Theme: For the past three months we brought our gifts that differ in your stories of worship and faith that you bring to this faith community. We are a community made up of as many stories as there are people here. We are also a faith community with a shared story.Given that we bring our own stories and that we have a shared story, it is good to ask “What do we believe together?”
Believing God Together
We have confessed our belief in a Triune God. Let us begin with some questions:
— Can you say that you hold these “Shared Convictions” of Mennonite World Conference?
— If someone asked, ‘Do you believe in one God or three God’s?’ how would you answer?
— Do you believe in the Trinity: God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? We’ll get to the problem of language for God in a minute.
— If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
Thirteenth century Franciscan John Dun Scotus said, “God is the one whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” [centered set vs. bounded set!]
For the past three months we brought our gifts that differ in your stories of worship and faith that you bring to this faith community. We are a community made up of as many stories as there are people here. We are also a faith community with a shared story.
Given that we bring our own stories and that we have a shared story, it is good to ask “What do we believe together?”
This Sunday we enter into a new worship series on “Believing together.” If we take up the task of “what we believe together” from either an individual or doctrinal vantage point, we will quickly veer into the ditch of disagreement or get stuck on the road of dissension. Nevertheless, it is good to explore “what we believe together.” After all we are the body of Christ – a body with many members is still a body not a bloody collection of dismembered body parts.
Considering the challenge of holding “Shared Convictions” here in SMC, imagine the challenge of holding “Shared Convictions” in the global Mennonite-Anabaptist churches!
Being a body that believes together is not just a congregational matter. The circle grows larger as it extends to the conference (PNMC) and then to the denomination (MC USA) and then to the global church (MWC). It extends to the global Christian community. Beyond that we could explore the connection between all religions and God and all humans as being created in God’s image. We are not extending the circle quit that far in these four Sundays of worship on “Believing together.” We are reminded of that important exploration in these days when some so-called christians threaten to burn the Qu’ran and condemn those who don’t share their beliefs.
We are extending our exploration to the global Mennonite church. Mennonites are not a hierarchically structured or doctrinally driven church to hold together a global church. Nevertheless, we are a global church as an affiliation or communion of Anabaptist-Mennonite related national churches.
About a decade ago leaders of the Mennonite World Conference asked what holds us together as a global church. MWC is a global church with one-and-a-half million members in 97 national churches from 53 countries on 6 continents (MWC statement at the front of Alfred Neufeld’s What We Believe Together).
MWC’s search led to a short statement on “What we believe together.” Our litany earlier in worship included the opening and closing paragraphs of these “Shared Convictions” and the first three of seven statements of belief on God-Christ-Spirit. So we begin with the Trinity. The Trinity is vast and complex, central and controversial.
God as problem
A starting place for our encounter with the Triune God is to acknowledge our struggles with God – especially how we name and know God.
As we prepared worship we struggled with the common language for God that identifies God as Father and Jesus as Son of God. I decided to leave it in the “Shared Convictions” for two reasons: first, to leave Mennonite World Conference’s “Shared Convictions” in the language that they have been presented to the global Mennonite church, and second, because I wanted to name it here as one of the ways we struggle with naming and knowing God.
Sarah expressed it so well in our worship preparation: “Language shapes our realities and our patterns of thought, faith, and being in a society that is still quite patriarchal and confined by rigid gender norms.” Mary Moore also raised this concern in preparing for the children’s story.
How very true! And how little noticed! One thing that many of us chaff at in worship when Mennonite Church USA meets is that there is far less attention to language for God in our worship recently than there was 25 years ago. Why is that?
Language is important. While it is awkward or even problematic in some ways to change the language for God it is far more problematic to use of only male language for God. There are no easy language solutions. But we can name the Trinity as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit or as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer or as Our Father who Mothers us all.
I will always remember early in my first pastoral ministry in Cincinnati, a revelation I got from my pastoral colleague and biblical scholar John Kampen. John was teaching a series in sermon and adult study on the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark. We were discussing the relationship of Jesus to God, when someone looked startled and asked John, “You mean you are saying that the Bible doesn’t teach the Trinity?” John gently replied, “I’m afraid the Bible has bad news for the Trinity.”
As John elaborated he wasn’t denying the Trinity he was saying that while the Trinity has roots in the Bible, the name Trinity is not in the Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity was a later formulation 3 centuries later in the early church amidst controversy.
In a seminary class on Contemporary Theology in the 1970s we read a book called God, the Problem, by Mennonite theologian Gordon Kauffman written in response to the “God is dead” controversies of the 1960’s. It opened my eyes to a bigger picture of God and relationship with God that was both intimate and beyond comprehension.
A science fiction novel I recently read exploded and expanded my picture of God.
Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God is about an atheist scientist’s encounter with a being from another universe where beings were more devoted to God and nonviolence than Christians on earth have ever been. Sandra Richardson and I will lead a small group discussion on that book this fall.
Mennonite biblical scholar, Ted Grimsrud, wrote the “Sunday School Lesson” in this weeks issue of Mennonite Weekly Review (9/6/10, p. 5) on the “Wrath of God.” He was writing about God of the Exodus (32:1-10):
Moses has been missing from the newly liberated Hebrew community for 40 days, and the people are getting restless. They have a drive to worship, but Moses, their main conduit to [God], is gone, and “we do not know what has become of him.” So the people turn to Moses’ brother Aaron and ask for help.
Aaron solved their God problem by building a golden calf to worship instead of God.
Their idolatrous worship did not amuse God. God tells Moses, “Let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (32:10). But Moses chastised God for bringing them out of slavery in Egypt in the Exodus only to kill them with wrath. And God had a change of mind and didn’t kill them.
Ted then asks the obvious question: “What do we make of this story and picture of God?”
He goes on to caution us to avoid two deadly mistakes.
The first, would be to reject this picture of God as angry and wrathful. Some Christians are tempted to say the God of Jesus is only “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (a quote from Exodus 34:6). The problem arises when we assume that God is incapable of anger and that God doesn’t hate idolatry and injustice. But the other mistake is to see Exodus 32:10 as a standalone statement about the way God truly is – to define God as a “wrathful God,” period.
The poet Thomas Carlyle said, “I had a lifelong quarrel with God, but we made up in the end.” I have many quarrels with God and keep making up. I think the 5th century theologian Augustine was right in saying, “If you understand it, then it is not God.”
Nevertheless, God is far more than our questions and struggles. God is communion.
God in Communion….Complex Mystery and Complete Reality
God is in communion as a three-personed being – sometimes known as three persons, one substance. This three-personed God is the Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer or Creator-Christ-Spirit. This Triune God is in relationship, in communion within the God-head.
But God is not just in communion with the God’s Triune Self as Creator-Christ-Spirit. God is in communion with you and me, with all of us, with all God’s people all around the world. God is in communion with all God’s creation. God is in all creation and all reality yet not contained by or confined to our reality.
Some of the best biblical language for the incomprehensible majestic mystery and awesome beauty of this three-personed God is the opening words of John’s Gospel. We heard only a portion of that introduction to God-Christ-Sprit earlier in worship [1:1-5].
In the face of the Triune God our best response is doxology – to praise and worship God.
Our first response to God is an act of worship not a debate about doctrine. Scripture and songs, prayer and poetry are our first and best way to praise and worship the Triune God.
The scripture we heard and the song we sang from the ancient hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a beautiful portrayal of who Jesus Christ is as the second person of our three-personed God (2:5-11; HWB 333).
Our second hymn is sacred prayer and poetry, a song rooted in scripture. It is short and simple yet beautiful and profound, with the Trinity being Source-Word-Spirit (HWB 95):
Praise God, the Source of life and birth.
Praise God, the Word who came to earth.
Praise God, the Spirit holy Flame.
All glory, honor to God’s name.
Be attentive to the rich imagery for the Triune God in our hymn of response: O Holy Spirit, Root of Life (HWB 123). These are Mennonite poet Jean Janzen’s powerful words inspired by the 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen and put to music by another Mennonite Leonard Enns.
Catherine LaCugna, in her majestic book, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, says it so well: “The mystery of God is revealed in Christ and the Spirit as a mystery of love, the mystery of persons in communion…gathers us together into the body of Christ, transforming us so that ‘we become by grace what God is by nature,’ namely, persons in full communion with God and with every creature. The life of God – precisely because God is triune – does not belong to God alone….Divine life is also our life” (1).
We do not do this alone or on our own; we do it in communion as church. “The church…is the People of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit…to embody in the world the presence of the risen Christ…to point to the reign of God…” (401).
We receive and reflect the image of our Triune God in communion. God is Communion. God is in communion. We are God’s communion people.
How could we not claim and proclaim these “Shared Convictions” calling us to that purpose and leading us to encounter God-Christ-Spirit in worship?
You can do that at home this week as well. Take this worship order home and pray and ponder these “Shared Convictions” this week, read and pray the scriptures, sing the songs for your daily meditation. Listen to what God is saying to you and to us in them remembering our global Mennonite World Conference church family.
There is a beautiful prayer in the back of Sing the Journey that draws us into our communion with God (187). Let yourself be open to encountering our Triune God in this prayer.
O Holy Trinity, your dance of love invites us into the mysteries of death and life, When you offered yourself for us, O Christ, you gave life the victory over death, hope the victory over pain, joy the victory over despair…..
Come Spirit, come upon us now, that we might [become Christ’s body in the world].
Dance in us, O Holy Trinity…
that our bodies may be joined in one body
and that we might join our earthly dance with yours.
————————- addendum —————-
God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is an active, dynamic, living encounter with the greatest reality that ever has been or will be. God is the Really Real before, in, and beyond all reality. This is the God known as [Creator-Christ-Spirit], the [One] who seeks to restore fallen humanity by calling a people to be faithful in fellowship, worship, service, and witness. Jesus is the true Human One, the [Child] of God. Through Jesus’ life and teachings, through his cross and resurrection, he showed us how to be faithful disciples, redeemed the world, and offers eternal life.
Martin Luther King, Jr., declared God to be “tough-minded enough to transcend the world but tender-hearted enough to live in it.”
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who calls himself a “high-church Mennonite,” in a recent memoir called Hannah’s child, tells us in no uncertain terms, that God of the universe “’is not just any God,’ but the God who ‘has shown up in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ’” (Doris Donnelly, “Bricklayer’s Son” review of Hannah’s Child in America, 8/2/2010, online version)