There were a couple of other fun options in the lectionary that we could have looked at, but to be honest, I chose this one because I consistently flub this benediction. I don’t know what psychic block I’ve got against it, but I can rarely get through more than a couple of Sundays without forgetting some part of it. I thought maybe if I worked with it for a week and preached on it, it would help my recall. I managed not to flub it yesterday. We’ll see if it helps at all in the future. In the meantime, some thoughts about the passage after the jump…
Today is Trinity Sunday. That doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as Pentecost, does it?
On Pentecost we had wind and fire and flowers and great music and hand clapping and birthday cupcakes. Last week we had a party.
This week we have… a doctrine.
And an especially esoteric, obtuse one at that. The trinity, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, is the idea that we’ve come to know God as God–the ultimate creator and life-giver, as Jesus–who was God in human flesh, and as the Holy Spirit–the sustaining presence within each of us. God is all three of these, but also only one. It’s a paradox, a mystery at the center of our faith.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor lays down a challenge that has nagged me ever since I first read it. She says, “If one of our orthodox beliefs has no corporeal value, if we cannot come up with a single consequence it has for our embodied life together, then there is good reason to ask why we should bother with it at all.”
That’s one heck of a challenge. She’s saying as people who follow Jesus we’ve come to know a flesh and blood God, a God who says matter matters. If one of our beliefs, like, say, the trinity, has no bearing on our actual human experience, has nothing to do with these tangible, daily lives that God has so hallowed, well then, it has no business in our faith.
That’s a daunting claim, huh? What on earth does this three-in-one, one-in-three God have to do with life as you as I know it? I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has thought, on occasion, perhaps the trinity is just religious jargon.
Now, I wouldn’t call our text for today jargon, but it does get awfully close to religious cliche territory. It includes one of the most often repeated verses in the whole Bible. Christians have been closing worship services with it for centuries. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
It is the most basic, and most elegant of the Biblical trinitarian benedictions.
There’s another real churchy-word. Benediction. Trinitarian Benediction. That’s what we all got out of bed for, isn’t it? To contemplate the intricacies and implications of the classic trinitarian benediction.
If that sentence just put you to sleep, wake back up and hang with me, because the way Paul uses the trinity here at the end of his letter is really helpful in sorting out what the trinity has to do with real life. It deals with how we’re going to manage to get along with all the people in our lives–the people we love, and the people who drive us crazy.
This verse comes at the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. It’s a lovely ending, isn’t it? Full of peace and good will. You’d never guess from these three sweet verses that the letter has been far from sweet.
Paul and the folks he’s writing to are fighting. A lot. They’re fighting about all sorts of things. Authority, ethics, beliefs. The fighting has been intense. This is not just a disagreement about how to arrange the furniture. This is the kind of fight that splits a church, the kind of fight that could lead to one member of a family being disowned, the kind of fight that leads to divorce. Throughout the letter Paul is arguing passionately for what he believes is the truth, while also trying to repair the divisions that have sprung up between them.
That’s the context in which these words are said. Paul comes to the end of his arguing and cajoling and pleading and all that’s left is for him to bless these people he loves so much, and he blesses them in the name of the triune God.
This is the only blessing Paul gives that mentions all three persons of the Trinity, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it comes after this big fight. Paul reminds himself and the Corinthians of the triune nature of God because to say that God is triune is to say that God is a God of relationship, a God of eternal, ever shifting, ever abiding love for another.
The Trinity is one of the ultimate “both-and” symbols. It says God is both one and three, both united and divided, both melody and harmony.
The early Church philosophers who came up with the idea of the Trinity had totally different world views than we do. They were discussing substances, whether or not the substance–the actual stuff–of God eternal is the same as and how it relates to the substance we have in our bodies. We don’t ask those kinds of questions today. We ask different questions.
But the truth they hit on in asking those questions continues to bear fruit for us today. As with any truth, the meaning overflows. And Paul’s usage reminds us today of a key part of the truth of the Trinity: God is social. The God we’ve come to know in Jesus is not a lone-ranger God who doesn’t need anybody else and is never vulnerable to another. Nope. Our God is a God who, from the very beginning was longing for connection and defined by self-giving love. It makes me think of Walt Whitman writing, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” That’s how God is.
The Trinity provides us an image of God that embraces differences and holds those differences together in an on-going love relationship. See why that might have been helpful to Paul?
As he struggles with how am I going to make it work with these people I love so much who are driving me crazy, he turns to this image of God in relationship, God as a community. And he blesses these folks in the name of that God, God who holds together in spite of difference, God who cannot say I have no need of you, God who cannot help but be in love.
The stuff Paul was facing is stuff we all face, isn’t it? How am I going to get along with my partner for one more day? How will I manage to keep loving my child through adolescence, or how am I going to put up with my parents until I turn 18? How am I going to get along with this so-and-so co-worker, or boss? How am I going to live with these people, much less love them?
Paul’s trinitarian benediction offers us at least two pieces of wisdom in the midst of those questions.
First, a reminder that the idea that we can do anything on our own is just not true. Our God is a God who longs for connection with the other, and we are created in God’s image. We, too, are creatures of relationship. We were created in community with the rocks and the trees and the whales and all the people who we love and who drive us crazy. That’s as much our identity as the color of our eyes or the way we walk. We cannot cut ourselves off from others without damaging the image of God within us. We are that way, because God is that way. The truth of the Trinity tells us that. We are created for each other; we are created for love.
And then, the second piece of wisdom that Paul’s benediction offers: when the going gets tough and we’re not sure how we’re going to be able to make it work with these people, we can always try a blessing.
It’s no accident that conflict drove Paul to reflect on God as a God of loving relationship. And it’s also no accident that his reflection took the form of a benediction, a blessing.
That’s all a benediction is. It’s a blessing that comes at the end of something. Blessing has a lot of different meanings, but at its most fundamental, to bless something is to look upon it with eyes of love. For us religious folks, to bless something is to call attention to God’s love abiding in or with something. To bless something doesn’t make it holy. It acknowledges the holiness that’s already there. It’s like putting on a pair of God-tinted glasses when you look at something.
When we bless our food before a meal, we’re not making the food holy. We’re acknowledging that all life comes from God, and that this food in front of us is part of the life that God offers. The food’s already holy because God made it. The blessing is for us. It makes us pause and acknowledge it.
Likewise when Paul blesses his loved ones at Corinth. He is not papering over their divisions or smiling and making nice. He’s reminding himself and them of their true nature. They are children of God, created in the image of God who is longing love.
Where are they going to find the strength, the ability to keep loving each other in spite of their deep disagreements? This blessing says they’ll find the ability to stay in community by leaning on the strength of the God who is the archetype of loving relationship. When the brokenness of the community seems insurmountable, Paul’s blessing is a reminder that they aren’t relying on their own power to get along, but on God’s power.
And here’s the really cool thing. This benediction, this blessing in the name of the Triune God is not just a reminder. It’s an enactment. It’s an embodiment of that love that holds different people, even deeply divided people, in relationship.
I had a worship professor who liked to say that worship is practice. What we do here is practice for our every day lives. It’s not separate from the rest of life. We sing here, so that we’ll be able to sing on the good days and the bad days. We greet each other warmly with love and peace here so that we’ll be able to take that greeting out to all we meet. We offer our time and our money and our lives, so that we’ll be able to take that generosity and self-giving love out into the world. And we practice blessing and being blessed here, so that we’ll be able to take those God-tinted glasses into the world with us.
The benediction I offer on Sundays, which most often is taken from Paul’s words right here, is practice. It’s an enactment of the truth that we are able to be in community together, we are able love each other, because of our God who is self-giving, abiding, love for another.
And don’t let the fact that I’m the one most often doing the blessing fool you. Blessing is not a privilege reserved for those of us in funny clothes, or with a degree, or particular job. I sometimes wonder if pastors are the ones to most regularly offer the benediction because they’re the ones who need the most practice and the most help with loving. I think that’s why Paul offered the benediction at the end of his letter. He longed to keep on loving these people and he knew that he needed to rely not on his own strength, but on the strength of God who is ever empowering community.
So, what difference does the trinity make in our life together? And, even more esoterically, what difference does a trinitarian benediction make? I think it is nothing less than that which empowers and sustains us as we seek to love the people in our lives.
Try it this week with me. When your kids or grandkids make you crazy, when your mother or father has just stepped on your last nerve, when the people around you seem utterly impossible to abide for one more moment, what if you said, or thought, or whispered these words: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you. See if it helps. If it helps them, and even more if it helps you. I think you’ll find, as Paul did, that when we come to the end of our own power to love, we are able to love only by relying on the love of God.
And that, friends, is a love that does not end. It is a love that is always seeking, always reaching out for the other, always giving freely, always enduring and abiding. We were created in the image of that love. We are saved by that love. And we are only able to love each other because of the presence and by the power of the love that we met first in our triune God. For that, thanks be to God.Bethany Presbyterian Church June 19, 2011