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Sermon – June 19, 2011 – Father, Son, Holy Spirit

Sermon for June 19, 2011    The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
Father, Son, Holy Spirit         Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13, Matthew 28: 16-20
Most of us have seen the movie “The Wizard of Oz” and I am going to try to talk about the Christian notion of the Trinity–God being in three persons, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–using the conclusion of that film. It is obviously a poor match, because the Wizard is not God, and Dorothy is accidentally let down by the Wizard, and there is something like magic which intervenes for Dorothy at the end, as well as something Dorothy has within her. However, the concept of the Trinity is so confusing and so dry a topic to explain that I prefer to highlight the similarities to the three persons, so to speak, of the climax of Dorothyʼs quest in Oz.
Weʼll begin with the Wizard of Oz whom Dorothy first meets. He is a scary Divinity barely accessible in an inner sanctum in a great capital city. To that extent heʼs much like the God of the Jews, believed to be available only at the Temple in Jerusalem, at least in the official cult. The Jewsʼ deity has a role like father of the nation, and that role itself owes more to the ancient worldʼs place of clan chief than to what you or I might think of as father.
For several decades our debate about referring to God as “Father” has reflected late twentieth-century societyʼs sense of what a “father” is. Feminists pointed out that the automatic privileging of male pronouns in our language and male predominance in our laws was reflected in a regrettable patriarchal system in our religion. Others pointed out the frequent failure of men to be good fathers, and the consequent difficulty their offspring might have in comprehending as good a God who shared the same title.
There is merit to both these critiques of always referring to God as “Father.” Since Genesis says that the image of God in which we are made results in our being created male and female, the original must have elements of both; and other scriptures highlight both feminine and masculine qualities of God. There certainly are people whose experience of someone they were taught to know as “father” was so negative that the use of that term for God impedes their achieving the wholeness God intends.
However, the Bibleʼs use of the term “Father” for God has broader meanings than either masculinity or male parent. To understand how the Jews thought about a father-figure God, I will begin with an example of the status of the dominant male, so to speak, in a more modern society.
The head of a Scottish clan is addressed by what everyone else in the clan has as a surname. John Cameron and Nell Cameron are members of the clan Cameron, and their chief is known simply as “Cameron.” If you send a letter to Cameron, you address it “The Cameron.” The word “clan” means “children,” and the premise is that the chief is the dynastic successor of the originator of the whole tribe.
I am afraid that the traditional role of the head men of such societies was associated with violence, whether leadership in battle or the more limited force required to establish justice. This was a hereditary obligation, and clearly some individuals embodied it better than others, but the role was always the same: protector of all during war and in peacetime, judge in matters of dispute. There was, of course, in tribal societies also the idea of biological responsibility for the whole, but when we call God our “Maker” we are conveying a limited part of what “Father” meant to the Jews. The accountability of the chief not only for the existence but the continued well-being of the whole society would have included all those other terms we use for God, even “Almighty,” because within their spheres chiefs were paramount; and certainly Defender, Redeemer, and Friend, the Redeemer having more the sense of Rescuer, the warrior who would raid the raiders and bring the captives home. A broad sense of family obligation would account for something like “friend,” at least in the sense of someone well disposed toward one, not just from kindness but from a claim one has on that other personʼs attention and loyalty.
These extensive connotations to the role of the principle father in such societies accounts for the status of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Hebrew tradition, for Hebrew scrupulousness in genealogy, and for, at least in an ideal sense, a society of brothers and sisters. This last feature of the common Father concept found its way into Christianity, and some Christians still call each other brother and sister today.
That gets us to the second person of the Trinity, and continuing the comparison with those on whom Dorothy relies to get home from Oz. Once the impressive and scary projections of image and voice are revealed to be misleading, the Wizard is revealed to be a human being just like Dorothy. In fact, he is a human exactly like Dorothy, because he also is from Dorothyʼs world, and only temporarily in Oz. You understand Iʼm not saying that the old ancestral God of the Jews was a fake and Jesus the real person behind him. What Iʼm saying is the roles played by the official Wizard, the human Wizard, and what happens with Dorothy at the end are like the early churchʼs experience of God in three persons.
When the Wizard is seen as only human, he becomes most able to help Dorothy. In fact, he has all kinds of wisdom and redemptive power, which he seems himself not to have suspected, just like the Lion underestimated his courage and the straw man his brains. The human being formerly behind the image of the Wizard has a means of rescue, in the hot air balloon which brought him to Oz, and he offers to take Dorothy back with him to America.
Jesus of Nazareth seems to have referred to God as Father. That, and Messianic expectation, probably account for his being called “Son.” But how did Jesus, who first was known as a fellow mortal, become seen as identical with God? The supernatural things associated with Jesus, especially his resurrection and post-resurrection appearances, seem to have played their part, as well as the effort by his disciples to understand him in terms present to them in their tradition. There already was a concept that God employed an agent of Creation which Proverbs had distinguished as a female personification of wisdom. Changed to “Word” by the author of Johnʼs gospel, it made Christ always an aspect or partner, or something, of God. The formulas on which the church insisted in order to enforce orthodoxy are tidier than the events and arguments which went into them, but the main point probably is that believers find that a fellow mortal, even when elevated to divinity, is the best savior for them.
Christ gave the earliest Christians a human face for God, and in that sense, a God who could engage, and be engaged, on more familiar terms than the traditional God of the Jews, who couldnʼt even be named without sacrilegious presumption. It was Jesusʼ voice which Paul found addressing him from the bright cloud which knocked him down onto the Damascus road. It was Jesus who was said to be the “image of the invisible God,” and Jesus who had brought “life and immortality to light.” If he served as a go-between, an interpreter, an emissary and an illuminator of the ancestral God, none of those roles seemed adequate to explain his nature. He also was God, once God in the flesh, and now God in a particular relationship to persons who were able to be faithful because of the achievement of God in the flesh.
Dorothy, at the end of her days in Oz, is not delivered either by the impressive official God which relied on machinery, nor by the human being assuming the same role, though he offered real hope. She is rescued by something inside herself. The Good Witch who comes to help her get home tells her that the power to return always has been hers, and she merely has to claim it. The number three figures again, “Thereʼs no place like home” repeated, and sheʼs back in Kansas.
The New Testamentʼs Holy Spirit is an outpouring of Godʼs transforming power which accompanies baptism. The Spirit itself gives the gift of faith, and it provides other abilities and outcomes according to the individual believerʼs realization of his or her Christian potential. The Spirit is the medium of prayer, and of reflection, part of the interior life of the believer as well as the inner nature of God. Like God, it is everywhere, always brimming on the boundary of daily life, always evident, to the faithful observer, in the workings of the soul and of the world. It is the most intimate and personal apprehension of God, accessible to feeling, emotion and intuition even more than to reflection. If the Father God seems to work on a person from the outside, from topdown, and God the Son seems to engage a person face-to-face, the Holy Spirit achieves Godʼs presence in the believerʼs life from the inside.
The power of each of these ways of finding salvation persuaded the first Christians that God was in each; that each was somehow God. That paradox has challenged the church ever since. It is an inheritance of events and apprehensions, the result of the history of people delivered from fear to hope. In its strangeness God may grant us the gift to see something true about ourselves, and our need to find peace and our true place.

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