Today is Trinity Sunday, and this principal feast is a bit of an anomaly. For it doesn’t commemorate an event or a person, but a doctrine, namely, the doctrine of the Trinity. Stating the doctrine of the Trinity is simple enough: “We believe on one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, however, is not so simple. You don’t need a degree in mathematics to see the fundamental paradox: we Christians say that we believe in one God; but when asked the Name of our God, we enumerate three separate persons, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
A fuller statement of the doctrine may be found in the Athanasian Creed. It states: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, and the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit is incomprehensible.” (To which one might add, this whole Creed is incomprehensible!)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the Day of Pentecost, and it’s an important day in the Episcopal Church for a variety of reasons. For one thing, today is one of only seven “principal feasts” in the liturgical calendar; these so-called principal feasts outrank all other celebrations or commemorations. For another, today is widely considered to be the “birthday of the Church.” (Of course, one can make a good case that the Church was born when Jesus called his first disciple.) Today also has the distinction of being one of four “baptismal feasts” on which baptisms, or the renewal of baptismal vows, are appropriate. In any case, one thing everyone can agree on is that it is a day to “pull out all the stops.”
Now, let’s move on to the appointed readings for the day. The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, recounts the story of that first Pentecost, when the disciples encounter wind and fire and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They miraculously find themselves able to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in languages that they do not know. The heart of their message to the crowd is found in the very last line of the reading: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” So far as we know, this miraculous gift of tongues did not remain with the disciples, but even so, they were not left bereft of spiritual gifts.
In St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he reminds the Christians in Rome that the Spirit of God continues to lead and guide the faithful, so that they can live as God’s children are meant to live in the world, with courage and with confidence. He reminds his readers that in a real sense it is not they who pray but the Spirit of God who prays with, and through, them.
Then, we come to John’s Gospel, which somewhat confusingly takes us back in time to the Last Supper, before the disciples had even received the gift of the Holy Spirit. There, Jesus makes this promise to his disciples: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” Now, that word “advocate” is a bit problematic. Every time I hear it, I think of a trial lawyer. But that is not exactly the kind of advocate that Jesus is speaking about. What he means is that the Father will send someone who will stand by the disciples throughout the trials and tribulations of this world. That someone is, of course, the Holy Spirit. Jesus goes on to promise that the Spirit of God will continue to teach the disciples long after Jesus has returned to the Father and will guide them further and further into Divine Truth.
Today, we find ourselves in that liminal period between the Ascension and Pentecost, and in the Gospel reading, we look back at Jesus’ prayer for the Church, given at the Last Supper.
That Jesus is praying for the unity of the Church is clear enough. But the language that Jesus uses isless clear. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…. [May they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” At first hearing, it sounds an awful lot like a line from a song by the Beatles: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” But that’s where the similarity ends. Jesus’ words are of the utmost importance for the Church and for the world—the Beatles’ words, not so much!
Now, Jesus’ call for unity has been taken seriously by the Church right from the very start. Unity is, after all, one of the four “marks of the Church” mentioned in the Nicene Creed, along with holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Of course, just because the Church takes unity seriously does not mean that the Church has done a very good job of maintaining it. It hasn’t. Christian history is filled with schisms and disagreements. In fact, Christians can’t even agree on the definition of unity!
Every culture in every age categorizes some foodstuffs as too disgusting to eat. Often, it is the case that the foodstuffs that are rejected are the delicacies of another people. When I was in Portugal recently, I was told that salted codfish, octopus, and barnacles are particularly beloved of the Portuguese. Call me squeamish, but even if I weren’t a vegetarian, I don’t think I would want to eat any of those items! Well, the Jews of the first century also categorized certain foods as disgusting filth. And for them the food laws were not unwritten, social norms, but actual written laws. Certain foods were considered filth, and the people who ate them, namely the Gentiles, were also considered filth. And you know what happens when you touch filth, you get dirty!
So imagine the shock and horror of the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem when they heard that Peter had polluted himself by eating filthy food with filthy people. As we heard today, Peter had a vision in which God declared filthy foods to be clean and fit to eat. Peter took this as a sign that the filthy people who ate such foods had now been declared clean by God himself. In other words, part of the Torah had been abrogated! When Peter was summoned to the house of the Gentile centurion Cornelius, he witnessed the members of the household responding to the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter then instructed them in the faith and baptized them on the spot.
When Peter told his story to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, who had called him to account, their criticism was silenced. And they acknowledged that God had done a new and astounding thing: he had extended salvation to the non-Jewish peoples of the world, something previously unimaginable. So, while it is St. Paul who deserves credit for extending the Christian mission to Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire, it is St. Peter who deserves credit for first discerning that God had torn down the wall separating the People of God from the Gentile peoples of the world.
Bom dia! And in case you didn’t understand that, it means “good morning” in Portuguese. As you may know, I just spent two weeks in Portugal on vacation. I had a great time, but I’m glad to be back home!
Today is unofficially referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. The reason is pretty obvious. We get references to lambs, sheep, and shepherds in the Collect of the Day and in three out of four of today’s appointed readings. (The first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is the sole exception.)
The purpose of this set of readings is to drive home the point that Jesus is the good shepherd of God’s people. For country folk, this statement might not need much explanation. But for us city folk, this seemingly simple idea needs more clarification, I think.
With apologies to St. Peter, I am going to skip right over his miracle in the Acts of the Apostles and begin with the appointed psalm, Psalm 23. This is the one psalm that most people can quote, even if only partially. And because of its promise of consolation, it is the favorite psalm at Christian funerals. The problem with this psalm is that we have heard it so many times that we don’t pay attention to it anymore. And we really ought to pay close attention to the very first line: “The Lord is my shepherd.” This verse is, in effect, a pledge of allegiance—not to the flag of our country, but to our God. When we recite that line, we declare where our ultimate loyalty lies. Above our dedication to any sports teams, above our commitment to any political party, above our patriotism to our homeland, we Christians vow to follow the Lord, just as sheep follow a shepherd.
Today, Holy Week begins, and by a quirk of liturgical history, we get the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem juxtaposed with St. Luke’s account of the Suffering of the Christ. For this reason, today is given two names in the prayer book: Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion (or as we would say in modern English, “the Sunday of the Suffering”).
This dual nature of Palm Sunday bothers some people. They rightly point out that it is redundant to read one Passion narrative on Palm Sunday and another on Good Friday. A few churches have gone so far as to omit the reading of the Passion Gospel on this day. But this first, shorter reading of the Passion does serve a couple of useful purposes. First, it reminds us that we humans are fickle. For the very same crowds that acclaimed Jesus as their Messiah, later shouted for his crucifixion. Second, this first reading sets the tone for the week ahead; it serves as a sort of “preview of coming attractions,” if you will. And the coming attractions are many!
The Gospel reading today is problematic. It is problematic from the perspective of history and from the perspective of social norms.
Let’s deal with the historical problem first. This same story is told in all four Gospels, but the Gospels don’t all agree on the facts of the matter. In Matthew and Mark, the anointing took place at dinner in the house of a Pharisee named Simon the Leper. And there, Mary anointed Jesus’ head, not his feet. In Luke, it is a notoriously sinful woman of Galilee, not Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus’ head and wipes her tears from his feet with her hair. Now, these discrepancies don’t mean that the Gospel story is fake news. It just means that, as this story was handed down from one generation to the next, some details got lost in transmission.
Now for the issue of social norms! We live in a new age, in the age of the “Me Too” Movement. One major concern of this movement is the protection of “personal space.” The need for such protection is clear. A couple of years ago, Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging about how he liked to kiss and grope women without their permission. More recently, Joe Biden has been criticized for making unwanted physical contact with women he didn’t know very well. In our society, the perpetrators of such boundary violations are, more often than not, men, and the victims are women. But in today’s Gospel story, the “perpetrator” of the boundary violation is a woman, and the “victim” is a man. There is no doubt about it: Mary of Bethany violates Jesus’ personal space without permission. One wonders what the leaders of the “Me Too” Movement think about this Bible story!
This is only the second Sunday in Lent, but I am already longing for Easter, for that glorious celebration of the Resurrection. But that is in the future, and for now, I find myself lamenting. I lament not just my own sins, which are many, but the brokenness of this world. The news coming out of New Zealand about a mass murder weighs heavily on my soul. Such evil is a mystery, and it is hard to live with mysteries, with things we just can’t explain or understand. But, if the truth be known, evil is a lesser mystery. Fortunately for us, there is a greater Mystery, a countervailing Mystery, a triumphant Mystery, whom we call God.
We encounter that Mystery in the first reading from Genesis. Abraham, who has not yet received his new name from God and is known as Abram at this point, is the recipient of a divine vision. God promises Abraham a great reward. But Abraham laments to God that no reward has any meaning to him since he has no children. God responds by promising Abraham offspring, despite the fact that Abraham and Sarah are both far too old to expect children. And God further promises that, from his offspring, he will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. To his great credit, Abraham believes the Lord.
What happens next seems bizarre to us. God commands Abraham to collect five animals and to cut three of them in half! Why? Well, this is where a little knowledge of ancient Near Eastern customs comes in handy. What is being proposed is a solemn oath-taking. In the ancient Near East, one way a person might make a solemn oath was to cut an animal in two and then to walk between the two halves while making the oath. The idea, whether spoken or left unspoken, was that the person passing through the cloven animal was accepting a curse upon himself should he fail to fulfill the oath: “May I die like these animals if I forswear myself.”
So, the cutting up of the animals is not all that strange after all. What is strange is that it is not Abraham who passes through the cloven animals and takes the solemn oath. It is God! At sundown, Abraham falls into a deep trance, and in that altered state of consciousness, he witnesses a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch being carried through the midst of the slaughtered animals by an invisible figure. A voice then declares this oath: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
God kept his oath to Abraham. He had children. And they had children. And some of their descendants did indeed inherit the Promised Land. Nowadays, we have DNA tests that you can take at home and mail in. And I suppose that it would be possible to try to trace one’s ancestry back to Abraham. But that would be missing one important point. Not only did Abraham have many descendants according to the flesh. He had even more descendants according to the spirit.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of forty days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those who attended the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy introduction to Lent that ends with this invitation: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
The purpose of self-examination during Lent is not to admire ourselves in the mirror and praise ourselves for our accomplishments, but to become aware of our temptations and to repent of our sins. Now, unlike the rest of us, Jesus did not sin, not ever. But he did know what it was like to be tempted. And in today’s Gospel, we hear the story of his temptation.
It begins right after his baptism by John in the Jordan River. The English translation we heard today says, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” It makes it sound like the temptation of Jesus was a chance occurrence. The original Greek text, however, says something a little different. It says, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness in order to be tempted by the Devil for forty days.” In other words, the entire event takes place at God’s behest, not the Devil’s.
Why would God test his Son? Unfortunately, we are never told explicitly, but I have some ideas on the subject. I suspect that this time of testing was necessary for Jesus to figure out what kind of Messiah he was going to be and what kind of Kingdom he was going to proclaim—and then to come to terms with the consequences of those decisions. Each of the three temptations serves in its own way to clarify Jesus’ thinking. At least, that’s my claim!
In the first temptation, the Devil preys on Jesus’ desperate hunger. After all, Jesus had not eaten for forty whole days. The Devil dares Jesus to magically transform a stone into a loaf of bread. In good Rabbinic tradition, Jesus responds by quoting scripture, in this case Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.” Now, to be honest, it doesn’t seem at first glance that the Devil is tempting Jesus to do anything even remotely sinful. But I suspect that the Devil is hoping that, if Jesus gives in to even one self-serving act, it will eventually lead down a slippery slope to a Messiah who is more concerned with feeding himself than he is with feeding a multitude of 5000.
In the Episcopal calendar, today is known as the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the color of the day is rightly green. In other denominations, it’s called Transfiguration Sunday, and the liturgical color is white or gold. For some reason, our Episcopal lectionary insert displays a gold heading, instead of a green one. I have a theory about this: I think there’s a Methodist mole at Church Publishing Incorporated!
But no matter what we call this particular Sunday, it marks the end of the season of Epiphany, and it does so with three Bible readings about epiphanies. The first is an epiphany to Moses on Mount Sinai—the prototypical mountaintop experience, if you will. Then, we hear St. Paul’s take on what that event meant to him in his context as an evangelist to his fellow Jews. Lastly, we hear the story of an epiphany to three of Jesus’ disciples on Mount Tabor.
Let’s begin with Moses. After spending forty days on Mount Sinai with the Lord, he comes down the mountain to bring his people the Ten Commandments, the covenant between the Lord and the Israelites. Moses was transformed by the time that he had spent in God’s presence. How exactly he was transformed is not clear. The Hebrew text says that “the skin of his face was horned.” When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he translated the Hebrew literally. That’s why Michelangelo’s Moses has two horns! Most modern-day Bible translators understand the phrase to mean that Moses’ face emitted rays of light, which the Hebrews might very well have called “horns of light.”