Text: John 3:1-17 (being born from above) — a sermon for “Trinity Sunday”
Last week’s Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle contained many memorable moments. One feature I didn’t love was the frequency with which the Trinitarian phrase “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” was used.
The Church of England, while a product of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s, defines itself as a Catholic denomination. As such, I sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between a service in an Anglican and in a Roman Catholic church. One of the similarities is making the sign of the cross while saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Here at Mill Woods United, we refer to God in trinitarian ways at many points, but not with hand gestures, and usually not with the traditional phrase. What follows are some examples from today’s service.
After the final Blessing, we will sing The Closing Prayer by Don Besig, which includes the words, “May the peace of God, Creator, and the love of Christ, the Son, guide us in the days ahead and strengthen us, each one. And may the blessings of the Spirit fill us from within.”
When the Offering is brought forward we will sing “Praise God, creation’s source and dream. Praise God, the Way in Jesus seen. Praise God, whose Spirit sets us free; eternal, loving trinity.”
Today’s second hymn, “Love Is the Touch,” includes the line “Love is the Maker and Spirit and Son.”
Our closing hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King,” ends with the phrase “Praise God eternal, praise the Son, and praise the Spirit, three in one.”
Finally, the hymn of response after this sermon — “God the Spirit, Guide and Guardian” — is explicitly Trinitarian; but like many of the prayers and responses used in the United Church, it doesn’t include the phrase, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It uses other metaphors with which to imagine the Divine.
Baptism is one place where United Church ministers are mandated to use the formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In the 1970s, the United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, and Roman Catholic denominations in Canada agreed that use of “Father, Son, and Holly Spirit” was a pre-requisite for acknowledging each other’s baptisms. But I am not keen on agreements like this. They strike me as anxious instead of faithful.
Sometimes, I baptize “in the name of God, which is Love’s Source, of the Christ, which is an incarnation of Love, and of the Holy Spirit, which is Love’s power.” I trust this fits ecumenical requirements, just as I trust that baptism is a sign of Love and not a magical invocation. As we note on the Mill Woods United website, “in the United Church, we believe all infants are blessed and known by God. We do not believe that baptism is necessary to remove the stain of ‘original sin’ or to protect a child from evil. In baptism we celebrate the love that God already has for us.”
Since the Fourth Century, the Church of Imperial Rome and its descendants, of which the United Church is one, have described God as One in Three. But, does this difficult and puzzling teaching mandate that we must use the masculine terms “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”?
God has been described in other ways for many years within the United Church. In congregations like Mill Woods, we talk of God as “Mother” as well as “Father,” and as “Holy Mystery,” “Holy Presence,” “Source of Life and Love,” “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,” “Eternal One,” “Holy One,” among others.
This spring, Regina Presbytery of the United Church passed a resolution calling on General Council to change the ordination vows for United Church ministers. The current ones begin with the question “Do you believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself anew to God?” Regina Presbytery wants this to be replaced by the question “Do you believe in God who is Holy Mystery, and do you commit yourself to God anew?”
Saskatchewan Conference is debating the resolution this weekend, and if passed, it will be discussed by the General Council at its meeting in Oshawa in July.
Ordination vows have been a source of contention in the United Church over the past few years because of the heresy trials of the Rev. Gretta Vosper of Toronto. In 2016, she was found unsuitable to continue in ministry by 19 of 23 members of a committee of her peers because of how she answered the ordination question “Do you believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Although the final steps to fire Vosper have been on hold since last Fall, she continues to work with a dagger over her head.
On May 29, 2011, I was ordained by Toronto Conference; and like the other ordinands, I said “I do,” when asked the question “Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But the question was pro-forma. Long before the ordination service, we had undergone a thorough process of discernment, training, and interviews that led to us being accepted as candidates for ordination. The words at the official service were icing on this rather complex cake.
I will be pleased if Regina Presbytery’s proposal is adopted. The language of our ordination vows reflects the creeds of the Fourth and Fifth centuries, which are the products of imperial violence that silenced many other voices within and without the church.
Formulaic words don’t do away with the tough reality that everyone worships idols, at least some of the time. Idolatry is not just a phenomenon for so-called heathens. It is also a reality for me, you, and most leaders of the world’s churches.
Our idolatry is evident more in our actions than in our words. The way we conduct our lives shows what we value more than how we verbalize our hazy understandings of the Sacred.
Our actions betray that we often worship things like a nation, power, sports teams, and other addictions of the ego. Our actions show that we often worship ourselves more than we worship the Source of Love.
When a church claims that it has captured the Holy Mystery we call God in some linguistic formula, it is wise to be skeptical, especially when churches so often support empire, patriarchy, and tribal morality.
This is one of the reasons that I value the Way of the Cross. Walking a path of death and resurrection helps to reveal and burn away the idols of our egos.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury offered a Blessing on the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, he finished by saying “we ask this through Jesus Christ Your Son Our Lord who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.”
I am OK with his prayer, although I don’t often speak this way. In the face of all that we cannot grasp about the Source of Life and Love, and in face of how often our actions as individuals and churches reveal that we value things other than Love, such words strike me as being over-confident.
But I don’t condemn those who pray this way. It is part of our heritage, and for many people it is comforting.
I appreciate the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual discipline of trying to imagine the God who is Love in triune form: as Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love; or Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; or Mother, Friend, and Comforter; and so on.
What I hope flows from such work is the strengthening of relationships and actions that exhibit love compassion, kindness, humility, and respect.
When love and respect flourish and when wounds are tended, we know that the Divine Spark of Christ within us is leading us towards rebirth.
Like Nicodemus, those who walk the Way of Jesus can be born again. How we articulate this rebirth and healing will vary. The Love to which they point will not.
Thanks be to the God who is Love.