What Do You Believe? – May 27, 2018
I have a curious affinity for a good mystery, but not just any mystery story. My unique interest is a whodunit that involves clergy or other religious characters and the church. Give me a good storyline about a bishop who meets his demise in the sacristy before Sunday Mass and I’m in crime novel rapture.
I have, therefore, been religious in my search of available mysteries of that ilk on Amazon—given the downfall of most book store chains—and have a good stack ready to attack on my sabbatical. In the end, the author of each fictional work will allow me to figure out who did whom in and why they did and the mystery will be solved. In the end, it will all be cut and dry and graspable
The mystery we contemplate today is not at all so simple or comprehensible. The greatest theologians the Church has produced have struggled for centuries to explain the mystery of the Trinity—a doctrine of the faith that teaches that there are three persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Their work is expressed in the creeds of the church, one of which we recite every week. Martin Luther once said, “To try to deny the Trinity endangers one’s salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers one’s sanity!
The Trinity is an ultimately unexplainable Doctrine of the Christian Church and it took almost 400 years for the church to get its head straight about that doctrine, so we should not worry too much when we rise to our feet on Sunday and recite the words of the Nicene Creed with more than a little confusion, puzzlement, and even some disbelief.
What is a challenge for many is the reality that the formulation of Trinitarian doctrine is the work of a male-dominated church and culture. Much of our theology comes from the minds and wills of those who were in power at the time and, although we believe that the essence of the decisions they made in the great ecumenical councils of the church was inspired by God the Holy Spirit, we can still in good faith challenge some of the finer points and hold the culture in which it all happened in perspective.
I have come to understand that it is not so much how well we can digest or affirm the church’s teaching of the Trinity, but rather what we believe about God that matters. In fact, I think that what we believe about God shapes who we are and, when we are able to stretch our brain and expand our mind about God, it can and will transform our lives.
In her book, In Search of Belief, Joan Chittister relates an experience of asking people in discussion groups, “What do you believe?” One man said he really didn’t believe in anything anymore and then went on to talk all about the business he started and the Krugerrands he had bought. She smiled as she though “he clearly believes in the god of money.”
“What do you believe?” she asked a young man, fresh from a college degree, not long married. “I’m taking a Bible course,” he said, “I believe that Americans are God’s special people and that the man is supposed to be the head of the family.” She watched as he gave his wife orders as they talked. His belief, she mused, was obviously in himself and the god of entitlement.
A woman who had left the church told her that “I believe that God made women to have the same abilities and opportunities as men have, and I’m not going to be part of anything that says otherwise.”
These situations made her point: Everybody believes in something. There is no such thing as an age of unbelievers. Joan concludes then that “whatever we believe at the deepest center of our being determines what we ourselves become, even when we say we believe in something else.”
Rather than unpack this incomprehensible doctrine of the Trinity, I wonder if it is not a day for us to reflect on that rather probing question: “What do you believe?” What do you believe about life and about the world and about God and about love and about mystery? And how has what you believe shaped the person you are and informed the way you live?
I’ve always been a fan of Nicodemus, the fellow who has the late night encounter with Jesus. Nicodemus was a man of compassion with an inquisitive and curious mind. I’d imagine that like me he relished a good mystery and he was used to weighing up evidence with a craving for truth and justice.
Nicodemus was a man of utter integrity, yet he was still not able to make that final leap of faith, to accept the whole of Jesus’ person and teaching. Jesus never turned him away. Jesus loved him and what he wanted Nicodemus most to grasp—and us most to grasp—is the love of God, a love that claims us as God’s own and invites us into deep relationship with God and with one another because the essence of the Trinity is relationship.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born of the Spirit and that the Spirit is in the wind. We can’t see the wind so we really can’t understand it or control it but we can see the results. About two weeks ago, a number of towns north of us saw the devastating results of strong winds that kept thousands without power, roads unpassable, and schools closed for almost a week.
On this Trinity Sunday, we remember that the heart of our faith journey is not to be found in abstract concepts but in a mystery which, much like the wind, can only be experienced. None of us have seen God’s Spirit, but many of us have felt it and lived in it. It is that Spirit when it is present in a community like this that can thaw a frosty heart, reconcile enemies, enliven the stoic, comfort the afflicted, disturb the comfortable, and provide new invigorating life to the status quo.
Later this week, I embark on what is only my second sabbatical in my 25 years at St. Paul’s, a time that all clergy are strongly encouraged by our bishops to step away from the communities they serve for rest, refreshment, new learning, and reflection on their ministry. I will miss this place and its amazing people and I am grateful, ‘too, for this wonderful opportunity to recharge and take stock of what is, by God’s grace, yet to come.
You will be well cared for by two of the best priests I have been privileged to know: Father Peter Thompson and Mother Louise Kalemkerian. Please support them in their ministry and remember that even a healthy community like St. Paul’s is vulnerable to those covert and overt influences that seek to thwart the work of God’s Spirit in our midst and even to incite diverseness.
The life of the Trinity is life lived in community. This community. Right here. Right now. In every word we share with one another, everything we do for one another, every way we are Christ for one another. The promise of the Gospel is that the Spirit is always busy, in your life and mine, in our congregation, in our worship, in our life together, unfolding more and more of the mystery of God.
What do you believe? In the words of Joan Chittister: To say “I believe” is to say that my heart is in what I know but do not know, what I feel but cannot see, what I want and do not have, however much I have. To say “I believe” is to say yes to the mystery of life.”