The Passing Parson

A monthly blog by Rev. Dr George J. Koch, Holy Trinity’s Intentional Interim Pastor during our time of transition.  Pastor Koch will provide spiritual leadership for Holy Trinity until the new regularly called Pastor takes office.  In his weekly blog, Pastor Koch will discuss his thoughts on the Church Year and upcoming events at Holy Trinity.

Sermon June 11, 2017: "Augustine’s Dilemma”

Posted by Mark Donahue on Thursday, June 29, 2017 @ 9:25 AM

In this the five hundredth year of the Protestant Reformation, I will from time to time bring up some tidbits about Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformation, both flattering and unflattering.

At the beginning of his career, Martin Luther was apparently sympathetic to Jewish resistance to the Catholic Church. In 1523, Luther accused Catholics of being unfair to Jews and treating them “as if they were dogs,” thus making it difficult for Jews to convert. “I would request and advise that one deal gently with them [the Jews],” he wrote. “ … If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.”  Oh, that that were the only words that he had on the subject. However, it was not. After twenty years of trying to cordially convert Jewish people to Christianity and they resisted, he turned violently against them.

In 1543, three years before he died, Luther wrote some of the most vile words that a Christian could write, “First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them,” he said in his pamphlet. “ This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly – and I myself was unaware of it – will be pardoned by God.” These last words of Luther were so repugnant to his friends, that they repudiated them at the time and these words have also been repudiated by most Lutheran denominations in the 20th and 21st century, not only because they were wrong, but because Hitler used these words to justify the Holocaust.

Christians, Jews and Muslims share the same God. And for all three religions there is only one God. Christians argue, however, that our one God exists in three persons – as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, something that Jews and Muslims have a hard time believing, even as they acknowledge that we worship the same God. How can this be?

Two years ago this week I went back to Pennsylvania for my 50th High School Reunion. It was great seeing many old friends. But one old friend was conspicuous by his absence – Tony, who had been one of my best friends. We were lab partners in High School and inseparable during college summer vacations. When he flunked out of College, he joined the Air Force and was stationed here at Pease. I would regularly drive up to see him. When he got out of the Air Force, I got him a job at Prudential where I had been working. However, in the Air Force, he had begun using drugs. He began with Marijuana and went on to stronger stuff, including LSD. He went out to California and joined the Center for Feeling Therapy, a cult-like approach to take care of your psychological problems. He became estranged from his family and his friends. While I tried, over the years, to reconnect, the gap was too wide. We could never be friends again.

The gap between Christians and Jews – and later Christians and Muslims – is similar to the gap between Tony and me. There was so much we had in common, and yet, the layers of his experience experimenting with Drugs and primal scream therapy broke everything we had in common.

The gap between Christians and Jews and Muslims centers on two experiences and two mysteries. The two experiences are these: 1) The Christians experienced God from the very beginning as the Creator, the savior and the sanctifier, or more commonly, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And while each role taken on by Father, Son and Holy Spirit is unique, it is still the one same God who does all of this.

The second experience is this: The early Christians understood Jesus as both true and authentic human, and, at the same time, true and authentic God. He is not one or the other; he is both at the same time. And while most Jews and Muslims have no problem understanding Jesus as a prophet – and perhaps one of the greatest prophets – They have difficulty believing that he is also God.

These two experiences were so strong for the early Christians, however, that they could not go back to worshiping as Jews, but rather kept praising Jesus in the temple and in the synagogue until they were kicked out permanently. Like the gap that grew between Tony and me to the point where our friendship was broken, the gap between Jews and Christians was too wide at that point for reconciliation.

The Corinthian letters of St. Paul were written around 25 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Matthew’s gospel was written perhaps 50 years after the crucifixion. In our lessons for today, both Paul and Matthew  reflect this understanding that God has shown himself in three ways – As Father, Son and Spirit. Both Paul and Matthew also confess that Jesus is Lord and take their direction from Him, something that Jews and Muslims do not comprehend. The gap is just too wide.

In his landmark book, The Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck argued that doctrine comes from experience, which, in turn, regulates belief.  Thus, the early Christians, though willing to worship with their Jewish friends and neighbors, were not willing to go against their experience of God as Trinity or against Jesus as God and man.

This leads to the two mysteries. Even though the Christians experienced God in three persons and Jesus as God and man, they had to answer for themselves the questions – How can these things be? How can God be three in one? How can Jesus be both God and man? Christians have experienced God in this way, but how?

St. Augustine once wrote that if something is a mystery, it is by its nature, incomprehensible. And if it is comprehensible, it is not a mystery. Now Augustine was brilliant, one of the best thinkers of his age. But his dilemma was this: how can you talk about something which, by its nature is beyond common speech? How can you experience something that is beyond our normal experience? How can finite creatures know God who is infinite? One could only trust the experience of God – who comes to us as trinity and as both God and man.

This does not mean that Christians gave up trying to comprehend God. Indeed they pushed language to its farthest reaches in order to understand God, culminating in the Athanasian Creed. This is about as far as we can understand the mystery.

So where does this lead us? To a dead end? So we know that the early Christians experienced God as a three in one, a trinity, and that they experienced Jesus as both God and man. What does this have to do with us?

The Great Preacher, Frederich Buechner, once wrote that the doctrine of the trinity says two things about God, not three. The doctrine of the trinity says that God is infinite, far off, unapproachable. If our universe is billions of light years wide, then God must be infinitely vaster than the universe or God is not God.  Whether it is the Father, creating us and all that exists, or Jesus, the Word incarnate who is with the Father at the creation and through whom everything came into being or the spirit, brooding over the primordial chaos and making everything exist, this God, this trinity is vast, all powerful and unknowable.

At the same time, says Buechner, God is close, approachable and caring. “God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves,” St. Augustine also said. This infinite God comes to us as a baby in a manger, as a miracle worker and as a crucified and resurrected one. He took on our form so that he could take on our sorrows, take on our estrangement, take on our death in order to bring us close to God.

When you think of it, God has revealed himself in a trio of opposites that are still somehow connected:

1) The experience of God in the persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each with a unique role but still the one same God who does all of this, and the experience of Jesus as both true and authentic human, and, at the same time, true and authentic God.

2) The two mysteries – How can God be three persons and, at the same time one God? How can Jesus be True God and True Man?

And lastly 3) God – in three Persons – is both as infinite as the universe and, at the same time, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Others may never understand God the way we do. It’s hard enough for those of us in the faith to understand God. But this complex God still comes to us, makes a home in us and leads us in love, now and forever. AMEN  

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