“Final Exam, Final Blessing”

May 26, 2013


II Corinthians 13:5‑13

Matthew 28:16‑20


I’ve said before that we in the Congregational wing of the United Church of Christ traditionally have not had much to do with the church year and special days and seasons. For some time in our history, even Christmas was looked upon with suspicion. Following the lead of the Reformers, we have seen each Sunday as a little Easter—and that is always sufficient reason for us to gather as God’s people in worship and celebration.

The contemporary ecumenical church, however, following a thousand-year-old tradition, calls this first Sunday after Pentecost “Trinity Sunday” and this date appears as such on the UCC planning calendar. This morning the Scripture lessons, our hymns, and our prayers all point to the mystery of “God in three persons,” the Trinity.

Most of the special days in the church year celebrate an event: the birth of Jesus, the resurrection, the Spirit of God coming to the disciples. So it’s somewhat strange to have a day that celebrates a theological idea. Perhaps in that strangeness we can listen anew and let scripture inform our thinking and our acting.

We hear the command of Jesus to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We hear the blessing of Paul that prays for “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

Christians make the astonishing claim that the God who created all things became incarnate in a particular human being—Jesus of Nazareth.

            To see Jesus is to see God.

                        To speak of Jesus is to speak of God.

Not everybody sees it that way. Even some in the UCC have trouble with the Trinity. One UCC minister gave voice to the problem, saying it: “The idea that the almighty God could be found in something as familiar as this human life is difficult to accept, if not downright bizarre.” [1] My guess is that not a few members of our congregation would nod in agreement.

Still, I am convinced that to speak of Jesus is to speak of God.

And as incredible as all that sounds, we also affirm that this same God still dwells with us and guides us. The Spirit of God that was active in creation and incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth continues to be at work in us and among us.

To know such a God is to come before God in wonder. To know such a God is to be struck by mystery—wonder to be appreciated, not figured out. When we say that God is a Trinity, we mean, as Frederick Buechner wrote, that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.” [2]

How do we talk about this? Patrick of Ireland used a shamrock to illustrate the Trinity. And I remember reading Soul on Ice in high school in which Eldridge Cleaver said he once considered three-in-one oil as an image for this mystery.

Trinity Sunday reminds us—if we need reminding—that life cannot easily be put into neat little boxes. And try as we will, God is even harder to stuff into a box.

Our experience of God begins with wonder and awe and ends with the worship that sings “Holy, holy, holy.” Between wonder and worship we study and pray, we work together. But we don't come up with all the answers.

This understanding is, of course, something else that marks us as Congregationalists within the United Church of Christ. While we are passionate about action in the world, and understanding the scriptures, and the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives and work and worship, we put less emphasis on “getting it right” when it comes to what we believe. As I tell participants in our new member classes, we are held together by covenant not creed, by our promises of how we will live together rather than our statements of faith.

This approach to the Christian life might be especially comforting on Trinity Sunday, since it is difficult to wrap our minds around the idea of the Trinity.

For those in high school and college, May is a time of testing.

            Advanced Placement tests.

Final exams.

                                    True or false.

                                                Multiple choice.

                                                            Essay questions.

                                                                        Math problems.

                                                                                    Translation of foreign phrases.

All are designed to get at what students have learned in the past semester or trimester, maybe even in the past year.

If you’re someone who has made it through exams already, congratulations. If you still face exams, please remember that prayer is no substitute for study.

The rest of us? Well, isn't it nice to enjoy spring—the longer days, and finally, the warmer weather—without the threat of a test hanging over your head?

Listen once more to the words of Paul at the end of his letter to the Christians in Corinth: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves . . .” At the end of this letter we face a crucial test.

There are no multiple choice questions, no red pencils, no teachers to do the grading, but it's exam time for all of us.

And there is only one question.

Are you still living in the faith?

This isn’t a test about your intellectual beliefs. Paul is not asking anyone to “explain” the Trinity.

Nor is he suggesting an examination of our ability to move mountains.

For Paul, faith is primarily an attitude of trust and obedience toward God through Christ. So he is asking the Corinthians—and through them, a very basic question comes to us: “Are you still Christians?” [3]

We would not answer “yes” because we believe in the One Triune God—as if our belief alone made us Christians.

We would answer “yes”—we are still Christians—because God is a Trinity—beyond us, among us, and within us—empowering us to believe and to act. To say with Paul “Jesus Christ is in us” acknowledges that our lives are not yet complete—that God is still at work in us and among us and through us.

I guess it is a matter of where you put your trust.

If God is a distant creator, unmoved, untouched by our lives, then it’s probably best to put our trust in ourselves. Maybe our own goodness, our own ability will get us somewhere—maybe not.

Trust in the Triune God, however, looks to a Creator who knew weakness and death, who made weakness strong in resurrection, and who still gives strength to face each day. Love becomes possible, not because of our own goodness or the forbearance of someone else. Love grows out of God’s own experience with being hurt and still reaching out to the world. Trusting in God’s love is the only way we will learn to love.

Gratitude, joy, praise, and adoration characterize the Christian life because we believe not only that Christ has died but also that Christ has risen.

Paul concludes this letter as he does all his letters with a blessing. As he finished writing to the contentious and troubled church in Corinth, his blessing calls upon the name of the triune God: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

A blessing expresses an active desire, a human echo of the divine wish that our lives would be full, abundant. The blessing that we give, and those we receive connect us with the power of God at work in the world.

I for one am glad Paul ends with a blessing, for it means there is still hope. As much as I would like to have gratitude, joy, praise, and adoration characterize my life, like you, I know that much of the time my life consists of resentment, sullenness, gloom, and idol worship. And my own resolve just doesn't go very far to change that.

But if there is something like blessing in the world‑‑something like the prayer that one person might have for the benefit of another; if God is a Trinity that works within me and in this community to create followers of the risen Christ; then I can hope to know some of the grace, and love, and communion that blessing offers.

Examine yourselves. You be the judge. And may we all find God’s blessing and be a blessing to one another.

[1] To Begin at the Beginning

[2] Buechner Wishful Thinking, pg. 93.

[3] E. Best, II Corinthians—Interpretation Series, pg, 130.