A sermon by John A. Bolt at Sugar Grove Presbyterian Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Before we get to today’s Scripture readings, I would be remiss if I first didn’t say thank you for the invitation to return to Sugar Grove. As I mentioned last time I was here, this congregation’s past support of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Theological Education Fund is remarkable and – as the father AND father-in-law of Presbyterian pastors – I want to thank you on behalf of all pastors throughout the denomination.
And, besides, it’s always nice to be asked BACK.
I also bring you greetings from First Presbyterian in Morgantown, where I worship; the Presbytery of West Virginia of which we all are a part; and the Synod of the Trinity, where I’m privileged to serve as a commissioner from the presbytery. And of course the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Like everything in our world, it seems, all of those entities are undergoing a lot of change, or pressure to change, some of it good, some of it maybe not. And as you know, we Presbyterians as a group are not necessarily inclined to change much. In fact, one of my favorite jokes is “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? CHANGE?!” I will return to this theme in a few minutes, but for now, please listen for what the Spirit is saying to the church in today’s Scripture readings.
Our first readings are from the Old Testament, first Proverbs 8:1-4 and 22-31. In this selection, listen for Wisdom’s relationship to God and her role in creation:
1 Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 “To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
Now Psalm 8. This Psalm follows a series of psalms in which some of the woes humans face are catalogued, but Psalm 8 nevertheless offers an “exalted view of the human being.” (Cousar, et al. 1994, 354)
1 O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth.
And finally, our Gospel lesson, from John, 16:12-15:
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Please join me in prayer: O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the church year, today is the day we focus on the Trinity, the idea of God in Three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As you may know, there is no place in the Bible where the Trinity, as a “thing,” is ever mentioned. But to be sure, the idea or concept of the Trinity is throughout the Old and New Testaments. (Freedman, Myers and Beck 2000, 1336)
The Trinity is also confusing and, for some, nonsense, perhaps even a hurdle to believing at all. It is often described – and maybe even dismissed – as a “mystery.” For others, especially the Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam, it is – or comes very close to – blasphemy.
But it is a core of Christianity, and indeed one of the strongest markers of Christian faith. As renowned Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie said in his classic work Christian Doctrine. First, Guthrie calls the doctrine of the Trinity “a joyful affirmation of Christian faith and a firm foundation for Christian life,” then he says:
[The Trinity] is the Church’s admittedly inadequate way of trying to understand and guard against false interpretation of the uniquely biblical-Christian understanding of who God is, what God is like, how and where God is at work in the world, what God thinks about us human beings, does for us, requires of us, promises us. Christians do not “believe in” the doctrine of the Trinity (or any other doctrine.) We believe in a living God. But the God we believe in is the God this doctrine confesses, the one living and true God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Faith in this God – and lives shaped by faith in this God – is what distinguishes Christians from people who do not believe in God at all and from other religious people whose faith and life is shaped by other views of God. Moreover [Guthrie continues], within the Christian circle itself it is faithfulness to the will and word and work of the one “triune” God that distinguishes authentic Christian faith and life from misunderstandings and distortions of it. (Guthrie 1994, 71)
We sing about it, as we will in just a few moments; we say we believe it in our creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed, which we just said; we baptize using Trinitarian language – in fact it is one of the few things in the Presbyterian Book of Order’s worship guidance that is a “shall,” that is a “must do,” you can’t deviate: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But why do we need this three-part Godhead? Is that not the same as having three gods? The second part is easier to answer than the first, I think. And that answer is a resounding, “No, it is not the same as having three gods.”
Maybe it’s helpful to think of it this way, we are all one person, but people experience us in many different ways. For me, I am a father, and in that role I have created; I am a son, and in that role I am a conduit of teaching and guidance (a link, if you will). And, while I am not yet a ghost – holy or otherwise – I am a spirit. By that I mean that even if I’m not present, for the people who know me, my influence – in greater or lesser measures and for good or ill – is.
The “why” of it is a bit harder. But for me, at least one reason for the “why” is contained in the “how.”
The three persons of God – three manifestations, if you will – follow from the fact that God is complete, God is sovereign, God is part and parcel of everything that is, has and ever will be.
We hear that in the very first words of the Bible: “In the beginning, when God …” We hear that in the Gospel of John, as rendered in The New Revised English Bible, “In the beginning, the Word (that is Christ), already was…”
We heard that in our reading today from John: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he 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.”
Besides this generalization of a core belief in the sovereignty of God, let me suggest two ways today’s scripture helps us apply this Trinitarian concept, first going all the way back to Proverbs.
“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”
This personification of Wisdom trying to get the message out to the entire world goes on explain that we should listen to her because she was “the first of [God’s] acts of long ago. … Ages ago [she says,] I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. … I was brought forth— when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. … I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
In other words, she has credibility. I hear this as a reminder that we are to use our brains, our own “wisdom” so to speak. We are not to let others tell us what to think, what to believe, what to do. We are made in God’s image, and that image includes wisdom. It is sinful, in my view, to waste the wisdom, either through laziness, or through ignorance.
This applies not just to religion, but to the issues of the day, because after all, our religion should be our guide in how we react and move through those issues. Let me be clear on this, however. That is in no way the same thing as saying OUR religion is the ONLY way to understand those issues. That others must conform to our understanding. Theological tyranny is still tyranny and is not consistent with Christianity or Jesus’ teachings.
The second way we can be guided by this Trinitarian idea is conveyed in the John passage: “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; for he 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.” Listen to that last sentence again: “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
In other words, we don’t necessarily know or understand everything that is to be known or understood. This was true in First Century Palestine, and is true in 21st Century America.
I talked earlier about a reluctance, even opposition, to change. At work, we hear things like, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” At church, we hear, “That’s the way it’s been for hundreds, even thousands of years.”
But new knowledge and new understanding confronts us every day, and we must process that. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus tells his disciples.
Jesus “taught (his disciples) in a limited fashion in accordance with (their) capacity … to hear and learn.” (Soards, Dozeman and McCabe 1994, 27)
Today that is still true. As one group of commentators has written, “What the community will learn from the Spirit is consistent with what the community began to learn from Christ. Thus, the community can judge the validity and appropriateness of ‘new’ teaching by asking whether it is keeping with the foundation laid by Christ himself.” (Soards, Dozeman and McCabe 1994, 27)
Put another way: W-W-J-D? – what would Jesus do?
Speaking personally, I am constantly amazed by those who proclaim to be Christian, yet spend their time turning their backs on the hungry, on the widow, on the orphan, on the “alien in their midst.” That definitely is NOT what Jesus would do. There is no example, no hint, of that anywhere in the Bible – in fact all the examples are exactly the opposite.
What is the greatest commandment, Jesus is asked. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NRSV)
It is also important to remember that a basic theological understanding of the Trinity is that the three are indivisible. The inadequacy of our human language may lead us to think of three different actors, when it fact it is one – the Father IS the Son; the Son IS the Holy Spirit; the Father IS the Holy Spirit. Three in one; one in three.
So when the Spirit is acting, it is God acting. I return again to the New Revised English Bible’s translation of John 1:1: “In the beginning, the Word already was.” That is Christ is the Creator.
It’s important that we try to grasp this oneness because in that oneness, God’s sovereignty, God’s power, God’s omnipotence comes through.
Of course another hurdle to understanding the Trinity comes in language. We have become very sensitive to the use of male references in our language. While in many, maybe even most, ways that is a reflection of the limitations of English, it is often heard by some as reinforcing the idea of male dominance. I get this and am sensitive to it. (But that’s a subject for a entire sermon, or even series.) What I’d like to say in this context is for those for whom the masculine images are troublesome, is to remember that the language ”Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ is “about relationships, living relationships, and about God’s reaching out to humanity in Christ and the Spirit to give us life.” (Soards, Dozeman and McCabe 1994, 28)
To God alone be the glory, amen.
Please join me in prayer: Good and gracious God, good and gracious Creator, we daily thank you for sending us your Son, the Redeemer, to set the example and to teach us how we should live; and for the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer, who daily draws us closer to you. In the name of your son, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.
Cousar, George B., Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, and James D. Newsome. 1994. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Freedman, David Noel, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, . 2000. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Guthrie, Shirley C. 1994. Christian Doctrine (Revised Edition). Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Soards, Marion, Thomas Dozeman, and Kendall McCabe. 1994. Preaching The Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, After Pentecost 1. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.