Refined and Fortified

Sermon – August 18, 2019,  Proper 15, Year C

Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Several years ago Barbara bought a small Myer lemon tree.  It came in a pot and we let it grow for a couple of years in the pot outside.  Eventually, we knew we had to plant it so that it could mature and begin bearing fruit.  After a couple of years it seemed to be surviving if not thriving, but it did produce a few lemons every year.  Then two years ago, a shoot sprang up out of it and grew very quickly.  I was excited, thinking that finally our tree had reached a new milestone.  Barbara thought this new growth might not be a good sign, but I would hear none of it.  This year the shoot grew even more and looked quite healthy.  But the rest of the tree still wasn’t producing very much.  Then we visited some friends who have a small orchard in their backyard.  We told them about our lemon tree and they told us that the shoot coming out of our tree was probably actually a sucker that was hindering the tree.

And so I did some online research and what I found confirmed what we were told.  We learned that we needed to take our pruning shears and cut the sucker off right where it sprung out of the rest of the tree.  The sucker was not healthy for the tree and indeed, it robbed the rest of the tree of nutrients.  Still, it was hard for me to think that cutting off this branch was a good thing.  It was so full of life and I feared that cutting it might hurt the tree and maybe cause it to die.  However, I needed to trust those that knew better and prune our tree so that it could hopefully produce good lemons in the future.  We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds for our tree.

As I reflected on our Gospel reading for today, I realize how my experience with our lemon tree illustrates one of the things our passage is telling us.  We need to prune away those things in our lives that lead us away from God.  Jesus says “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”  Jesus wasn’t calling on his disciples to burn it all down to the ground.  He wasn’t trying to incite anyone to riot and cause destruction.  Rather, he was alluding to the refiner’s fire, by which ancient goldsmiths and metalworkers would purify their gold and silver.  The Old Testament prophet Malachi looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and compared it to a refining fire when he wrote “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.  He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.”

The refiner’s fire can only accomplish its purposes when the heat is turned up to extraordinary temperatures.  The dross is burned away and only the pure precious metal is left.  This is a little bit like pruning the bad branches off of our lemon tree.  It is important to cut them off so that only the healthy fruit producing branches are left.

Make no mistake, the process of purification is not without a great deal of pain.  With metals, the ore must be super-heated to very high temperatures so that the dross will burn away.  With trees, the bad branches must be cut off and thrown away.  And with the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, our sins and corruption must be burned and pruned away.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes “But each one should build with care.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.  If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward.  If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

The process of purification is a very serious thing, and often profoundly uncomfortable for us, but one we must all go through.  Just as the metal dross must be burned away, and the bad branches cut off and thrown away, so our own sins and corruption must be cut out from within us.  This will be a struggle for each one of us throughout our lives.

Purification doesn’t just end with us individually though.  As the Kingdom of Heaven extends throughout the earth, the whole world must also be purified.  And this means that evil, sin, unrighteousness and anything that is in rebellion against God must be cut out.  And this will mean pain, division and resistance.  Just as we will resist God’s transforming grace in our lives, so the world will resist God.  How many of us with weight issues have an easy time dieting and eating healthy foods or keeping to an exercise regimen?  How many of us with spending, gambling, alcohol or other issues have an easy time controlling our addictions?  Our bodies, hearts and minds resist God’s transformation.  Why should we expect this to be any different for the world at large?

This is why Jesus says “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”  Once again, Jesus isn’t trying to start any riots or civil wars.  He is not trying to inflame passions or divisions.  Not at all.  The very nature of the Kingdom that Jesus is inaugurating is one of peace and healing.  But Jesus knows that the world very often would rather stay mired in its sin and corruption rather than submit to the transforming love that Jesus offers.  Jesus is telling us to be realistic.  He is not encouraging division for its own sake but is rather telling us what will happen.  Jesus wants us to be fully prepared for what will come.

This is why Jesus then speaks about the need to correctly interpret the present time.  Jesus wants us to be prepared for what’s coming.  Just as Floridians need to board up their windows and secure their homes when the weather service forecasts a hurricane, so we need to be prepared for opposition and hostility from the world as it reacts against the refining fire of God’s transforming love.  If we aren’t prepared, we might lose our heart and our faith and fall away from God.

Our passage from the book of Hebrews speaks to this.  In our passage we hear about how God repeatedly rescued the Israelites when they trusted in him.  The author of Hebrews gives examples from throughout the Old Testament of how God miraculously rescued his people.  But then the passage takes a more somber turn.  We hear of believers who kept their faith in God even though they were subjected to great suffering and persecution.  These saints kept their faith in God even as they suffered.  They suffered without getting to see the promised ending.

Our Hebrews passage says “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.   These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”  This is an example of faith for us.  This is what Jesus is preparing us for.

The world will oppose the spread of God’s kingdom and those of us who are followers of Jesus should not expect things to be easy.  Instead, we must expect persecution and opposition.  We need to prepare ourselves to endure this. 

I read with interest one commentator’s thoughts on the challenge facing Christianity in America today.  He wrote “As our culture changes, secularizes, and grows less tolerant of Christian orthodoxy, I’m noticing a pattern in many of the people who fall away: …the failure of the church isn’t so much of catechesis but of fortification — of building the pure moral courage and resolve to live your faith in the face of cultural headwinds.”  In other words, one of the great challenges for Christians in America today is that we have not prepared ourselves for the world’s hostility and resistance to the coming of God’s kingdom.  We should have paid heed to the weather forecast “red sky in morning, sailors take warning.”  The sky was red in the morning, but we ignored it.  But it’s not too late.  We need to fortify ourselves and our Hebrews passage shows us how.

Our Hebrews passage concludes with the following exhortation: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

This brings us back to the words of Jesus in our Gospel and shows us how the refining fire of God’s love will fortify us to stand firm in Christ.  Our Hebrews passage exhorts us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”  We are called to prune from our lives everything that will draw us away from Jesus Christ.  But that is not all.  Yes, we are to avoid that which pulls us away from God, but we are also called to focus on God.  We are also called to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  The Christian faith is not just about avoiding sin, it is about becoming disciples of Jesus and putting our focus on him.  It is only by focusing on Jesus and drawing into communion with him that we can truly be fortified against the hostility and persecution of the world.

Recently I read a book discussing the future of Christianity in America by author Rod Dreher titled The Benedict Option.  I found this book to be both insightful and challenging.  In the book Dreher offers a number of thoughts on how Christians might respond to a world that is increasingly hostile to them.  I’d like to read some excerpts as I think that they are sound words of advice for the Church today.

Dreher writes “We work, we pray, we confess our sins, we show mercy, we welcome the stranger, and we keep the commandments. When we suffer, especially for Christ’s sake, we give thanks, because that is what Christians do. Who knows what God, in turn, will do with our faithfulness? It is not for us to say. Our command is, in the words of the Christian poet W.H. Auden, to ‘stagger onward rejoicing.’”  As our Hebrews passage tells us, we are called to be faithful even if we don’t always see the end purposes of God.  We may trust that in the end, God’s purposes for us and promises to us will prevail.

In another place Dreher writes: “Love is the only way we will make it through what is to come… It has to be a kind of love that has been honed and intensified through regular prayer, fasting, and repentance and, for many Christians, through receiving the holy sacraments. And it must be a love that has been refined through suffering. There is no other way.”  As followers of Christ, we need to be intentional about our faith.  The author of Hebrews tells us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  As any athlete knows, you can’t just run a race without first submitting to the discipline of physical training, eating right, and mental preparation.  Only after you have submitted to such a discipline will you be ready to race.

So it is with our Christian journey.  We need be intentional and disciplined in our Christian lives.  This includes putting away everything that draws us away from God, no matter how precious to us.  It requires that we engage in a regular and disciplined study of God’s word in the Bible and a regular and disciplined practice of prayer.  It means submitting our lives to God’s discipline, turning away from worldly pleasures and not seeking fulfillment in material things.  It means that we need to worship God regularly with our fellow believers in church, where we hear God’s word explained, confess our sins, hear God’s forgiveness, and receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.  It means being a full part of the body of Christ where we can support each other and hold each other accountable.

The readings in today’s lectionary are not easy for us to hear and obey.  They require commitment and discipline from us.  But the reward is even greater.  The reward is the transformation of our lives by the Holy Spirit so that we can be pure, redeemed and sanctified sons and daughters of our Creator God.  It is only if we work with Jesus as part of the Kingdom of God that we can bring the transforming love that this world so badly needs.  We are the lemon tree in need of pruning, but if we submit to God’s transforming love, then we will bear much fruit.  Fruit that the world desperately needs.

Let us pray,

Heavenly Father, creator of the world, give us the strength and perseverance to run the race that you have set out for us.  Give us the courage and the will to subject our whole selves to your refining fire, that you will purify us and make us holy, a people set apart for you.  Send your Holy Spirit to us that we may live committed lives of faith and discipleship.  We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

Some Biblical Guidelines for Evangelism

Sermon – July 7, 2019,  Proper 9, Year C

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

One of the most vexing challenges for Christians in twenty-first century America is how to bring others to church.  Many churches are seeing their numbers drop, and some are having to close their doors.  American Christians are too often ill equipped to do what has to be the most basic and fundamental thing that Christians are called to do.  And that is to evangelize.

We often rely on techniques that were developed for the culture that existed in the 1950s and 60s but which no longer produce results.  Back in those days, it was figured that pretty much everybody went to a church and so the challenge was how to convince them to come to our church.  And so the whole enterprise for growing your church was to figure out how to get people through the doors of your church.  The thinking goes that people are already believers and that once they step through the doors of your church, they will be so impressed with your preaching and Sunday School and music and coffee that they will keep coming back.  The problem is that today, most people don’t have any interest in going to church in the first place.  They can hear better music on Spotify, get better coffee at Starbucks, and their kids already have enough programs.  What’s more, going to church is becoming increasingly costly in terms of social and economic status.

If this is our church growth strategy we will fail.  People aren’t interested in attending church unless they have already heard the Gospel.  Coming to church is almost never something that people do before they have had the Gospel shared with them.  So how can we share the Gospel with members of our community?

Our lesson today from Luke gives us some great words of advice.  We might think that our passage in Luke couldn’t possibly apply to us today since it was written so long ago, but I think we’d be wrong.  In many important ways, our American culture today is more similar to the Roman culture of Jesus’ day than it is to American culture of 50 years ago.  In the time of Jesus, there was a pluralistic religious culture which accepted many religions.  But no religion was permitted to claim to be the one true religion or challenge the dominant Roman civil religion.  The teachings of Jesus were seen not only as a threat to the Jewish religious leaders, but increasingly to the Roman civil religion. 

Today in America we also have a very pluralistic religious culture which frowns on any religion that claims to be uniquely and exclusively true.  Christianity is increasingly seen as a challenge to American civic religion.  Christians are okay as long as they don’t rock the cultural boat.  And this is true no matter what your political perspective.  Just as following Jesus was frowned on by the Roman and Jewish cultural leaders back then, so truly following Jesus today will not win us any popularity contests.  This impacts how we do evangelism.

For the first three hundred years of its existence, the Church thrived in a context in which it was severely persecuted.  I remember visiting the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey twelve years ago and seeing a faint fish drawing on a paving stone.  Our tour guide told us that this was the secret sign used by Christians to identify themselves to one another.  Christians had to be careful because the government and religious authorities wanted to eradicate the church, and many of their neighbors would have been only too happy to turn them in.  Remember that the Apostle Paul before his conversion traveled around trying to find Christians to persecute.

I want us to think about what this means for how the early Christians did evangelism.  Christians continued to meet together during these times for what we would call church services.  Yet it would have been madness for them to invite unvetted outsiders in.  Outsiders were not invited to attend church until they had already been converted to the Gospel.  Worship and the sharing of communion was strictly for believers.   This was not an era of seeker sensitive services.  And yet, this was the period of the greatest church growth ever and is only ever replicated in times of persecution of the church.  How can this be?  How can the periods of greatest church growth happen when you can’t actually bring outsiders to church?

Let’s turn to our passage from Luke where we can find some answers.  Our passage begins with two very important words “After this”.  We’d be wise to ask “after what?”  Well, after several important things that happened in chapter 9 and which we will discuss along the way.  The first thing to note is that this comes after Jesus sent out the Twelve with very similar instructions in the beginning of chapter 9.  Why is this significant?  The Twelve represent the disciples of Jesus.  They were the inner core, the leaders, and Jesus certainly sent them out to preach the Gospel.  But in today’s passage, Jesus also sends out the Seventy-Two.  The Seventy-Two is a large number with symbolic meaning.  It symbolized completeness and so Jesus sending out the Seventy-Two is his way of saying that he intends all of his followers to be sent out to preach the Gospel.  The task of evangelizing falls upon each one of us here today just as much as it falls on Pastor Barbara or Bishop Megan or any other clergy.

The second thing to note is that there is an urgency in the air.  Immediately before our passage today, at the end of chapter 9, Jesus makes it very clear that his call is not something people can put off till later.  We read this last week and it might sound a little harsh to us when Jesus tells us that the dead can bury their own dead.  But the point that Jesus is making is that the Gospel is either the most important thing in our lives, or it has no meaning.  It can’t be something we just dabble in when we have spare time.

This is the context in which today’s lesson sits.  Turning to our passage, we see that Jesus sent out his followers two-by-two ahead of him.  Every word here is important as there are key lessons.  First, Jesus sent his followers out.  He did not send his followers out to round people up and bring them to church.  No, he sent his followers out to where the people were.  Each team would enter a village and, if they were welcomed, they would heal the sick and tell them about Jesus.  This is our task also.  We are not called to round people up and bring them to church so that they can hear the Gospel.  No, we are called to meet people wherever we may be in our lives and do what we can to bring healing to them and tell them about Jesus.

Second, Jesus sent them out two-by-two.  Evangelism need not be a solitary endeavor.  We are all part of the body of Christ, and often it can be very helpful having another person with us.  Jesus does not expect us to be alone.

Third, note carefully that Jesus sent out these teams to go “ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.”  The teams went ahead of Jesus to prepare the way.  And this is our task as evangelists as well.  It is not our role to convert people – that is the task of the Holy Spirit.  It is our job to bring what healing we can to people and share with them the Gospel of Jesus.  I think that one reason we are often reluctant to share the Gospel is because we think we need to be salespeople out to close the sale with a reluctant buyer.  And, all too often, this is exactly the impression that some evangelists in popular culture give off.  But that is not what Jesus is calling us to do.

When we bought our first new car five years ago, I learned how car dealers typically work.  There is one guy whose job it is to show you the car, and tell you all about its features.  If you are interested, he passes you on to the salesperson whose job it is to actually sell you the car.  Our role is more like the first person.  Our role is to share the Gospel and tell others about it.

There are three more lessons to take from this passage before I finish.  Jesus tells the seventy-two that he was sending them out like lambs among wolves.  Think about that metaphor.  Lambs among wolves.  We discussed earlier how being a follower of Jesus would have invited persecution back in those days, and how it can even have a serious cost today.  I can tell you that about fifteen years ago I had applied for a job at a law school in the mid-west and sometime after my interview I received a call from the very embarrassed library director asking me what kind of Christian I was, because one of the professors at his school had noticed my theology degree on my resume and had declared that she didn’t want an annoying Christian working at her school.  So, yes, we need to be prepared that we will be putting ourselves at risk when we share the Gospel.

This leads me to our next lesson.  Jesus tells his followers that if a village does not welcome them, they are to shake the dust off their feet as a warning to them.  Now at first glance, we might think this is being harsh and judgmental.  But it isn’t.  In chapter 9, there is a story of Jesus passing through a village that rejected him at which the disciples became very angry and asked Jesus “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”  But Jesus rebuked them.  Context matters.  This event happened just a few verses before our reading today.  Luke is making a very important point.  The disciples wanted vengeance against the village that rejected Jesus, but Jesus shut that idea down immediately.  That’s not what Jesus was about.  Instead, Jesus instructed his followers to peacefully leave a village where they were not welcomed but to issue them a clear warning.

Christians today can fall into opposite errors when confronting our hostile culture.  Sometimes, we become angry and want to teach somebody a lesson.  We take on the attitude of a warrior seeking vengeance against those who would disrespect our tribe.  This is a very human response and yet the antithesis of the Gospel.  On the other hand, another error is to refuse to warn someone of the consequences of rejecting God.  We think that warning someone against rejecting God is judgmental but that affirming them in their rejection is kind and loving.  This would be like telling a person that refuses to leave a house on fire that there is nothing to worry about even as they are about to be overcome by the smoke and heat.  Both of these are natural human responses, but neither is actually loving to the person or the culture.  Jesus calls us to love those that reject him, but to be clear about the consequences, because there are consequences.

The final lesson to draw lies in what Jesus instructed his followers to do when they entered a town that welcomed them.  Listen to this list.  They were to enter the town and the first thing they were to do is give a greeting of peace.  Then they were to heal the sick, eat and drink with the people, and stay among them and teach them about the kingdom of God.  This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise.  It wasn’t just telling people about something.  Yes, telling people about the Gospel was a necessary part, but Jesus called his followers to do more.  They were to dwell among the people, sharing meals, and bringing healing.

This last point brings to mind some very pertinent reflections from our new bishop on the occasion of her consecration a week ago.  Bishop Megan gives us a few short and succinct teachings that seem ideally suited for our passage today.

In one teaching Bishop Megan writes “This is the rewarding challenge to congregations – of any size and location – to become deeply (or more deeply) engaged in our surrounding community.  If God has pitched his tent among us in the Incarnation then we must do the same, becoming known as true neighbors to those around our places of worship. Each parish has a set of gifts that can uniquely meet community needs around them. Finding that overlap is the work of trust and the Holy Spirit and is a source of great missionary energy.”

Our bishop is calling us to do what Jesus called his followers to do, and that is to dwell among the people in our communities, bringing healing where we can.

Then, immediately after her consecration and seating in the cathedral, Bishop Megan wrote to us: “Under all of the beauty, symbolism and polity of this past weekend is a deeper treasure: we each carry the ability to make a significant mark on the world. It walks in with us into every office, soup kitchen, school, and state park we visit. A life powered by Jesus and marked by forgiving and self-giving love brings change to the people around us in practical ways.”

Again, we are called to go forth into our communities, and to live lives powered by the grace of Jesus Christ.  If our lives are marked by the forgiving and self-giving love that Jesus gives us, and if we dwell among people and bring healing, then people will be interested in what we have to say about Jesus and we can prepare them to receive the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit working within them.

And then, we can invite them to church.

Let us pray,

God our savior, look on this wounded world in pity and in power; hold us fast to your promises of peace won for us by your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Why the Trinity?

Sermon – June 16, 2019,  Trinity Sunday, Year C

John 16:12-15

Let us pray.

I speak to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Did you catch my change in opening prayer?  There is a reason why I used the Trinitarian formula instead of the familiar words from Psalm 19 about the words of my mouth and mediations of our heart.  Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday that the Church has set aside to reflect upon the doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinity Sunday is an interesting Sunday to preach on in a lectionary based church since the Trinity is never directly spoken of in the Bible.  It is certainly implied but it is the Church that has drawn on all the implications found in Scripture to develop and proclaim the Trinity as an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.  We see this in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, which we recite throughout the year.  Both of these creeds are broken into a very similar structure of three parts corresponding to the Trinity.  Listen to the first line from each part in the Nicene Creed:  “We believe in one God, the Father; the Almighty”; “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God”; and “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is the central organizing feature of both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, the foundational creeds of the Christian church.  It is a very important doctrine for the Church but one that is extraordinarily difficult to grasp.  Barbara showed me a Facebook post from a priest friend of hers showing notes of how one might explain the Trinity in a sermon, and then listed beside each way of describing it, how that way of describing the Trinity was actually heretical.  It is very difficult for us to understand the Trinity, and all too often, when we try to explain it, we end up misstating it.  Indeed, there are more Trinitarian heresies in the history of the church than you’d care to know about.  I think that at some point we really need to admit that, as humans, we just don’t have the capacity to fully understand the Trinity.  There are certain things we can state about it, and there are certain implications it has for the nature of God and our faith, but we will never be able to fully comprehend it.

Our passage from the Gospel of John doesn’t speak of the Trinity per se, but it does speak of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and this is why the lectionary includes it for today.  What I want to consider today is what this passage says about the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, because, in the end, I think it is this relationship that makes the Trinity such an important doctrine for our faith.

The speaker in our passage is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus says of the Holy Spirit “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.  He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.”  The Holy Spirit is clearly a different person than Jesus, but note that the Spirit will not just speak on His own.  No, the Holy Spirit will point to Jesus and share what He has received from Jesus.  The Holy Spirit will point to and glorify the Son.

Speaking of God the Father, Jesus then says “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”  God the Father has given everything to the Son in terms of power and knowledge.  That which is the Father’s is also the Son’s.  And Jesus then refers back to the Holy Spirit saying “That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”  The Holy Spirit will receive from the Son what the Son received from the Father.

This passage teaches us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share the divine attributes, knowledge and power.  They share collectively their divinity, and yet they are separate Persons.  They each play their own role, but they share a deep and divine unity of purpose.  And the role of each of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is to glorify the other two.  They do not seek glory or honor for themselves but give of themselves for the glory and purpose of the others.  This describes a relationship of self-giving love.

Think about what this means.  The very foundation of God is love.  The doctrine of the Trinity necessarily implies that the basis of God is love.  Author and pastor Tim Keller gets to the heart of this in his chapter on the Trinity in his book The Reason for God.  He points out that if there is no God, than each of us is the product of blind, impersonal forces, and that while we might feel something we call love, it is only due to a biochemical reaction in our brains.  He then asks “But what if there is a God?  Does love fare any better?  It depends on who you think God is.  If God is unipersonal, then until God created other beings there was no love, since love is something that one person has for another.  This means that a unipersonal God has power, sovereignty, and greatness from all eternity, but not love.  Love then is not the essence of God, nor is it at the heart of the universe.  Power is primary.  However, if God is triune, then loving relationships in community are the ‘great fountain…at the center of reality.’…God really has love at his essence….[Love]is the purpose of God because he is essentially, eternally, interpersonal love.”

Tim Keller is right on here.  Without the uniquely Christian doctrine of the Trinity, God is not love, but power.  If we err on the doctrine of the Trinity, then we are essentially proclaiming that the essence of God is power instead of love.  A God whose essence is power is very different than a God whose essence is love.

This is the first key consequence of the doctrine of the Trinity.  God is love.  Quite literally.  This isn’t just a sentimental statement without meaning.  Rather it is a statement on the very central nature of God.  It is part of God’s essential character to love.

Another key consequence of the doctrine of the Trinity is that of community.  Again, let us listen to Tim Keller from his book The Reason for God.  He writes that that “[e]ach of the divine persons centers upon the others.  None demands that the other revolve around him.  Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them.  Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others.  That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.”  In the Eastern tradition of the Church, the image of a circle is used to illustrate the idea of perichoresis, the Greek term for the circular dance of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity is a community in which each divine person is in constant relationship with the other two.

This truth about God applies also to us.  God made us in his own image.  Genesis chapter one says “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  God created us to also have love, relationship and community at the core of our being, both with him and with each other.  This message runs contrary to the dominant philosophy of individualist liberalism that has been foundational to Western culture for the past four hundred years.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy made a very famous statement in a 1992 court decision when he wrote “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  Whether they agree with it or not, many commentators regard this as being one of the most defining statements of western cultural philosophy today.  This statement means that each one of us individually defines our own concept of existence, meaning, the universe and human life.  However, we can have no meaningful community unless we have a common understanding of these things.  This defining statement of western culture is one that undermines meaningful community.

We see the signs of the unraveling of true community all around us today as the forces of technology provide the tools and temptations to draw us further into self-absorption.  In one recent poll on the subject of loneliness, it was found that half of all Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone.  Only half of all Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis.  And, significantly, it is the youngest generation that reports being the loneliest generation.

I was reading a book review in the Washington Post newspaper on a book I had read that discussed the West’s foundational philosophy of individualism.  The reviewer commented that as individualism “has progressed, it has done so by ever more efficiently liberating each individual from “particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities — unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will.” In the process, it has scoured anything that could hold stable meaning and connection from our modern landscape — culture has been disintegrated, family bonds devalued, connections to the past cut off, an understanding of the common good all but disappeared.  And in the end, we’ve all been left terribly alone.”

This is one of the reasons why so many have abandoned the Church.  Christianity does not let us define for ourselves our own concept of existence, meaning, the universe and human life.  It does not allow us to cast aside our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our membership in the body of Christ, or our identity as children of God.  Our cultural drive for individual autonomy is directly contrary to God’s call for community and relationship.

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God’s essential character is love and his defining characteristic is relationship and community.  In stark contrast to our culture’s individualism, Tim Keller points out that in the Trinity, each person of the Godhead “voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them.  Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others.”  We have been made in God’s image.  A foundational part of the creation story is the creation of man and woman to be in relationship with each other.  But our call to be in relationship goes beyond the marriage relationship.  We are called to be in relationship with each other and the whole body of Christ.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism;  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  And in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

We are called to be in relationship with both God and each other.  This is an essential part of who we are as humans, just as it is an essential part of who God is.  We are called to love God and love each other.  When asked to summarize the Law, Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  This is our call, and it is rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity, which we celebrate today.   And so, as we go about our lives, let us always remember that our core and God’s core is love, relationship and community – both with God and with each other.  This is what we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday.

Let us pray,

Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live and reign in the perfect unity of love: hold us firm in this faith, that we may evermore dwell in your love and in the community of the Body of your Son.  May we know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, now and for ever. Amen.