I preached from this sermon manuscript for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on June 12, 2022 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Romans 5: 1-5 and John 16: 12-15.
Each time I preach in this church, I thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me and you for welcoming me. This isn’t just a bit of ministerial etiquette. Several of you know that I used to be the minister of this church (many years ago) and I want you to know (and want you to know that I know) that I don’t take my presence here for granted. I respect the established lines of authority and responsibility, precisely because this was once a problem in ministerial college. My greeting, therefore, is also a bit of applied ecclesiology. It comes from a spiritual discipline. And thank you this morning.
I’m not the only one to frame a sermon with a recognizable formula. Pastor Gatton (and others) introduce sermons with a title, preparing our thoughts in a particular direction. And the Reverend Colleen Fay always begins with a prayer from scripture,
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.
That passage from Psalm 19 prepares us listeners, but it is also a prayer and a plea that chastens the preacher to speak truthfully. And I’ve been thinking about the truth lately, and how we prepare ourselves to defend it.
The vocation of truth
Maybe it’s a minister’s bias, but I see the work of the sermon in parallel to the work of our individual Christian vocations. Both require reflection, and benefit from having forms. There’s no guidebook to being a faithful Christian (no, not even the Bible) or even a list of essential characteristics. Because the point of this faith is to have “our life and to have it more abundantly” – and not only for ourselves, before the sake of the whole world. We make use of our spiritual lives in a supportive environment like the church so we will be strong and flexible to respond the rest of the time. And that includes being truthful and trustworthy.
The Trinity Sunday “problem”
In many churches, today is commemorated as Trinity Sunday, teaching the nature of the relationship of one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Universalists have not made belief in the orthodox doctrine of Trinity a requirement to belong; neither must it be disbelieved, and in fact I do believe it.
In some denominations, the Trinity Sunday sermon was an opportunity for preachers to explain this complex and nuanced theology for the edification of the people — and too often to get it incorrect and fall just the kind of formal heresy they were hoping to teach against. Such a sermon could also be a way for learned ministers to show off their education, using language and concepts that they do not commonly use themselves – in short, to show off. There are ways to teach the doctrine of the Trinity, but that is not it. Such preaching does not bring truth, does not demonstrate trust and it does not bring life.
The liberal approach to theology – we’re a liberal Christian church – is more subtle. We must take what we know, our context in the world, and what we have inherited as religious culture (and other cultures) and from these create a theological framework from which we live and make our everyday lives richer and more meaningful. Such observations need to be tested, and generous margins must be left for friendly disagreement. We are guided, inspired, encouraged and (yes) chastened by scripture and those interpretations of our tradition which collectively call theology. In stable times, this interplay of tradition and interpretation can set up guidelines to help us live well and better.
The “use” of truth
And in hard times, this approach and the convictions it finally develops can give us the strength and resolve to make difficult decisions.
As a nation, we have to face a lot of difficult truths to face, not the least of which is the January 6 investigation. I’m worried if the truth will not be see, and get buried under conspiracy and misdirection. As a world, I’m worried that climate change will make living unbearable and spark wars that consume millions. But will we hear the truth and take corrective steps, or let the comfort of inertia carry us beyond the point of no return? We need help, and look for concrete solutions. But spiritual life is not the same as political or economic life.
“Thoughts and prayers” are not adequate responses when making public policy, but they are essential preconditions for Christians setting out to respond to evil. Those thoughts — the meditations of our hearts — are a preparation for God to help us make sense of what we have experienced. In great occasions and important moments, discernment is not optional.
For if we do not know who we are, and what we stand for, we can too easily be co-opted into each and every cause of the day. This happens all over the political landscape because political and economic life seems strong and real, while spiritual life seems weak and ephemeral. Let’s try to understand it better.
In our lessons today we hear about a spirit which is to come to us. In Romans, Paul refers to “The Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus promised that “when the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all truth.” The coming of the Spirit is commemorated at Pentecost, last week, where its presence dissolved the differences of different nations, and let them understand one another as with a common language.
What is the spirit? How do we know if its presence? Why should we believe any of this? If it were that important, why isn’t it the the Great Sacred Hammer or the Brick Wall of Illumination or something more concrete? But since it’s a spirit, what do we do with it?
We cannot see it, we cannot measure it; neither can we capture or control it. It is free.
For just as there are false gods and false saviors, there are false spirits. The spirit must be discerned with patience and gentleness; it cannot be hurried or forced. It may be claimed, but it’s on us whether we believe the claim. For in a sense, the process of discerning the spirit is its power. So, when our conscience is betrayed, when decisions are forced, when persons are defamed, the immeasurable, unconquerable, invisible spirit is far more real than the madness that passes for reality.
Likewise, then the spirit is performed, like a play, and then we know it is not the spirit that is speaking. Or when it is brought out to hurt others, or to create division or to validate its preachers, we know to pause and examine, because a spirit maybe speaking but it is neither holy nor the bringer of truth. If our faith moves us in a God-ward direction, we should know who is guiding us, and whether or not its trustworthy.
Themes explored in Romans
Our first reading today comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. I am drawing heavily from The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness by the Rev. Katherine Grieb, a professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary over in Alexandria. Even though you could read this document in less than an hour, it’s theological importance can’t be overstated. It’s influence on Augustine shape the development of the church, and their influence on Luther galvanized the Protestant Reformation. Even today, it acts as a common text for churches seeking common ground. Paul in Romans makes an appeal to conscience; he also respectfully recognizes Phoebe, a colleague in the ministry, itself an important note as other texts from Paul have been used to justify limiting the ministry to men.
Nevertheless, Roman can be a hard read, and not just because of its complex grammar and use of allusions. It contains one of the main “gotcha” texts against gay men, which tells me a lot about how people find what they want. And themes in Romans have been perversely twisted to justify the conversion efforts against Jews, if not worse.
Paul, as a Jew, needed to make sense of God’s promises to Israel on one hand, and the fact that this revelation he preached was not accepted by his own people, but was increasingly accepted by everyone else.
For context, the church in Rome had conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. And a lot of the trouble wasn’t theological but came from outside the community. The emperor Claudius decreed that all Jews were to be expelled from Rome. There was a controversial figure called Chrestus; perhaps a misunderstood reference to conflict between Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and those who didn’t. Claudius didn’t take sides in the controversy and expelled all of them. This meant that the Christian church in Rome was Gentile until Claudius died and his ban expired. When Jews returned to Rome, including Jewish Christians, unresolved and perhaps deepened theological disputes came back up.
Additionally, Paul couldn’t understand why Jews in his own day didn’t accept Jesus as the messiah. The letter shows his anguish, lays out arguments and counters others. It’s too much to get into now, but all his thoughts hinge on God’s righteousness, and how God has a future purpose and goal for Israel; today’s passage is a hinge in that discourse.
“A slave…” to what?
Paul begins Romans by calling himself a slave of Jesus Christ, which is upsetting, galling or insulting to modern ears. But what he and his listeners understood is that each of us is dependent upon something. Perhaps a person or persons, perhaps a form of economy or system of government, perhaps an idea, perhaps our own desires. We are not truly independent. Paul, interpreting his experience, acknowledged his dependence on Jesus Christ as a source of life, truth and hope, even if his personal outcome is (in fact, was) hardship, suffering and death.
Because “we are justified by faith we have peace with God.” How? To flip around Paul’s difficult syntax, “through our Lord Jesus Christ, … [we access] this grace in which we stand.” From this, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
This doesn’t mean we are justified by our intellectual assent to something about God, but instead we are justified by God’s righteousness, Instead think of it this way: that God is faithful in maintaining the promises God makes. This is what we mean by saying that God is righteous. God is right-doing. (Squaring the righteousness of God with the future of Israel is Paul’s key concerned in the letter to the Romans but this detailed discussion isn’t well suited to be slotted into a sermon, so I’ll leave that for now.)
Worthy of worship
Something you find in Universalist thinking over and over is that God must be worthy of worship. A God who would inflict conscious and eternal torment on any sentient being is not worthy of worship; it is slander against God; it is our imputing our anger and violence onto the Creator of the Universe. Such of God is untrustworthy, for in other words, is not righteous.
A trustworthy God would not abandon us, and does not. Consider that the presence of God’s spirit comes in moments of clear resolve, of self-giving love, in difficult decisions, in moments of harmony, in peace after conflict, in the remembrance of friends, in the satisfaction from restrain, in laughter after tears, in “hope that does not disappoint.” We test these feelings by reflection, with consultation with trusted persons, by waiting in silence, in comparison with trustworthy evidence, with patience, hearing the voice of conscience…
So the spirit is not something for us to use, but we to be led by it, to be comforted and revived, and be blessed.
The proper use of the spirit
Friends: God makes the proper use of the spirit: given it to us that we might discern the truth and do it. And this is one way a righteous God, a loving God lives in the world, and gives us hope.
And so may God bless us and keep us, providing what we need so we might be a blessing to one another.