The sermon for week June 03, 2012
June 3, 2012
Romans 8: 12-17
John 3: 1-8
Our distinguished lecture series “Scientists in Congregations” which began in January came to a successful conclusion on May 21. The series featured local scientists and theologians who presented information from their respective disciplines, programs which challenged us to re-examine our faith in terms of recent research and discovery. Our sponsorship of this series can be seen as encouraging a unique and sacred conversation in which faith seeks understanding through a series of new births in the relationship between science, theology, tradition and culture.
In the second session in the series Rev. Dr. Julian A. Davies and our own Dr. Al Compaan played to a full house while relating the scriptures to the latest developments in physics. Later I admitted to Al that much of his presentation sped over my head like a fast ball over home plate. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the beauty and mystery of physics and math. I hadn’t seen a periodic table since I was a sophomore in college. It was sobering to learn that since that time new and often unnamed elements had been added to the table. Has it really been that long?
As a result of these programs many of us have added quarks and string theory and stellar evolution to our vocabularies on the condition that we will never be required to explain these concepts. Now I’ve noticed that the book group has taken up the theme, reading and discussing Richard Dawkins’ book with the provocative title: The God Delusion. The rest of us are already signed up to attend the Marcus Borg seminar in September. Borg promises to stretch our imaginations even further with such topics as “Reclaiming Christian Language” and “Mysticism, Empowerment and Resistance.”
Scientists and theologians are building on the latest discoveries in their respective fields to suggest new ways of thinking about God and the universe and the implications for ourselves in human society. They are searching for a new language for an equation in which the love of God and the love of the world form a comprehensive unity. “Scientists in Congregations” drew wide support from our own membership and the larger community which suggests there is a level of spiritual curiosity and hunger among us which longs to be engaged on a deeper, less superficial level with the questions of our time.
None other than Albert Einstein encourages such a process. “Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid becomes easy,” he quipped.
Scientists are emerging as the theologians of this new era. It is they who have led the way to our discovery of an evolutionary God whose fingerprints we see and whose music we hear in the unfinished world around us. Science and theology may employ different terminologies; but they both seem to entertain the notion that we live in an expanding universe fashioned by a Providence that includes it all in a loving embrace.
According to Galileo, “Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe.” I wish I had known that earlier. I might have paid closer attention to math and science when I was in school. It saddens me to think that I never learned to set aside my fear long enough to hear the poetry and see the beauty in those subjects that eluded me because I avoided them.
Whether it’s engaging in a dialogue between science and theology or finding the poetry in physics, it’s all about connecting the dots, finding the connection between what appear to be dialectical opposites, and creating a new language to bridge the gap between wonder and fear.
We may speculate about whether there is such a thing as a metaphor for string theory, but whether we define ourselves as scientists or theologians we share a common lack of tolerance for those things that defy description or explanation. Ever since Eve considered her options between knowing good and evil in the Garden of Eden, we want to know, and it’s been the cause of trouble and discovery ever since.
One of the earliest struggles for the Church was the debate over the nature of God, and the mysterious relationship among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The early Church found itself on the defensive against critics of Jesus who accused him of “making himself equal to God.” (John 5:18) Every faithful Jew at daily prayers recited the Shema which begins, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone… How could the God of the Israel be more than One?” Where did Messiah fit in the equation? Can 1+1+1=1? God may have used the language of math to create the universe; but where is Divinity to be found in the math?
The text from Romans which we read earlier is one of the passages scholars have identified as describing the unique relationship that supports the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity. Its language dances around the edges of a reality that cannot be fully known. While no terminology is found in the New Testament directly referring to the Trinity the use of the term dates back to the first century.
Most of us have absorbed church doctrine through various church creeds and rarely give them much thought until they’re challenged, as mine were last summer when the door bell rang and I opened my front door to an unexpected visit from two lovely ladies. I listened politely while they explained the reason for their visit. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, boldly testifying to a faith in God, which does not include the Trinity.
It's awkward to stand in the doorway of your own house divided on an issue like the Trinity. I took a copy of their tract and complimented them on caring enough about their faith to share it. But their visit took me by surprise and I remember feeling guilty when I threw the pamphlet away unexamined.
I may not understand the mystery we refer to as the Trinity, but I am just as unlikely to be converted by a logic that suggests that the concept of one God somehow eliminates the possibility that God has an infinite number of ways to be in relationship to all creation, but especially to us.
Theologian Karl Barth, after writing thousands of pages in his Church Dogmatics, arrived at a simple definition of God as "the One who loves." Barth wrote: “God did not remain satisfied with his own being in himself. God reached out to something beyond, willing something more than his own being.”
In the doctrine of the Trinity the church recognizes the necessity of risking a definition of the relationship that exists between the Creator and the creation of which we are a part. The Trinity offers us a fresh paradigm for contemplating the nature of God in which all the elements of the equation contain similar and yet particular elements. Just as Body, Mind and Spirit are inseparable, yet form the basis of unique disciplines in order to study the complexities of each.
Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sees a false dichotomy at play between science and theology. Teilhard combined his love of the earthy science of geology and a mystical devotion to Jesus Christ. He applied his considerable intellect to envision a world in which a love of God and a love of the world form a comprehensive unity. “We are one, after all,” he wrote, “together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other.”
The Trinity seems to suggest that Jesus has become the metaphor of God, the Word that was and is and is to come. It suggests relationship, a matrix that exists beyond time and outside our current understanding of the way things work. It is an image of God who “colors outside the lines” with the purpose of drawing all of creation into the circle of God’s love.
According to writer William Cleary: “Our evolutionary God is above all a God of desire and love, of every kind of love we know and of loves we cannot know, a God of colossal wisdom, inventiveness, and risk; a God utterly beyond us, within us and ahead of us.” Prayers to an Evolutionary God by William Cleary
In Jesus of Nazareth the language of love was both spoken and revealed. The Word became flesh to reveal to us a God whose nature is to be in loving relationship, beginning with the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
When Nicodemus, a Pharisee and one of the leaders of the Temple, came to Jesus at night, he suspected that this Galilean rabbi might bring something new to his understanding of God. But nothing prepared Nicodemus for Jesus’ response to his visit. “You must be born again!” Jesus declared.
Like Nicodemus, most of us have grown up with religious images and language that we cling to like a spiritual life preserver. Like Nicodemus we seek definition. We want answers. But what we get is “You must be born again!” And suddenly standing on the rock of God’s love becomes too slippery for us. Jesus requires only our faith, but we betray ourselves time and again with our desire for safety and security. Like Nicodemus most of us are unwilling to risk the comfortable and familiar for the unfamiliar and unlikely. When Jesus says, “You must be born again,” he knows he’s asking us to believe the impossible. It’s a bit like expecting us to understand the expansion of the universe from looking at the stars.
But in the same gospel John testifies that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” In Jesus, God reaches out to us, wooing us to join him in the family circle. Through the Holy Spirit, God lives in and among us, welcoming and sustaining us as full participants in the family of God.
What the Church calls Trinity, Jesus calls family!
No where is this more evident in the church than in the language of the sacraments. God brings us into the family circle through the sacrament of baptism with the promise that “to all who receive him, who believe on his name, he gives the power to become the children of God.” It is God who desires relationship with us and God who makes that relationship possible through the life of his Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.
In baptism God’s Spirit is poured out on children who are no more capable of understanding the sacrament than we are capable of understanding the Trinity. But by the operation of God’s grace we grow into the fullness of Christ’s forgiveness and love. We are delivered from the powers of sin and death and, by the power of God’s Spirit, our human lives become divine.
When we come into relationship with God through Jesus Christ we become part of a family circle where there is no least or greatest. There is only each of us belonging to one another in obedience to Jesus’ command to “love one another.”
We may not be able to adequately define the mystery of the Trinity; but we are witnesses to its effect.
We all come into the family of faith in the same way. We are welcomed as a child of God, not on the basis of what we have done for God; but rather what God has done for us. We're splashed with the water of baptism and invited to join the family of God around a common table, hosted by God's Son. When God sets the table everyone's invited; but the only ones who will be there are those who have done nothing to deserve the invitation.
All are welcome because each of us belongs--to God and to each other. According to Jesus that is how the Holy Trinity becomes the Holy Family for
"whenever two or more are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
Thanks be to God!