Here’s the audio of the sermon I preached from Mark 10:35-45 last Sunday. The disciple brothers, James and John, boldly ask Jesus if he will grant them the privilege to sit on his right and left hand when he comes into his glory. Jesus addresses their ambition and desire for power, privilege, and prestige. Our 21st century problem is identical to their 1st century problem. Here’s my take on Jesus’ reply:
Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. This is a great opportunity to help one another experience the uniqueness and importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Triune work of God. I hope your Sunday will be wonderful!
What is the Trinity and Why Should We Care?
John 16:12-15 NIV
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
Today is Trinity Sunday
Today is Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year. Frankly, I’m not sure I have ever preached a sermon on the Trinity as a theological concept. And, there are several reasons for that.
First, the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. That is actually not that unusual because there are a number of theological concepts not found explicitly in the Bible that scholars and Church history and tradition have validated over the past 2,000 years. But the absence of direct teaching from the Bible on the Trinity makes it hard to find a passage of Scripture from which to launch out for a sermon. The passage we read today has hints of a trinitarian relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, but you have to look carefully for it.
The second reason I haven’t preached directly on the Trinity is because it is a topic, a concept, from the academic discipline called “systematic theology.” Systematic theology, briefly, is the attempt by Christian theologians to craft a coherent understanding of the work of God. Typically systematic theologies are crafted from Scripture, Church tradition, and the overarching philosophy of the particular theologian who is writing. So, the topics of systematic theology tend to be conceptual, and often difficult to explain in a way that doesn’t put a congregation to sleep quickly.
But, the primary reason I think I haven’t preached specifically on the Trinity is because it is one of those doctrines that Christians worldwide affirm, but have great difficulty explaining. The idea of One God in Three Persons — three-in-One — is a concept we have difficulty getting our heads around.
While in seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, I served as associate pastor at a church in Irving. Next door to the church was a large apartment complex that for some reason tended to attract large numbers of international residents. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is home to several major universities such as SMU, TCU, and others, and perhaps that was the draw.
A couple of times young men from the Middle East, mostly Iranians, would come to the church office and ask to speak with a “holy man.” Apparently I was the closest thing we had to one, so I often got to talk with these young Muslim men. The primary thing they wanted to debate with me was the fact that Christianity had three gods. I would then try to explain the Trinity to them, but they, like me, had great difficulty in comprehending how One God could be constructed of Three Persons. I never convinced any of those young men that Christians worshipped One God, but that experience did remind me of how difficult the concept of the Trinity is to explain.
The Trinity in The Shack
Several years ago, an interesting book titled The Shack became a bestseller. The story was compelling, but one aspect of that book sparked discussion and disagreement among Christians. William Paul Young represented the Trinity in a very unique way.
For God the Father, Young portrayed God as a large black woman, who was outgoing, warm-hearted, and kind. For God the Holy Spirit, Young’s persona was that of an Asian woman dressed in bright colors who seemed to dart in and out of sight in a Tinkerbell-like fashion. For Jesus, the author pretty much stayed with the stereotype of Jesus as a workman, complete with jeans, flannel shirt, and toolbelt. Each of these personas of God exhibited unique characteristics, and each had a specific role to play in the fictional story.
But, as creative as that portrayal was, Young’s attempt to give the Trinity personality fell short of capturing the theology fully.
Early Heresies About the Trinity
This idea of the Triune God, the Trinity, is a difficult idea to grasp. And it has been difficult for Christians from the early church down to the present. Some attempts have failed miserably to capture the three-in-oneness of God completely. These imperfect attempts to define the Trinity became early Christian heresies. A heresy is a doctrine or teaching that is incompatible with the Church’s view of Scripture and the traditional understanding of the those who have gone before us.
The two primary heresies about the Trinity, although there are more than two, are modalism and subordinationism. First modalism: there were those who said that God was One God who just appeared in three different roles — or modalities — as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A good illustration of this is one I have heard used to describe the Trinity, but unfortunately it falls short.
The example is a easy one to grasp. I am Chuck Warnock, but I am husband to Debbie, father to Amy and Laurie, and pastor to this church. So, I am one person in three roles. But while this sort of gets at one aspect of the Trinity, it is actually a good example of the heresy of “modalism” — one god playing three different parts.
The other heresy is that God the Father is the supreme figure, while both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to him in some way. The details are not important, but trust me, this is not what the Bible teaches.
Early Creeds Address Misunderstandings About the Trinity
So, in order to correct the theological conversation, the early Church developed creedal statements that expressed what the Church believed. The first was the Apostles’ Creed, which we looked at in detail several years ago. The Apostles’ Creed simply affirms in three statements a belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
1. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
2. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;
3. I believe in the Holy Spirit.
But The Apostles’ Creed left the door open for misunderstanding about the Trinity, so the Nicene Creed was developed from 325 AD, and took its final form in 381 AD.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Note the detailed explanation of the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These details were included to correct the notion that God the Father was superior to God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. The “essence” of all three persons of the Godhead was, in other words, the same.
Theory Gives Way to Reality
But it’s one thing to assert something about the Trinity, to say we believe in the Triune God, and to embrace a doctrine we cannot fully comprehend or explain. It is another thing entirely to base our understanding of God on what we see God doing.
So, let me make the most important statement about the Trinity that I can make this morning, and that is — Our understanding of the Trinity is based on what we see God has done and is doing in the world.
Let me give you some examples.
In the Old Testament, God is Creator of both the world, and of the nation of Israel through whom he will bless the world. Of course, God is present as Spirit, and the Messiah is both prophesied and foreshadowed in various theophanies (appearances of God, such as the angel who wrestles with Jacob). But primary on the stage of the unfolding drama of the Old Testament is the God of Israel, Yahweh, El-Shaddai, Elohim, Adonai, and all the other names by which God is called and worshipped.
In the New Testament Gospel accounts, the emphasis is upon Jesus — his birth, his baptism, his message, his life, his death, and his resurrection. But God the Father approves his Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon — anoints — Jesus for ministry.
In the New Testament Book of Acts and the epistles, the Holy Spirit is at the forefront, equipping, enabling, guiding, empowering the early church.
In the Book of Revelation, God the Father, Son, and Spirit are all present, each featured in a way that is both consistent with the Old Testament, witnesses to the New Testament, and brings fully into being the Kingdom of God in its closing chapters.
Why Should We Care?
Okay, that surveys the “What is the Trinity?” question, even though I am sure you probably have more questions now than when we began. But to keep this from being merely an academic exercise, we need to turn our attention to “Why do we care?”
This is what’s important and what we need to understand. Doctrine is important, but doctrine comes from the lived experiences of God’s people as they interpret the work of God in the real world.
First, the reason we should care about the Trinity, and be aware of the uniqueness of the One-in-Three and Three-in-One is this: Without a balanced view of all three persons of the Trinity, we can misinterpret the work of God in this world.
For instance, if we emphasize some aspects of God in the Old Testament, and subordinate Jesus and the Spirit, then we come away with a picture of a god of wrath and judgment, who has little compassion. One very well known Baptist preacher did just that after the tornadoes in Oklahoma last week, when he compared the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma with the story of Job who lost all of his children to a mighty wind that collapsed Job’s house.
If we emphasize the person of Jesus to the exclusion of God the Father and the Holy Spirit, we miss out on the fact that God sent Jesus because “God so loved the world…” The purpose of God is to redeem the world, not just the individuals in it. Salvation is the work of God, and that salvation extends not just to individuals but to God’s creation as well. Another famous and trendy preacher was quoted as saying that Jesus is coming back to burn up the world, so he can drive a huge SUV because he’s not worried about this physical earth. Not a good theological position, in my estimation.
Finally, if we emphasize the Holy Spirit, and the charismatic experiences and gifts of the Spirit, it it is easy to loose sight of God as Creator, Son as Redeemer, and the role that the Holy Spirit played and plays in both of those aspects of God’s work.
So, that’s the downside of why the Trinity is important to us. But what’s the upside, what are the positive reasons we need to care about developing our own understanding of the Trinity.
We Learn Two Important Lessons From The Trinity
First, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our model for community. As God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit relate to one another, demonstrate love for each other, and work in concert to accomplish the purpose of God in the world, we get the idea of community.
This idea of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit has been depicted by many Christian scholars using the term “perichoresis.” That’s a Greek word which means, literally, “dancing around.” I like the implications of God — Father, Son, and Spirit — in a divine dance, interacting with one another, expressing love for one another, and complementing the work each has to do.
In the passage we read today, we find some of these elements of mutuality. Jesus says that the Spirit will guide his disciples, glorify Jesus, take what belongs to Jesus and give it to the disciples. But, everything Jesus has comes from the Father, and that is why the Spirit can make it known to the disciples.
If that sounds like circular reasoning, it is. God the Father creates, God the Son redeems, God the Spirit illuminates and equips. In this divine dance of mutuality, each person of the Godhead complements and builds on the work of other members of the Trinity.
So, at the baptism of Jesus, Jesus demonstrates his obedience to the plan of God through baptism. God the Father announces his approval, and the Holy Spirit anoints Jesus for ministry.
In the early church, the Spirit empowers, equips, and emboldens the apostles to tell the good news of Jesus, who is God’s gift sent into the world to redeem it.
Secondly, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our mission. Jesus stated to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Just as God the Father sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sends us into the world to do the Father’s work, equipped and accompanied by the Spirit of God.
God’s work involves more than taking individuals to heaven when they die. God’s work is to bring in his kingdom on this earth, so that God’s creation can know the shalom of God — the peace that says all things are as God has intended them to be.
So, God sends Jesus to bring the shalom of God — also called salvation — to the nation of Israel and to all who will respond, whether Jew or not. Which is why Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Father and Son then send the Spirit who equips, empowers, and emboldens the early apostles as well as us today.
And, salvation itself — the idea that we are right with God — proceeds from God, is incarnate in Jesus, and is made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Whatever work we have to do in this world, we do from the standpoint of the Triune God — Father, Son and Spirit — who created, redeemed, and enabled us to do so.
So, let me encourage you today to think about the Trinity — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But we can’t stop at just thinking about a theological concept. As followers of Jesus, we are loved by the Father, and led by the Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are at work in our lives, in the life of this church, and in the life of this world.
As we live in new awareness of God in all God’s expressions as Father, Son, and Spirit, our spiritual lives will deepen, our vision of God’s kingdom will expand, and the work that God has chosen for us will take on a new vitality and urgency.
Taken from John 1:43-51, this story of Jesus calling Philip and Nathanael gives us a glimpse in how and why God calls us to follow Jesus. When God Finds You explores the role of scripture, experience, and community that are present in the call of God in the lives of followers of Jesus. Here’s the link to the podcast — http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/When_God_Finds_You.mp3
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, January 27, 2008. The lectionary reading comes from Matthew 4:12-23, where Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John, to follow him and he will make them “fishers of men.” Have a great day tomorrow!
the way to the sea, along the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”[a]
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Our Theme for 2008
Today we’re on the third part of our three-part theme for 2008 —
- Tell the story.
- Invite others.
- Bless the world.
We took the first two Sundays in this month to say we need to “tell the story.” And, here’s what we said about “telling the story:”
- The story we tell is the story of God.
- The story we tell is found in the Bible.
- The story we tell is accepted by some and rejected by others.
- The story we tell is our story, too.
Last week we talked about inviting others. Remember the key point last week? Let me remind you —
- Andrew invited Peter after Andrew himself had met Jesus and spent the day with him.
So, here we are at the final third of our three-part theme — bless the world.
Jesus Tells the Story
Matthew tells us the story of how Jesus begins his ministry. Matthew’s perspective is a little different from Luke and from John, and includes more detail than Mark. That’s to be expected because if any four of us were asked to tell the story of a person we all knew, we would each have different memories and stories to tell.
Matthew begins by reminding us again that Jesus fulfills the prophecy of the Old Testament. This was important for Matthew’s readers, and Matthew is establishing the legitimacy of Jesus to do what he does next. And what is that?
Jesus begins to preach, or better to “tell out,” God’s story. When we hear the word “preach” now we almost always conjure up something slightly unpleasant. Like the experience you’re having now for instance. But, back to my point. We think of someone in a pulpit talking to us in a one-way monologue that we hope ends before noon, or the Methodists get to Pino’s. (A restaurant here in our town) Or, even worse, we think of someone who is fussing at us, or correcting us, or speaking down to us. Years ago, Madonna recorded, Papa Don’t Preach, to express that exact sentiment. We don’t usually like for someone to “preach at us.” I am aware of that, by the way, and appreciate your showing up here most Sundays.
But, back to my point, again. Jesus begins to proclaim, to tell out, to make sure those he encounters hear what he has to say. And, what does he preach about? The kingdom of God.
Mark makes this very clear very early in his account when he says,
Jesus does what we have chosen to do this year, tell the story. But, here is how Jesus does it: Jesus tells a story his hearers aren’t ready for. Jesus tells a story too good to be true. Jesus tells a story that few believe, even though they hope it is true. Jesus tells God’s story about God’s creation.
“But, wait,” I can hear you thinking, “didn’t you just tell us that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God? Now you’re saying Jesus was preaching about creation. Which is it?”
Well, it’s both because creation is tied up in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is, broadly speaking, God’s will for God’s creation. That’s why Jesus teaches the disciples, and us, to pray,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
The coming of the Kingdom and the doing of God’s will in His creation (on earth) are virtually one and the same. That explains why Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The accomplishment of God’s will in God’s creation is quickly coming about.
Jesus Invites Others
Which brings us to what Jesus does next — he invites others. Matthew records the account a little differently than Luke’s Gospel, which we read last week. But, again, Matthew remembers different details than Luke does, so we don’t need to worry about that. The point is that Jesus sees Andrew and Peter casting their fishing nets and says to them,
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”
Jesus also invites James and John, sons of Zebedee to come and follow him also. Are you beginning to see where I got our theme for 2008? Jesus tells the story, Jesus invites others, guess what’s next? Jesus blesses the world by
healing every disease and sickness among the people.”
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, again. Let’s back up and look at Jesus’ invitation. “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” What does that mean?
Of course, it’s obvious that Peter and Andrew were fishers of fish. They were casting fishing nets into the Sea of Galilee when Jesus sees them and calls them. They were fishermen who made their living in the world of fishing. They fed their families from their fishing. They bought new nets and boats, and possibly clothes, with the proceeds from their fishing. The houses they lived in, the sandals they wore, the offerings they gave in synagogue or at the Temple all were the result of their fishing for fish.
So, it is not small thing that Peter and Andrew leave their livelihood to follow Jesus, who promises to make them “fishers of men.” James and John also leave their father in the boat while they are mending nets to follow Jesus. If James and John were called the Sons of Thunder, do you think Zebedee was happy with their leaving him to repair nets and fish by himself? Maybe Zebedee was the Thunder that James and John were the sons of!
In any event, the inner circle of disciples — Peter, Andrew, James and John — two sets of brothers leave their livelihoods to follow Jesus to a new vocation — being fishers of men.
Fishers of men, not for men
When we read Jesus invitation, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” we hear it probably like it was first explained to us. Instead of fishing for fish, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, are now going to fish for men. I’ve even preached entire sermons on this idea of fishing for men. Here are three points –
- When you fish for men, you have to go where they are.
- When you fish for men, you have to use the right bait.
- When you fish for men, you’ll land some, but some will get away.
Obviously, that is not an expository outline from this passage, but all of those ideas are inferred from the idea of being a fisherman. We take the fishing analogy and extend it to the gospel. Which makes really great preaching, but really bad Biblical exegesis and interpretation, because that is not what Jesus is saying.
In New Testament Greek, which was the common language of the civilized world at the time, there is a word for “for”, but Matthew doesn’t use it here. Matthew literally writes the words of Jesus this way –
I will make you fishers belonging to men.
Which does not mean fishers for men. So, what is Jesus saying? Something like this — “You’ve been concerned with the world of fish, now you’ll be concerned with the world of mankind.” In other words, the focus of Peter, Andrew, James and John will turn from the fishing industry, to God’s purpose for creation, mankind included.
Jesus Blesses the World
Do the words you say ever come back to haunt you? Maybe preachers have that happen to them more than most, because we talk more than most folks, publicly at least. I remember saying a long time ago in an energetic discussion with someone over healing, “Well, Jesus didn’t heal everybody!”
Matthew contradicts me in verse 23 — “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” But wait, there’s more. Before you think, “Well, curing every disease and every sickness” is not curing “everybody” — which is a logical thing to think, Matthew goes on in verse 24 –
So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.”
All the sick…and he cured them.
If you were deaf, don’t you think that Jesus would be good news to you ears? If you were blind, don’t you think Jesus would be good news to your eyes? If you were demon-possessed, don’t you think Jesus would be good news to you when he frees you from the chains of demonic slavery?
The word we translate as ‘gospel’ is euanggelion, literally, ‘good message’ or ‘good news.’ And the gospel has to be good news or it isn’t the gospel. It isn’t about the kingdom. It isn’t the message of Jesus. But, the good news is not what we think the good news is. That’s why we have to repent — turn around in our thinking and acting — which is what repentance means. Change our minds and our ways. Do a 180. A u-turn. An about-face.
Why? Because we often think good news would be we get to do what we want to do. We think good news would be if everyone saw the world like we do. Good news would be that I’m okay, you’re okay. But, that’s not the good news. That’s old news, and it’s neither good nor true.
Jesus came with some real good news — God’s creation is going to be what God intended all along. Thousands of years ago, it was not in the will of God, or the plan of God, that sickness would afflict humankind. So, when Jesus comes preaching good news, preaching the kingdom of God, he demonstrates that the kingdom is near by healing everyone he can. Why? Because the good news is “God keeps his promises” — Acts 13:32. Look it up, if you don’t believe me. What could be better news than that?
Because up until Jesus comes, everybody is doubting if God is even interested in them anymore. Where is God while the Roman army occupies Jerusalem? Where is God when God’s people are harassed, arrested, and killed for wanting their homeland back? Where is God when the Temple is used as a place of commerce and merchandise? Where is God when the High Priest is in the pocket of the emperor along with their own king, King Herod? Is God going to do anything? Is God going to keep His promises?
So, Matthew reminds the people that Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy. Then, Matthew tells the story of Jesus, who tells God’s story, then invites others into it, and then demonstrates the story by blessing the world — healing every sick person. God is keeping His promises, that’s the good news.
We bless the world, too
Last Monday, we hosted a community-wide event celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. As I greeted the group that was assembled here last Monday, I noted that, as far as I knew, this was the first time in this community that white congregations and African-American congregations had come together on Martin Luther King Day. Applause broke out when I said that, because we all realized that we had made history that day. One of the organizers of the event, Mr. Cedric Hairston, assistant principal at Dan River Middle School, and formerly at Chatham Middle School, spoke toward the close of the service.
Looking at me, and in front of the whole assembly, he said, “Your church is doing good things in this community, and people notice.” We are blessing our world by uniting our community. We are blessing our world by inviting white children and children of color into our building to study and learn, to play, and to have a safe place after school. We are blessing the world when we open our doors to little children who are learning to play music and sing. We are blessing our world when we invite teenagers into our old fellowship hall to sing, and read poetry, and talk to each other, and have an event where they get to express themselves. We are blessing the world when we support the Northern Pittsylvania Food Bank, and provide emergency relief to neighbors in our community who need food and gasoline. We are blessing the world when we literally set prisoners free from the wrong thinking that has put them behind bars, to find new life in Christ, and new skills for living, like Karen Hearn does. We are blessing the world when we visit the sick, comfort those who mourn, and care for those who need our loving care.
So, we are doing all these good things, but we must remember the first thing — We are blessing the world, and will continue to bless the world, because we have found our place in God’s story. We know God is making all things new. We tell it over and over again. And we do it by crossing the old barriers of race and class that belong to a world that does not know God. And we do it by giving away what we have, rather than hoarding it to ourselves. And we do it by thinking of others first, and ourselves last. And we do it by giving of our time and our possessions because we know that Jesus did that and more for us. This is the kingdom of God, we are God’s people, we are to be a blessing to all God’s world.