Today we celebrate ignorance. Not intentional ignorance, but literal not knowing. This is where we have to begin in order to get to where we need to be. We begin with the knowledge that there is a lot we do not know.
But we can learn, if we want to learn; if we are open to instruction and diligent to do our homework, we can be taught.
There is an adult education curriculum which has a name I love: Living the Questions. As long as we live, we never get to the point of having all the answers – in fact, if we are paying attention, we seem to accumulate questions.
There are groups of Christians that have put their accent on having all the answers, on complete certainty, I grew up in such a tradition, but I found it inadequate.
We were certain that we understood the book of Revelation. We were certain that we knew approximately when Jesus was coming back; (probably next Thursday). We were certain that Henry Kissinger was the anti-Christ, the man of peace. We were certain that the 10 member European Union was the beast with ten horns.
We were also certain about our politics, certain about global Communism and the domino theory. We were certain about the family, about the place of women (or lack of place of women outside the home). We were certain about science, about the age of the earth, and about who was and who was not a true Christian.
Perhaps we failed to adequately appreciate what a long line of ignorance preceded us to this point. It took our ancestors in the faith, the people of Israel from the time of Abraham to the time of Daniel to finally come to believe in the resurrection of the dead – that took about 2,000 years.
This Sunday is called Trinity Sunday. It took the church until AD 325 to finally reach consensus on the Trinity, which she did at the council of Nicea in 325.
To get even deeper, it took the church another 100 years after Nicea to come to consensus about the 2 natures of Christ: that he is full human and fully divine – the council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.
It took the Church 100 years after Galileo died (1642) to finally and fully rehabilitate him as a faithful Christian (1741). It turns out that both were wrong – neither the earth, as the church taught, nor the sun as Galileo argued, is the center of the universe we live in. But Galileo was closer to the truth than Rome had been.
Probably there were things that the church started out being correct about, but which became distorted along the way and had to be re-learned.
Latin was the street language of the Roman empire, everyone from slaves to the emperor spoke it – but when Christian missionaries failed to translate the liturgy into the language of the people they were converting, we ended up with the Latin mass which no one understood.
It took the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century to get back to the concept of using the vernacular for worship. (Apologies for ignoring Jan Hus in Czech, but that was a local Reformation – albeit an earlier one).
It also took until the Protestant Reformation to get back to the fundamental concept that we are saved by God’s grace alone and not by our own good works.
We will come to the Lord’s Supper in just a few minutes. Now, there is no one here – with no exceptions – who can claim to understand what happens at this holy feast, or how it happens. Christ is present here – how? Is he in the bread and cup, or is he around and through them, or is he simply present at the table with us? Certainly he is here in ways far more powerful than in memory alone, but how is he more present?
Today as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are going to be spiritually fed; this is vital for us. How does it happen? How is this meal a means of grace for us? These also were questions which the Reformers of the 16th century wrestled with. We no longer pretend to know – but it is a means of grace in spite of our ignorance.
And our lack of pretense of knowledge has consequently opened the door to the participation of people from other Christian denominations who conceptualize this mystery in a bit different manner, as well as to children whose participation, like our own, is not contingent upon knowledge, but rather on faith.
Our communion bread and cup will be served today by women and men who we have ordained as elders in the church. It took us nearly 2,000 years to finally shed this bit of our ignorance, but thank God, we have.
We exist as a church, not to serve ourselves but to be salt and light to the world – this is also something we had to re-learn in the Reformation. We are not here to build great cathedrals but to be vehicles of God’s grace and goodness to people who are hurting.
It is abundantly clear that we, the Church have had a long and noble history of being ignorant. But this dark cloud does contain a silver lining which is that we have repeatedly demonstrated that we can be taught. We can and we do eventually admit our ignorance and learn or re-learn new things.
We should never be embarrassed to admit that we have been wrong about what we used to believe in the past. We should never be shy about admitting that we have changed our minds on the basis of learning something we did not know before, because this is exactly what Jesus said would happen.
Listen again to Jesus, speaking to his disciples in the upper room, just before his arrest:
12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth
We celebrate the Trinity no better than when we trust the words of the Son to be truth from the Father, that the Spirit will continue to teach the church things that it did not know.
Jesus went so far as to call the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of Truth” precisely to highlight the ministry of teaching that the Spirit has. This would be a useless ministry if we already knew and understood everything, but it is a crucial ministry if we do not.
Here is where this gets exciting to me: how do we know we are on the right track in the process of learning something new? How do we keep from abandoning Christian orthodoxy in favor of the latest fad of culture or philosophy? Can the church have any confidence that what she thinks she is learning is actually faithful?
Yes! There is a test that we always apply to determine if what we think we are learning is actually coming from the Sprit of Truth or some other source.
Listen again to what Jesus told his disciples that night:
14He (the Spirit of Truth) will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Jesus is the key. Jesus is the test. Jesus – his words, his ministry, his ethics and values, his whole life is the lens by which we see examine the things we call true.
Put another way, the Spirit’s ministry is to help us to see whether or not something is true, by comparing it to Jesus.
This is where we get really Trinitarian: we do not believe that Jesus was like God. We believe that God is like Jesus.
We get to know God the Father by knowing Jesus; is Jesus vindictive or cruel? Then God cannot be vindictive or cruel. Is Jesus unjust or apathetic? Then the Father cannot be unjust or apathetic.
Did Jesus despise the weak or women or children? Did he shun lepers or impure people? No! Just the opposite. We understand God through the lens of Jesus.
And every time we re-examine the world through the Jesus-lens, we are experiencing the teaching ministry of the Spirit of Truth, still actively educating the Church today. This is what it means to believe in the Trinity.
What will we take away from this Trinity Sunday? First, a reaffirmation of our ignorance: we do not have all the answers, and some of the answers we think we have are probably mistaken – as is in keeping with our entire history as a church. We will be humble, uncertain, but open-hearted people of faith.
And second, we will be open to the Spirit of Truth teaching us things we did not previously know. We will be teachable. We will allow the Spirit to hold up the Jesus-lens to our eyes to get a better view of the world – to better see it as God the Father does.
We will expect to need to make adjustments, corrections, and sometimes, about-faces as we are led by the Spirit into truth.
So, here we are, ready for the mystery of the Lord’s Supper. It is a great comfort that the blessing we will receive at this table is not contingent on our depth of understanding: here at the table – of all places – we come ignorantly.
But in spite of our ignorance, we will be fed and strengthened by this meal. We will be renewed in our desire to be taught by the Spirit. We will be fortified in our journey to become more like Jesus in our personal lives.
What was Jesus like? In other words, what is God like? Loving – giving – self-sacrificing – pouring out himself on behalf of sinners – on our behalf. What an image of God to see. What a great Truth to believe. What a powerful challenge to emulate.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the blessed Trinity.