A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 12 June 2022 [Trinity Sunday]:
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
If I could wave a magic wand and make a change in people’s sense of the Christian faith and the purpose of its ministry, I would want the perception (both inside and beyond the Body of Christ) to be reoriented from rules to relationship. More specifically, I wish that more of us understood that the God-life, the life we see in the risen Jesus, is essentially and foremost about the life-giving connection between the Creator of heaven and earth and everything else.
In every respect of what is real, whether such perception comes from the realms of science or religion, the fundamental reality is connection: namely, that all life at all levels is constructed as an essential matter of relationship. In fact, I am bold enough to say that when life in all its forms and in all its places is rendered down to its absolute basics, what we have is the fact of relationship. And with equal boldness, I add this perception: If relationship is the basic category of reality (the basic building block of all life), then one thing is required: namely, commitment. Everything else is detail, albeit some of the details admittedly are quite important.
How can we keep this straight? Or does it turn out that focusing on rules is easier and more convenient than keeping relationship?
I feel a bit inundated – and overwhelmed -- by all the articles and commentary pointing out the decline of the church in our culture and society. So much of the reported decline has to do with the negative perception that being a follower of Jesus is all about keeping rules – rules that are frequently experienced as impersonal, negative, even oppressive; rules that the church itself evidently cannot completely keep. But keeping the “rules” is not the focus of reality or life. Relationship is the focus if there is to be life worth the effort. Rules – good rules – exist solely to act as guardrails to keep us on track so that we may live and thrive and learn in and through our connections. The well-known legal, biblical summation of the Law and all the insight provided by the prophets puts my point succinctly on the centrality of relationship: “Love God with all that you are; and love your neighbor as yourself.” All the rules and all the details serve this one, life-giving truth.
But too many people in my experience have focused on the law, that is, keeping the rules without discovering what the rules point to and are meant to honor. I think of my own father – and for that matter my father-in-law: Two of the most ethical men I have met in my life. For them and folks like them, being honest and ethical in matters of life was a matter of duty and honor and a means by which humanity needed to function.
For example, I remember Bev’s father mentioning that he always did his own taxes. He earned his living as a financial officer in corporations both big and small. He was very good with numbers, and his income was such that the IRS kept an auding eye on his returns. On one occasion, my father-in-law was audited by the IRS, and in the review of his case not only was Bev’s Dad’s math found to be spot-on; but the IRS also discovered that they owed him a refund!
Doing the right thing, honoring the rules might now be viewed as old-fashioned and the expired hallmark of that generation (which is too bad), save for the fact that both fathers in their old age found that abiding by the law and keeping to the rules did not necessarily bring the life that was needed. Both men realized that relationship was the key and that all the rules needed to honor and guide the connections.
When it comes to keeping the faith and being members of Christ’s Body, too many rule-keepers drop out from being the church when they tire of only keeping the rules. They get bored and frustrated, wondering: “Where’s the beef!?” After a while, gaining straight A’s for being a good boy or girl wears thin, if the behavior is not first and essentially rooted in a deep and abiding sense of gratitude – thanksgiving for being given what we need and cannot provide for ourselves. Clearly, keeping God first and loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbors as ourselves is a great challenge, requiring assistance and guidance; but I also believe that it helps our experience of relationships to view the “rules” more as practices, by which we can constructively rehearse living the God-life rather than trying to achieve not making mistakes.
Love and Law: What’s the connection? And what does this have to do with Trinity Sunday –you’re dying to ask; I know! Well. two things. One is that the “Doctrine of the Trinity” is just that: a “doctrine”; and “doctrine” is a word that means “a teaching”. So, what is this “teaching” teaching us as followers of Christ?
The “Doctrine of the Trinity” teaches us about the nature of our God; and that nature – above all else – is that the Holy One is all about relationship and the life this Holy Communion conveys: namely, creative life; steadfast presence; sacrificial love and commitment; forgiveness; new life’s hope; and always – always -- a home to come back to.
The “Doctrine of the Trinity” seeks to describe God’s reality and what the God-life is all about. It is not a spiritual version of some arcane math logarithm or a theological version of “don’t ask; don’t tell” because what words can possibly capture perfect love, complete life? In twenty-five words or less, put the love you have for your dearest connection into clear terms! How much more difficult is it to express the reality of God’s life and love for us?
And so, the “Doctrine of the Trinity” is not something to be solved like an obscure picture puzzle nor a pseudo-scientific expression of something that would make talk about black holes insignificant. No, the Trinity teaches about the experience – the experience of God’s people of God and the life God gives.
And by the way, I think that this is what Jesus was getting at in today’s gospel lesson from John, when he told his perplexed followers that he had many more things to tell them, but he holds back because they would not presently be able to “bear” the immediate weight and glory of God’s full truth. Nonetheless, the Spirit is given to us: that is, the Spirit gives us God’s consciousness, God’s awareness. The Spirit will be among us steadily to “guide” us all – day by day; step-by-step if we are willing to pay attention and are open to receive what God offers. The ”Doctrine of the Trinity” seeks to remind us of the reality of relationship and life – with God and with one another. It seeks to remind us and to teach us to honor what God desires most for us and with us: Communion –no matter what.
Knowing the difference between right and wrong is always important. Morality matters to be sure; but morality is never a substitute for relationship, for Communion – with God, with our neighbor, with our selves. Keep the faith!