“Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
That’s the name for a blog about music and worship my dad and I have been dreaming of writing together for the past couple of years. It’s not so often you get a church musician and a pastor in one family and, as a result, our conversations end up being about music and worship more often than I suspect you would find in other father/son relationships. More often than not we find that we have very similar opinions about these issues – though over the years we’ve had our share of passionate arguments as well.
That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in – at least in the title for our blog. Our thought was that for each topic we wrote on, we’d invite one additional person to weigh in on whatever we were discussing – another pastor or musician, theologian or church member – someone who could keep the conversation fresh by adding insights and ideas beyond the ones my dad and I have been kicking around since I was a kid.
In my relationship with my dad, this kind of point/counterpoint mode of conversation hasn’t traditionally restricted itself to conversations about music and worship. Particularly as I hit high school, and became convinced that I already knew everything I needed to know, my conversations with Dad got more and more passionate. It seemed that whatever topic we were discussing at the dinner table, Dad and I would end up on opposite sides. Sometimes he was playing the devil’s advocate, sometimes it was me, but it almost seemed that we were looking for an argument.
Often, though not always, Dad came down on the side of tradition and I was railing against convention – not surprising for arguments between a teenager and a parent. Passions stirred, volume raised, my mother later admits that she sometimes worried that we would cross the line and say something we would later regret. Sometimes we did, but more often my father would bring the conversation to a temporary and frustrating halt with the argument all young people instinctively despise: “you’ll understand this better when you’re older.”
“What a cop out! Come on! Stay in the fight! Prove your point, don’t tell me I’m going to come around to your way of seeing things in time.”
Sadly for my ego, he was often right. One of the things that most frustrated me as a young person was the way my father, and the tradition he defended, refused to speak clearly about issues of faith and theology. There was too much mystery and not enough honesty for my young mind. There were too many ambiguities and shades of grey at a moment in my life when I was demanding the clarity of black and white answers from the world. That isn’t a judgment on myself. Demanding answers and testing yourself against your parents is one of the developmental tasks of adolescence. I was just doing my job as a young person, and he was doing his job as a father. That didn’t make it any easier to hear: “you’ll understand this better when you’re older.”
In his farewell address to the disciples, which we began to hear last week on Pentecost as Jesus promised that the Father would send an Advocate to teach them and remind them of all that he’d taught, Jesus delivers a form of the parental response that I suppose must have confused the disciples as much as it frustrated me. One the eve of his trial and execution Jesus tells his friends, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13a)
This passage has both terrified and liberated the church over the centuries. What does Jesus mean when he tells his friends, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now”? What does this mean for the church? Are there truths that cannot be found in scripture, because they are a part of what God intends to reveal through the Holy Spirit over time? How do we test what is of the spirit, and what is not? How do we maintain any degree of confidence that we are proclaiming something true, when Jesus’ words tell us that we aren’t able to bear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
In response to last week’s sermon on Pentecost, Scott Shippy asked some similar questions. He posted them on our facebook page, so it’s public and gives me some liberty to reference them here. I was preaching on the story of the Tower of Babel, and the first Pentecost when the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to speak in new languages so that the entire known world might understand their proclamation. I was reflecting on the nature of diversity, how it seems built into God’s created order, and how resistant we still are to it. In his posting Scott replied,
What is the role of the tradition? Can we be changed not for the better? How can we not be wrong about the Holy Spirit’s push-pull from time to time?
These are excellent questions – exactly the kind of questions the church as a community of faith and the body of Christ are called to ask of ourselves.
Incidentally, I love that Scott posted the questions on a public forum for everyone to see and potentially respond to. We know you come out of the United Church of Christ, Scott, but really – posting your questions on the virtual door of the church is so very Lutheran of you! I’m teasing, but I’m also serious – as spiritual descendents of Martin Luther, the monk who translated the bible into the language of the people and launched a church renewal movement by asking tough questions of the church at a tough time in history, we have the right and the responsibility to always be asking whether or not the church in our day is speaking the language of the people, whether or not the church in our day hides the gospel behind doctrines and practices that make fearful and anxious people who God seeks to love and to comfort. I hope we keep looking for more ways to keep these sorts of conversations alive in our community – whether it’s online, or over coffee, or in small groups or book studies. Questions asked in community are at the heart of our faith.
In response to his questions I pointed Scott (and whoever else was reading along) in two directions. The first was scripture. When the question is asked, “how do we know if change or evolution in church or society is being led by the Holy Spirit” one of the ways the church has answered the question is by looking for what the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians called “the fruit of the Spirit…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
And, in response to anxieties that in its evolution and reform the church has given up the very things that make it church, when the question is asked, “how do we know if we’re still being the church” Lutherans have looked for what we call “the marks of the church.” Those being confession and absolution, the Word of God, ministry, worship, suffering, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Most of the items on that li
st make perfect sense to folks, they sound like things the church does when it gathers each Sunday morning – confession and absolution, listening to and proclaiming the Word of God, ministry, worship, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But then, thrown in amongst all those marks of the church, Lutherans name suffering as a mark of the church. In this we are reminded of Paul, who we hear in his letter to the Romans this morning declaring
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
And there, in one passage, we have the Holy Trinity. We have peace with God through the grace we seen and experienced in Jesus Christ through whom God pours out God’s love which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can experience as real for us here and now.
Over the centuries the church has tried to find ways to describe the relationship between these three persons who are yet one God. Some of them we retain in the creeds, which were developed in response to the question, “how is it that we can claim that there is one God, when we talk about Father, Son and Holy Spirit as though they are separate persons?” Here, two-thousand years after the fact, it is easy to get lost in the creeds as archaic formulas for irrelevant doctrines, but I do believe that they are useful in the way they show us how our mothers and fathers in the faith tried to make sense of what they had experienced during and after Jesus’ life and death.
Jesus lived his life and led his community in a way that revealed God’s love and transformed a broken world. As the powers and principalities prepared to crucify him, Jesus told his friends that the transformation that had experienced with him would continue to be available to them, even after he was gone. They doubted him, they doubted themselves. But after his crucifixion, Jesus became present to them in a way they could never have expected. The spirit of God that had been so powerfully alive in Jesus was now alive throughout an entire community of believers, so powerfully present in them that it was as though Christ the Lord had been distributed among them, that they were now the body of the risen Lord – gone, but not absent. God, Christ, Spirit. One with them, and in them, and through them.
The Holy Trinity is not, finally, a doctrine to be explained – it is a relationship to be experienced. The church has spent centuries arguing about the nature of the relationships between the persons of the Trinity, the way my father and I argued passionately at the dinner table about music and worship and whatever else came up between us. But even then, the heart of the matter wasn’t who was right and who was wrong. It was that we were family, gathered around a table, sharing a life with each other, bearing each other’s sufferings, building the endurance we would need for a future we couldn’t have imagined, developing the kind of character that sustained us in a hope that has not disappointed us. The Holy Trinity, a family into which we have all been adopted.