Trinity Sunday, June 19, 2011

by The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the saints greet you.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

The Apostle Paul, to the Corinthian Church, 2 Cor. 13:11-13

Listening to several of our young people talk about their faith on recent Sundays, I have been reminded of my own growing up in a small parish in Massachusetts in the middle of the 20th century.  Like them, I was bit by bit caught up in the congregation, both its youth activities and the worship.  In those days, of course, we did not have opportunity to read lessons, or help administer communion.   And the leadership of worship did not include women or girls, except maybe to help the Altar Guild.  Somehow it rubbed off on me, and I not only became a committed Christian but found myself in seminary and later the rector of a small city parish in St. Louis, Missouri.

Today, there is a lot of concern about how fewer and fewer people in American society are practicing Christians.  One way to look at that issue is to go back to the beginning, shortly after Jesus was crucified, on or close to the year 30 of our present calendar.  Zero Christians at first, except that little band of his followers who went through the experience of his death, the surprising fact of Easter, and their growing recognition that he was alive.  And they were not even called Christians until years later.

Last Sunday, we celebrated Pentecost, the event which is often characterized as the birthday of the Church.  Certainly the day when they were overcome by the presence of the living Spirit of God marked a beginning.  And within a very few years, there would be small communities of followers of the Christian way in the cities and towns of Palestine, in other parts of the Middle East, what is now present day Turkey, in such places as Ephesus, in the Greek world, as in Thessalonica and Corinth, finally in Rome and such North African cities as Alexandria the then great capital of Egypt.

What were these churches like?  In many ways they resembled Holy Cross Church.  First, they were small, they gathered around a table to celebrate the Eucharist, they were a diverse mix of people.  In our day, the media are impressed with so called mega-churches, attended by thousands of people every week.  Yet one of the surprising things about those mega churches is that even they have to break down their numbers into small face-to-face groupings of people who know one another.  The first churches were small, they gathered up people who were attracted because — unlike the state Emperor worship of Rome — they brought together rich and poor, sick and healthy, Gentiles as well as Jews.  What was the secret of their growth?

There are important clues in scripture.  I must begin by telling you I never seriously read or studied the New Testament of the Bible during my growing-up years, not until I got to seminary.  And if you have not studied the scriptures in detail, chances are you are missing what I did!  The two passages read this morning are as brief as any assigned during the entire church year.  But they offer us powerful evidence about why the church grew in its early years.  And there is a message for Holy Cross as we confront our future.

Take a look with me at part of a letter written by the apostle Paul.  What we know about Paul was his dramatic conversion, probably no later than five years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, about the year 35.  In his letters and in the Book of Acts which describes his missionary journeys, we have a picture of what Paul believed and the message he took to cities around the Mediterranean.   The New Testament includes two letters he wrote to the church in Corinth, shortly after the year 50.  He was especially proud of the congregation in planted in that city, an important trading center which linked Rome and the Middle East.  Remember, he was writing no more than twenty years after the beginning of the Church.  His first letter was very supportive of their growing life together.  The second, from which we read the final three verses, was very different.  He has been planning a visit to them — it would be his third — and he is very upset.  They are contentious, very divided, nearly split apart as churches and other groups in all ages tend to be.  Having gotten his disappointment off his chest, he ends on a gentle and caring note.  Listen again.  You have the text in today’s bulletin.  Let me read it again, this time in a contemporary translation:

To sum up, my brothers and sisters,  as I say good-by.  Set your hearts on the maturity I have spoken of, consider my advice, live in harmony, be at peace with one another.  So  shall the God of love and peace be ever with you.  Give each other a greeting of peace and warmth.  All the Christians where I am send greeting.

–Translation based largely on J. B. Phillips, Letters to Young Churches

We have heard language like that in the final sermons of John McCausland’s ministry among us.  What makes a healthy church go round is mutual love and respect.  At Holy Cross, everyone counts, from the youngest to the most elderly.  Most impressively, our young people said that to us.  And Paul supplies the reason in the final sentence of his letter.  It describes how Christian faith began to make its way into the ancient world, and why Christian faith appeals to people today when they observe Jesus’s followers taking it to heart.  Listen:

The grace that comes through our Lord Jesus Christ, the love that is God the Father, and the fellowship that is ours in the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

We call that way of expressing God the Trinity, that is, God experienced in three different dimensions, ways, persons which reveal the nature of God and God’s love.  With other faiths such as Judaism and Islam, we name God as the creator of all life, with Buddhists and others who recognize the deepest reality in the gift of life and the richness of creation, we recognize our common creature-hood.  Words like Father may catch the significance of our origin, but only to the extent that human fatherhood and motherhood manage to reflect or mimic the infinite mystery of God’s bringing the creation and its creatures into being.  God, we affirm, created us out of love.

What is unique for Christians is that in Jesus, God entered history in human flesh, and the richness of his teaching, his death on the cross, and his presence to his followers as Risen Savior are tangible signs of God’s love, made present as flesh of our flesh.  Generation after generation of believers would come to recognize and experience the love that showed itself to Jesus’s beleaguered follows as they gathered in fear and doubt after his death.  He was alive as a risen savior, and he promised them the gift of the Spirit.

On the day they called Pentecost, God’s Holy Spirit came with dazzling power to them, and they found themselves empowered to be agents of God’s love.  The Gospel written by Matthew ends in the brief sentences just read, which may be understood as the marching orders for any group of Christian believers.  Listen again:

Jesus came to them (and does Jesus come to us and say?), “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth!  Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples.  Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you.  I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.

You and I were named at baptism, and commissioned to live out our faith according to that understanding of God, a Trinity of belief, yet one God.  Over the centuries the Church has tried to comprehend the meaning of its faith, explain by way of philosophy what is at one level the mystery of human experience of the divine.  At another level, the one I have been outlining, we Christians do have a threefold awareness of God as creator, as the unique one Jesus, as the spirit of joy and love and strength which is ours in our best moments.  In a moment, we will say together the Nicene Creed, one of those formulations of faith, written in the year 325 and amplified at another Council of the Church in 381.  Someone said to me recently, “I have a problem saying the Creed; I am not sure I believe every section of it.”  Two comments.  The first is to recognize a creed for what it is:  a statement of the beliefs which the church agreed to as it tried to comprehend the sweeping mystery of human  life touched by God — in three paragraphs, expressing God as the maker of heaven and earth, God in the person of Jesus the Christ, God the Holy Spirit.  We use the plural voice when we say the Creed, that is, what we are affirming is the Church’s best effort to render its faith in a form which touches the high points of our understanding of God and God’s encounter with us.  We say it in response to the readings of the day, the homily which seeks to interpret them, a kind of statement to those gathered that these are some things about faith to pay attention to.  We say the creed — in some traditions it is sung — to affirm that to the best of our ability, we are trying to live out the triune faith.

Second comment.  To recite the Creed is no way implies that we have all the answers to God’s way with humankind, but that we mean to stay rooted in the questions, the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness lived out in relationship to Jesus the Savior.  To say, “I’m not sure” is not necessarily a confession of failure to believe this or that proposition about God, but a recognition that we are being invited to go deeper into the question of where God is at work in my life.

Today we lift up the central mystery of God’s dealings with humankind.  We sing of God as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Remember, please, that all those words speak of the same reality, God is love, God means to be with you, God is here in our midst, calling us to show that love to our families, to those around us, to a world hungry for truth.  Let me end with the words of a wise woman of faith, St. Teresa of Avila:

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that
has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.

 

 

 

 

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