Monday, May 19, 2008

Sermon for May 18: What Christians Mean by Trinity

Trinity 2008, Genesis 1:1-2:4, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

(For the baptism of Elianna Simone Philips, daughter of Jason and Janet.)

We take it for granted what Jesus said in the Great Commission, but to the Jewish ears of his disciples it will have been a strange instruction, to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Jews had been doing baptism for some time already, before Jesus came around. It meant repentance, and being washed clean from your sin, and starting fresh, like getting born a second time. It meant returning to the roots of Judaism by recapitulating the passage of the Red Sea in the Exodus and crossing the Jordan with Joshua. Baptism was a symbol of Jewish revival.

And Jesus says, Now do this to the nations. What? That would be like us asking the other nations of the world to say the Pledge of Allegiance. On top of that, Jesus says to put a name on the ritual, in fact, three names. Where did this naming thing come from, and what does that have to do with baptism? The disciples scratched their heads. Maybe some kept doubting.

Today we will follow the instruction. We want to do this, we can feel it in our hearts that it’s right for us to do this, but none of us fully knows why we do it. We know enough to do it with integrity, but the meaning of this ritual is open-ended, its meaning is an expanding one.

It certainly retains that original Jewish meaning of washing and repentance and revival and rebirth. It still retains that original recapitulation of the ancient stories, of crossing the Jordan River and passing through the Red Sea. It also recapitulates the story of being a passenger on Noah’s Ark and riding out the flood with all the animals.

You know, the story of Noah’s Ark is the most favorite children’s story of all time. That story has life-and-death elements that children love, and these are baptismal elements. That story makes a connection for children with the other creatures of the world, and their salvation too. That’s all expressed by baptism.

Baptism has added meaning from the naming thing that Jesus introduces into it. Each of the names that Jesus mentions carries a way that God relates to us. God relates to us as Father, God relates to us as Son, and God relates to us as Holy Spirit. God has promised to act in certain ways towards us, God has made commitments to us that we depend on.

These promises and commitments come under these three names. The pledge of these promises, the sign and seal, the signature of these commitments is the sacrament. So that we can say, "O God you promised. I have your signature right here, I was baptized on May 18th, 2008, you made a pledge, so now, O God, you be to us a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit. I hold you to your pledge, O God."

We will baptize Elianna in the name of the Father. We claim God’s promise to be fatherlike to her. That God treat her not just as a creature but as God’s child. That God love her like Jason does. The way that you see Jason hold Elianna is how God has pledged to hold her. God will know her name and know her ways and what she needs. That God will comfort her and also challenge her as Jason does. As Jason provides for her, so God pledges to be providential to her.

Think with me about Genesis 1, this ancient poem about the structure of the world. It is so unlike the other ancient mythologies, in which the gods and goddesses generate the world by various combinations of sex and violence. In Genesis the creator is providential and peaceful and hospitable.

In the first three days, God makes three spaces, three great houses, and in the second three days, God invites the creatures to live in them.
On Day One God makes the houses of light and dark, and on Day Four God makes the sun to live in the light and the moon and stars to live in the dark.
On Day Two God makes room for the sky and sea, and on Day Five God calls the birds to live in the sky and the fish to live in the sea.
On Day Three God makes the house of the dry land, and he gives it a carpet of grass and furniture of trees and he stocks its pantries with fruits and vegetables, and on Day Six he makes the animals to live in it, including us.

God makes the world a place for us, as Jason makes a home for Elianna. And gives us room for us with freedom to play, and for our own creative development. Jason has to say of his daughter, Let her be, and so says God. And if Jason ever owns a house, or an apartment, then Elianna will inherit it. So God has given us the world as our inheritance, for us to see what we will do with it.

You know what happened. Soon after that in Genesis. We fell, we blew it, we began to ruin our inheritance. The Psalm says that God has made us a little lower than God, but very much lower is where we brought ourselves. The Psalm says God has put all creatures under our feet, and we have crushed them and extinguished them and poisoned the air and the water and the ground that is their home.

And in order to heal the world the God who made the world also entered the world. The God who is a Father became the baby of a mother. God became subject to the world, and subject to the suffering of the world, diagnosing it and judging us, in order to justify us and heal the world. And the power of that healing God extends to us. That is the promise under the name of God the Son.

We will baptize Elianna in the name of the Son. In the name of the son of Joseph and Mary, an Israelite of Bethlehem, descended from David and from Abraham, the Messiah, the son of man and the Son of God. This name means that all the promises of God to Israel are also pledged to Elianna, as her inheritance to enjoy but also to offer for the healing of the world.

This name means that just as Jesus was adopted by his father Joseph, even so in Christ is she adopted as a child of God, and God extends to her what Jesus did, his life of reconciliation, his death and resurrection, and his power of hope, and faith, and love.

We will baptize Elianna in the name of the Holy Spirit. God promises to send the Spirit to her to apply to her what Jesus did for us. God promises also to inhabit her, to dwell in her, to be at home in her, to delight in her, to rejoice in her, to quicken her and freshen her and bring to flourish her potentiality. The Spirit enables her to be spiritual and to hear God’s voice.

Let me return to Genesis 1. Verse 2 contains poetic imagery that is too rich to translate in just one way. It can also be translated as "the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the deep." The image is that of a mother bird that is brooding on her nest. Keeping her eggs warm. Even after her eggs have left her body, she keeps on giving them her body’s warmth. Giving to her eggs her energy, her force of life.

I remember when my wife Melody gave birth to our daughter and then took her back to hold her close to her, to keep on giving her her body’s warmth, and then later also to nurse her and to feed her from her body.

The Holy Spirit is like a mother. As Janet has given to Elianna a portion of her own life, so the Holy Spirit promises to keep on giving to her the energy of God’s own life. We draw our life from God as from our mother’s body. And as our mothers held us close and fed us from their bodies, so the Holy Spirit feeds our souls.

And as our mothers comfort us, with sighs too deep for words, as Mary held Jesus at his birth and at his death, as Janet holds Elianna and can feel in her what Elianna can’t yet even name, the grief and the fears and the sorrows of humanity and the sweet hope of her young life, so the Holy Spirit is how God feels the deepest parts of us.

These are the promises of God that are bound up in God’s name. These are the promises we claim. These are the pledges of which baptism is the sign and seal. These promises are unilateral. They don’t depend on us. God does them anyway. All we have to do is believe them, and live our lives as we believe them. And we will see in our lives the signs and wonders of how God is keeping them. Here is a sign today that you can wonder at.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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