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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

312 Three = One, Twice

   (Note: This blog entry is based on the text for “Three = One, Twice” originally shared on May 22, 2024. It was the 312th video for our YouTube Channel, Streams of Living Water (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCB7KnYS1bpHKaL2OseQWCnw), co-produced with my wife, Rev. Sally Welch.)

   As if contemplating the Holy Trinity isn’t enough to make us question our sanity, we heard news last week that made us question what it means to be human, and it wasn’t A.I. Today, we’re going to find out what it means.

   This coming Sunday will be the Sunday of the Holy Trinity in the vast majority of churches throughout the world.

   Get a good night’s sleep the night before and have a good breakfast because you’re going to need everything you’ve got to describe the indescribable and to fathom the unfathomable. 😊      

   In fact, today, we’re going to consider that three = one, twice!

   But we are going to need some tools.

   It’s been said that we only need two tools.

   If it moves and it shouldn’t: duct tape.

   If it doesn’t move and it should: WD40. Or, if you’re old school and you want it to move, or you want it to move faster, and you don’t need those fancy aerosol cans: 3-In-One oil.

   Before we had those fancy gasoline powered lawn mowers or the eco-friendlier electric ones, we used our muscle-powered manual mowers, and they moved efficiently with 3-in-one oil!  

   When we wanted our bicycles to fly like rockets: 3-in-1 oil. When things got rusty and wouldn’t move: 3-In-One oil. Hedge clippers, bolts, pruners, bicycle chains, locks, adjustable wrenches, almost anything that turned and could rust was made more efficient by 3-in-1 oil.

   It’s been made since 1894 and you can still buy it. It’s one of the, if not the most, masculine smells I know. If you could make a cologne out of it, I think that you’d have something.

   The container says that it “Frees Rusted Parts”, “Prevents Rust”, and “Lubricates.” And yet it comes from one 4-oz. container. It’s just one oil: “3-In-One!” Get it? So, does that make it a good way to describe the Holy Trinity? Well, sort of. But “No.”

   This coming Sunday is the only Sunday in the Church year whose theme is not an event, but a doctrine. That might sound pretty dry except for the blood spilled, the churches divided, and the arguments that have consumed people’s lives trying to define what “the Holy Trinity” means. So if that still sounds dry, maybe we need a little spiritual 3-In-One oil.

   Martin Luther, the 16th century Church reformer, once said, “To try to deny the Trinity is to endanger your salvation. To try to comprehend the Trinity is to endanger your sanity.”

   Is your sanity feeling endangered yet? Fortunately, we are not alone. The Holy Spirit guides us.

   And, we have been given tools. We encounter God in the Word and the Sacraments.

   There’s nowhere in the Bible that says, “there is a Trinity”, and yet the evidence is found from its beginning to its end.

   Sometimes all three persons are manifest at the same place and time, as in Jesus’ baptism, for example. Jesus came out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and rested on him, and a voice spoke from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” There is the doctrine of the Trinity: one God in three persons each of which is fully God.

   So, how many Gods do we believe in? One: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

   Wait, that’s three. How can one be three? Or is it, “how can three be one?”

   Sometimes they are all described and sometimes just one person is present, but all are present in that one. Three is One. One is Three.

   Is your sanity feeling a bit endangered?

   All three persons in the Trinity are in play in this coming Sunday’s reading from the gospels, in John 3:1-17.

   We looked at a part of this text, the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus at night (yes, Nic at Night 😊), last March on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

   Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, an important and respected person among the Jewish leadership, about the nature of what is happening in Jesus, and about the need to be born again. Then, Jesus says, in verses 5-8,

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

   How do we enter the Kingdom of God? We can’t. We are reborn children of God by water and the Spirit in baptism. It is God’s gift. Unearned. We enter by God’s grace. We are changed, and we live now as the people of God.

   We can’t control the wind and we can’t see the wind. We can only see its effects on things. We can’t control God and we can’t see God. We can only see God’s effects on us and on others, which others can see as well. This is the work of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. God.

   Jesus then speaks of coming from heaven, and he obliquely describes the way that he will die.

   Then he says these familiar words, and some that are not so familiar, in verses 16-17,

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

   God, the Father, sends the Son for a purpose. And all, with the Holy Spirit, are one God.

   Is your sanity feeling endangered yet?

   Then, let’s look a little closer to home for the second way that 3 is 1.

   Do people who receive organ transplants take on some of the personality of their donors?

   I saw a news story on TV recently about a study at Colorado University released last January, and then read a few articles online, that suggests that they do.  Weird, huh?

   Studies so far have been statistically insignificant, and more are being called for, but there have been reports, since the first transplants were done, that people who have received a transplant sometimes take on some characteristics of the donor.

   They include changes in tastes in foods, attitudes, religious beliefs, even memories. Weird, huh?

   The study included mostly heart transplant recipients, but it also included other transplant recipients and it found similar results for all transplant recipients.

   If this is true, it would fit with who we are.

   For example, what makes a human being? Historically, we have said that we have a body, a mind, and a spirit. The body is obvious. The mind is different from the brain as it may include our self-consciousness. The soul may be our true humanity, it may also be said to include our self-consciousness and our spirit may be what connects to God.

   These three all interact and affect one another. We have seen that there is a link between our attitude and our health, between our health and our attitude, between our rational mind and our spirit, and so on.

   But the Judeo/Christian Biblical view, as a whole, goes a bit further. That is to say that humans beings are a whole, integrated personality with no part inseparable from the other.

   We don’t have three parts. We are three parts. Three parts in our one person, inseparable. A whole person. Trinitarian, but not the Trinity.

   The thing about the Trinity is that it illustrates our complete inability to know God, except as God has revealed God’s self to us. And even that is indescribable. It’s unfathomable.

   Does our body die and our soul or spirit live forever? No. That’s one reason why we say in our creeds, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

   When Jesus says, “Peace be with you”, he is saying “Shalom”, a common, even casual greeting. It can mean “peace”, but it can also mean “wholeness”, wholeness of our selves, wholeness in the relationship with God for which we were created, which we broke, and which was restored for all who believe and are baptized in the name (which means the true nature) of God the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

   That’s the Trinity. We know who we, the people of God, are because we know whose we are, children of the one true living God, given in a living relationship with God, and with one another in God.

   But, how can we know God? Only by what God has revealed to us in the Trinity.

   How can we describe it?

   I’d say it’s pretty much impossible to describe the Holy Trinity in detail without slipping into heresy.

   Now, the whole idea of heresy brings to mind the bad old days of torture, war, and hypocrisy, right? Yet it also points to a time when the truth mattered, when it was literally a matter of life and death, not just for this world, but for eternity.

   The Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed that are central to the Christian faith, that ended much of the Church’s fighting over doctrine by setting down the central things that the Bible teaches, are both based on the structure of the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed, a third creed, is very long and is rarely used in public worship, but it has some of the best language focused on the meaning of the Holy Trinity.

   Remember St. Nicholas, the guy called Santa Claus in many cultures. He wears a red robe because St. Nicholas was a bishop when the Nicene Creed was being written. The essence of the Christian faith was being decided and things got so heated that good old Santa Clause, St. Nicholas, is alleged to have smacked another bishop, Arius, over his heretical beliefs regarding the Trinity.

   Muslim evangelists in Christian areas sometimes accuse Christians of believing in three gods, not one. How do we answer?

   How do we describe the Trinity? A shamrock, a triangle, ice-water in a glass, one man who is a Father/Husband/Son or one Woman, who is a Mother/Wife/Daughter? They are all things that I’ve used to point to the Trinity. And here are three that I haven’t: an egg (shell, white, and yolk), the Sun (star, heat, and light), and the three layers of an apple.

   Every one of them is inadequate, some border on heresy, and some cross that border.

   I saw a meme that showed a triangle that connected its three corners named Liquid, Pitcher, and Ice to each other and to a circle in the middle. It said that connecting the liquid, the pitcher and the ice doesn’t describe the Trinity. It describes The Kool-Aid Man. (Oh, yeaaaah!) 😊

   The Holy Trinity, One God in Three Persons, is present. It’s active. But it’s not that obvious. It takes a special way of seeing that only comes from God.

   Seeing God’s presence is itself the work of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

   Is your sanity feeling endangered yet?

   Why is the Holy Trinity important? Well, I think that we would agree that it’s important both to understand what we believe and to know that the things we believe are true.

   And, practically speaking, what we believe about the Trinity in the abstract has a major effect on how we actually relate to God.

   For example, sometimes, you’ll hear people say “I love Jesus. He’s so accepting and forgiving, so non-judgmental. But I have hard time with the God of the Old Testament. He seems so judgmental, so intolerant, and so punishing.”

   The thing about the Trinity is that they are exactly the same. God the Son is God the Father is God the Holy Spirit is God the Son, and ‘round and ‘round. We believe in one God who is three persons, and each is fully God. How can God be one and three at the same time?

   Is your sanity feeling a bit endangered yet?

   God is like 3-In-One oil. When our hearts are hard against God, God will penetrate our resistance and set us free. When the rust of sin has kept us from being what we were created to be, God has given God’s self on the cross so that we have what we were created to have in a living relationship with the one, true living God and receive the forgiveness that only God can give. When we need protection from the corrosion of sin, death, and the power of the devil, and we repent and open our heart to receive God, God abides with us and nothing will take us away from God.

   But God isn’t three oils making one oil, or three purposes accomplished in the same thing, or three solutions to similar problems, or three parts of one thing. God is One. God is One in three persons, each fully God. We know this because it has been revealed to us all through God’s Word and we encounter this one God in the Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

   If we could understand the reality of God, it wouldn’t be God. All we can know is what God has revealed to us, and God has revealed God in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

   Perhaps the best way to encounter the Holy Trinity is to live in the name, that is the living reality, of God as Jesus instructed his followers. To pray, to read your Bible, to worship, to serve others, to be ready to defend the hope that is within you and sometimes to go on offense. It is to go, make disciples, teach, baptize, and remember (from Matthew 28:19-20). To go from being an attractional church to being a missional church, to go from providing programs to asking people in our community how we can serve them, to go from being a hospital for sinners to being paramedics going out to where the broken people are.

   We see all these things and more in the Holy Trinity.

   Is your sanity feeling a bit endangered? The best way to understand the Trinity is to live in it.

   The good news is that of all the options open to us, God gives us the sanest way to live, in the name of the one true living God, and it is revealed by God’s grace in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.



Wednesday, May 15, 2024

311 Setting Fire to The Rain

   (Note: This blog entry is based on the text for “Setting Fire to The Rain” originally shared on May 15, 2024. It was the 311th video for our YouTube Channel, Streams of Living Water (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCB7KnYS1bpHKaL2OseQWCnw), co-produced with my wife, Rev. Sally Welch.)

   Adele had a hit song with “Set Fire to the Rain” about a toxic moment in a relationship. Today, we’re going to find out why those words are also an excellent way to describe the restoration of a relationship on the Day of Pentecost.

   Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, known throughout the world as “Adele”, is a popular singer who has had many international hits.

   One of them, “Set Fire to the Rain”, is about an argument with her boyfriend. She says that she went outside to smoke a cigarette so that her boyfriend couldn’t see how angry she was. (She later said that smoking was ruining her health, and that it was hard on her voice, so she gave up smoking for good.) Her boyfriend said that she wouldn’t be able to light that cigarette in the rain, but she did it. “Set Fire to the Rain” was about her mood.

   This coming Sunday, churches all over the world will be celebrating the Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. We’ll hear about it, from Acts 2:1-21, and it’s kind of a weird story.

   Because, when someone says that he’s going to die and then rise from the dead to live forever, and he says that no one will take his life but that he will give it and then take it back again, and then that happens, you’d think that nothing in this weird world could ever approach that for weirdness.

   Yet, fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, he changed the world. Again. It was the Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church.

   I have a birthday coming up. Birthdays are times for celebration, though some have suggested that it’s our mothers who are the ones who should be celebrated on our birthdays, not us, since WE didn’t do anything to get born. 😊

   And, in a way, that’s what we are celebrating this coming Sunday. We are celebrating God’s giving birth to the Christian Church. We are celebrating the water of baptism and the fire of the Holy Spirit. We didn’t do anything to be made a new creation, members of the Body of Christ, to be born again. That was all made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross, validated by his Resurrection. Everything we celebrate this coming Sunday will be in relation to the Resurrection.

   The Day of Pentecost is the last Sunday in the season of Easter.

   The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word for “fiftieth”.

   The Day of Pentecost described in the New Testament in Acts 2:1-21 was on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, held on the fiftieth day after the first day of Passover, the festival that Jesus was celebrating when he had his last supper with his disciples before he gave his life.

   The Day of Pentecost celebrated the offering of the first fruits of the winter wheat harvest at the Temple in Jerusalem. This was Herod’s Temple and the massive Temple complex covered 35 acres. People from all over the world came for this celebration and also to see the building, a wonder of the world at that time.

   The crowds were massive, with some estimating that 250,000 people gathered in Jerusalem from many nations!

   The disciples were there, hiding in a house, afraid that what had happened to Jesus could also happen to them. And then this happened in Acts 2:1-4,

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

   Languages are hard to learn. Some say that Artificial Intelligence will soon make that unnecessary.

   I’ve been trying to learn Mandarin, and it’s very hard. I preach regularly at a Mandarin-speaking church where I submit my sermon in English and the pastor translates it for the congregation. We preach together, a few sentences at a time, back and forth.

   My wife, Rev. Sally Welch, said this week that the pastor and I should flip the script and I should preach in Mandarin. I said that that would be a very short sermon. 😊

   The Bible wasn’t written in either Mandarin or in English, though.

   It was written in Hebrew and Greek.

   It’s interesting to note that in both the Hebrew language in which what we call the Old Testament was written and in the Koine Greek language in which what we call the New Testament was written, there are two words that have the same three meanings.

   “Ruach” in Hebrew and “pneuma” in Greek (from which we get our English words “pneumonia” and “pneumatic”) both have the same three meanings: wind, breath, and spirit.

   So, when the Bible says that “there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind”, it’s easy to figure out what was going on. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”

   The gathered disciples received the Holy Spirit, and three thousand people gathered together from many countries became Christians in that one day.

   The Holy Spirit is what makes the Church!

   The sound of the wind came and the breath of God that brought life from clay to make human beings was present, and the Holy Spirit, “filled the entire house where they were sitting.”

   And there was fire!

   Tongues of fire rested on each of the disciples as a sign of the transformational presence of the Holy Spirit. Why didn’t their hair catch on fire?

   Why weren’t the disciples running around in a panic when they saw tongues of fire on each other? 😊

   Because it was holy fire.

   Remember when Moses encountered the burning bush in the wilderness, in Exodus 3:2-6?

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

   The tongues of fire that didn’t consume the disciples’ hair on the Day of Pentecost was the presence of God.

   The Holy Spirit had blown the disciples out of the room where they were hiding and into the places where the people were. The disciples began speaking to them. The disciples began their ministries with nothing but the Holy Spirit because that was all they needed. The Holy Spirit is all that we need.

   So, what had just happened?

   Remember Noah and the Ark? After the Flood, people began to repopulate the earth, but they didn’t spread out. They all had the same language, and they were all concentrated in one place. This homogeneity and concentration led them to be full of themselves, the same hubris that does us in again and again.

   Remember the Tower of Babel? These same people believed that, since they knew how to make strong bricks and mortar, they could build a tower tall enough to let people get into heaven without God. And how did that work out? We see in Genesis 11:8-9,

 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth, and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

   So, what does that have to do with the Day of Pentecost? That Pentecost story continues in Acts 2:5-8,

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

   The consequences of the attempted building of the Tower of Babel are reversed on the Day of Pentecost. People from all over the world came together and they heard the same Gospel message being proclaimed in their own languages.

   This isn’t speaking in tongues. It’s not people speaking a language that they haven’t studied.

   This is more like the A.I. systems that are said to be coming that will enable everyone on the planet to understand everyone else in real time without studying languages. Or, like the Star Trek simultaneous translator where everyone in the universe can understand everyone else with a machine.

   On the Day of Pentecost, the disciples spoke in their own language, but God made it so that every other person present that day from many nations heard the same message about the good news of Jesus Christ in their own language at once.

   Last week, churches heard about how Jesus prayed that all his faithful people might be one. We are like spokes on a wheel with Jesus as the hub of the wheel. The farther away we get from Christ, the farther we get from one another. The closer we get to Christ the closer we get to one another until, at the center, we are all one in Jesus Christ.

   This coming Sunday, the last Sunday in the Easter season, we will see another example of oneness by God’s grace in Jesus Christ!

   This coming Sunday, 2,000 years after the Day of Pentecost, Christians will worship in every language in every country in the world, and they will all be one.

   Have you ever worshipped at a church in a language you didn’t understand, or at least didn’t understand well? You knew what was going on, though, even if you didn’t understand a word, because the same Holy Spirit speaks to us all. We all understand one another at the deepest level through our common relationship with the one true living God in the Holy Spirit. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. And the closer we get to Jesus, the closer we get to one another. Our languages and cultures are means to share that relationship.

   Language is important to every culture. We are concerned when our young people begin to lose their native language. It’s been said of immigrants in America that the third generation tries to remember what the second generation tries to forget.  We want to preserve who we are.

   Today, Christians speak many languages because, like the first disciples, we both want to preserve the language of our hearts, and we want to reach the world with the one language that unites everybody: the presence of God in the language of the Holy Spirit. That same Holy Spirit speaks directly to every culture and in every language, and at every time, and binds us together in the one common true faith.

   Our message, the message of the Day of Pentecost, is that in our broken world, filled with economic uncertainty, war in Ukraine and between Israel and the Palestinians, of threats of world war, rising homelessness, fear of crime, environmental calamities, gun violence, and a global pandemic, God’s answer for all people, in all languages, is Jesus.

   In a culture that is fragmented, where we often find it impossible to speak about how to resolve these issues without soon shouting at each other, God’s answer for all cultures is Jesus.

   The closer we get to Jesus, the closer we get to one another, until we are all one in Jesus.

   The Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, is measured 50 days from the resurrection of Jesus.

   The first books I bought to help me understand a little of the Mandarin language were from the Tien Dao Christian Media Association store in El Monte. “Tien” can mean “heaven” and “dao” can mean “the way”. So, Tien Dao can mean “Heaven’s Way”.

   One of my favorite books in high school was the Tao Te Ching, which can mean “Classic of the Way and Virtue”, by Lao Tzu. It is the foundational work for Taoism, one of the classic Chinese philosophies, or religions. Its purpose, as I understand it, is to reveal the way to ideal existence, which people can realize by using their free will to bring themselves into harmony with their natural condition in the Dao. I liked it for its esotericism and its wisdom.

   Most religions have traditions of wisdom within them, including Christianity. In some religions, this wisdom is everything. In Christianity, it’s the least important thing.

   The way, in Christianity is not an idea, but a person. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

   Christianity is from God, who created everything in perfect harmony with God and with all of Creation, who has been revealed to us from outside of ourselves.

   Human beings had rejected God and brought evil into the world. We broke the relationship with God that we had been given by God. Jesus paid the price on the cross to restore that relationship for all who repent and believe and are baptized. The resurrection showed that Jesus is God and that he could reconcile human beings to God by his death, and his resurrection means that we too will rise. Our eternal life began in our baptism through the faith that came as God’s gift.

   The way to restore the harmony for which we human beings were created is not through our own effort. Harmony will only come fully as a gift from God at the end of history. Meanwhile, we receive it as a gift and live our imperfect lives in response to that gift by God’s grace, given on the cross, in order to make the world more like God made it to be.

   When John the Baptist described the coming Messiah, Jesus, he said, in Matthew 3:11,

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

   In our baptism, our separation from God is overcome by water and the word and, as Martin Luther says, “The Spirit is poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, as we read in Titus 3:4-8a,

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is sure.

   On the Day of Pentecost, God set fire to the rain.

   Holy Fire, the Holy Spirit, was added to the rain, the water of Holy Baptism. And the Church, the Body of Jesus Christ, came into being.

   May we seek to understand one another in this global Church and to encourage one another in the common language of the Holy Spirit within us. And may our celebration of the Day of Pentecost be a day of renewal in our love for God and our love for the world.