Link to the sermon audio: http://www.paznaz.org/media.php?pageID=28
Colossians 1:15-20; 2:6-7
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross…
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
Those of you who know me well know that I use the phrase, “God told me…” very infrequently. I rarely make that statement, not because I don’t think God is constantly speaking (or at least trying to speak) to me, but because I am so suspicious of how easy it is for any of us to try to add validity or gravitas to our own desires by adding God’s name to them.
For that reason, I am apprehensive to say, as we enter into what I have been calling a “Year of Vision” together, that God told me to have us do this. There is big a part of me that thinks and feels like, as a community, we need to spend some time reflecting both on who we are and who we want to be. Over the last six-plus years PazNaz has experienced a fair amount of transition. It is my sense that a lot of you who now call this church home feel like you jumped on a bus while it was moving and you would kind of like to know exactly where this thing is going. And even those of us who jumped on this bus while it was still a horse-drawn wagon need to be reminded from time to time what makes this particular vehicle unique and exactly what our destination looks like.
But I am increasingly convinced that this year of vision is coming out of more than just my personal sense that we need to be reminded who we are as a church. I have truly been unable to escape the deep sense – which I believe is coming from God – that we are on the precipice of God doing “incredibly more than all we could ever ask or imagine” in and through this church. However, it is my sense that part of what is holding us back is the lack of clarity about who we are, what we believe, and what our key mission ought to be. Without sounding overly dramatic, I feel so burdened about this year together that I truly believe I would be unfaithful to what God has called me to be if I did not lead us through these next few months of vision.
A few years ago the Church of the Nazarene articulated the three core values that, as a global denomination, hold us together. They are these three statements: We are Christian; We are Holiness; and We are Missional. As we begin this year of vision, I have taken those three core values and changed the language just a bit, but the ideas are essentially the same. In these next few months leading up to Advent we will be thinking about Our Faith, or what it means for us to say that we are Christian. Right after the New Year begins we will spend time thinking about Our Life, or what it means for us to live lives of holiness. And finally, in the spring, we will think about Our Mission, or the purposes to which God has called us as people participating in his redemption of the world.
As we begin, I want to make some commitments to you as a congregation and I want to invite you to make some commitments in return. I hope you already sense that I am out of the pulpit very rarely, and that when I am here that I work extremely hard to be as prepared as I possibly can be. But I want you to know that because of the strong burden that I feel about this year together, I will be working – and working with Pastor Joe and those who help us on Saturday nights and at Valley Center - very hard to make each week’s message as significant as it can be. And because I do not want you to miss out on any aspect of this year, I will be posting a full manuscript and a link to the audio cast of the message on my blog each week. (You can access my blog through the church’s website - www.paznaz.org - and/or each week I will put in the sermon notes the link to the previous week’s sermon).
And because I believe that this year will not ultimately matter if we don’t take time outside of worship to talk about these things as families and as a community, you will notice at the end of each week’s notes a section of questions for reflection and likely a recommendation for an activity or action for you to take in the days ahead. As a staff team, we are committed to making this year as effective as we know how to make it. We are also working on video introductions and lessons for those of you who have small groups, want to form a small group, or want to sign up and have us help you find a small group.
The commitment I would invite, in return, from you is that you would lean into this year. Don’t just let these resources sit there. Commit to use them. It is my hope that you will make every effort to worship with us as frequently as you can. But that when you have to be away, you will read or listen to the sermon. Also, that whether you are here or have to listen on-line, that you will take time to reflect on the questions with your family or in a small group that you are a part of. Of course, if you are not in a small group – or place of connection – build one (you don’t need to wait for us to give you permission), or let us help you find a place to get connected.
I am convinced that, if this year is not significant, it will not be because God didn’t do his part, it will be because we failed to lean into it in faith.
I want to say just a couple of words about this first section – Our Faith – as we reflect on what we believe. It is always a risky thing to talk about what we believe. It’s risky, first of all, because there is no way to cover, even in ten or eleven weeks, the entirety of Christian faith. This first series is forcing me to make some decisions about what are the most vital aspects of our shared faith to cover. John Wesley – in many ways the theological father of this tradition – did not like to use the word “fundamentals” because the idea that there are certain “fundamentals of the faith” always seemed to him to create unnecessary disputes about how many “fundamentals” there are, and which tenets of faith are essential and which are non-essential.
However, even though Wesley shied away from the word “fundamental,” he did hold that there were some truths “which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connection with vital religion.” Which leads me to my second thought about Our Faith. The key beliefs we will talk about over the next few weeks and months are not for our heads (or minds) alone. As good Wesleyans, the only beliefs that really matter are those that shape our heart and our head together. There are lots of disputes these days about orthodoxy. But we should always remember what James wrote, “even the demons believe and shudder” (James 2:19). What matters in Our Faith is not just orthodoxy (right beliefs), but what we might call orthopraxy (right practice) and orthopathy (the right heart). In other words, I want to try and focus on the beliefs that matter most to the living out of the Christian faith.
Finally, before we move into the sermon itself, let me just say a quick word about the word “our” in the phrase, Our Faith. As we walk through various tenets of faith, I am keenly aware that Christians don’t agree on everything. There will likely be things in the next few weeks that I will say that you will not agree with, or at the very least, that you would like to nuance. I am going to do my best to focus primarily on those tenets that all Christians hold together. And at times I am going to try, as best I can, to reflect what the Church of the Nazarene in particular believes.
It is okay for us to dialogue about matters of faith. In fact, it is more than okay. It is essential for every generation, in every cultural context, to have robust conversations about what it is that the church believes. Faith is not a dead set of rules or tenets we cognitively assent to. Christian faith at its best is a living out of the Way of that constantly has to be alive in our hearts and it has to confront new challenges, and move into new contexts. The Church of the Nazarene, on many issues tries to maintain what might be referred to as a “broad tent.” And so it is going to be okay for us in some of the elements of faith that we will discuss in the next weeks to agree in principle and disagree in detail. We cannot forget that we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). Therefore we keep striving to have in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; but in all things charity.
So let’s begin in a critical but challenging area: the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
At the beginning of the sermon notes, I have included brief sections from the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Articles of Faith from the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene. Let’s take a look at them:
We believe in God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord… We believe in the Holy Spirit…
(The Apostles Creed)
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…
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified…
(The Nicene Creed)
We believe in one eternally existent, infinite God, Sovereign of the universe;
That He only is God, creative and administrative, holy in nature,
attributes and purpose;
That He, as God, is Triune in essential being, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
(First Article of Faith: The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene)
The Essential Doctrine of the Trinity
Without question, in just about any statement of Christian faith you want to look at, the Trinitarian nature of God is considered essential. However, for many in Christian history the doctrine of the Trinity has been confusing at best and unhelpful at worst. As Dorothy Sayers remarked, “For the average lay-person, the mystery of the trinity means... The Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the whole thing is incomprehensible.” But over the last several decades there has been a resurgence in emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity as critical for Christian theology not just because of what it affirms about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but because of what it says about the essential nature of God. What I want you to realize today is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not just essential for what we believe, but I am also convinced that understanding the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is essential for Christian living.
From Many to One
As one reads the Old Testament, one can see the progression in Israel’s understanding of the divine from polytheism, to henotheism, to monotheism. Polytheism is the idea that there are many, many gods. This is where the people of God started in their thinking: Yahweh, Israel’s God, is one among the many gods in the universe. In the story of the Exodus, for example, it is clear that there were many gods at work in the world. (So many in fact, that Moses needed to ask God to tell him what name to use when he went to deliver the people from Pharaoh and all of his gods). So initially, for Israel, Yahweh is their national god among the gods of all the other nations.
The more Israel experienced God, the more they moved toward henotheism, the idea that there are many gods, but Yahweh is ruler over all of the gods. So the people of God might say, “Who among all the mighty-ones is like Yahweh? There is no one like Yahweh!”
Finally, the people moved to monotheism. They came to recognize that all of the other gods are false (they are made by human hands and imaginations) and that Yahweh alone is God. “Hear, O Israel. Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone” (Deut. 6:4).
This has important ethical implications. For example, a few years ago I heard a wonderful academic paper presented on how the shift for the people of Israel from polygamy to monogamy roughly reflected their move from polytheism to monotheism. When they were polytheists they also lived out their covenantal love in polygamous ways. We might say they even reflected henotheism. For example, for Jacob, Rachel is the wife above all the other wives. However, as the more the people move toward monotheism, the more they saw love in patterns of covenantal monogamy. This is not just a belief of the head, but it had important moral implications.
From One to Three
So the people moved from many gods to one God. But then they moved from the one to three. Christians began to talk about God in three persons, not because there is something inherently mysterious about the number three, but because this is how God’s people experienced God’s self-revelation: as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God revealed himself to the people as Father. “We believe in God, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” There is something deep and profound about being able to call God – Abba – Father.
But He has also revealed himself as the Son. The reason I had us begin with the text from Colossians this morning is because of the way we see Paul write about the nature of Jesus. For Paul, and typically for the early church, Jesus was not just some kind of super-messenger who knew and understood more about God than anyone else in history. He is not just a prophet from God, “he is before all things… In him all things hold together… He is the image of the invisible God… In him all of the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The church considered Jesus worthy of worship because he did not just teach about God, but he WAS God among us. As John writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
I don’t want to downplay what an important faith claim this is. I met with a young woman recently who is struggling deeply with faith. She asked me directly why I believed in Christian faith. I told her that I didn’t consider a belief in God to be a huge leap of faith. When I consider the complexities of the universe, personally, I find it takes less faith to believe in an intelligent Creator than to believe that the complexity came about through a random cosmic accident. We should never forget that the atheist is making a leap of faith. The purposelessness of the universe cannot be proven. So it is not necessarily an act of intellectual honesty or superiority to be an atheist. It is in many ways a faith position as well.
But I did tell her that I agreed that there was no way to get past the faith claims that this intelligent Creator uniquely revealed himself in the history of Israel, and most particularly that this God most uniquely revealed himself in the incarnate form of a first-century carpenter from Nazareth. I shared with her some of the reasons I consider those faith claims to not be unreasonable. But there is no way to get beyond faith. We are Christians (Christ – ians) primarily because we do believe that “in Jesus God was reconciling the world to himself.”
As we will see in a few weeks, this also means that we have to be careful what we say about God. Whatever we say about God has to be consistent with what is revealed in Jesus. Sometimes in Christian history it is easy to end up with two gods. For example, God the Father is the angry judge and God the Son is the gracious and loving redeemer. I think that is problematic. The Father and the Son are different “persons” within the Trinity, but they share the same essential nature.
Likewise, the Spirit is not just sent from God, but it is the very being of God at work in history, in Jesus, and in his redemptive work in creation. The work of God did not end with the revelation in Christ Jesus. The Spirit of God, the same Spirit at work in Christ, continues to work redeeming, transforming, and sanctifying creation.
Perichoresis – the God Who Makes Space
So we get from many to one, and from one to three… I love to read and teach the theology of the early church – what is call patristic theology. For the first three or four hundred years of church history an tremendous amount of energy was put into trying to describe the mystery of the God who is three and one. It is my sense that the church has always been better at recognizing what we shouldn’t say then it has been at finding the exact language to express what we want to say. The mystery of God has always seemed to go beyond our limited language. And the many metaphors that have been used are always helpful to a point, but they too always seem to end up being inadequate.
There is a theological term that finds its origins in one of the early church Fathers that in the last few decades has become extremely important to the conversation about the mystery of the Trinity. The term is the Greek word perichoresis (meaning: passing into one another). The idea is that God by very nature both indwells and makes space for the other persons in the Trinity. Here is the mystery: eternally the Father has been making space for the Son, and the Son for the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father… etc., etc., etc.,… God is eternally the one who makes space for the other. (Some theologians refer to this as the “perichoritic dance” of the Trinity).
It is interesting how making space for another changes us. Almost 23 years ago Debbie and I made space for one another. In Christian marriage two people who are whole in relationship to God “become one” by making space for the other: for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Even one partner loses the other or even walks away from the other, in some sense we are never the same because space has forever been made for the other.
I remember well when we found out that we were having a baby. We were living in a little back house up on Sierra Bonita Avenue. It was so tiny that all we had was a large closet that we could turn into a nursery for Caleb. But it was important to us to wallpaper the closet and turn it into a kind of nursery because we knew that we had to make space for this new life in our family. Our union of two was becoming a union of three.
With the additions of Noah, Jonah, and Sophie new space has been added in our family. Part of what has been so painful about Caleb going off to college last week is that there is an empty chair around our table. We are a family of six and it feels wrong not to have all six seats filled. I have thought a lot this week about some of my friends who have tragically lost a spouse or child. Even when they are no longer there, the space that we made for them still exists. It is why I believe those of you who make space for foster children are so Christlike in that calling. You are making space within your life for someone who may or may not get to stay in that space.
But the point is this: space-making is an act of love, and it is an act of love that constantly redefines who we are. This is the perichoritic idea of the Trinity. God, in his very nature, has eternally been making space within himself for the three persons of the Trinity. God is the space-maker. God is love.
Theologian William Placher expresses it this way, “If we Christians understand the doctrine of the Trinity aright, we will realize that it implies that God is not about power and self-sufficiency and the assertion of authority but about mutuality and equality and love… Love is the most authentic mark of the Christian life, and love among humans, or within God, requires community with others and a sharing of the deepest kind. The doctrine of the Trinity is the account of that community and sharing in the life of God.”
Again, God is, in his very nature, the one who makes space. Love is not something he does. God is love. As we learn to love the space making God, we in turn must learn to make space for one another. This is why it is impossible to love God and hate your neighbor. The more we become like the God who made space for each of us, the more we become people who make space for one another.
It is why we are continually drawn back to the table of our Lord. It should not surprise us that the Father, who makes space for the other, created a universe and creatures, in his image, who can live in relationship to him. It does not surprise us that the Son, who makes space for the other, laid down his life and made space for each of us around his table. And it does not surprise us that the Spirit, who makes space for the other, is at work in us extending his table to one another.
Questions for Family and Small Group Reflection:
- When we as believers call God “Father”, what are some of the best things we are saying about him?
- What are some of your favorite things you learn about God through his revelation in Jesus Christ? (Likewise, are there some things we can’t say, or should be careful about saying, about God because the Father and the Son are one?)
- What do you think is the most important work the Spirit of God does in our lives?
- If God as the Trinity is eternally making space for the other, and we reflect his nature of love when we make space for others, share important ways that you think we can make space for “our neighbor” in love.
- Suggested Activity: find a conscious way to make space for someone in your life this week. At the end of the week share that experience with the group or family and share if you learned anything about yourself or about God in this experience.