What’s Three For?

Trinity Sunday,  May 22, 2016, 11 AM, UBC Digby

J G White (Romans 5:1-57; John 16:12-15)

In the Church year, this Sunday is called Trinity Sunday.  God is One, but also Three Persons.  God in three Persons: blessed Trinity.  But, why?  Why is God like this?  Or, at least, why do we Christians find God to be this way?  What’s Three for?  Why not just One: God be God?

John 16:12-15.  Four verses from the four pages of Jesus’ talk at the Last Supper with the disciples.  As with last week, here is a saying about the Holy Spirit, promised to come in the future.  But when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.  In this teaching, we hear Jesus speaking about Himself, about the Father who is God, and about the Spirit: who all seem to be sharing and giving things to people.  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  A few hundred years after Jesus spoke these words, His followers settled on a description of God called the Trinity.  God is One God.  God is also three Persons, so to speak.  

What’s here in John 16 is beautifully worded, but still limited, inadequate, awkward.  It is human language, after all.  God the Trinity is simple enough for us to know but beyond us in our understanding and explaining.  

Why do we say God is Three and One?  These Three are for Salvation. Our experience of being saved is deep and broad, and we find the God who saves us is Three and One.

We have this section of the Bible called the Book of Romans, and here is some thorough Christian teaching about God and salvation. The book is in two parts we could call: how to explain it, and how to live it.  The tiny bit Angela read today is a little chapter well-loved by teachers and preachers of sin and salvation. And, of course, it is filled with all the special words that have so much meaning.  Words to express some important things about humankind and God: Justification, Faith, Peace with God, Access to Grace, Hope of sharing God’s Glory, God’s Love.

Fred Buechner wrote of how such big words lose their power.  

Take any English word, even the most commonplace, and try repeating it twenty times in a row — umbrella, let us say, umbrella, umbrella, umbrella — and by the time we have finished, umbrella will not be a word anymore.  It will be a noise only, an absurdity, stripped of all meaning.  And when we take even the greatest and most meaningful words that the Christian faith has and repeat them over and over again for some two thousand years, much the same thing happens.

But I keep using them, Buechner writes.  And so do we all.  And our re-telling of the same truths comes out of those traditional words.

We can hear afresh what Good News the Trinity works in our world. (Romans 5:1-2, Msg)

By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.

Our Maker, our Master, our Mighty Spirit, all are involved in the new life we are given and get to live, even now. Salvation is a life, a life lived with this Trinity, today.

I was impressed more than a week ago by a statement made in a tribute to Idella Morine at her funeral in Bear River.  Of the many things a granddaughter’s husband said, one was this.  That Idella believed that if there turned out to be no afterlife, no heaven, no mansion just over the hilltop: knowing and following Jesus was worth it just for this life of salvation here and now.

This thought brings us to a second reason for God to be the Trinity.  These Three are for Relationship.

God is in relationship already, before/without creation or anything else to love and enjoy.  John Donne said, No man is an island entire of itself…  Perhaps even the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is telling us that Our God is not an island entire of Itself.  The One we worship is a Community of love, all within Godself.    

As Jesus talks about the Spirit in John 16, He speaks of a sharing between Himself and the Spirit and God the Father.  The Spirit “will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears…  He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is mine,” said Jesus.  

It seems strange, doesn’t it?  But Christ paints this picture of the Three Persons of God in this friendly, cooperative, generous relationship.  Father, Son and Spirit are almost submitting to each other.  

And then our Creator shares with us humans: glory, and suffering, and knowledge.

At the heart of our story is the suffering of God – Jesus who is brutally executed.  Relationship is remade with people by our God who even comes to us to be abandoned and face death.  

I see in this suffering of Jesus, this abandonment by God the Father, is like our own split selves: detached from our own emotions, our memories, our past actions, and our present habits.  We bury many things, our insides a split up and the hurting parts sometimes hidden.  “My self, my self, why have you forsaken me?” we could cry out, taking a page from Psalm 22.  Even God completely has experienced this, as the dying Jesus says, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!”  That can only happen if God is more than one.

And then the relationship is restored: Creator, Son and Spirit – and the fellowship of God and humankind is healed.  So our story of God is of a God who is more than one, and even gets separated from Himself, so that we can be one, united with God.  

I hear it said, again and again: there is a difference between a human being and human doing… So God is our Image: God is in relationship, even without and before creation.  Without God doing anything.  If the New Testament can say “God is love,” then we can say “God is relationship.”  Our view of God as the Trinity points to this.

You may know of Karen and David Mains, American Christian authors who have been in radio ministry for many years.  M A I N S; not to be confused with Canadian David Mainse of 100 Huntley Street: M A I N S E.

It was twenty years ago that Karen wrote:

These years, I am chasing Trinity.  Each Sunday, I hear the cry in my heart, “Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts!”  I lift up my heart to the Trinity.  I will learn from the One-God-in-Three that I am molded best by relationship, [that I am incomplete without dialogic formation, that I can only become what God intended me to be my humbling myself to reciprocity.]

(Karen Burton Mains, Stories for the Christian Year, 1992, p. 170)

There is a third point to this sermon.  It had to be a ‘three point sermon,’ eh?  For Trinity Sunday.  Why is God Three as well as One?  These Three are for Discipleship.  

God, in these three ways, three Persons, offers us a life path of being a complete disciple, a learner, an apprentice.  I say this because of Romans 5 and all the talk of what God does through Jesus, and the actions of the Spirit, pouring love into our hearts.  I look at that chain of development: suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope.  To be a disciple of Jesus we are always in development and in training with the Master.  The Salvation God provides for us is a whole life.  The continuing touch of the Spirit works on us from the inside out.  

In John 16 Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit who will come to continue His teaching and guiding.  We especially think of the Spirit as the One who does some inner work on our human spirits, making us Holy like God.  Special, good and pure.  “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.”   After Jesus’ life here, after the Bible was written and completed, all these centuries later, God still guides and leads and trains and teaches.

One Bible commentator has warned: This is in some ways a frightening promise, for it can be quoted to bless every new notion, and footnote with authority all manner of behavior as well as prophecies as to the fate of the world, the time of the eschaton[end] , and the certain will of God in every crisis.  (Fred B. Craddock et al, Preaching the New Common Lectionary, 1986, pp. 20-21)

You can walk through our town and read a sign that says: Sometime in Sept of 2053 the First Resurrection is to take place.  This is the month and the year.  38 years from 2015.  This is not the day or the hour.  

Is this from God? Did the Holy Spirit teach or reveal this to someone to share with our town?  I’ll let you be the judge. Suffice it for me to say that the Spirit is in accord with Jesus the living Word, and with Creator God, of the whole story of the Bible.  

Someone reminded me of a little, old tin at our cottage, with a narrow spout on the top.  It is a tin of Three-In-One Oil.  I guess it was long before WD-40 people used Three-In-One Oil.  Developed in 1894, what does it do?  It cleans, lubricates, and protects.  On thing that is three things: cleaner, lubricator, protector.

God = Three/Trinity = One/Unity

Like how physics understands light.  A particle and/or a wave. We can’t pin it down. But it is so real, so present and powerful in our lives.

We can’t pin God down.  But we can experience God as One, and as Three. A God who saves the world. A God who relates to us. A God who welcomes disciples.

Spirit of Belonging

Pentecost Sunday,  May 15, 2016, 11 AM, UBC Digby

J G White (Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, 25-27)

Years ago, writer Frederick Buechner said, the word spirit has come to mean something pale and shapeless, like an unmade bed.  School spirit, [the spirit of giving,] the Christmas spirit, the Spirit of ‘76, the Holy Spirit – each of these points to something you know is supposed to get you to your feet cheering…  (Wishful Thinking, 1972, p. 90)

“God is Spirit,” Jesus said, “and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.”  (John 4:24) This is the cheering we do on our feet, in the Spirit of God.

As we follow the calendar of the Church Year, after seven Sundays of Easter we come to today: Pentecost.  The celebration of a special arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the birth of the Christian Church.  

There are many things we could say about the Holy Spirit, who He is and what He is like.  Jesus made quite a few promises to his closest disciples about this Presence of God who would come to be with them, once He had left.  A few we heard again today were these:

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth

The Holy Spirit abides The Holy Spirit is forever

The Holy Spirit is given/sent

The Holy Spirit teaches The Holy Spirit reminds

This is how Jesus promised to be with His own into the future – into today.  As another Person of God.  This Divine Holy Spirit. We call Jesus, Emmanuel: God with us. And now that He has left, God is still with us. The Spirit has come.  

Our other scripture reading today takes us into the theme of how we find that we belong.  We belong in the universe.  We belong to God.  We belong .  And this Holy Spirit is The Spirit of Belonging.  

Peter Schazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality lists these parts of being well on the inside as we walk with our Master. We gain a more biblical self-understanding:

I am worthy to assert  my God-given power in the world.

I am entitled to exist.  It is good that I exist.

I have my own identity from God that is distinct and unique.  

To know we belong to Christ, we are told that we have become Children of God.  With Jesus, you are a child of the King.  Look around: there are other children of God sitting around you here today!

It happened again this week.  On Wednesday, at the Valley Regional Hospital, a baby was born.  A nine pound boy.  His name is Blake Stevens… His mother is a youth pastor.  Now, she goes on maternity leave, and Sharon White takes over and fills in with that ministry.

So, Sharon and I went in yesterday and met Blake Stevens, three days old.  He slept for us while we were there, while we took turns holding him.  

Sharon asks, well, what so many ask.  Who do people say he looks like?  Mom, or Dad?  A grandparent maybe?  Already, family and friends want to see a resemblance.

If you are God’s… how do you resemble Him?  Even some pets seem to resemble their owners; have you come to resemble your Master, your Brother, Jesus?  We become like those we belong to, we have a common glow, a shared spirit, a family resemblance.  Because we belong.

We belong in Jesus’ family, for we were given Not a Spirit of Slavery, Not a Spirit of Fear.  To be forced into Christianity is not Christianity at all.  To be scared into the Kingdom is far from the best way to enter the gates.  Those who start their faith journey out of fear must grow from there and find their true belonging.  Years ago, many evangelicals did start turning to God out of fear: fear of evil and death and hell and various terrors.

A Baptist writer I appreciate a lot is Calvin Miller.  He has written quite a bit about cultivating the inner life.  But his beginnings were typical of the revival meetings of the mid twentieth century.

Young Calvin was at a revival meeting in the south.  At the end, he says they began to sing “Oh Why Not Tonight?”  It seemed an honest question unblemished by the adenoidal also harmony that always marked our singing of the invitation.  “Step forward to the altar, so you’ll never have to sept into hell,” shouted the buckskinned evangelist above the plaintive singing.  

The burden was immense, says Miller. I broke into tears.  Emotion burned like fire through the sawdust chips.  

Hell, dark as a gospel tent in a power outage, suddenly gaped like a black hole before me.  I stood weeping, naked, foolish, and undone.  I knew not when Christ would come!  Lucky for me they sang the invitation: “Oh, do not let the Word depart, and close thine eyes against the light, poor sinner harden not your heart, be saved, oh, tonight.”

I had no choice.  I must fly now to the arms of Jesus.  I did. Wonder of wonder, he did all the hymn said.  He snatched my feet from the [miry] clay and set me on the rock.  I changed categories.  I was saved. (Stories for the Christian Year, Collier Books, 1992, pp. 156-7)

The Spirit has moved in many ways in many a heart, and use many methods.  And there can be a sense of belonging among those with such experience as that of Calvin Miller’s.  But we discover, later, the Holy One gives us not a spirit of slavery or a spirit of fear.  We are blessed with A Spirit of Adoption.

I don’t know about human adoption.  No one in my immediate family was adopted, actually.  I know there are varying degrees of a child feeling he or she belongs, when the child has been adopted into a family.  At best, the word ‘adopted’ stops being used, and the child is simply a child, and the parents are the parents.  So it is with God.  So it should be in God’s Church.  This is divine adoption.

Many of us have pet peeves.  You know, those things that others do and we find it annoying, we find fault with it, we find we have to complain about these things that keep happening.  Perhaps pet peeves tell more about the person that has them than the things we complain about.

One of my pet peeves: clubs/groups/churches not being welcoming.  There is a danger in a close-knit group that, well, it becomes such a family of everyone knowing everyone, that new people can’t break into it.  

I always think back to a club I joined for a while, years ago.  It was a nature club in a town, and at the meetings guest speakers would talk about birds, or plants, or insects, or some other animal, or the night sky, or geology… something in the natural environment.  

It is a big nature club.  And I would go to a meeting.

The people there, in the room, before the meeting started, would be talking with each other.  They all seemed to know one another and be very happy.  But they did not know me.  No one greeted me.  No one seemed interested.  No one welcomed me.  

It’s time for the meeting to start.  A man comes front and centre in the room, and says welcome to all.  He never tells what his name is, or what he is.  Perhaps he is the President of the Club.  I don’t know, but everyone else does, I guess, and probably knows him by name.

The fellow at the front says things like, “If you need to renew your membership dues, see Harold.”  Who is Harold?  What does he look like?  Is he in the room?  The club all knows who Harold is, but a newcomer like me sure doesn’t. I did not feel like I could belong.

Lots of clubs, with their monthly meetings, and churches that meet weekly, can act like this.  They know the routine, they all know one another; they don’t know how to act to welcome someone in.  A newcomer has to take a lot of initiative to get into such an ‘old boys club.’

The fellowship the Spirit of God creates is a real adoption.  The true and living Church of Jesus Christ is an adopting reality – and every single child has been adopted in.  Some of the local chapters of the Church in various villages have becomes so much family that they are practically closed to strangers – but what the Spirit works to do is welcome people in and make them know they belong.  

At the heart of this is what the Spirit does personally.

The Spirit bears witness with our spirit

This is personal, inner contact.  

Alfred Ackley’s 1933 hymn declares:

He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!

…You ask me how I know He lives?

He lives within my heart.

To believe in God is, in the end, to know God personally.  To have our own experience with the Creator, the Saviour, the Spirit.  There is something quite deep, in the inner life of you and me, where the Spirit meets us.  We speak of our own heart, mind, soul, spirit.  It is there that we have times we know are with the heart of God, the mind of Christ, the Holy Spirit.  And the better we are in touch with our own inner life, the better we can be in fellowship with God.

I am very grateful for the time away a couple weeks ago for the pastor’s retreat.  The theme of this quiet time, for nine pastors, was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.  The purpose was for us simply to spend time with our God.  In my time seeking to be with the Spirit, I wondered about how to make better use of my times alone.  I have time every week when I walk alone, hiking somewhere, seeing beautiful sights, observing the plants, the birds, and so forth.  But seldom am I consciously praying or am aware of God.  So I asked the Spirit for some ways – some blessings – to take with me whenever I go off somewhere quiet and lovely.  Some ways to be ready to meet the Master when I am out there.  Maybe I have been given a few hints.

Your personal experiences with God can be cultivated too.  The truly special holy moments are important, but day by day, week by week, it is so good to be seeking the Spirit, and be reminded of the One to whom we belong.

And so, we who are in Jesus are Heirs of God and Joint Heirs with Christ.  The Family of God – created by God – does not have the inheritance problems human families sometimes have.  You know, the sad squabbles over how people got treated, or favoured, or who inherited what in the will.  How many times have brothers and sisters fought and quit speaking to one another over some money someone thought was there to inherit, when in fact there was actually just about nothing.  

The riches of the heavenly kingdom, and God’s provision of grace for this lifetime and the next is inexhaustible.  We are not about to run out of grace, and the heavenly mansions are not about to get booked to capacity. Despite the beliefs of some sects thru the years that heaven has room for only 144,000 people, there will one day be ‘a great multitude which no one can count,’ crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb.”  (Revelation 8:9&10)

We are, as we sang, joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod, for we’re part of the Family, the Family of God.  

And in this eternal family, like any family, we know the pains and the joys of the best pathway.  We share the experiences of Suffering and Glory with Jesus, the great Suffering Servant, now glorified.  May we always be filled with the Spirit as we look to Him.  

She Matters Too

Solidarity Sunday, Mother’s Day,  E7,  May 8, 2016, 11 AM, UBC Digby / J G White

(Proverbs 31:8-16, 25-31; Luke 10:38-42)

It was years ago I heard this, dare I call it, old wives tale, about a chapter in the Bible.  Proverbs 31.  It went something like this.  Woman: open the Bible to Proverbs chapter 31.  You will see it has 31 verses.  Read the verse that is the same number as you birthday is in the month you were born.  That verse is for you.  

So, my wife, Sharon, was born on the 25th of a certain month.  Her verse would be She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.

Now, this sort of works best for women born on the 10th or later, because the first nine verses are not quite the same sort of complimentary wisdom.  Yet, this method is really a superstition, I’d say, and a bad way of using scripture.  We don’t believe in using this book for magic, like this.  God’s word is not a silly horoscope!  

Look instead to the whole chapter.  In fact, start where I didn’t earlier, at verse 1.  Read what it says. The sayings of King Lemuel – an oracle his mother taught him.  This Lemuel is not known from anywhere in scripture or history, only from this.  And this claims to be wisdom he learned from his mother.  This gives the chapter a powerful perspective.  Especially as we read the advice a woman gave to her son, an ancient king.  Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.  Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.  (8-9) The call for justice goes out:  Care for those in need!  Be fair! Those who are oppressed are valuable. She Matters! 

That’s the name – for a second year in a row – of our campaign with Canadian Baptist Ministries.  She Matters.  There is work we can do to bless girls and women around the world who have not had the opportunity to learn, to earn a living, to become leaders.  This is the work of Jesus, as He came to do, and we join Him today.  

The She Matters Campaign addresses and advocates for gender equity for women around the world.  Think for a moment of the key responsibilities held by women for their family’s nutrition, health, education, food security, among other areas.  Yet millions of women and girls in some places are denied access to important and often life changing health, welfare and employment skills, information and training because of a lack of literary skills.  They cannot read and write.  Their marginalization is sometimes deliberate.  Boys are favoured in education and nutrition.  There are communities in which local leaders, mostly male, perpetuate structures of patriarchy by telling women that they must accept their place, remain silent, and that Christian workers will harm them and their families.

One of the key barriers to breaking the cycle of systemic poverty is lack of free primary education for children, in particular females.  The lack of basic education perpetuates adult illiteracy and maintains a barrier for women who would like to have sustainable employment skills and access to knowledge.  

Baptist congregations, through CBM, support several initiatives that open up opportunities for women through literacy classes, and for girls through access to education.  

In India there are church based initiatives among tribal people in rural villages where there are no schools.  A girls’ hostel was opened by the Kui Baptist Convention and Canadian Baptists.  The hostel provides a secure place for girls and young women to board while they study in primary and secondary school.  In addition, there are women’s literacy classes in the rural communities.  

In Rwanda, over seven hundred and fifty women are enrolled in reading and discussion classes.  The materials cover important themes such as child nutrition, violence against women, and women’s leadership in their churches and communities.  Students learn to read the scriptures and discuss them in their community classes.  

A Rwandan Baptist pastor introduced an adolescent girl named Rachel to CBM’s Children of Hope Program for children from child led households.  Rachel was grieving the death of her widowed mother and was overwhelmed and fearful of being thrust into the role of primary caregiver to her four siblings.  Through the program, Rachel and her family members were enrolled in the national health care program, school fees were paid and a trained mentor visited regularly with the family to provide support and encouragement.  

When Rachel finished school, a literate, educated young woman, she was enrolled in a vocational program to become a tailor.  A micro-credit loan helped her to purchase a sewing machine and start a small business.  Rachel is now twenty- three with a growing business that includes her own dress designs.  She has been trained to mentor three other child led households with sixteen children in all.  Rachel is a strong Christian witness among the children from child led households.  

These literacy and education programs are not a passing fad.  They are commitments to gender justice, to the healing of the world, to recognizing the potential of girls and women.  She Matters is our statement through words and actions that transform lives.  (Shannon Youell, She Matters Too sermon resource, 2016)

Women and girls are given opportunities to live the life of the wise woman of Proverbs chapter 31. And this is Jesus’s vision too.  

A great wisdom moment in the New Testament comes in Luke 10, with today’s story of sisters, Martha and Mary, having a visit from Jesus, their friend and Master.  The contrast between these two sisters has been considered and meditated upon by so many through the years.  Martha, who is busy, busy with the tasks of hospitality; Mary who simply sits to listen to the lessons of the Master.  

This was one text a little group of pastors pondered last week while on retreat.  We were there, at Bayside Camp, to be quiet and meditative; to be with Jesus.  We wondered about what other things might have happened if Martha had acted differently, or Mary.  

Martha, we are told, was the one who welcomed Jesus into their home.  But then her attitude shows up: she keeps busy, and gets frustrated at her sister who is not helping her.  Martha even tells Jesus what to do!  “Tell her to help me!”  

How often do we tell God what to do, when we have not yet spent enough time listening?  There can be a balance in our lives.  Work and activity for God; rest and being with our Master.  Some of us are naturally like Martha – busy and hospitable and energetic.  Some of us are like Mary – contemplative or studious.  All can have balance.   In the end, it was Martha’s attitude, not her work, that was the issue.  “Martha, Martha,” said Jesus, “you are worried and upset about many things…”  We wondered if, suppose, Mary had got up and got to helping Martha, if Mary would have done it with simple confidence, and not been harried.  To know how to be restful and take in a special moment can be balanced with our busy moments and responsibilities.  And perhaps it was counter-cultural for a woman to sit at the feet of a Rabbi teaching, when there was work to be done.  Jesus commends Mary for choosing well to be a student of the Master.  She matters – both Mary and Martha matter – and both can be disciples of Jesus: learners in His school of Kingdom living.

And so we come full circle, back to the wisdom of Proverbs 31 – wisdom from the mother of a long-forgotten king.  But the mother’s wise, poetic advice has never been forgotten.  And here, from so long ago, is that exemplary balance that can be seen in a woman’s life, not to mention in a man.  She works with fabric and clothing; she is like a merchant in the town.  She supplies food in her home; she is a business woman.  She is strong and full of dignity;  she is filled with wisdom; she is loved and respected by her partner and children.  She is in balance.  

Charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

And to the rest of us we could say: Strength is fragile and handsomeness is but the surface; but a man who fears the Lord is to be praised.