

We have all been to funerals and burials. In many cases, people will pray for the dead; why pray for the dead if this life is all there is? Every time I’ve seen somebody buried, I’ve heard somebody say a prayer committing the spirit of the deceased to God. If there is nothing beyond what we experience here, why the ritual of committing the spirit to God? The ritual is dependent upon the belief that we have a share in Christ’s resurrection\ldots not only the ritual practiced by the Corinthians, but the rituals practiced by American Christians.

We believe in the resurrection. The resurrection reminds us that Christ can save us. The resurrection gives us hope, even when everything we hold dear is taken away from us. We believe in the resurrection. Our prayers and our rituals are built upon this belief. Christianity is built on the resurrection. There are many who died on crosses, put there by the Roman authorities — but, there is only one who would not stay in the grave.

1 Corinthians 13: The love chapter

Reading: 1 Corinthians 13

I Corinthian 13 is familiar to most of us. I believe it is read at just about every wedding; and, I expect that it will be read at my wedding. We all know from this passage that love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy, love does not boast and is not proud. Love is well behaved, and unselfish. Love is not easily angered, and it does not think evil. Love does not celebrate what is bad, but in what is good and true. Love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things.

It is easy to see why this passage is read at at weddings; people need reminded what love looks like. I know that I need to be reminded of these things. I am not always as patient as I could be. Sometimes I need reminded to be kind, because it is easier to look the other way. Envy is common, boasting happens. It is all too easy to guess a person’s motives, and make rather unkind guesses instead of giving a person the benefit of the doubt. There is a tee-shirt that, while unkind, advises that we should never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance or incompetence. While that might not be, on the surface, kind — it is great advice. Very often people have good intentions, but they either don’t know what they should be doing or they cannot.

I know that this is advice that I need as a member of a couple. I know that I can avoid many problems just by believing the best, and acting according to these beliefs — and by realizing that building a family is a team effort, it is not a competition. There is no place for envy, or negative competitive attitudes — no place for a sense of self-worth that is based on being all around better than somebody. This isn’t the easiest advice, but I’m sure that any major fights I have to look forward to will largely be because I forgot one of these points.

Of course, Paul did not write this passage as marital advice. Even though all of the words are perfect advice to people who are founding a family, this is advice directed to a church community; and not only to the community, but most specifically people who are responsible for making sure that the church runs and runs smoothly. Last week, we talked about the how God gives gifts to people in the church, and how these gifts make sure the church runs. In I Corinthians 12, Paul pointed out that there are a variety of gifts, and told the people to stop arguing about who’s gifts were more important. This is the kind of argument that only people who are in positions of leadership might have. I Corinthians 14 continues to talk about gifts, and gives some specific advice on how they should be used in the context of a worship service. I Corinthians 13 lives in that context.

We don’t know very much about the first century church, our first writings that really describe what went on were from the second century. Personally, I think there were several different models of church in the first century; and I think that because of little hints I find in scripture; the church in Jerusalem, prior to significant persecution, for example seems to follow the synagogue model with a fairly large number of people.

In the 2nd century, the dominant model seems to be the house-church model, and I believe that this was the model used by the Corinthian church. Remember, Paul specifically mentioned Cloe’s people in his letter; it seems likely that he was speaking of a specific group within the Corinthian church; a specific house-church, likely meeting in this lady’s home; if Corinth followed the house church model, there would be many gatherings of people throughout the city, each no larger a group than could comfortably sit together in a person’s house.

Eventually, the house church model was developed to the point that the entire network within an entire city would have an overseer who was responsible for the network — this position still remains in the form of bishop. While there is some evidence that a large city such as Rome had more than one network, it became custom, and eventually a matter of law that there would only be one person overseeing the network… though, by the time it became a rule the Church was an accepted part of Roman society, there were lots of big church buildings, and the house-church with its customs was largely forgotten.
So, there is a situation where there are many groups, with many leaders and, judging from this letter these groups see themselves ultimately subordinate to one of 3 different people. The fact that Paul spends such a large portion of the letter, a portion that includes I Corinthians 13 suggests that these leaders were sometimes jealous of each other, and argued over who was best or most necessary. If I were to describe the context of I Corinthians 13, and apply the lesson in as few words as possible I would say: I Corinthians 13 describes the way pastors should act towards each other.

As challenging this is as family advice, it is much more so as professional advice. I’m sure everybody knows how competitive colleagues can be. Sometimes it is challenging to think well of somebody; and if we are jealous the easiest thing in the world is to tell ourselves stories about something that might have happened and then act according to that story. When we do that in our own families, there are a number of opportunities for communication and clarification. Closeness challenges any false narrative we tell ourselves. It is much easier live out love, and to conquer common relationship destroying behaviors when the relationship around us is such a large part of our world; and even when it is, a false narrative can end a marriage.

If this advice is necessary even in situations where there is a natural corrective, such as in the immediate family — imagine how much more necessary it is in situations where there is not only no natural corrective, but even an incentive to tell ourselves stories. Remember, this passage makes it clear that leaders were fighting over who was most important in the city church-network, and in their fighting they tried to appeal to different authorities beyond their local structure.

These days, it is no less an issue. As you might guess, candidating at churches can be stressful. Everybody you are competing with are colleagues, some of which you might have known since college. Sometimes this can lead to envy and jealousy — especially when somebody gets a desirable position. Unfortunately, jealous people make up stories to make themselves feel better — and now there is enough distance that the story is never challenged.

So, the lesson is; no matter how brilliant I may be — no matter how well I can unpack a passage and share it’s meaning, if I do not love all this is nothing. Not only must I love, but I must love the very people who I’m set up to compete with and this means putting aside jealousy. I need to learn to stop making stories that make me feel better, and instead to think the best of people; giving the benefit of the doubt when necessary. I am glad for this advice going into a marriage — but, I think I need it while learning to accept that what seems to be competition is really teammates working for the same goal.

I Corinthians 12: But I am not an eye!

I think the most important thing to note about this chapter is that it does not stand alone. The topic of spiritual gifts and body life does not end in chapter 12, but continues through chapter 14. The often quoted Love chapter is not a change of topic, but building on today’s passage. Chapter 13 lists spiritual gifts mentioned in chapter 12, and says: “without love, it is nothing.”

I don’t think I could do better than Paul; I really think that he is pretty clear in these three chapters. There is a part of me that wants to read this entire section without comment; there is another part of me that feels like I need to say a few words; but today I feel only a few need said.

This three chapter section talks about several spiritual gifts: Specifically, it mentions tongues, prophecy, wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, discerning of spirits, and the interpretation of languages. I don’t know how profitable it would be to go into details. Some Christians focus on practicing these gifts, and others critique the charismatic movement. This modern debate does not seem helpful to me, and even describing what these gifts are enters into the realm of the debate.

The reason that I don’t find the debate helpful is that it really misses the point of the very passage that they are quoting to get a list of gifts. I don’t think Paul was dealing with the problem that there was a lack of enumerated gifts. I don’t think that he was making a list to make a list, and even though he starts by saying, `I don’t want you to be uninformed’, it is pretty clear that he is not talking about teaching us the nature of spiritual gifts. If Paul wanted to teach us about prophecy, for example, he would have given a clear definition, and some instructions on how to discern whether or not to listen to somebody who claims to be a prophet.

I believe that this passage, like much of the rest of 1 Corinthians, is dealing with a divided and divisive community, where people are acting in ways that damage the community. Paul is talking about spiritual gifts, reminding the people that these gifts come from the same spirit. He talks about how a body needs to have many members, and how if the whole body were a hand, the body would be blind and deaf. If the whole body were an ear, the body would hear, but would neither see, nor be able to do anything.

Paul reminds the people that they are not identical, should not want to be identical, nor do they have the same gifts. The church is supposed to be a `body’; that is, the Church is a community that works together so that everybody’s gifts and talents add to the whole. Paul is critiquing a group that says things like: “My gift is more important than yours is, so my place in the church is more important than yours.” He is critiquing a group that is failing to speak or act in love.

Now our group is not one that often worries about speaking in tongues, or interpreting. I can tell you right now that neither one is really my gift. While we might debate what it means to be prophetic; I doubt anybody here will jump to claim the gift and calling of prophecy. I’m not saying we are not gifted, I am saying that going through the list, as it is here, is not especially relevant to where we are at. I personally believe that we have gifts; and I believe these come from the same spirit, even if they are not of the same list.

Raysville Friends is blessed to have the best music in the county. Our musicians are truly involved in a ministry, not only here but throughout the wider community. I feel that this ministry should be recognized, and I do recognize it for what it is — a blessing to us and to all of Henry county.

I know that we are not a large group, but something I see of this group is that we are blessed with a heart for the communities we are part of. Our members have lives that touch the lives of others. What I would consider ‘pastoral care’ is part of everyday life for some of you. I know that God gives you the opportunity to show love and care where you are.

Out of every church I’ve been part of, this one is the most generous. There are not many people here, but even with such a small group, I keep learning about something that this group supports. I know you support Quaker Haven, and Whites, and Hispanic ministry in Indianapolis. I also know that you are active in community activities and giving opportunities. I know that this is a congregation that finds ways of helping people.

I see your gifts, and I think God for your gifts. Let nobody say, because I am not a musician, what good is my contribution? Let nobody say, because I am not a great philanthropist I have nothing to offer… and conversely, let nobody say, because you cannot offer what I give, your gift is worthless. God gave us a great blessing in each other, and my we thank God for it.

1 Corinthians 8 –Abuse of conscience

Reading: 1 Corinthians 8

I knew this passage well growing up. Many of my Christian influences were part of the Holiness movement, and several of them professed to be entirely sanctified; they could tell me how many years they lived without sin. One thing that struck me about those who were entirely sanctified is that they were deeply convicted of sin — but, having none in their own lives they felt conviction of other people’s sinfulness.

Of course, it was pretty hard to understand where the sin list came from; but basically, one must avoid movies, 20th century music, popular culture in general. Men needed to have their hair cut short, and women needed to wear skirts. If anybody questioned whether or not these behaviors were sinful, this passage stood out; if my behavior offends the conscience of somebody, I should respect that person’s conscience.

At first this makes sense. Maybe, I realize that there is nothing wrong with wearing my hair past my collar; maybe I realize that there has been quite a bit of good music made recently, and that most of it is inoffensive. Perhaps I recognize that a woman wearing woman’s pants is no more wearing men’s clothing than a man wearing a kilt is wearing woman’s clothing; yet somebody of weaker faith who does not know these things might be offended and find this to be a stumbling block.

The problem was, that all these people of weaker faith who were offended seemed to be those who claimed their faith was the strongest. Those who claimed to be without sin were the only ones offended. This passage does not seem to be about not offending the church leaders; it seems to be about harming the faith of those who are superstitious and new in their faith. Somehow, I doubt that I need to worry about offending the conscience of the people who claim to be mature.

Having had some time to think beyond the wisdom of a teenager who is convinced that he knows better than his elders, I did start to recognize what is going on here. First of all, there was a business meeting about this at Jerusalem. The decision was that Christians should not eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. It is unlikely that Paul is standing against the wider community, it is more likely that he is quoting the letter he got from Corinth.

Paul reads that Idols are nothing, because there is only one God. So far, this is good. Then he likely reads the conclusion that if Idols are nothing, then a sacrifice to nothing is no sacrifice at all, therefore go ahead and eat. There is a good and solid logic to this, but there is also a scandal to this. I’ve read that archaeologists have recovered invitations to a dinner in Corinth; and the dinner was at the temple. “There is only one God, idols are nothing, the Greek gods are nothing — therefore, it is nothing if I go to the temple of Apollo for my friend’s birthday party.” This is not a matter of failing to ask about the meat (Paul suggested… don’t ask), but instead this is very public to the point of appearing to be polytheistic. This is the type of wisdom that makes people ask themselves why they can’t be Christian and pagan — as wise, good respectable Christians seem to have no trouble; and it also manages to hide the person’s connection with Christianity.
If I were to look at current Christianity; I notice that one difference from my childhood and where I am now is that in my childhood drinking was forbidden for both adults and children. As I grew up, people observed that scripture does not condemn drinking — drunkenness, yes, but drinking, in moderation, no. I now have many Christian friends, even from backgrounds that opposed alcohol who drink and enjoy talking about wines or craft beers.

While I can find little justification on an outright ban — it would be unwise for somebody to express such freedom to somebody who is in recovery from addiction. The nature of the disease is that the person is unable to act in moderation — for the addict, there is no freedom, only the disease. If a Christian community has a connection with people in AA, the likely should not serve alcohol.

In my years of reflecting on this passage, three things have come to the surface: First, those who claim to be mature cannot also claim that a less mature Christian is a stumbling block to them; their faith should be mature and strong enough to survive Second, we should not use our freedom as a tool to rationalize behavior that harms the community and 3rd there are those who truly are weaker in some areas, and we should not put obstacles in front of them, but instead should support them as best we can. We might have freedom, but sometimes it is better to live according to love than to make a law… even if the law is one that enumerates freedoms.

I Corinthians 5

Reading:  I Corinthians 5

I read this passage, and I think that today is Father’s day — and, the only thing I can think of to say about Father’s day and I Corinthians 5 is that there are things that a father and son ought not share. Hopefully, we know better, and behave differently.

Of course, I am not going to think of this as a father’s day message. There are many passages in scripture that talk about father’s and sons which offer relevant advice to us. Just because the exact circumstance does not apply to us does not mean that we cannot learn from this; let us think about what is going on.

I’ve mentioned before, I really wish that I had a copy of Chloe’s letter so I could have some context. In this case, I would also like a copy of Paul’s prior letter to the Corinthians, because he mentions what he said before in a letter. Apparently, this is not the first time that the mater of discipline over sexual misconduct came up. I can imagine that Paul is quite annoyed to bring this up again.

It is easy to find it shocking that there were such problems in the Early Church — but, unfortunately, these days are no less scandalous. How many of you remember the scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic church, when it leaked that there were priests who molested children. What made the scandal so much worse was that in several dioceses, instead of addressing the issue, the Bishops would try to hide what happened, and would move the priest around; more concerned that this shameful thing not get out than actually dealing with it.

Even more unfortunately, this is not a problem that is unique to Catholics. A commonly quoted statistic is that 40% of pastors have affairs after they start their ministry. Personally, I feel it likely that this number is over-exaggerated; but what I do know is that there is a problem. Whatever the problem is, it is serious enough that Seminaries everywhere require their students to take a sexual ethics seminar. One of my fellow Seminarians gave a somewhat sarcastic description that it was a seminar where we are told not to sleep with members of the congregation.

These things happen, and they must be dealt with. Not only do they shame the church, but they harm the community. This is a problem that makes communities unsafe. It is, one of the reasons why denominational bodies exist — to keep leaders accountable, and protect the people who they are supposed to nurture. When both the person fails, and the system of accountability fails, the community becomes unsafe, and when the world finds out, the church is shamed.

This in itself explains just about everything. I know that as a teenager, some of my friends noticed that Paul had a double standard; the church was to hold itself to a standard, but that standard does not apply to those on the outside. If you think about it, it makes no sense to police the world, it is far too much work; and even if it were not too much work, the world never agreed to these standards.

Now, one last thing. Remember the topic that brought up this thing in the first place — a man with his father’s wife. Paul notices that this scandal is something that is a cultural taboo even among the pagan Greeks. There is a Greek play by Sophocles that touches on this taboo — I will give a brief summary of the plot.

In Thebes, there is a king named Laius and his wife Jocasta. When their son is born, an oracle offers a prophecy about the son — this the son will kill the father. Laius decides that something must be done, so he tells his wife that they must kill the boy. They give the infant to one of their servants to take him out to the wilderness and let the boy die.

The child is found by a shepherd of Corinth and taken to Corinth where he is adopted by king Polybus of Corinth. The child grows up, unaware that he is adopted. As a young adult, he visits Delphi, and the oracle tells him that he will kill his father, and take his mother as his wife. This young man, Oedipus, decides that he will not return home to Corinth, as if he stays away from home, he cannot kill his father. Oedipus then goes to Thebes. Even when his he hears that his father died, he refuses to return home, even for the funeral; because the idea that he would take his own mother as a wife is offensive… but, he is relieved that he waited out the prophecy, and could no longer kill his father.

When Oedipus is on the road, he meets Laius. He and Laius get into a argument over who must yield to the other, and the fight escalates to the point that Oedipus kills Laius. There are a number of adventures that follow, including Oedipus correctly answering the riddle of the Sphinx… but, what is most important is he ends up taking the throne at Thebes, and marrying Laius’ widow his mother.

A curse comes upon Thebes, and an oracle prophecies that the curse can only be broken by punishing the man who killed Laius, the former king. King Oedipus promises that this man will be exiled. When the events are discovered, according to the play, Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus puts his own eyes out, and exiles himself; he dies in exile just outside of Athens.

I find it remarkable that Paul speaks to something happening within the Christian community that cannot be found among the Greeks, except in a well known story that had been told by storytellers and turned into a play. I further find it remarkable that this the man who broke this taboo, by accident, was also a man of Corinth. Can you imagine the shame as new stories are told?

Discipline is a very hard issue in the church; the New Testament advises, even within the Christian community, both discipline to the point of expulsion and also ‘letting the weeds grow with the wheat, out of fear that wheat might be pulled by mistake.’ It is challenging to know which advice is best to follow in a situation. Personally, I think it is a dynamic tension between protecting the community and the fact that we believe in grace and forgiveness. The hardest choices one must make are the choices where two principles, both deeply held, seem to demand different courses of action.

John 12:23-33 Trinity as commentary of John’s Gospel

Reading: John 12:23-33

Today our Sunday school class discussed a passage in John where a voice from heaven. There are other similar passages in the gospels such as when Jesus is Baptized, and a voice comes from heaven saying: “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” and of course at the transfiguration where the voice from heaven instructs the disciples Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus.

In the gospels, Jesus talks about the Father and the Holy Spirit. There are times that a voice comes out of heaven that is understood to be the Father, and at the Baptism the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, like a dove. When we read the Gospels, especially John, we hit these sections that show a relationship between the Son and the Father; and us readers have to figure out what to do with them.

Today is also the Sunday where pastors everywhere take a vacation, and let somebody else preach the sermon. You see, today is Trinity Sunday where it is traditional to preach a sermon that takes on the doctrine of the Trinity. The surest way to profess heresy is to stand up and try to explain the Trinity. When I started studying Christian theology in an academic setting, and I read the definitions of Trinitarian Theology, along side list of condemned heretical views I quickly realized that just about every metaphor I heard explaining the Trinity had been condemned. A Lutheran pastor, Hans Fiene, made a rather silly video that demonstrates why long term pastors dump this task on whoever is available in the pulpit supply list.

I like this video. This video gives us enough of a summary of the arguments, and the major names that as long as you remember that the council of Nicea was in 325, and the council of Constantinople was in 381, you have enough information to pass the 4th century section of the exam in an into to Church history class. Unfortunately while this is a great overview of the arguments — it is not a very attractive picture of Trinitarian theology.

When I was a student at Friends University, I did a major project on the theological proclamations of the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. At first, this was difficult, as most of what I read from the councils was an expression of how not to talk about God; everything was negative. Eventually, I started reading letters, books, and commentary by people who were involved in the argument; the most important book I read was Athanasius’ Incarnation of the Word of God. When I read Athanasius, I began to understand that Trinitarian theology is above all commentary on John’s gospel. Jesus talks about the Father and the Spirit, and the Father talks about Jesus, and the Spirit shows up. Trinitarian theology is about trying to make sense of this.

Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-earliest-and-latest-major-variants.svg

Perhaps the best way to explain Trinitarian theology is with a diagram called the “Shield of the Trinity.” This is a little drawing that show that the Father Son and Spirit are God, while the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct from one another. When thinking about Trinitarian theology as commentary of the Gospel accounts, this is useful. Jesus is Divine, and the voice that speaks from heaven is Divine — but, there is a distinction between the Father and the Son. When Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit, this Holy Spirit is divine, yet distinct from the Son and the Father, and in spite of this distinction, we believe that there is one God.

When I took a class that tried to explain Trinitarian Theology, my teacher, Chris Kettler, tried to explain to us that one reason that God is trinity is that a being in isolation is incomplete. A human, separated from community, is greatly diminished. Without other people, we lose a lot of ourselves because we are most ourselves in and through relationship. There is a reason why in Genesis, God said of Adam that it is not good for Man to be alone.

In the creation account when God creates the world and humanity, God says things such as: “Let us create Man in our own image.” The references are plural. Perhaps the significance of this is that God is complete without our help — God does not need a relationship with creation to be complete. God is complete in Godself.

Perhaps a more important passage is 1 John 4:8, which tells us that God is Love. This is not like a passage that calls God merciful, this is a statement that God is Love — that Love is a basic, fundamental defining aspect of God. Love requires community! The idea that God would need to create in order to be a fundamental aspect of God would make God dependent upon us — this is something that is unacceptable. Dr. Kettler taught us that the Trinity exists as a loving community. God is completely who God is without needing us. While you might say this is a metaphor; it is trying to understand God through human eyes, it has provided a positive way for me to understand Trinity — God is complete.

Now, somewhere there are armchair inquisitors who will decide whether or not I just spouted heresy. I hope I shared a helpful idea in here somewhere. I know sermons often have some sort of call to action — but, when it comes to theoretical theology, the best I can give is a call to think and reflect. I don’t know about you, but I’ve given too much thought to how I can be useful to God — and not enough thought to what it means that God loves me. I think about what I can do for God, forgetting that God does not need me to do anything. We believe in a God that is greater than us — and, we believe that God invites us into relationship.

Acts 2 and John 11:21-44 Pentecost and Resurection

Reading: Acts 2, and John 11:21-44

Today is Pentecost. Today is the day that I secretly hope the Holy Spirit will come down powerfully, and breathe new life into the Church. Today is the day that I wish for something different, today is the day that I wish to see Resurrection.

Pentecost is the end of the Easter celebration. We are not looking so much at points in time as a whole narrative that covers about 2 months. While I cannot say how much time passes between Jesus calling Lazarus out from the tomb to Passover, the very next chapter in John is the triumphal entry. Resurrection is the reason that the political parties unite in the decision that Jesus must die. If I were to guess, I would guess that the Resurrection of John is within a few days of Passover.

The passages we read today are not isolated events, they are the start and the finish of the craziest, most stressful spring that anybody can imagine. When Jesus went into Jerusalem, a crowd might have yelled ‘Hosanna to the king of Israel’, but Jesus and the disciples were fully aware that the end was coming; remember that when Jesus tells the disciples that they are going back to Judea, the disciples are uncomfortable with this, and Thomas says to the rest, ‘let’s go and die with Him.’ When John is raised from the dead, the cross is so clear that even Thomas can see that this is where they are going.

During this period, the disciples with just a few exceptions fall away. Peter falls away in a spectacular way; he denies knowing three times, including to a man who recognized him because he just cut of the man’s cousin’s ear and a servant girl. Peter even tries to deny that he has a Galilean accent when a servant girl notices it. Peter is so afraid of being associated with Jesus on the night of the crucifixion that he does not even want to be from the same country as Jesus.

As you might remember, following the crucifixion was the resurrection. Scripture tells us that the risen Jesus appeared to about 500 people. I love this period, because it is a great metaphor for my faith; Jesus is present in a very real way, and not even death can change that. I also appreciate that even now, the disciples do not always get it — because on the very day Jesus ascended into heaven a disciple asked if it was finally time to overthrow the Romans.

When Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples watch; they keep staring into the sky, they have no idea what to do. Eventually they actually do what they where told to do and wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. When the day of Pentecost comes, they had been waiting about 10 days. Over this ten days, the 500 that Jesus met with and taught after the resurrection were reduced to about 120. Too often, I identify with this period of silence and contraction. Sometimes it feels like we wait for a miracle, and we start to wonder if the miracle will ever come.

Pentecost comes, and it is exciting. The Spirit descends like tongues of fire, people talk in other languages, and everybody wonders what is going on. Everybody these days gets excited about how everybody is talking in tongues, and thousands are ready to join the new church.

Me, I am even more impressed with Peter’s speech. The last time Peter had a chance to speak out about Jesus, he said: “I never met the guy.” Peter showed that he was afraid of being recognized by anybody, even a servant girl. Peter gains courage, and the only thing that I see that really changes is now the Holy Spirit is here. It is as if Peter is not the same man he was a 8 weeks ago.

One of my favorite metaphors in Christianity is that of resurrection. I know, it is not only a metaphor; The disciples and early Christians really did believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and were willing to die over this point. The creed really does say “We look forward to the resurrection and to the life of the world that is to come.” I am fully aware that this is not a metaphor, but resurrection is constantly used as a metaphor.

When we read Paul’s epistles, Paul speaks of dying to ourselves, or our sinfulness and being risen in Christ. In other places, Paul speaks of our sinfulness being so destructive that we were dead in it until Christ raised us out. For Paul, salvation and transformation is about being raised up with Jesus and given new life. The coward Peter died, and when Pentecost was fully come, this brave man, Peter, spoke out in a way that the coward named Peter never could.

I love that we are invited to participate in the same sort of resurrection that Peter experienced. I know it is often said that he was restored on the beach when Jesus told him, “feed my sheep” — but, we don’t see proof of how Peter changed until Pentecost. Until Peter stood up to those who could kill him, we do not know the power of the resurrection. There is something life-giving about the Holy Spirit, and there is something meaningful about this metaphor.
If any one of us was dead in our sins, we can be thankful that Christ is able to give us resurrection. The church is always an Easter community, even when Pentecost comes around. We believe that Christ is risen from the dead, but we also believe that when the time comes, it is our turn as well.