socraticcoyote

Not In Kansas Anymore

In Uncategorized on June 28, 2006 at 8:27 pm


Good morning. Before I became an Episcopalian, one of the most interesting religious experiences I ever had was at a Greek Orthodox Pascha, or Easter, service. Worshipping Orthodox style was something I had never experienced before. You stand almost the whole time, three hours, and you chant all through the service. Incense fills the church, beautiful icons cover every wall, and you truly feel like you are in heaven. The Orthodox really know how to do Easter.

I was an evangelical at the time, and this was definitely not your three hymns and a sermon service. Part of me wanted to draw back from this kind of all-encompassing worship, but part of me wanted to let go, body and soul, and plunge into the heavenly rhythm. At one point in the liturgy, as I thought about letting myself go, for the first time in my life I was right on the verge of a full-blown mystical experience. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I wasn’t a Baptist anymore.

I’ve had three thoughts as I look back on that experience. First, I wish I had let myself go. I was a bit afraid, and I wish I had trusted that if i let go God would catch me. Second, what really moved my soul was the Orthodox emphasis on the Trinity. In every possible way, through chant, liturgy, and icons and incense, the triune fullness of God was lifted up and exalted. I had never experienced the Trinity like this before.

Third, once I became an Episcopalian, I realized that everything I had experienced in the Orthodox church that morning I experience every single Sunday morning right here. In a different way, but in just as profound a way, we Episcopalians lift up and worship the Trinity in a deeply mystical way. Our tradition, our faith, and our liturgy are thoroughly, and wonderfully, Trinitarian.

Today is Trinity Sunday, and our readings this morning give us a glimpse into the great mystery of the Trinity. The early church was guided by three principles as they worked to understand and define the Trinity, and I want to use those same principles as we examine both the scriptures and the nature of our triune God. As we journey together this morning, we will discover, as I did, that when Christians gather together in the name of the Trinity, we are not in Kansas anymore.

Let me set the stage. Last week was Pentecost, and all kinds of people were having “I’m not in Kansas anymore” experiences and coming to know Jesus. This continued week after week, year after year, as the early church continued to grow. Over time, as Christians began to think about their faith, a need arose to define what these experiences were all about. Experiences without explanations can get out of control.

But there is a danger in explanations. Sometimes they detract from, and get in the way of, experiences. This was the tension the early church faced. In other words, how could the church become more definitional, while still remaining heavily experiential? We face the same issue today. As an evangelical, I could define and explain the Trinity as well as anyone, but I can honestly say I never experienced the Trinity in worship. Sometimes definitions seemingly bar the way to experience.

So, to insure that people could keep getting out of Kansas, and at the same time be able to talk about what was happening, the early church came up with three principles to walk this fine line between experience and definition.

The first principle that guided the early church in experiencing and defining the Trinity was this: “God is not a doctrine. God is a person. Sometimes, when we think and talk about the Trinity, it is easy to get lost in our thoughts. The early church was deeply concerned about this, so they insisted that no matter what our theological musings, we must never forget that God is not a doctrine. God is a person.

Our reading from Exodus perfectly illustrates this principle. Moses was in the desert, tending sheep, when he saw a bush that was burning, but never consumed. He knew something was up, and then God spoke to Moses from the bush, saying, “dude, take your shoes off, you’re standing on holy ground.” Moses was being addressed, not by a doctrine, but by the holy God of the universe.

God then says, “I am the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I want you to return to Egypt and set my people free.” Moses looked around and said, “You talking to me?” God said, “yeah, I’m talking to you.” Uh oh. Moses was in big trouble. This holy God wanted Moses to step out in faith, and do something he could never do on his own without God’s help. That’s what happens when we encounter God. So Moses says, “okay, fine, but when I tell my people you sent me, what do I say? What is your name?”

And in one of the most famous lines in scripture, God answers, “tell them I am the philosophical first principle of all things. Tell them I am the existential ground of all being. Tell them I am the prime mover of all things that move. Tell them I am the first cause of all other causes and effects. Tell them I am the center of the web from which all things are connected.” Right Judy? Isn’t that what God said?

No. God doesn’t give Moses an explanation. God gives Moses an experience. He says to Moses, “tell them my name is I AM.” Wow. I imagine when God spoke His name the whole universe shook with God’s majesty and holiness. Moses must have been absolutely awestruck. God didn’t give Moses an explanation. God gave Moses Himself.

It is exactly the same with us. God doesn’t give us doctrines. He gives us Himself. When God gives us Himself, we are standing on holy ground. This is why the early church insisted that no matter what we are thinking about the Trinity, we must begin and end in personally encountering God’s holiness. We can talk all we want about explanations. But we must live experiencing God.

We are standing on holy ground right now. The minute we step in these doors God is giving Himself to us. In the music, the readings, the sermon, the creed, the peace, and especially in the Eucharist, God is with us. When we bow, when we cross ourselves, and when the bells ring, God is especially close to us. And we are never closer to God than when we receive His body and blood. Our whole church is full of burning bushes. We should all be on the verge of a mystical experience every time we gather.

Not only that, we should see God’s holiness in burning bushes everywhere we look. Nature is a burning bush proclaiming God’s holiness. The lost, the suffering, and the least of our brothers and sisters are all burning bushes full of God’s presence. LIke Moses, we cannot escape God’s holiness.

Even if we have the perfect understanding of the Trinity, if we are not living in the experiential knowledge of God’s holiness, then it just doesn’t matter. We’re stuck in Kansas. God is not a doctrine. God is a person. (By the way….)

The second principle that guided the early church as they sought to experience and understand the Trinity was this: liturgy precedes theology. (Repeat). This principle flows from the first principle, but at first glance it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Surely, our liturgy flows from our theology, right? Well, maybe not.

We tend to think the early church worked out the doctrine of the Trinity like this: Christians at that time looked at the old and new Testaments, and said, “well, we see a lot of references to the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught about the Holy Spirit, and several times Paul seems to imply that the Spirit is God. We know what happened at Pentecost, we know the Spirit was present at Christ’s baptism, and if we put everything we know together, then the most reasonable theological conclusion is that the Holy Spirit is God. Therefore, our liturgy and our worship, our creed and our hymns, our life and our prayers, should all reflect the fact that we believe that the Holy Spirit is God. Sounds good.
In fact, however, just the opposite happened. Here’s how it worked. The early church was saturated with the presence of God. The Holy Spirit was pulsating and throbbing through their worship and liturgy. People were being healed of diseases. Miraculous gifts were being manifested. Thousands and thousands of people were coming to know God. Lives of sin were being transformed into lives of holiness. The Holy Spirit was so intensely present to the early church that they knew, as Paul tells us in Romans, that God was not just Father, but also Abba, daddy. The Spirit testified powerfully that Christians were children of God, and not only children, but co-heirs with Christ of God’s eternal Kingdom.

The church’s incredible worshipful and liturgical experience of the Spirit gave birth to its theology. Liturgy and worship precede theology. The Spirit who was so powerfully moving through the church could only be God. So, a theology was worked out that enshrined the church’s experience of the Holy Spirit in doctrine. We call that doctrinal understanding the Nicene Creed.

The problem for us today is that we start with the theology, but sometimes we never get to the experience. We recite the Creed, but sometimes we never encounter the Spirit. We never get out of Kansas. Let me give you an example of how this works.

We go into a great restaurant, the waiter hands us a menu, and as we look over the menu our mouths start to water. Oh man! Every single selection looks fabulous. Our stomachs are getting fired up, and we can hardly wait to get started. So what do we do? Well, of course, we start eating the menu. We rip that baby to shreds, and as the cardboard and plastic slide down our throats, we think to ourselves that this is by far the best menu I have ever tasted.

The Creed is a menu of our deepest beliefs. It is an incredible menu, put together by some of the best minds that Christianity has ever produced. But it’s just a menu. It’s not the meal. If we don’t get past the menu to the meal, then we haven’t had dinner. If we don’t get past the Creed to experience the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we don’t know the Trinity.

That’s why the early church insisted that liturgy and worship precede theology. The ultimate goal is not to understand the Trinity. The ultimate goal is to experience the Trinity. When someone asks us to explain the Trinity, the best thing we can tell them is, come and worship with me. Taste and see the goodness of the triune God. But if we do this, we better be sure our lives, and our worship, are saturated with the presence of God.

The final principle the early church used in walking the fine line between experiences and definitions concerning the Trinity is this: “What is not assumed cannot be redeemed.” I wish I could tell you that the early church’s working out the doctrine of the Trinity was a straight line of agreement, of Christians slowly coming to a consensus about what the best definition of the Trinity was, and of the profound experience of Trinity shaping in a seamless and holy way the production of the Nicene Creed. But I can’t. There were many rough and dark places along the way.

As the Creed was being written, Christian history gets especially tough. Everyone did not define the Trinity the same way. It came down to one letter, the letter “i”. Those who accepted the Creed as we now have it believed that Jesus was, in Latin, hom “o” ousian, or of the same nature as the Father. Those who rejected the Creed as we now have it believed that Jesus was hom “oi” ousian, (one letter “i” added), that Jesus was of a similar, but not the same nature, as the Father. And then the wars began. Making a long story short, when the Nicene definition of the Trinity eventually triumphed, those who adhered to the Nicene Creed instantly declared everyone else heretics, they threw them out of the church, and they asked the emperor to declare these heretics traitors to the Empire.

It isn’t easy to know what to make of all this. Each of us must come to our own conclusions about what the best way is to deal with differences of opinion in the church over critical theological issues. For now, let me give just a bit of insight into the mind of those Nicene Christians who believed that adding a single “i” to the Creed required such drastic actions. It boils down to the principle that what is not assumed cannot be redeemed.

The early church was deeply aware of humanity’s sinfulness and brokenness. They were also profoundly aware of God’s majesty and holiness. The question that Nicodemus was groping for in John’s gospel today was the same question the early Christians were trying to answer: how are we saved from our sinfulness and brokenness? How does God’s holiness come to our humanity and heal us?

Jesus gives the answer in John chapter three: we must be born again. Unless a person is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Unless God’s holiness transforms us in a second birth, through the Holy Spirit, then we are lost in our sinfulness and brokenness.

We are born again through the death and resurrection of Jesus, who is the bridge between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. In Jesus divinity takes on humanity, and so we are healed. Divinity assumes humanity, and so we are redeemed. This was the faith of the early church.

Now, what if Jesus is not God? How could humanity be redeemed if Jesus, the bridge between God and humanity, is not divine? How could humanity be assumed into divinity if Jesus is not God? How could we all be born again?

This was the key issue. The early church instinctively understood that our doctrine of the Trinity is intimately connected to our doctrine of salvation. If we define the Trinity in the wrong way, then we aren’t saved. If we get the Trinity wrong, then we’ll never leave Kansas, because there isn’t anywhere else to go. The church could compromise on some things, but they would not compromise on our salvation. A non-divine Jesus cannot assume our humanity. Thus the rallying cry, “what is not assumed (our humanity), cannot be redeemed.” If adding a single “i” to the creed would make Jesus like God, but not really God, then we are not born again, and Nicene Christians decided that keeping that “i” out of the Creed was worth fighting for, sometimes, literally, to the death.

It all boiled down to experience. If the early church knew anything, they knew what it meant to be born again. Under no circumstances would they let this absolutely sacred experience be defined away. We too must know experientially what it means to be born again. In our transformed, born again lives, people will see, and experience, the Trinity.

As I look back, my almost mystical, out of Kansas experience of the Trinity in the Orthodox church was actually my first step in becoming Episcopalian. I found everything about that experience, and more, right here.

The Nicene faith of the Episcopal church preserves for us, in a wonderfully delicate balance between experience and explanation, a holy Trinity, experienced in our worship and liturgy as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in whose triune-divine life our humanity is taken to heaven, and we are born again.

I can think of no better way to end this sermon than by singing one of the greatest hymns of the faith, Holy Holy Holy, hymn 332. Please join me as we worship experience the Trinity together.

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