Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

A sermon delivered at Christ Church, Cooperstown, NY. June 6th 2014.
Today we celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. What makes this day so significant?
You may have realized that ordinarily the Church observes the day of a saint’s death as their feast day. This represents their passing from death into glory. Saint John the Baptist is one notable exception.  In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the Virgin Mary visits Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Upon her arrival Elizabeth begins to prophesy, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” She continues, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” The Early Church recognized a uniqueness in Saint John, that he was filled with the Holy Spirit even in the womb. John the Baptist was actually born a Christian! Sanctified at birth!

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist anticipates the Nativity of Jesus Christ. At the Annunciation the Angel Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant. We celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation and Mary’s conception on March 25, nine months before Christmas Day, and so we celebrate John’s birth three months after the conception of Mary. John’s feast day is like a taste of Advent in the midst of Ordinary Time.  Even in his birth, John points us forward to the coming of Christ.  

Saint John’s birth, and the events leading up to it, are given special attention in the Gospel of Luke. John’s infancy narrative is told side by side with that of Jesus. John is the forerunner of Jesus Christ. He represents the Old covenant and the Law, and precedes Jesus just as the Old Testament precedes the New Testament and the dispensation of grace. His birth is significant because it marks the closing of an age.

There is a profound symbolism to marking his birth now, during the time of the summer solstice. The days are longer now than any other time of year because during the Summer Solstice the sun reaches its pinnacle in the sky and its greatest strength. Likewise John represents the pinnacle of the Old Testament. The last and greatest of the prophets. Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist" (Matt. 11:11). The Summer Solstice also marks the time when the Sun, having reached its pinnacle, begins its descent. The sun will be at its lowest point on December the 21st. On December 25th, Christmas Day, the Sun will begin to rise again. Jesus’ birth marks a new beginning. The age of the Old covenant has been fulfilled and come to a close, the age of New Testament and the time of grace has begun. Thus John the Baptist says, “I must decrease and he must increase.”

Before the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he appeared to the father of John, a priest named Zechariah. The story is remarkably similar to that of Abraham and Sarah. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth is barren and advanced in age, yet just as God did with Abraham, he assures Zechariah that his wife will indeed conceive a child. The promise of fertility from barrenness and life from death serve as bookends for the beginning and the end of the Old Covenant. Just as Sarah laughed in unbelief at God’s promise, Zechariah also doubts and so he is struck dumb until the promise is fulfilled.

Our Gospel reading today picks up the story at the day of John’s circumcision. The extended family, understandably  overjoyed at the amazing reversal of fortune that has taken place, have run quite ahead of themselves and are about to name the boy after his father without even consulting Elizabeth! She, out of obedience to God’s instructions, insist that the child be named John. The family will have nothing of her unorthodox rejection of tradition, but they are all shocked into submission by what happens next. The Father steps in, siding with his wife and writing on a tablet, that the boy’s name is John. All at once his tongue is loosed and he can speak again! Not only that but he begins to prophesy the most amazing words! The long awaited time of Israel’s divergence is at hand. God is raising up the promised messiah!

It is not his child, however who will be the promised deliverer, but they are to expect another. He begins to speak prophesy directly to his son,

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

A new day is coming! He says, “The dawn from on high will break upon us.”

The new day has indeed arrived, but we still wait. Christ has come and through his death and resurrection the powers of darkness are fleeing in defeat. The light of Christ has broken on the horizon but we wait for it to reach its pinnacle and full strength. We wait for the day that will have no end. Just as John the Baptist and all the prophets of old heralded his first advent, so we as the Church herald the second advent of Christ.

Prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Holy Trinity

Genesis 1:1 - 2:4

What do Christians refer to when they talk about God?  Is God simply a name used to refer to the creator and architect of the universe? We do believe that God is the creator of all things visible and invisible, but that isn’t all we mean when we say “God.” We don’t believe God simply created the universe, wound it up like a big clock, and walked away. Rather we believe that God created human beings to be in relationship with himself and that when we sinned and turned our back on God, God came in the flesh to rescue and redeem us. God is our creator, but he is also our incarnate redeemer. God’s relationship with the world is not isolated to a single intervention either; we believe he has always been at work in the world as the Lord and giver of life, the one who has spoken through the prophets, and that he continues to work in the world, especially through the Church, to make all things new.  God is our creator, our redeemer, and our sanctifier. These aren’t just different functions of a single individual but unique persons. We are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and we confess that God is three persons but one God. Confused yet?

Let’s get some help from Saint Patrick:

If you missed that, he said:

“The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason but is understood by faith and is best confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. That we are compelled by the Christian faith to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one equal in glory, coequal in majesty.”

To some the doctrine of the Trinity is a hopelessly academic and obscure doctrine with no practical implication to life. They would argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is an antiquated bit of obscure theology that belongs in dusty old books of medieval scholasticism.

For instance Thomas Jefferson wrote, “It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . . (this is my favorite part) But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests.”

Critics of the Trinity, such as Jefferson, argue that it is  superstitious baggage added to the simple gospel of a God of love.  How should we respond to these charges?

First, the doctrine of the Trinity is not something tacked on to the Biblical God but a revelation of a mystery that is present from the very first page of the Bible on.  In the first verse of the first book of the Bible we read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” That is God the Father, the creator. In the next verse we read about how the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. In the Third verse God speaks and brings the world into being. As the Gospel of John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” The Word through which God makes all things is God the Son. In the beginning, before the world was made there was the Father, the Spirit, and the Son.

In the creation story, God even speaks to himself in plural pronouns saying, “Let us make human beings in our image.” It is difficult to know exactly what the original authors intended when they wrote these words, but the Church Fathers recognized that God was working in the text beyond what the authors may have intended to say. These words are revelation and are best understood in light of Christ. What was hidden in the Old Testament is reveled in the appearance of Christ and of the Holy Spirit.  The Early Church were convinced that they must affirm both monotheism and the full divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was through this theological tension that the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated as we understand it today.

Second, Everyone is quite happy to affirm that God is love, but that truth loses its meaning unless we believe that God is also triune. It is one thing to say that God loves us or that he loves the world, but it is something very different indeed to say that God—in his very nature and from all eternity—is Love. Love never exists on its own. By its very nature Love is directed towards others. Even before creation God was love, because in the very being of God he is both the Lover, the beloved, and the love that they share.

 As our two Irish friends have taught us, we have to be wary of analogies because none of them quite capture the truth of the Trinity. This one breaks down as well. Speaking of the Holy Spirit in terms of love that binds together the lover and beloved can make the Spirit seem impersonal. Indeed all of the images we have of the Spirit tend to be impersonal, such as a dove, wind, or flame. There is a certain hiddenness or shyness to the person of the Spirit. The way I see it is that the person of the Holy Spirit is a lot like my eyeglasses. When I am wearing them I can only perceive the barest outline of them, but by them I see everything else. It is the same with the Spirit. We may not perceive him clearly, but it is through him we see Christ and in Christ we see the Father.

If the Holy Spirit is a bit less clearly perceived than Father and Son he is nevertheless a person. A 12th century theologian named Richard of Saint Victor argued that for love to be perfect the love of the lover and beloved must be shared with another person, there must be a “co-beloved.” After the birth of our first child, this was made clearer to me than ever before. When I married April I thought that I finally understood what love was, but there was still more to discover.
I understand love even more now that I’ve seen the love that we share take concrete expression in our children. First our daughter Helen, and now in the new baby we are expecting as well.

Left to themselves, lovers can grow insular and possessive. Even if they never have children, I am convinced that if a relationship is to flourish a couple must turn their love also to others. In the Holy Spirit, the Love of the Father and the Son finds expression in a third person unique in himself.  This love in turn overflows in creation and is poured out on all the world.

In our reading from Genesis we learn that God created human beings in his own image and he made them both male and female.  It is not good for us to be alone. Human beings are fundamentally relational and this is expressed even in our bodies which were made to relate to one another.  God could have designed us to reproduce like worms by splitting in half, but instead he ordained that we be fruitful and multiply through this coming together of male and female, this unity of diversity. Our fundamentally relational nature is part of what it means to be made in the Image of God.

This brings us to our Third and final point (let us keep things Trinitarian). The doctrine of the Trinity has enormous implications for everyday life.  The practical application is very closely related to our second point about love and relationships.

Those who want a non-Trinitarian God, whether they realize it or not, enshrine selfishness and tyranny as the highest virtues! If God is a solitary, all-powerful monarch, fixated on his own glory, than in order to be like God we would need to aspire to those same characteristics. Godliness would be about being powerful and having things our own way. But If God is love, If God is himself a kind of family or society, devoted to glorifying each other--if God is Trinity--we need to love one another! When we realize that God is Trinity we see that togetherness, cooperation, and even sacrifice are grounded in the very nature of God. When we realize God is Trinity we see also that there is room for diversity in unity. We don’t all have to be the same, but we can be unified despite our differences.

Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end! Amen.