One God. One Body.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day churches around the world celebrate, proclaim, and remember our distinctive Christian witness to the nature of God. We declare with the Israelites that God is one, but one in a particular way. God isn’t just one; God is three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons, one Being. 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. It’s a peculiar form of heavenly math that doesn’t quite add up using earthly equations. At least not on paper, and that’s part of the point. The doctrine of the Trinity renders God at once understandable yet mysterious. It places God within reach but not fully in our grasp.

But just because it doesn’t add up on paper doesn’t mean this equation doesn’t add up anywhere on earth. There is a place where it *is* supposed to add up, where the answer to this odd equation is supposed to become clear. And that place is here: with you and me. In the church. As the church.

The body metaphor that the Apostle Paul uses throughout his letters to describe and define the church is rooted in this same heavenly math, in this same divine nature, because the church is intended to reflect the God we worship and proclaim. Though three distinct persons, God is one Being, one Identity. In the same way, Paul declares, we who are many are one in Christ. One body in many parts. No longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. These earthly labels and distinctions no longer apply in the fellowship of heaven. Which is why Paul places so much emphasis on church unity.

The unity we express in our diversity is an essential part of our faith witness. To be one in Christ is to be one in mind – to share the same mind, in fact, that was in Christ Himself. One mind for one body. One faith, one Lord, one baptism for one people, a new people, who have Christ Jesus as their Lord and King. That doesn’t mean we should strive to be homogeneous or uniform; that we are to be cookie cutter images of one another. No. To be of one mind means to share a singleness of purpose and mission and a commitment to allowing the Holy Spirit to shape us, individually and together, more fully into the image of Christ. This is why the Holy Spirit is among us, according to John’s Gospel: to teach us and remind us of all that Jesus has said.

And it’s why Paul is so utterly exasperated with the church in Corinth and the way they gather together as the church. These words in 1 Corinthians 11 are among the most stringent he has for anyone, anywhere:

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 What! Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter I do not praise you!

There is nothing to praise because nothing about their fellowship reflects the lordship of Christ. They’re eating what they call the Lord’s Supper but the label doesn’t make it so. Paul’s point is that how the meal is conducted makes it so. What is in your heart and in your soul and in your mind is what makes it so. It doesn’t particularly matter what words of institution you say, or what prayers you offer; you aren’t remembering Christ if you aren’t eating with regard for anyone other than yourself. Some in the Corinthian church are going hungry while others are getting fat and drunk because the mind of Christ, the unity of the Body, the image of the triune God we worship is not reflected in their life together. That’s the root of the problem. That’s what Paul is concerned about.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t a matter of decorum. Nor is it simply a matter of individual moral failure. What plagues the Corinthian church is a system of worldly hierarchies being allowed to persist where they shouldn’t. Some of His critics denounced Jesus Himself as a glutton and drunkard. But they did so because Jesus was transgressing established social norms, eating with “the wrong people.” That’s not what the Corinthians are doing. Far from challenging worldly social boundaries, they are reinforcing them; and in doing so they are undermining their witness to Christ as Lord.

As we keep reading, we discover In verse 33 that, after the lambasting of verses 17-21 and the words of institution that are so familiar to us in verses 22-26, Paul instructs the Corinthians to “wait for each other” before they eat. Thus it would seem that members of the church arrive for the worship gathering at different times. From what we know of social patterns in the first century Mediterranean world, those who arrived first most likely would have been the wealthier members of the congregation because they could come and go more or less as they pleased. Then, as now, one of the things that affluence and higher social status affords is fuller control over one’s own time. Those arriving later, then, would have been the poorer, working class members of the church, who’s schedules were not as flexible given the demands of their trade or the authority others held over them. This would have been especially true for any enslaved members of the congregation.

The scene that Paul is describing, then, is one in which these poorer members have arrived to find the meal picked over and some of their brothers and sisters intoxicated with excess. No thought, no consideration has been given to them. Within their church, they’re not seen to be as important, just as they are viewed by the wider society. And that means, despite their professions of faith, the Corinthian church has surrendered the table of Christ to the etiquette of Caesar, permitting the ways of the world to define and dictate the relationship of those who profess Christ to be their Lord and Saviour rather than allowing the values and priorities of Christ’s heavenly Kingdom to redefine those relationships.

We celebrate Communion as a church, in part, to enact our unity in diversity, to declare with our bodies and our hospitality as well as our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord; that His Kingdom has come near; that earthly ideas, structures, and barriers of class and race and wealth and gender do not apply here. Our allegiance isn’t just to a different King, but to a different kind of King; a King who came not to be served but to serve.

And that allegiance doesn’t just hold inside the walls of the church, be they sanctuary walls or living room walls. What we rehearse here is intended to spill out into the world, with us, from this place. The values and priorities of the world shouldn’t come into the church with us; the values and priorities of heaven should go out into the world with us. Because, if we profess Christ to be Lord, He is Lord on Tuesday as well as Sunday. If we are the church, we are the church on Thursday as well as on Sunday. We cannot compartmentalise loving God and loving neighbour – the things Jesus taught us – treating people one way at church and another way outside of church.

If we profess Christ, we are called to live as witnesses to the coming Kingdom of Heaven wherever we find ourselves; witnesses to a new life: a life together with God and in sync with God – the God who is Three in One. This new life is life as God lives – eternal, abundant, and in harmony with one another; in community with one another. A new life in which everyone belongs because everyone is a human being created in God’s image, a human being for whom Christ lived, died, and lives again. And if the mind of Christ comes to dwell in us, it should gaul us anytime, in any place, we see people not receiving the love, grace, and dignity they deserve.

That’s why the silence of many churches and many individual Christians in modern day matters of injustice has been painful. And I’m not talking about this past week; I’ve actually been encouraged to see so many folks I know, both clergy and laity, speaking up online and marching in protests both here in Toronto and back home in the United States. I’m talking about all the weeks prior. We of all people, we who are followers of Christ, part of the Body of Christ – the church – should be grieved by injustice anywhere. And we, of all people, should be committed to countering that injustice – and not just when the headlines focus our attention. This is work, this is witness, we should engage and should have been engaging all along, so that when the headlines do hit the world can take its response cues from us, rather than the other way around.

Sadly, tragically, sinfully, it’s not just that we’ve been slow to pay attention and slow to respond much of the time. In many cases, individuals and churches who profess Christ as Lord have helped perpetuate the injustice, helped perpetuate all manner of social divisions, both actively and passively, because, like the drunks and gluttons in Corinth, it has served our worldly interests to do so. All of us should take a moment to ask ourselves what we’ll be saying and doing to protest discrimination and state violence against people of colour once the marches cease and the headlines move on. For that matter, what are we saying and doing for the homeless, the jobless, and the working poor; the addicted and the mentally ill; the abused and the disowned? How are we living in such a way as to subvert and shrink the margins – the distinctions – of our society?

There’s no better place to begin asking those kinds of questions than at the Table to which Jesus invites us. The Table at which we gather to be fed and be reminded who we are and whose we are; to be reminded of the One whom we profess to be our Lord and why.

The good news is it’s never too late. It’s never too late to accept the invitation, never too late to have our eyes opened; never too late to repent and resolve to move in a different direction with Christ’s help and with His leading. It wasn’t too late for the Corinthians, and it’s not too late for us – any of us – because the Holy Spirit has come to continue teaching us.

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That’s why I love this 15th century Russian icon of the Holy Trinity. It’s a representation attributed to Andrei Rublev, who equates the three persons of the Trinity with the three angels who visited Abraham in Genesis 18. Rublev depicts the Triune God gathered around a table set only with a single, common cup. My wife and I joke that this is the Trinity having breakfast, or perhaps coffee, together. Whatever the cup represents (and it could represent a variety of things) the central figure appears to be offering a blessing over it, suggesting the meal is just getting started. In a sense, we, the viewers, are arriving just in time.

One of my favourite features of the icon is that the side of the table in the foreground is open in the middle, open to the viewer, and the cup is situated toward that end of the table. It’s a signal, I believe, to you and me – to all of us – that we aren’t just welcome to observe what’s happening around the table; we’re invited to pull a chair up to the table. To join in this meal. To share in this cup. To share in this divine, abundant and eternal life. To become one though we are many.

That is the radical invitation and the amazing grace Christ extends to us once again this morning through the Lord’s Supper. What a challenge. What a blessing!  Amen.

An Easter to Remember

A Sermon for Easter Sunday 2020.  Text: John 20:1-23

________________________________________________________

Happy Easter! Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

This is the refrain of congregations around the world today. This is the refrain of all of heaven and earth today. We don’t need to hear or sing or say anything else, really. This is the proclamation that makes Easter, Easter.

Still….it sure doesn’t feel like Easter, does it? It’s certainly an Easter unlike any Easter any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Years from now, I imagine we’ll remember this day as the Easter “without.” The Easter without the baptisms, without the choir, without the packed sanctuary singing along to every hymn and anthem. The Easter without new dresses, egg hunts, or anticipated large family gatherings around long tables filled with sumptuous food. The Easter without quite as much shared laughter, quite as many shared smiles. All those things make Easter, Easter, for us, too, by convention and expectation. I’m missing all those things this morning, as I’m sure you are. And those absences will leave an impression in our memories, no doubt. But I also hope that at least for today, at least for our time together this morning, we’ll recognise that this Easter is perhaps the closest we’ll ever get in our lifetimes to understanding what that first Easter was like.

There was no choir warming up, no lavish meal in production; no new dress laid out on that first Easter. No celebrations of any kind in the works. The disciples awoke on that first Easter morning much as they had the previous morning – to a void, to a palpable absence. Jesus – the one they had thought to be the Messiah, the anointed Saviour of Israel, the one some of them had left everything (family, possessions, livelihood) to follow – Jesus was dead. And not just dead, executed. He had been betrayed by one of their own, arrested by the religious authorities, and crucified by the Romans like a rebellious slave. And throughout the ordeal, the mighty prophet and healer had appeared helpless.

Think about all they had seen and experienced with Jesus. He had cast out all manner of unclean spirits, including a legion of them in the land of the Gerasenes. He had healed the sick in droves, restored sight to the blind, and fed 5,000 hungry people with five loaves and a couple of fish. He brought Lazarus back to life, and even calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee. Yet, when the soldiers came for Him, He could do nothing to stop or resist them. At least, He didn’t do anything to stop or resist them. In a matter of hours, everything they had hoped, everything they had dreamed, everything they had invested and sacrificed was over. Done. Gone.

That’s how deep the void that greeted the disciples on that first Easter morn was – a morning that found many of them in isolation, too – not for fear of a virus but of the soldiers who might still be looking for them as Jesus’ followers. And even though Mary Magdalene had ventured to the tomb before dawn and found it empty, things don’t instantly get better.

When Mary finds the grave open and Jesus’ body missing, she runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, who return to the tomb with her. They find it as she had described: the stone rolled away and Jesus’ burial cloths lying inside; but Jesus is nowhere to be found. What did it mean? John says, “they did not yet understand the Scriptures that He must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). After entering the tomb, John says the beloved disciple believes, despite the fact he doesn’t understand the Scriptures; but then he and Peter go home. We’re not told that they say anything to anyone else.

Mary lingers at the Tomb, weeping. Only then does she encounter Jesus. At first she thinks He’s the gardener and implores Him to tell her what has happened to the Lord’s body. She recognises Him by voice, not by sight, when He calls her by name. The risen Christ then asks her to go and tell His “brothers” (not disciples, not servants – brothers) that He is “ascending to My Father and your Father.” True to these instructions, Mary Magdalene returns to the disciples a second time, saying she has seen the Lord. She has seen Jesus: not dead, but alive; not missing, but very much present.

The good news of Easter thus gradual dawns in John, rather than flooding in. And we’re still not done. For the rest of that day, many of the disciples were left to wonder what was going on. Was Jesus alive? Or had His body been stolen? In John’s telling of the Easter story, it won’t be until later that evening that anyone other than Mary Magdalene sees Jesus.

When the Risen Christ does break into the disciples’ sequestered lives, He leaves no doubt. He speaks a blessing upon them: “Peace be with you.” He shows them His hands and His side, where the implements of death found and left their mark – but ultimately lost. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and commissions them, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Until that time, however, uncertainty remains. And even then, Jesus’ appearance doesn’t magically or instantly change the disciples’ circumstance. As we will see, they continue to meet behind closed doors. Some of them, including Peter, even go back to doing what they had been doing before they met Jesus. They’re lying low, seeking out something familiar, perhaps something reliable. Much remains unclear to them.

Which is, of course, how things will continue for us, too. When our time of lingering at the tomb with Mary Magdalene’s is over this morning, we’ll return to the same restrictions and limitations to which we awoke. My hope and my prayer, though, is that we’ll return knowing that what may seem like a void really isn’t. Because Christ is risen! Christ is risen and He is radically free and present with us. His abundant, irrepressible Life now fills the chasm that death had hollowed out; and His enduring Presence continues to subvert the machinations of the powers of this world.

Easter changes everything; yet it changes nothing. It doesn’t magically or instantly alter our circumstance. COVID-19 won’t just up and go away later this afternoon because Christ our Lord is risen this morning. But Easter does alter our place in our circumstance because Easter transforms our relationship to God, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. We aren’t just followers of Christ anymore. We aren’t just disciples of Christ anymore. We are brothers and sisters in Christ because we are brothers and sisters with Christ. “Go and tell my brothers…”, the risen Christ said to Mary. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father…”. Jesus, true to His prayer for us in John 17, has made us one – one family with Him and God the Father: heirs to one and the same Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. We are brothers and sisters with Christ. Think about that. Really think about that!

That means COVID-19 will not and cannot have the final word. Economic contraction will not and cannot have the final word. Neither will supply shortages or price increases. None of it can or will have the final word because, while those things may define our circumstance, they do not and cannot define our identity or our reality: who we are and whose we are. That prerogative, that power, belongs to Jesus because today He is risen – and He is very much still moving in our midst.

So while a lot of things may be missing from today, let’s try our best not to let those disappointments become the defining feature of this Easter. Or any Easter. Because Easter is about a new reality, a new relationship between heaven and earth, a new relationship between us and God. And that means that in the midst of these absences, there is something – or, more specifically, Someone – newly present and radically free for us to celebrate. We are His, and He is ours forever more. Jesus saved His most amazing and powerful feat for last.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Alleluia! Alleluia!  Amen.

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 594 other followers

  • RSS Weekly Scripture from the Revised Common Lectionary

  • Editor’s Choice

  • Recent Posts

  • Previous Posts

  • Categories

  • Art Matters

    Marc Chagall, The White Crucifixion, 1938

  • Follow Me on Twitter @RevBTT