Saturday, June 10, 2017

Spelling Trinity

2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday / Ordination and Installation
June 11, 2017
William G. Carter

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.

Some time back, my friend Jane was ordained by the Presbyterians, not as an elder or deacon, but as a minister of word and sacrament. She graduated from seminary, passed all her exams, and lined up a job. She wanted to be ordained in her home church, over in Dallas, Pennsylvania, and it was a privilege to celebrate that day with her.

She moved out of state, and her ordination certificate arrived in the mail a few weeks later. Jane tore open the envelope and was excited to see her name on the certificate. But her countenance fell when she discovered the clerk of the presbytery has misspelled the name of her home church. If you’ve been over to Dallas, you may remember the name of the church is “Trinity Presbyterian Church.” The stated clerk spelled it, “T – R – N – I – T – I – Y.”

For somebody with dyslexia, all of those “t’s” and “i’s” might be hard to keep straight. Yet the presbytery clerk was a minister, and you would expect a minister to get that word right. So Jane sent back the certificate, asked for a corrected copy, and waited a few more weeks to get one. “After all,” she said, “Trinity is a word that we ought to know how to spell.”

Christian people will agree with her, although it takes a while to learn how to spell that word. The New Testament speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the word “Trinity” never appears in its pages. It took a while for the church to spell out the word for the first time. And its heart, all spiritual growth is about making sense of what that word means.

The two New Testament texts are conclusions of the books where they are found. In Matthew 28, Jesus is risen from the dead and gathers all the disciples that are still around for a final charge. “Authority is given to me, all authority,” he says. “I’ve been making disciples out of you, so I send you to make disciples out of all the people of the world.”

And how do you make disciples? First of all, you baptize them. You claim them for God by washing them with water. And then you teach them everything that Jesus has been teaching: blessed are the poor in spirit, forgive one another countless times, give a cool cup of water to those who thirst, visit the prisoners, heal the sick, have no fear.

A disciple is defined as a Christ follower. It is a person who is claimed by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are baptized in the name of the Trinity.

At the end of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, he offers a blessing in the name of the Trinity. We hear it just about every week: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.  The order is significant: Jesus is the One who gathers us in grace, that grace brings us to God who is the One whose very being is Love, and “communion” (or “fellowship”) is the ongoing gift of the Holy Spirit.

What’s so striking about that this blessing comes at the end of a very cranky letter. Second Corinthians talks about how hard it is to do God’s work in the world. And not only in the world-in-general, but the congregation in particular. A congregation is full of people, forgiven sinners, yes, but unfinished saints. They will beat you up, and then talk you down when you are gone. They will resist the grace, fight against the love, and break the fellowship.  

That’s why we have to hear this well-worn blessing in its original context. Let me read again the lines that lead up to it:

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. 

He’s talking to a difficult and contentious crowd. They are in competition with one another. They are in love with the enticements of the world. Some of them are saying, “Why do we have to collect money for those disaster victims in Rome? They aren’t Corinthians.” To put it simply, there’s not a single one there who is about to greet another with a holy kiss.

But Paul knows what the Christian life is called to be: a life of cooperative service and compassionate regard, a life that shares in the mind of Christ, the benevolence of the One God who sent Christ among us, and the companionship of the Spirit who is the presence of the Risen Christ. So he says it: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Or to answer the question somebody once asked, “What does the Trinity have to do with us?” The answer: everything! There is no life apart from God. There is no mission, no purpose, if we are not sent to share the fullness of God’s gift of life with others. There is real sense of community unless we share that life with one another, in the presence and fellowship of the God who gives that life.

For a long while, a lot of Christians didn’t talk a lot about the Trinity. It was a concept, an abstract idea, some inherited notion that we were supposed to believe. At best, we might hear a children’s sermon about it, as some dear soul held up a three-leaf shamrock and said, “This is what God is like.” I think I gave that children’s sermon at least once, and when I was done, a bored congregation snapped back to life and went on with its business.

Yet in recent years, Trinity has re-emerged as something more than an ancient idea. It’s an insight into the very life of God, that God’s essential identity is community, that God is anything but static and in constantly motion. And if the idea of Three-in-One and One-in-Three is too big, too incomprehensible, it’s a healthy reminder that God is greater than we are . . .

But let it also be a reminder that the God of grace, love, and communion is near at hand. The God who saves the world in Jesus is still saving and replenishing the world in the Spirit.

And if that’s too much to take in, let me put the cookies on a lower shelf and say, “God is alive.” If you remember nothing else about the Trinity, remember that. The Triune God is full of life, abundant life, joyful life, healing life, victorious life, sacrificial life, loving life.

So the question today is, “What does the Trinity have to do with elders and deacons?” What does the Trinity have to do with the leaders of a congregation?  Same answer: everything!  If the congregation is to be alive, it is the life of God that brings it alive, over and over again. And the role of the church’s leaders is to spell this out, to discover and enact the essential practices for us to live together in the life of God.

Sometimes it’s obvious: the Session oversees the worship, the education, the mission and fellowship of the church. The Deacons are the compassion arms and feet of the Risen Christ. There’s always something to do

Sometimes it’s not so obvious, at least until you look beneath the surface to see what’s really going on.

I’ve seen this happen many times, too many to count, but my all-time favorite example was a Session meeting at my first church, back when I was about 27 years ago. There was a major argument at the meeting. It consumed about forty-five minutes of energy, not counting the extra hour of conversation in the parking lot.

Now, you may want to know the nature of the controversy. What might demand forty-five minutes of volunteer time, multiplied by a table full of wise elders? Did we have a moral issue to address within the membership? Was the treasurer dipping into the offering plate? Was the church school curriculum teaching Methodist heresy? Was the building unsafe? Was the pastor skipping out on sermon preparation to play in jazz clubs? What terrible controversy could burn that kind of energy?

I’ll tell you what it was: it was a down-in-the-mud fight about what kind of coffee we would serve at coffee hour. Folgers crystals or fresh-brewed? The lines were drawn, the positions were intractable, the coalitions defined.

And the problem was this: over here, we had a new chair of the Fellowship Committee, a man new to the congregation that nobody knew very well, and over here, we had the former chair of the Fellowship Committee, a dear soul who was burned out from years on the committee. In fact, that entire committee was burned out, so when the former chair moved onto other things, they all quit with her.

That left the new man to do all the work of the committee by himself. Since he was a retired state police officer, a no-nonsense guy, he wasn’t going to fuss about things where he didn’t get any help. So he went out and bought a big jar of freeze dried Folgers coffee, plugged in a hot water brewer before worship, and said, “Here’s your coffee hour.” Since he was also a retired state police officer, he had an in with the local donut shop, so he would also get them to donate a few dozen old donuts for the cause. No nonsense: here’s your coffee hour.

Well, the former members of the committee thought that was terrible and said so. The former chair of the committee agreed with them. Those who actually drink coffee had a strong and well-brewed opinion about the situation. Those who didn’t drink coffee had strong opinions about it, too. I mean, it’s church.

The controversy went on for forty-five minutes. I tried to shut it down a couple of times, but I was quickly told I was merely the pastor, and not entitled to an opinion. So I watched the fire blaze until it flickered into ashes. 

When there was a moment of silence, a wise elder spoke up. “So what’s all this really about?” he said. He had watched most of the proceedings rather than speak; now it was his turn. “I don’t believe this is about instant coffee or fresh brewed. This is about the old versus the new, and I will say to the old-timers if you don’t welcome the newcomers, you’re going to die.”

He went on, a sly smile on his face: “It’s also about the nature of our life together as a congregation. We come to coffee hour to enjoy one another, to welcome visitors, sometimes even to get some work done or to recruit volunteers. Coffee is our third sacrament, so it ought to taste good, and we all have to work together to ensure that it’s a quality event each week that others will want to attend. I’m going to help the new guy next week. Who’s going to help after that?” He waited them out until most folks volunteered.

Then we adjourned the meeting, closed in prayer, and then went out to the parking lot to process his wisdom.

Did you hear what he said? “It’s about the nature of our life together.” That’s a good leadership question. You look at your congregation and say, “What’s going to give this group of people the greatest amount of life?” What’s going to open them up to the fullness of God’s Spirit? What’s going to build upon the old to embrace the new? What’s going to move us together toward the mind of Christ? What’s going to announce that God is real and alive around here?

Maybe it’s expressed in the choice between instant coffee and fresh brewed, but I will tell you this: it is always about the grace, love, and communion of God . . . with us. When we encounter them, discern them, plan for them, or be surprised by them, that's how we know the Trinity is alive.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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