May 22nd, 2016
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
A nice-sized group of us from OSA went to see a soccer match yesterday. At least, that’s what they thought they were going to see. What they actually saw wasn’t really a match, but more like a hazing ritual of some kind, or like one of Mike Tyson’s early fights. It was over before it began, and really, it should have been stopped before it ended. If it were a movie, it would have gone straight to DVD. If it were an animal, it would have been put to sleep to put it out of its misery. Of course, I and a host of soccer conglomerates tried to hype the match—what a great rivalry! New York against New York! Or is it New Jersey—it always seems like northern New Jersey is Long Island’s disreputable little brother. It’s a great conflict! A war! The most important match so far of the season! The most important match of your life! Everything depends on 90 minutes and a ball!
Well, Paul today has good news for us. Boast in your sufferings! 7-0 is just a suffering but an annihilation, of course. But boast in your sufferings, Paul says, because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. Especially if we turn our eyes from soccer and look toward baseball, where the Cubs, who have long taken this verse from Paul as a motto, look like they might finally win a World Series. This is the year! And God knows, no one has suffered more than Cubs fans.
Here I am talking about sports in church. It violates one my personal commandment in preaching, because I think sports are part of our problem, as a nation. Any University that chooses to cut professorships and repress the wages of adjuncts while building new sports complexes are guilty, in my mind, of capitulating to what I call the ESPN economy: win, win now, win at all costs, and rake in the advertising dollars. If you listen to baseball on the radio, you know what I’m talking about: tune in the fifth inning for a charming anecdote, brought to by Mr. Clean—wiping away that slightly creepy uncle story you just heard from your brain since 1952. At least, that’s the way it feels to me. And we hear a lot about suffering in order to win-who could forget Curt Schilling’s bloody sock?
I think we are accustomed to using sports to think analogously of God. I know there was a pastor at the Methodist church in Georgia where Clare’s mother used to go that always talked about football in his sermons. Of course, this is Georgia, where the line between divinity and football might not exist. But I often find it grating to hear talk of sports when I come to hear someone preach about Jesus, about God. I want to get to the real stuff right away. I don’t want to hear about sports. On Trinity Sunday, you’ll sometimes hear analogies about the Trinity—it’s like this or that. I myself have done so in the past, and I hope I haven’t driven anyone away from the orthodox faith. The Trinity is notoriously tricky to explain.
When the early Christians talked about Christ, many of their hearers reacted the same way as I do to sports sermons. You can’t talk about this human as if he were a God, they say. You can’t pray to Jesus. God does not suffer. God does not fail. God cannot be crucified. God is impassible, unchangeable. Even today, according to my limited understanding of Islam, the Muslims do not believe that Jesus Christ was actually crucified, since it was a dishonor to one of God’s prophets. During the very beginning of Christianity, many Gentiles admired the Jews for their God and worshipped with them, because they were sick of the stories of their own gods, who were, with their adulteries and wars, all too human. They were drawn to the idea of the unrepresentable, all-holy God of the Bible. And then the Christ-followers came along and added Jesus to the mix, and they said, “This accords neither with the philosophical understanding of the Divine nor the God that we admire at the synagogue.”
And so the Christ-followers were left with work to do—either stop worshipping Jesus as Lord, or explain why they did it. Today we pray and call upon the name of Jesus, and worship Jesus as God, because of our forerunners in the faith, and their amazing achievement at explaining a few things: the God of the Old Testament is the also the God of the Christians; Jesus is both divine and human; we worship one God in trinity, and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being.
I’ve been trying all week to figure out how to explain the Trinity today, and all I’ve really been able to discover, to my shame, are my own inadequacies. It is true that we worship a mystery, and it is good that God is not easily explained, and of course I believe in the old adage attributed to Augustine, that if you think you have understood or explained God, you have failed. And yet we have to come to worship our God, one-in-three, three-in-one, who is neither Captain Planet nor Voltron, but the one who was, who is, and who is to come.
But there is something I believe I can say. Athanasius, the pugnacious and sclerotic bishop and theologian, once wrote, “For Christ was made human so that we might be made God; and he manifested himself in a body so that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.” Jesus today says of the Spirit, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said to you that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Athanasius, I think, was trying to say what Jesus is saying to his disciples: That God gives us everything.
Jesus opens the window on the divine life of the Trinity, in which there are Three Persons, equal in dignity, majesty, holiness, and glory, all one Being, but giving endlessly to one another. The Son is not created, but eternally begotten of the Father; the Spirit is not created, but proceeds from the Father and the Son, and all of this is a divine life of love, giving, sharing, joining. And Jesus’ entrance as incarnate man is the opening of this divine life for us. All that the Father has is Son’s, and all of this is given to us, declared to us by the Spirit. And so, with Paul, we may boast in sharing the glory of God, which has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. God’s divine, living, shared love, the love of a Father for his only begotten son, the love of the Spirit that proceeds from Light, poured into our hearts. Our boast is that God shares God’s love and life with us, pouring it out for us, breaking our hearts so that his love can pour in. “Batter my heart, Three-person’d God,” John Donne once wrote. God enters our hearts, so that we can enter the heart of God’s love, the continual giving and offering and dance of the Trinity.
And that brings me back to suffering and scandal. Forget the Cubs; forget soccer. Think about Jesus, and Jesus’ suffering. In the life of the Trinity, love does not hurt. It is received, reciprocated, shared. But in this world, love hurts. And Jesus, the love of God, loved this world till death, and love hurt him. I told all the fans going to the game yesterday to have fun and love their enemies, which is hard to do at a sporting match. But this is precisely what Jesus did—those who were once far off, enemies of the cross, Christ brings into the divine life through his death and resurrection and the pouring out of the Spirit. Our suffering as a church is the same—we, having received the love of God in our own hearts, have too much love to bottle up inside. It needs to be shared. And in this world, sharing love means that we will suffer. Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that the ones you love hurt you the most.
But suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. I may not, today, be able to explain the Trinity perfectly to you, but I can say that we have hope because we worship the Trinity. The Holy Trinity makes us Christian, because the Holy Trinity is love, and love has come to us, and love leads us out. Our God asks us to love our enemies, and we know we can because while we were enemies of God, God loved us and opened a way for us to enter into God’s divine life. And, I’ll warrant that God invites us to open our lives so that all may enter in. Amen.
Reverend John Flack