Sunday, May 25, 1997

Twenty-fifth Anniversary Sermon at Truro Church

Trinity Sunday
May 25, 1997

Exodus 3:1-6
Rev 1:1-7
John 3:1-16

It is with considerable awe and fullness of gratitude that I stand here this morning, remembering that almost exactly 25 years ago, I was ordained a priest here at Truro (May 28, 1972 to be exact). In some ways it seems like yesterday, and a few people have come up to me and said: “You haven’t changed a bit” Well, one of the blessings of aging is that our eyes begin to go downhill along with our bodies. I suppose it’s the hair. But, as my wife reminds me, there are two kinds of people in the world, those who get gray hair and those who give it.

In the Bible at least, gray hair or a gray beard was in fact one of the qualifications for “eldership.” Externals notwithstanding, I have been graying within. And in a sense I think this Church, which experienced a spiritual coming of age 25 years ago, is also graying, and that’s not a bad thing. Now obviously many of you at Truro have come here much more recently; several of you I think were in confirmation classes I taught and are much younger. But churches have a certain corporate or institutional life that is independent of its individual members, and so I am going to address you as a contemporary.

What have we learned over 25 years? Certainly the great fact that shaped Truro’s current identity was the charismatic revival that began here in 1970 and has continued to form the distinctive character of this church as compared with most other churches in the diocese of Virginia. The charismatic revival has been, I think, a sovereign act of God, revealing His Son and sending His Spirit to individuals in life-changing ways and in so doing transforming the life and structures of this Church. I praise God for the work He has accomplished here.

Let me make this personal. I was privileged to begin my ministry here. This Church and the work of the Lord that began here formed me in my ministry. I have never ceased to think of you corporately without the affection - and anxiety - that a father feels for his first-born son or daughter. I think I understand St. Paul’s comment to his first church in Greece when he writes: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess 2:19). There is nothing more rewarding for a pastor than to look at his former church and see it doing well, keeping the faith. You have blessed and comforted me immensely in the Lord over these past years.

We can celebrate the past, but we should not live in it. The charismatic renewal brought to this church and to many others an important awareness of the subjective reality of God and the need for a personal encounter with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. May this continue to be the case.

But today is Trinity Sunday, a day when we celebrate the fullness of the Godhead and the challenge to the Church to live into that fullness. Specifically, I believe that if the renewal movement that came to flower in the 1970’s is to reach its full maturity, it will need to embrace the First Person of the Trinity, God the Father.

Why celebrate God the Father on Trinity Sunday? Have you ever considered that the Church has no festival of the Father. Every Sunday is a celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. And last Sunday and throughout this season until next Advent, we remember the work of the Holy Spirit in history and the Church. So it seems to me appropriate to designate Trinity Sunday the Father’s Day of the Church year.

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven…” We say this every week in the Creed, but what do we mean by it? What does it mean “to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity,” as the Collect for today says. First of all, let’s note that the Creed does not say “I believe in God [colon]: the Father Almighty… the Son… and the Holy Spirit.” No, it says, I believe in God the Father Almighty.

I remember when I was teaching the kids’ confirmation class at Truro describing the Trinity by means of a triangle with GOD in the center and the Father, Son, and Spirit at its three points: the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God; the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father. This may be true in its way, but it misses the personal character of God and also the particular role of the Father.

The Father is the head of the Trinity, and Jesus revealed the Triune nature of God only as he revealed the Father. The Father is the Name above every Name, hallowed in the unspoken Jewish word “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.” He is the masculine pronoun above all masculine persons. God the Father is emphatically not a sexual God like Zeus, but he is even more emphatically masculine. In fact, we males are the ones who are only partially masculine. But to be ashamed of calling God “He” in my view, as has become trendy in our Church, is to be ashamed of God the Father.

What can we learn of the character of this Person of the Trinity? I will only briefly sketch some indications from our lessons today.

The Almighty Heavenly Father: Rev 1:1-8
First of all, as Jesus taught us, he is our heavenly Father. This is how we start the Lord’s Prayer and it is implicit in the phrase “God the Father Almighty.” The Revelation to John puts it this way: “‘I am the Alpha and Omega,,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’”

The transcendence of God is a fundamental and unique teaching of the Old Testament and the monotheistic religions that flow from it. We are living in a culture that is in danger of forgetting or renouncing this truth. To reject the transcendent Fatherhood of God involves a return to paganism, and a worship of self, or the world, or fate (which is exactly what Satan wants). It is crucial today for us to honor the God as transcendent in time, the First and the Last. Reality did not begin with the Big Bang nor will it end with the entropic demise of the universe. Nor is reality confined to things seen and measured with the scientist’s tools.

It was as great mistake when the revisers of the Creed changed the designation of the Father as creator of “all things visible and invisible,” to “ all things seen and unseen.” God’s realm does not depend on our sight or even our imagination. God the Father, the Book of Revelation shows us, has another realm which has already been perfected, with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.” This dwellers of this realm are eagerly awaiting the manifestation of the sons of God in glory at the end of time (Rom 8:20-21).

Christian faith and Christian theology are incorrigibly eschatological. “Eschatology” is a big seminary term for “wrapping every thing up to perfection.” That is why all true prayer and all true action is offered “to the glory of God the Father.” Those of us who know the Holy Spirit have tasted the first fruits of this glory, and we experience it at times in our music and worship. But we continue to walk by faith, and there will come a time when we will see the Father face to face and know Him even as He knows us.

Father as Creator and Commander: Exod 3:1-14
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…” To confess the Father is to confess him as Creator, and particular kind of Creator. “In the beginning, God said… and it was so.” “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all their hosts by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6). Speech is the essential bond of the Holy Trinity. The Eastern Church portrays the Trinity as the Three Men who visited Abraham in Genesis. The fellowship of God is a kind of table fellowship, a convivial mealtime conversation. When we are invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, it’s not the food but the conversation that will be our delight.

Yet the Father’s table talk is not idle; it is full of challenge, warning, and promise. As Creator, God is also commander. This is the essential lesson learned by Moses at the burning bush. He is addressed by the supernatural God, the God who identifies himself as “I AM THAT I AM.” This name not only reveals but conceals. Yahweh is the God of all being, the one who created the world. He is the one who promised a great inheritance to Israel and its patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But he is also the God of future surprises: “I will be who I will be.” He is the holy God. “Take off your shoes.” Only by trusting the specific words of this God will Moses be a servant. Only by obeying the precise words of the Covenant on Sinai will Israel be his people.

We are living in an age that is increasingly illiterate and inarticulate. This fact is not simply because we are lazy but because Western culture has turned its back on the God who speaks the Word and it is so. We have come to distrust words as so much propaganda, whether it comes from politicians, priests, or earthly fathers. We have substituted feeling, sentimentality, and yes, “spirituality” for argument and persuasion. Any vigorous revival of Christianity will involve a return to reading the words of the heavenly Father in the Bible: to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. And we cannot read them rightly unless we have that spirit that an ancient son had to his Father.

The fundamental family commandment in the Bible is “Honor your father and mother.” And this meant: “Heed their words.” When Solomon says “the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov 3:12), he is suggesting that the home is where one learns the right relationship to words, and also that a major part of that relationship is learning to obey. The great problem in the Episcopal Church is not figuring out what the Bible says about this or that issue, but simply the question: will we obey?

The world is the Father’s house. He has built it by his Word. As Christians we are must uphold the reality principle but also teach our sons and daughters, and our neighbors, that “the ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” (Psalm 19:9-11).

Father as Sender and Savior: John 3:1-16
Finally, the Creed’s affirmation of the Father as Almighty Creator does not stand alone. The person and work of the Father is integrally related to the work of the Son and Spirit. In the Gospel we come to know God the Father as Sender and Savior. This connection of the Father with salvation is captured in St. Paul’s magnificent doxology:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)

John’s Gospel which speaks of the Father far more than any other. Right at the beginning, John announces: “No one has seen God. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). It is a strange fact that although the portrait of Yahweh in the Old Testament is distinctly patriarchal, he is seldom described as “father” and never named Father. Only Jesus can reveal the true nature of the divine Fatherhood (and I might add the nature of true human fatherhood).

At the same time, we can only understand the Son by seeing the work of the Father. Nicodemus, the archetypal Jewish “teacher of the Law,” could not fathom the idea of a divine begetting for human beings, much less within the Godhead itself. Jesus hints to him of heavenly things: “the Father loves the Son and has placed everything into his hands.” Theologians have used language of the Father “begetting the Son” and the Spirit “processing from the Father,” to describe the essential and eternal life of God.

But most important for us is the fact that the Father “so loved the world that he sent his only Son.” God sends his Son and his Spirit out of pure grace. Reflecting on the line that “the fullness of the Godhead bodily dwells in the Lord,” (Colossians 2:9), the great Victorian preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon reflects:

He cannot endow us with the attributes of Deity; but He has done all that can be done, for He has made even His divine power and Godhead subservient to our salvation. His omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, immutability, and infallibility are all combined for our defense. Arise, believer, and behold the Lord Jesus yoking the whole of His divine Godhead to the chariot of salvation! (Morning and Evening, May 18 am)

Surely, Jesus Christ reveals himself as our gracious Savior and Lover, but in so doing he also reveals the heart of the heavenly Father. God sent his son, not because he needed us but because we desperately needed him.

This truth is captured most vividly in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which might be better termed the Parable of the Prodigal Father. For as my colleague Kenneth Bailey has so graphically shown, the Prodigal Son returns home not just expecting but wanting to be treated as a hired servant. He is thrown off his plan by the totally unexpected behavior of the father, who violates every rule of Middle Eastern decorum but in so doing asserts his patriarchal authority to claim his son. Bailey describes the impact of this behavior on the son:

He is shattered by his father’s demonstration of love in humiliation. In his state of apprehension and fear he would naturally experience this unexpected deliverance as an utterly overwhelming event. Now he knows that he cannot offer any solution to their ongoing relationship. He sees that the point is not the lost money, but the broken relationship that he cannot heal. Now he understands that nay new relationship must be a pure gift from his father… “I am unworthy is now the only appropriate response.” (Poet and Peasant, 183-184)

From this we can see that the Father’s grace in sending the Son is part of his plan that all human beings should come to him, not on their own terms, but on his. And the only proportionate response to a God who has not spared his own Son but given up to death for us all is faith, unwavering trust in the Father who loves us in his Son. God sent His Son into the world… “that all might believe in Him.”

Looking back over the 25 years since I stood here at Truro to be ordained, I could say many things to you. The lessons today led me to this theme: the Father God as head of the Holy Trinity. Surely there are practical ramifications of this great doctrine.

· There is the need for us, as we age individually and corporately to live in the light of eternity, the glory of the Father’s kingdom that awaits us. Twenty-five years seems a long time, but when we remember that a thousand years in his sight is as a watch in the night,” I guess 25 years is more like a gnat’s burp. I am not sure that I will be here for my 50th anniversary, and certainly not the one beyond that. We need to express our need for eternity in our private prayer and in our corporate worship. Keep up your wonderful integration of beauty, excellence, and freedom in worship and remember that it is a foretaste of eternity.

· There is the call to read and obey his word. I remember as a bright, unwashed deacon starting up a program here of “Community Bible Reading” and Bible studies where people had to sign up and buy a concordance and write a paper a week. I am most excited to see Truro and other churches in Northern Virginia taking seriously the need for offering biblical and theological education in conjunction with Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, and I look forward to coming back to teach some time.

· There is a crisis of fathering in our society in which even secular social scientists now admit that children need both a father and a mother to grow up in the best way. I have enjoyed the opportunity of working with Diane Knippers of Truro on a “Marriage and Family Covenant” as an essential element of the reform of the Episcopal and other churches. It is not enough just to be against the agenda of the gay rights movement. We must become better witnesses to God’s plan of “two sexes, one flesh.”

· There is a vision for missionary church sent by the missionary God. I was truly touched to see so many Episcopalians, including a large contingent from Truro, pledging themselves to missionary service and sacrifice at the New Wineskins Conference last month. Truro has distinguished itself by its lavish giving of money to others over the years. Now is time to give once over of ourselves. This includes a call to a new generation of pastors and teachers. I wonder if there are some of you out there who can stand in my place and take authority in the Church of God. We sing the song “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?” Are you ready to hear and heed the Father’s call?

Trinity Sunday should be not so much a day for our busy agenda as it is a time of praise. Therefore let me conclude meditation on the Father with the great prayer of St. Paul for his church:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to him [God the Father] who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:14-21)

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