Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Trinitarian Congregations

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Dear Working Preacher,

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself dreading Trinity Sunday a bit. Okay, sometime more than a bit. We all know the presenting problem: It’s the only Sunday in the church year that focuses exclusively on a doctrine of the church and, if we’re going to be perfectly honest, it’s a pretty complicated doctrine. I mean, I’ve said for years that a) I don’t fully understand the Trinity, b) I don’t expect to this side of the eschaton, and c) I tend not to trust those who say they do. :) (And, in case we feel bad that we don’t really understand the Trinity, let’s keep in mind that the church fought over it for a century or more and that even folks like Augustine at times got tangled up trying to explain it!)

So as we approach Trinity Sunday, I have a suggestion. Rather than use this occasion to try to explain “one God in three persons” or read aloud the entirety of the Athanasian Creed (which wasn’t written by Athanasius and would probably make his hair stand on end), let’s instead talk about what Trinitarian congregations look like. And my short definition of a Trinitarian congregation is one that sees itself as called and sent by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed for the sake of the world God created and loves so much. (This is, by the way, what I sometimes refer to as “the Trinity backwards.” We believe that God the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to recognize and believe the good news of God the Son who, in turn, reveals to us the loving heart and mission of God the Father. More on that another time. :)) So a Trinitarian congregation is, in essence, on that sees itself called into mission by the Trinitarian God we confess.

Approached this way, Trinity Sunday provides an opportunity to describe our sense of why we exist as a community of faith and to articulate a vision for moving forward in the mission and ministry entrusted to us by the triune God. And if you’re game for trying to do just that, the text from Matthew commonly called “the great commission” has a lot to offer. I’ll highlight three things that stand out to me, but you may very well notice and want to emphasize others.

First, congregations in mission are buoyed by worship, faith, and doubt. The first two -- worship and faith -- go together nicely. We come together each week because, quite frankly, it’s hard to believe the nearly too-good-to-be-true news of the Gospel for more than about seven days in a row. Think about it: the confession that God not only created us and all that exists, but also knows about us, cares for us, and wants to use us to care for the world is a pretty bold affirmation. Such news needs to be repeated and shared in order for us to believe and live it. And so worship and faith clearly mark congregations in mission.

But don’t forget about doubt! I find it striking that in each gospel account, Jesus’ own disciples -- that is, those who had followed him from the start and knew him best -- do not at first believe the story of the resurrection … even when they see Jesus! Matthew reports that even now, at the close of his story, and just as the disciples are about to be commissioned as Jesus’ witnesses, they still have a hard time believing in Jesus even as they worship him. That’s who we are -- people made up of a mixture of faith and doubt, hope and fear, successes and failures. And remembering that doubt is part and parcel of our life as a faith community is helpful to welcome people wherever they are on their faith journey. Moreover, if it feels daunting at times to believe the gospel, we can recall that we are not alone in feeling this way and that, ultimately, God will take responsibility for keeping God’s promises.

Second, congregations in mission do not live on the mountain but pursue their calling primarily down in the valley. Some of us -- myself included -- hope for worship to be a “mountain-top” experience through which we feel more connected to God and each other and inspired to believe afresh and anew. But church, at its best, prepares us for our life in the world. Matthew sets his account of Jesus’ gathering with his disciples on a mountaintop to testify -- as he has at other points in his gospel -- that their encounter with Jesus is a theophany as significant as any in Israel’s history, including Moses’ meetings with God at Sinai. But notice that the disciples do not stay up there any more than Moses did. Jesus sends them out into the world. So also, we come to church to be inspired to carry out God’s work to love and bless the world in our daily routines, relationships, and activities. Sometimes this involves sharing our faith with others, but it always involves living our faith by being good neighbors, classmates, friends, employees, and more. We are called to be faithful in the variety of roles we play so that we can carry on Jesus’ mission to respond to those in need.

Third, congregations in mission find their authority, hope, and consolation in both Jesus’ commission and the promise of his presence. We share what we have seen and heard because Jesus’ wants all people to know the mercy of God and so commissions us to be witnesses. The goal isn’t growing the church for the church’s sake or filling pew seats or offering plates for growth’s sake. The goal is that as many of God’s children as possible people hear just how much God loves and values them. But this is by no means easy. So much of life conspires to make us doubt that we deserve love or respect and we often feel like we face innumerable obstacles, both cultural and personal, in sharing our faith. Which is why Jesus promises to be with us, to hold onto us, and to continue to use us as we strive to bear witness to the God of love. We are commissioned by Jesus, and we take courage from that. But we are also promised Jesus’ presence and ongoing love and support no matter what may come, and we find our hope and consolation in that.

If you invited people to share their dreams for your congregation last week, this would be a wonderful time to reference some of what you heard as you try to share your vision for your faith community. And if not, you might invite people this week to begin dreaming what new ventures God is calling you to. Small or large, thriving or struggling, all of our congregations are called to bear witness to the love and mercy of the God we know and name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As you prepare your sermons this week, please know how much I admire your courage to commission us once again into that calling. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,
David

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