Sermon for Trinity Sunday | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the Spirit…
From Advent through Pentecost, the Sunday readings and collects have taken us through the mighty works of God. Advent taught us to expect that our God would come to us, both in the Incarnation and on the last day to judge the world. Christmas celebrated the mystery of the Father sending the Son to take on our flesh by the Holy Spirit, coming among us to dwell as one of us. Epiphany remembered the manifestations of Christ’s glory and power in the Holy Spirit even as He taught us of the Father. Lent turned our attention to the battle of Christ against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and Holy Week culminated in the revelation of the God who saves His people, as Christ died for us to redeem us. Easter celebrated the Resurrection of Christ and His victory over sin and death, opening the door to new life through Him with His Father. Ascension remembered Christ going to the Father to make a place for us in the house of God and to send to us the Spirit. Finally, on Pentecost we received the Holy Spirit promised by Christ to unite us into one life with Him by the work of the Spirit in the love of the Father. And so today, before we begin our long season of growth in this life we have received, we pause to turn from these meditations on what God has done for us to a celebration of who God is: our God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three divine persons and yet One God, the Holy Trinity.
Our Epistle lesson leads us this morning through the doorway of heaven, opened by Christ and passed through in the Spirit. The threshold to heavenly things may not be crossed unless we are invited, welcomed into things that are higher than us. To know that we must ascend by the Spirit to see the bounty of the Father, we must admit that we are too lowly to understand of ourselves. This is the foundation of what it means to understand anything–we must confess that we stand under something that is above our heads. Without this humility no one may hope to see God. God wills that we see Him, but also wills how we see Him: the one seeking the Father is welcomed only through the Son and goes there in the Spirit. We have no right to demand that God reveal Himself to us. Rather, God has done all as a gift of His grace to make us able to know Him as He is. The Holy Spirit attends to the soul who is invited to behold God and safeguards the passage. As our Lord tells Nicodemus, except a person be born of water and of the Holy Spirit, they cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. Only through Baptism are we made fit by the Spirit to be led into the truth of God.
When looking on God as He is, our language cracks under the strain of communicating what is, by virtue of being above our understanding, also above the symbolism of our language. The image of heaven is at once revelation and poetry. St. John’s language moves swiftly to capture this scene during which each new sight exceeds in the complexity the one that came before it. Wonder follows wonder, and our imaginations are left breathless as at last we are brought by the Spirit to the center of all wonders: the vision of God Himself. Suddenly, God’s radiance redefines the whole scene and we hear the song of praise that had been going on all along and always, before we even became aware of it. All the voices of heaven come together into one voice whose one song is a threefold Holy. The invitation to behold the vision of God, begun in the humility of understanding, is enlightened by the Holy Spirit to lead us by the hand into the worship of heaven itself. The consummation of revelation is adoration.
To confess the Trinity is a gift. It is the answer to Christ’s priestly prayer that the Spirit would lead us into all truth. The revelation of God as Trinity is a gift to the Church to liberate us from the bondage of our own ideas about God. It is the revelation of God we could never imagine or engineer for ourselves — In showing us Himself, God the Trinity liberates us to worship not as we might seek to know God but as God knows Himself to be. Where we would be tempted to worship merely a divine unity we would find ourselves in flat submission to a distant Power. Where we would be tempted to worship an ever-expanding plurality we would exhaust ourselves with fear and contradiction. The gospel of the Trinity means that we have been rescued by from both the divine tyranny and the divine absurdity we so often make for ourselves.
Even so, one cannot celebrate God as Trinity simply by stating the Creed. We do not need new life merely to cite ancient formulas of belief. No, the sacred, gifted life is for nothing less than participation in the Trinity. The life of the Church is lived through perpetual prayer, our union with God the Trinity. We continually offer prayers of praise and confession and intercession to God the Father through God the Son by God the Spirit. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to share life with the Trinity. To pray the Daily Offices is to share in the life of the Trinity. To pray during Mass is to share in the life of the Trinity. To cross ourselves, to genuflect, to partake of the Eucharist is to share in the life of the Trinity. To give ourselves to service and charity is to share in the life of the Trinity. Yet to partake of the life of the Trinity is to share in the life of love that is the life of the Trinity, and this means that as we share in the Spirit of love who is the unity of the Father loving His Son and the Son loving His Father, we must be transformed as persons who love as they love in the free gift of our lives to redeem all things into that life of love until all things become the Kingdom of God.
And so that means, my beloved brothers and sisters, that today our celebration of God as Trinity and the life of prayer through which we share in the eternal life and love of the Triune Persons must become the shape of our life forevermore. We have been led through the waters of Baptism to this new life, and this new life has the purpose of being shared. We become true partakers in the life of God only as this life bears fruit in lives that witness to the love of God. And so today, let us bind ourselves to the life of our Triune God, let us become one with that love that moves all things, redeems all things. Let us love the person sitting next to us. Let us love the person we’ve not yet talked to. Let us love the families we go home to in their messiness and in their nobility. Let us love the stranger we meet who may need our help. Let us love our enemies, commending them to God’s redemption in hope of their salvation, for the Father through the Son by the Spirit has made us who were His enemies into His beloved children. “Beloved, let us love one another. For love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. They who do not love do not know God, for God is love.”
A Sermon for Pentecost, May 20, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. Spiritual gifts and the gift of the Spirit
Our stated mission includes the charge to “work and pray and give for the spread of [God’s] kingdom” (BCP 291). We regularly instruct people, with some detail, about how to pray and give. What about our spiritual work? Pentecost is an appropriate time to begin a discussion about spiritual gifts, which are the unique ways the gift of the Spirit is manifested in each believer.
Before we can understand our unique spiritual gifts, we must first understand how the gift of the Spirit reorients our lives. The gift of the Spirit is the remedy for sin. The spiritual death that resulted from the first sin was the loss of communion with God through the Spirit of God (Gen. 2:17). As the Holy Spirit is given to the church on Pentecost, this life-giving connection is restored.
The objective sign of the gift of the Spirit, the way Pentecost comes to us, is the water of baptism (1 Cor. 12:13). From the beginning of church, the water of baptism was completed by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands—what we now call Confirmation (Acts 8:14-17, Hebrews 6:1-2). God conveys the gift of the Spirit through sacramental signs so that you can know that we have been given this gift.
But receiving a gift does guarantee we will use it. Planting a seed does not guarantee growth into a tree. Baptism is the beginning. The question is, “What is God doing in your life now? The Bishop prays over those being Confirmed that they will “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” (BCP 297).
II. The gift of the Spirit as a reorientation of Life
The first sin and the spiritual death of Genesis led to notable consequences. The first humans blamed someone else for their own sinful behavior. Then they began to hurt each other. Cain killed his brother Abel. The first murder was tied to worship. Cain made an unacceptable offering to God (Genesis 4:4-5). When God rejected his worship, Cain took it out on his brother (Gen. 4:8).
Sin disconnects us from God and leaves us in a state of emptiness and neediness. We try to meet our needs at the expense of others. We deny our guilt by blaming others. We deal with our pain by hurting others. This is our inheritance “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22). Our emptiness must be filled by something. That something ends up being the various idolatries and addictions of the human condition.
The gift of the Spirit reorients our lives away from the patterns of sin and towards love for God and others. When we stop blaming others, take responsibility for our own behavior, and turn back to God in faith, God gives us his Spirit and restores to us relationship with him. As Jesus said in the gospel,
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him (Jn. 14:23).
As the Father and the Son make their home within us through the Spirit, our lives produce a different kind of fruit. The Spirit fills the empty places of our hearts and begins to heal the wounds of sin. Our interior experience of God’s love and grace is manifested outwardly in love for others. Instead of inflicting our pain on others, we share our experience of grace. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
The word for “comfort” in this passage is the verbal form of the noun “paraclete,” the word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:16-18). We are comforted, strengthened, and healed by the Spirit so that we can be agents of comfort, strength, and healing for others through the Spirit.
III. Worship and prayer as the foundation for love of neighbor
Worship and prayer are the foundation of our love for others. God fills our emptiness and heals our wounds in a progressive manner—not unlike the way an antibiotic slowly kills an infection in our bodies. In the liturgies of the Christian life, we continually bring our disordered selves to God, who continually forgives, heals, and strengthens us. As we “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” we grow in both our interior healing and the love for others that results from it.
The sin of Cain, the Bible’s first murder, was rooted in his refusal to worship God with his whole being. Our ability to love others is dependent upon our worship. When we neglect worship, we lose our ability to love with the love that come from God. The first and great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Our ability to fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is dependent upon our obedience to the first commandment (cf. Matt. 22:37-40). Mere philanthropy can never reach the heights of agape love.
There are errors in the other direction. Our prayer can be self-centered. Interior peace can become the goal with the result that we have no concern for the brokenness of the world. Thus, there are two errors. One occurs when the church neglects its worship and life of prayer and gets caught up in various forms of activism. The church reflects the anxiety and “busy-ness” of the world rather than the peace of God. The other error occurs when the church becomes absorbed in its own spirituality and has no ministry outside of itself. In its authentic pattern, the Christian life begins in worship and prayer. This experience of God’s love is then manifested in good works done for others in love. The absence of either part is a serious defect—even heresy.
IV. Our ministries and the use of our gifts
We often approach the topic of ministry by focusing on what “the church” is doing. The church develops a “program” and recruits its member to give their time and labor. However, ministry works best in the other direction. You are the church. As you pray and experience the love and grace of God through the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will naturally move you into loving behavior towards others. This is not just volunteer work at church. Your “ministry” is your total life “in Christ.” It is what you do at home, work and leisure. Your most significant ministry may be the way you manifest the presence of Christ in a challenging work environment or in a difficult marriage; doing what is right and encouraging others in response to harsh treatment or dishonesty. The worst kind of ministry occurs when we do wonderful things at church but are dishonest and unkind in the other areas of our lives.
The ministry of the church is the sum of the work of the members of the body of Christ. Some of that work takes place at church, but most of that work takes place in the world. The best ministry in the church occurs when there is a pooling of our spiritual gifts for the sake of efficiency; when we can do something better together than we can separately. The worst ministry is when the church decides it should do something and then pressures reluctant volunteers to do things they do not have the gifts, time, or desire to do. Of course, there is also sloth. You must be willing to use your gifts, and this will take time and effort.
Your spiritual gifts are the unique form that love takes in your life. Some people have a gift for quiet service. Some have the gift for giving encouragement or wise counsel. Some people have a gift for giving money. Some have gifts for prayer and intercession. What are your gifts? What form does love take in your life? What is the shape of your ministry? What new things might God be calling your to do? These are questions to ask on Pentecost. You experience God’s love in the sacraments and prayer. How do you share that love with others? In Eucharistic terms, as you receive the body and blood of Jesus at the altar, consider, what are the good works that God has prepared for you to walk in? (BCP 83, Eph. 2:10).
A Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension, May 13, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be sober and watchful in your prayers (from the epistle, 1 Peter 4:7).
I. The end or telos of all things.
I remember a seminary professor who said that if you use Greek or Hebrew in a sermon, all you are doing is trying to show people how much you know. Often, when the preacher says that a word means this or that in the original Greek, it turns out that it means the same thing in the English word as well.
However, some English words miss an aspect of the original meaning or convey a meaning to us that is foreign to the Greek or Hebrew word. Today’s epistle is a case in point. When St. Peter says that “the end of all things is at hand,” it sounds to us like a message of doom. Oh no, the end is coming! With this sense, we will be motivated by fear. You never know when God is going to come and destroy everything, so you better make sure you are doing what you are supposed to do!
The Greek word for end in this passage is “telos.” Interestingly, telos has also become an English word. It is used in philosophy to refer to “an ultimate object or aim.” This is its meaning in this passage. St Peter is saying, “The ultimate object or aim of all things is at hand.” With this sense, the motivation is not fear, but expectation. God will soon complete his work of New Creation. Stay focused in your prayers because your prayers will soon be answered.
II. Telos in John 19 and Matthew 5
A form of telos is used two other passages that can highlight its meaing. The last words of Jesus on the cross were, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word finished is a verbal form of telos. When St. Peter refers to the telos of all things, he means that the work Jesus finished on the cross will be applied to the whole created order. As Romans 8:21 says, “The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Jesus will finish his work of New Creation.
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said, “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The word perfect in this passage is an adjective form of telos. “Perfect” conveys to us a sense of unattainable or insufferable flawlessness. However, Jesus is saying something a little different. “Be therefore complete,” be “whole,” attain the end toward which you were made.
We are being recreated in Christ through the Spirit. Telos conveys a sense of the completion of this creative process—the positive end toward which we are moving. Now we strive, by grace, against the testing influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil. We stumble and on occasion fall. This is part of the messy creative process by which God is bringing his order and beauty out of the chaos of human sin. The end is not gloom and doom. The end is wholeness, completion, resurrection.
III. The Ascension
The Ascension of our Lord marked a new stage in the process of the New Creation. The first stage was all the Jesus accomplished in the Incarnation through the Resurrection. In the Incarnation, God who exists in eternity, who fills all things everywhere, became human. He entered the limitations of time and space. He who exists outside of time was born at a moment in time, died at a moment in time, and rose from the dead at a moment in time. Through his work in time, Jesus fulfilled the covenant, conquered sin, Satan and death, and established a new form of humanity in the Resurrection.
In the Ascension, the Risen Christ left the dimension of time and space and reentered the dimension of eternity. The effect of the Ascension is to make the victory Christ won in one temporal moment, at one earthly place, applicable and accessible to all moments and all places. As Ephesians says, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). The Risen and Ascended Christ exists in eternity. He can intercede for us at all moments of our time, wherever we may pray. He can rule over our heart always and everywhere.
The Eucharist is a bridge between time and eternity. We ascend in the Spirit, with Christ, from time into eternity. The Risen and Ascended Christ comes from eternity to meet us right now at this moment, in this place. We experience again our union with him as we grow towards our true end, our telos.
IV. Our gifts
The New Testament teaches us that the current age, the age of the Spirit, is the Last Days. Jesus completed the work of the New Creation on the cross when he said, “It is finished.” The Spirit was sent on Pentecost to do the work of New Creation within us. All that remains is for Jesus to appear again in person and finish the New Creation—to bring the life has planted in us to its completed form in the Resurrection. This is what we are waiting for in the life of faith. At the Second Coming of Jesus, time will be swallowed up into eternity. This temporary, disordered, and decaying world will become the eternal and holy kingdom of God.
This helps us to make sense of judgment. Our possession of the baptismal gift of the Spirit makes us eternal beings, whose telos is in the coming kingdom of God—whose true end is in the New Creation. But only that which is eternal can enter the eternal kingdom. Judgement will not be an arbitrary sentence. It will reveal each person’s interior reality.
Because the telos is near, the epistle exhorts us to use our spiritual gifts. “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10). The Bible teaches us that each believer has been given at least one spiritual gift or “charisma” with which to serve others in the Body of Christ and bear witness to Christ in the world. This is our work in time, in this world, as we wait for the telos of all things.
During the season of Ascension, from last Thursday until Pentecost next Sunday, we wait and pray for the Holy Spirit to come. Of course, the Holy Spirit came on the first Christian Pentecost and was given to us in Baptism and Confirmation. However, as we experience again the story of our redemption in the church year, we wait and pray for the Holy Spirit to come to us in new ways. As our collect says, “Leave us not comfortless, but send to us Thine Holy Ghost to Comfort us and exalt us” (BCP 179).
Thus, let us prepare for the celebration of Pentecost next Sunday by praying that God will send the Holy Spirit to us in new ways. Let us pray that the Spirit will come to renew our experience of grace and union with God. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to renew our spiritual gifts and give us new zeal for worshiping God and serving others. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to further the work of New Creation in us. “For telos of all things is near.”