Today is Trinity Sunday, one of the few celebrations in the Church calendar given over to a doctrine – or collection of doctrines – rather than to the commemoration of an event (or a cause). The Nicene Creed, which we recited this morning, is one of the touchstones of orthodoxy, one of the ways we declare who it is that we worship, and how this God we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is different from all other gods defined by all other religions. The Christian definition of God and our understanding of how Jesus Christ is both truly God and truly Man – and why that matters – are at the very core of the gospel.
And along with the carefully balanced metaphysics there goes an equally carefully balanced code of morality, for the nature of God is not a thing which is separable from the will of God, except in the abstract. Who God is – and how Jesus makes us right with God – is inextricably bound up with the whole teaching about sin and righteousness which shows us what God calls for – and how we have failed to live up to it – and what he proposes to do about that.
And all this is what Jude calls “the faith once delivered to the saints.”
This morning is also The Day After Annual Conference. This week, all of us, clergy and lay members alike, came together to do various things in the service of Christ and in love for each other. One of those things was to elect those who will represent us next year at General and Jurisdictional Conferences, where momentous decisions will be made.
Some were very disappointed, even hurt, at the results of those elections. I feel for them. It’s never fun to lose. But I think some of them -- at least a few -- felt just a wee bit . . . entitled. They saw themselves as the natural leaders of clergy and laity (clergy, especially), and for them this was kind of like a student council election, in which the most popular or coolest kids always get elected.
But there were others, who, while rejoicing just as much in “our common salvation,” understood the necessity “to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” For make no mistake: at the bottom of all our controversies in the UMC, which will all come to a boil at General Conference next year, there is the question of whether we still believe in the definitions of God’s nature and will we print in the Discipline, or whether we think we’ve had a better idea since.
The result was that the orthodox party, which takes this question very seriously and did a lot of discernment and searching out of the best of our clergy and laity to offer themselves for election, captured almost two-thirds of all the delegates and alternates elected by our Annual Conference, including a supermajority of those elected to represent us at General Conference. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued on the other side. Grumbles about “interest group politics” and “ideology” could be heard. *Shrug* As someone who wound up with a minor in Political Science, I could say a number of things about how the process works (or doesn't), and about what those who succeed at it do to come out on top, but that’s not really what I want to talk about today.
I want instead to talk about the nature of God – and the will of God – and how we know what we know about them.
Now, Christianity claims to have received a final revelation of the nature and will of God, in the experience of the people of Israel, the teaching, sacrificial death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church on Pentecost, and the completion of the Scriptures by the apostles and their associates. The things we claim to know about God, then, are not merely matters of opinion, not merely our personal preferences, but claims of fact – and we are as tied to our data as any scientist.
We did not make up the faith, though we have elaborated it in many ways – ornamented it, as it were, like a precious thing that we deck with garlands and costly gifts. But the faith is a given, a thing revealed to us that could not be known any other way, and not amendable by a committee, even if it calls itself an Ecumenical Council or a General Conference, let alone by some celebrity pastor or blogger.
God is Ultimate Fact – Ultimate Reality – and we seek to know him, first through the doctrine, and then through our experience of him – the one preparing us and guiding us through the other. This requires that we order our lives after his known will – repenting of our sins and follies and praying for the grace to do what he tells us we should do. And you really can’t have one without the other; as Jesus said, “Why call ye me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things I say?” Knowing God – growing in our understanding and love of him – requires us to come to terms with both his nature and his will for our lives. The two are not separable in practice.
But aren’t we free to adapt the faith to our own requirements, and the values of our present age? Well, people do, but there are consequences for that. Lemme tell you what I mean.
A couple of years ago, I took our Venturers to the United Kingdom and we climbed Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Great Britain. We started out early in the morning, and the fog kept lifting just above us as we rose higher and higher on the mountain track. But then, as we got up onto the shoulder of the Ben, the fog didn’t lift any more.
We walked through a ghostly cloud along the path to the peak. We passed a corrie or two – rings of stone heaped up as shelters from wind and weather – and we passed many tall cairns of rock, meant to keep you on the trail (and also keep you from going off the trail). We could only see a few yards in any direction. The youth finally understood that all my warnings about hiking the mountain weren’t hype. And when I told one of them that this was much clearer than the previous time I’d climbed the mountain, his eyes got big as saucers.
When we were almost to the top, we saw, right beside the path, a gaping hole in the rocks, filled with nothing but cloud. One step in that direction, and it’d be about a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred, feet before you’d even bounce. (You'd have time to think about it on your way down.) This is why the local park authorities say, over and over, that you need a map and a compass and you need to know how to use them, because in a whiteout, only your orienteering skills may be what gets you down safely.
Now, I want you to imagine that three or four of us have climbed up into the high places and the fog is thick around us. We need to decide which way to go. The path is not apparent beneath our feet. We cannot see anyone else moving about. We can’t even make out much in the way of rock shapes in the fog. We have a map, but nobody knows how to orient it, or if they do, nobody knows how to use the compass together with the map.
One person points and says, “I think we need to go thataway." Then another person says, “No, we need to go thataway." The others chip in their two cents’ worth. How will you decide? Will the most dominant personality prevail – even if that person is totally ignorant of the mountain's shape? You take a vote. You follow . . . somebody. And, your path either matches the reality of the mountain – or it doesn’t.
The ultimate reality of a mountain is its shape, and those who refuse to pay attention to that reality – who refuse to act in congruence with the ultimate reality of the mountain – do so at their peril. They may become lost or injured; and be sure, “there is a way that leads to destruction” and it matters that you avoid that.
Now the map and compass reveal the nature of the mountain, and they are good to contemplate for their own sake, sometimes. I love maps; when I was a teenager, I decorated my bedroom with maps from National Geographic magazines. Maps can make my heart race; although even the best map is no substitute for actually going to the place the map depicts. In the same way, doctrine describes the nature of God, and doctrine – like in the Creeds – can be good to contemplate for its own sake. It can teach you many things, even aid in your devotion. But even the best doctrine is only meant to guide you in the actual discovery of God in your own, lived, relationship with him.
Meanwhile, the corries and the cairns which give refuge and guidance to travelers in the high places are like the rules of morality, meant to comfort and guide and warn those who are trying to find their way in the fog. The rules are part of the ultimate reality of God, because you cannot separate his will from his nature; and to know him – that is, to experience him so as to grow in love and joy and wonder -- you have to learn to conform your life to the pattern revealed to us by God, about God.
We do not invent that pattern, nor can we change it by voting in a church council or by passing laws in a public assembly or by what some preacher or judge or rock star says. The pattern of that Ultimate Reality does not change, though the centuries wear on. Each age believes that now, today, we finally know better than those old fuddy-duddies from back when. Now, today, things are different. But God is not different. And people are not different. There is no new way to heaven. And there are no new sins. It’s just that each age has its own preferred idea of God and its own particular sins it wants to take along on the way to heaven, and each age has to deal – with much grumbling – with the fact that none of that stuff will get you where you want to go.
And I would close by reminding you that railing against other people's doctrine or morality – even when you think them dangerously wrong – is rarely helpful. Yes, we need to contend for the faith once delivered, but Jude says we should also be like the archangel Michael, who “did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment” even upon the devil, but who let God rebuke him. And so, even as Jude reminds us that our age, like every age since the faith was given to us, is filled with scoffers and people who advocate all kinds of vanities, who stir up divisions by wanting us to follow the pattern of the world rather than the pattern of God; nevertheless, he says,
But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.And then he ends with one of the greatest benedictions ever given, and with this I will close. He says,
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.