The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
I enjoyed the Easter Season sermon series, and I hope you did, too. It was fascinating to think about what Mary, and Thomas, and John might remember about Jesus, and almost fun to step into their shoes for a few minutes and share their memories. But it was also limiting, because in those sermons I wasn’t able to share a single current event or contemporary illustration. Can you imagine how many times I thought about a story that would be perfect, but then realized that none of those characters would have known about it, because it hadn’t happened yet? So, I’m almost glad to be preaching a “regular” sermon today, you know: a long, dull, boring sermon. Except that it’s Trinity Sunday! The only Sunday on the Christian calendar devoted to a doctrine! And what could be more exciting than a twenty-minute treatise on a complicated theological concept? I’m hoping you will stay awake for it, because I believe I have something to say.
Let me begin with a reminder that the doctrine of the Trinity is an exclusively Christian doctrine, and then let me take a few minutes to talk about that word: Christian. Do you know there are people out there who are not in here because they don’t like Christians, because they don’t want to have anything to do with them? That’s shocking, right? Because in my experience Christians are some of the gentlest, kindest, and most generous people in the world. I work with them every day. I go home to them every night. But I’ve also met some of the other kind, and maybe you have, too. Some of those people out there have met some of the other kind, and in many cases that’s all it took for them to decide we were all like that and to promise themselves that they would stay far away from Christian people and the places they gather, places like this.
I’ve quoted from it before, but in their book UnChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons examine the many negative perceptions some people, mostly young people, have about Christians. They boil their research down into six broad categories, and conclude that people outside the church often think of Christians as being: homophobic, hypocritical, too political, too focused on getting converts, too sheltered, and way too judgmental.[i] It stings to hear it, and I certainly don’t think it’s true of the Christians in this church, but we’re dealing with perception here, and perception influences how people look at reality.[ii] Kinnaman and Lyons’ book was written in 2012, but even before that the word evangelical, which used to refer to people who loved Jesus and wanted others to follow him, had become a political term that referred to people who could be counted on for the conservative vote. And in a recent opinion piece for Baptist News Global my former church history professor, Bill Leonard, asked if people are able to hear the word Christian these days without thinking of Christian Nationalism, or even White Christian Nationalism, an ideology which suggests that this nation was founded by white Christians and if you are not one of those then you are not welcome.[iii]
Are you still awake? And can you see why the word Christian might need to be reclaimed, redeemed, or even replaced? As I was thinking about that last week I went back to my earliest experience of Christianity, to that little Presbyterian Church in Wise, Virginia, where I learned to recite the Apostle’s Creed. As a six-year-old boy I stood with the congregation and said: “I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried: he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” When I became a Baptist sixteen years later my pastor asked me what I believed and I recited that creed. “You believe all that?” he asked. I thought for a moment and then said, “Yes. All of it.”
Forty-two years later, I still do, but my understanding of some of those articles of faith has evolved over time (as it should), and with your permission I’d like to talk about some of the ways my mind has changed. For example, the first part of the creed, the part that says, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: I still believe it, but I don’t believe it in the way I used to. When I was six it was easy to imagine God as an old man, sitting on a throne in heaven, saying, “Let there be light!” And it wasn’t hard to believe that he created everything that exists in six, literal, 24-hour days. But then I got older, I went off to college. My professors told me that the heavens and the earth came into existence not by the spoken word of God but rather through a long, slow process called evolution.
This is when the crisis of faith comes for some people: when they encounter two, conflicting voices of authority: the pastor who tells them God created the universe in six days and the professor who tells them it evolved over billions of years. They may feel a need to choose between those two voices, to pick one over the other, and this is when many young people choose the voice of their professors over their pastors. This is when some of them walk away from the church for good.
In my case, it wasn’t like that, and here’s why: I don’t see a conflict between creation and evolution. I still believe that God created the heavens and the earth, but I believe that he did it through a long, slow evolutionary process. And why not? God has all the time in the world! When people say, “But what about that part of the Bible that says he did it in six, literal, twenty-four hour days?” I say, “Actually, that’s not what the Bible says. It says God did it in six days, but in another part of the Bible it says that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day, which is to say God’s sense of time is different from ours. And secondly, the only place in the universe I know of where a day takes 24 hours is here on Earth; that’s how long it takes for this planet to make one complete rotation. But according to Genesis 1 the earth wasn’t even created until Day 3. How was time measured before that? How long does it take for the universe to make one complete rotation?
I think those are good arguments, and they may convince you, but they don’t convince everybody. Some people say, “If the first chapter of Genesis isn’t true then none of it is true!” and what they mean is: “If you can’t believe God created the entire universe in six, literal, twenty-four hour days then you might as well throw your Bible out the window!” These people seem to think that the Bible is a book of facts, a kind of Holy Encyclopedia, but the Bible is so much more than that. It is the Word of God for the people of God thanks be to God. And just as a reminder, when Jesus, the Word that was God and was with God in the beginning became flesh and lived among us, he came speaking in parables. Matthew claims, “He did not open his mouth without a parable” (Matt. 13:34). But parables, by definition, are not facts; parables are truth. And while it is true that two plus two is four and also that God is love, only one of those truths will change your life. That’s the kind of truth Jesus was interested in. That’s the kind of truth the Bible is interested in. I’m not saying the creation narrative in Genesis 1 is a parable. I really do believe that God made the heavens and the earth. But I don’t believe that narrative was written to tell us how God did it; I believe it was written to tell us why.
Let me move on to the next part of the creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” and although it may seem old-fashioned and outdated, I believe all those other things the creed says about him. I believe that he was born of a virgin. You may say that doesn’t sound very scientific, especially for someone who believes in evolution, but we all begin life as single-celled organisms, and we all go through a phase where we look very much like tadpoles, tail and all. I say the God who dreamed up that process can get it started without any outside help. If scientists can fertilize a human egg in a Petri dish, surely God can do it in a virgin’s womb.
And yes, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead—physically, bodily. I know that doesn’t happen to most bodies, but again, I know people who have died on the operating table and been brought back to life by skilled doctors. I’ve had church members that I referred to as “Lazarus,” because they came back from the dead. If human doctors can do that, how much more can God, the author of life, put the breath of life back into his beloved Son, Jesus. I believe that he did it, and I believe he did it for a reason: so that the disciples would believe in him; so they would tell his story; so that it would it travel down through the centuries to people like us so that we, too, could believe.
Here’s what I think happened. I think those first disciples began to follow Jesus because they were fascinated by him. They had never heard anybody say the kind of things he said; they had never seen anybody do the kind of things he did. If you had asked them in those early days who he was they might have said that he was a great prophet, someone like Elijah, who not only preached powerful sermons but did miraculous things. But as time went by they began to see that he was even more than that, that everything God did Jesus did, and everything God said Jesus said. It came to a head on the road near Caesarea Philippi when he asked them who they thought he was and Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” But after his resurrection they began to say even more than that. They began to say that Jesus was not only the Son of God, but that he was God himself.
How does that happen? How do strict monotheists like the disciples come to a place where they can say that God is God but Jesus is also God? Well, there’s only one way: through their experience of Jesus. That was what convinced them that he was God in the same way it can convince you that he is God. But once they got to that place there was no going back. When their Jewish brothers said, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4), they had to say, “Well, yes, but, he is also Two.” It sounds like blasphemy. It may have sounded like blasphemy even to them, but they could not deny what they knew about Jesus.
And then came the Holy Spirit.
What happened to those disciples on the Day of Pentecost convinced them all over again that God was bigger than all their previous understanding. This was a God who could come to them in the person of Jesus, but also a God who could come to them in the power of the Spirit. It would take decades, even centuries for those early Christians to work out the complex theology of what we now call the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and even now it is a mystery, but within a few years of that first Pentecost the Apostle Paul was able to end his second letter to the church in Corinth by saying, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” He didn’t use the word trinity, the doctrine hadn’t even been invented yet, but the experience of one God in three persons was real for Paul. He wanted it to be real for that church. Circling back to where we began, this is what I think it means to be a Christian:
- It means that you believe in God, that you have a religious worldview.
- It means that you believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
- It means that you depend on the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit.
But beyond that it means that you have, as Paul had, an experience of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”
I felt it as a six-year-old boy in that little Presbyterian church in Wise, Virginia. I was part of the family, part of God’s family. I went to Wednesday night prayer meeting in my pajamas. I sang “Jesus loves me” in Sunday school. And in worship I stood with the congregation and said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Near the end of that creed I said, “I believe in the Holy Ghost,” and all these years later I still do. I have experienced the loving embrace of the Holy Trinity, and for me there can be no going back.
—Jim Somerville © 2023
[i] Kinnaman, David; Lyons, Gabe. unChristian (Baker Publishing Group, 2012), pp. 29-30. Kindle Edition.