May 22, 2016
Trinity and Confirmation Sunday
Conformation. At first I thought it might have been a typo. But then I got two emails with the subject lines stating “conformation.” Perhaps he thought that is what the program was called? Or perhaps, after a few months of debating whether or not he wanted to be confirmed, he decided to simply give in and conform to the expectations. Conformation.
It is, after all, a common assumption about this “religion” thing, isn’t it? Religion breeds homogeny. Religion is group-think. Religion is the opiate of the masses. Religion is a slave morality that resents the power of the strong and establishes a counter-narrative to unite the oppressed and overturn the tables of power. All through a collective conformity to rules and an agenda of weakness. Conformation.
And yet in the face of such stereotypes comes Romans 5, a passage that speaks of freedom, endurance, hope, and of God’s self-sacrifice for those who are unworthy.
Are we talking about the same things?
And then we come to Psalm 8 in which words of truth from young mouths are powerful enough to overturn foes and avengers. In which God’s glory shines out beyond the Hubble Deep Field. In which a human stands alone under a starry night and asks, “What am I?” “Are you there God?” “Do you know that I am here?”
And the answer comes back “I’ve made this world for you.” “I have made you and you are not a fish lost in the sea.” “I have made you and you are not a bird who was only born to tweet.” “I have made you and you are not a beast of the field.” “You are not simply born to work and born to die.”
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”
And the answer comes back that we are given feet, so we hike and explore and take journeys. “You have put all things under their feet.”
“What are mortals that you care for them?”
And the answer comes back that we have been given hands, to create, to give, to serve, to hold.
“What are we? Why am I here? Who am I? Of what value are we children of men?”
And the answer comes back that we are made “a little lower than the angels.” Wait, scratch that. That is a mistranslation based upon a prejudiced anthropology: “We are made a little lower than the elohim — than the divine beings.” We are made a little lower than the Gods — just right up there with the God himself.
And yet, how could this be? “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise.” How can we humans be ranked that high?
“O Lord, Our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” What human do you know who is that good? Who is that majestic? If this is what God is, how can we compare as something even close?
“Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”
How can this be?
“Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is a day in which pastors all over the country struggle with language inadequate to describe how the one God can be three persons, how the three persons can be one God and not three Gods. And though I’ve got lectures that I’d like to read to you on the eternality of the Triune relations, I’m going to try and keep this brief.
Creator, redeemer, sustainer. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let’s start with the Son, using the familial, personal language of the New Testament and a passage the confirmands know well: “though he was in the form of God, Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and being found in human likeness…”
We’ll pause there, on the “not considering equality with God as something to be grasped, retained, owned, manipulated.” It is in this moment that the triune God is begotten: The Son makes himself other than the Father, makes himself less than, sends himself out into the distance, makes himself humble. And yet the Father loves this other, however unlike Himself the Son now is. And so the Father pours out the Father’s love on the Son, anointing — as the Holy Spirit — the Son with all his own glory and love.
Here we have a perpetual giving, loving, humbling, raising up, pouring out, refilling, self-differentiating, and uniting. It is, using the profound wisdom of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as a three-fold, eternal “give-it-awayedness.” Give it away. Give it away. Give it away, now. In a snapshot, that is the triune moment in which God perpetually lives and loves.
“What are the Daughters and Sons of Man that you care for them?”
“You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”
See, you were made to be introduced into that eternal, triune relationship. To be made “a little lower than the Gods” doesn’t mean we were made to be like Zeus or Aphrodite. It means we were made to be like the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who in faith, hope, and love lives in dependence on, reliance on, and trust in God the Father. We were made to be like Jesus Christ, who — when in his humbling and service “goes deep” — is united across space and time, beyond life and and death, with the Father by the Holy Spirit.
And it is for this reason that critiques of religion and even Christianity are not limited to the skeptics and cultural despisers. Many great Christian theologians have been all too aware that “the Christian Religion” could stand in the way of God. For instance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Religion is always in danger of thinking it has God.”(1) For this reason, Bonhoeffer thought the essence of Christianity was beyond ethics and conforming to rules of behavior. “The question of Christianity is not the question of good and evil among people but the question of whether God wishes to be gracious or not. The Christian message stands beyond good and evil.”(2)
Bonhoeffer’s life and work, in pursuit of the will of Jesus Christ and in opposition to the Nazi kingdom of hate and darkness, led him to conclude that “Christian decisions are made only within the ongoing relationship with God, within a constantly renewed surrender of oneself to the divine will.”(3) This did not make for an easy life, but it made for an admirable one. At the end of his life, sitting in a jail cell amidst both hope and fear, Bonhoeffer wondered, “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.” His deepest answer: “Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine.”(4) Bonhoeffer, like so many other theologians, realized that we could easily let religion get in the way of hearing God’s voice for our lives.
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Those words from the Grateful Dead song “Ripple” describe the journey ahead. And yet, though that path is for our steps alone, we are not made to be alone, for there is one who will guide us.
Conformation? Yes. You were made, we were made, to be conformed into the image of Jesus Christ, to be invited in and rolled up into the eternal, triune loving forever and ever. And to walk the unique path that the Holy Spirit will guide us upon. In Christ’s image. It is a way of being in which there is the truest freedom, the deepest love, the widest acceptance, and the longest life.
Here we have eight youth who have grown up in the church and who are about to be confirmed. They each have written statements of faith that, while affirming of the core elements of the Christian faith, are unique and that, in their individuality, are not conformations to group think. They are personal confirmations that they believe, that they trust Christ, and that they want to be led.
Let us all be encouraged that they “do not [want to] be conformed to this world, but [want] be transformed by the renewing of their minds” (Romans 12:2). And let us encourage them and each other, for we know the road ahead is no simply highway. But we also know “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
This is the road that Jesus Christ walked. And this is the road for which you were made.
(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The History of Twentieth Century Systematic Theology in The Bonhoeffer Reader, ed. Clifford J. Green and Michael DeJonge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 162.
(2) Bonhoeffer, Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic in The Bonhoeffer Reader, 78
(3) Bonhoeffer, Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic in The Bonhoeffer Reader, 85.
(4) Bonhoeffer, Who Am I? in The Bonhoeffer Reader, 817.
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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