It is Finished! So, Get to Work! – An Ascension Sermon

GOODBYES SUCK

You know, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s goodbyes. Anyone else here hate goodbyes?

Yeah, and the fact that I hate them so much means I’m not really very good at goodbyes.

Sometimes I get awkward and silent. Sometimes I get awkward and really chatty! Heck, sometimes I get awkward and I make poor choices, like the one time when I was getting ready to say goodbye to my family when they dropped me off at college.

They were looking forward to a final dinner with me, in the school cafeteria, before they left. But I was worried about the awkwardness of saying a tearful goodbye between packed tables and chairs, so I suggested that they just leave.

Let’s just say that my family wasn’t very happy. And me? Neither was I. I ate my first college meal all alone.

Goodbyes suck. And I often suck at goodbyes.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, for one thing, this is my “goodbye” sermon here at St. Peter’s, and I wanted to give an excuse for this sermon, if it sucks!

In all seriousness, I do want to thank this congregation for being such a good place for Rachel and me to serve and grow alongside you. Thank you for loving Rachel and me as our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will miss you all very much as we move to Illinois this week.

Anyways, I don’t want this goodbye to get TOO awkward, so I’d better keep on preaching!

I think that goodbyes are bad because they so often leave our stories unfinished.

And we humans tend to hate unfinished business. It’s so much better when the story has an end! Sometimes, even a bad ending is better than no ending at all!

Think about it, if you’re watching an important game on TV – say, Alabama vs. Auburn – would you rather see the ending, even if your team loses, or have the power go out and completely miss the final minutes?

Stories without endings are frustrating. And that’s why it’s so hard to say goodbye.

That’s why Death – the ultimate goodbye, if you will – is so horrible.

It’s not really an ending, not for those of us who go on living, anyways. Instead, Death leaves our stories hanging, with words left unsaid and promises left unfulfilled.

I think here of parents in Manchester this week who were forced to say goodbye to their children all too soon, thanks to the suicide bombing. Or the Coptic Christians in Egypt forced to say goodbye to their loved ones too soon, thanks to the bus attack.

Goodbyes suck, because they leave our stories unfinished.

WHAT ABOUT THE ASCENSION?

Is the Ascension of Jesus Christ, then, just another awful goodbye?

I mean, think about the emotional rollercoaster Christ’s followers must have ridden in those days. Rising hopes of God’s coming kingdom dashed to the ground at the Crucifixion – only to rise once more at the Resurrection!

“Jesus, you’re alive! Surely, surely now’s the time when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel, right?!

“I mean, you had us worried there for a minute, what with the whole executed like a common criminal thing… but SURELY now’s the time!

“Seize the day! Take the throne! Kill these Romans, won’t you?! Won’t you?!”

… Now, I’m sure that the Ascension was glorious. After all, Luke tells us that the disciples worshiped and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

But the Ascension was still a goodbye.

And I’m sure that, eventually, the glory faded as the disciples gazed into heaven. And they needed the angels’ reminder:

“Men of Galilee, who do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” [Acts 1:11].

OK, so maybe it’s fairer to say that the Ascension was a “see-you-later.”

Fine.

But doesn’t the Ascension still leave things hanging?

Doesn’t it still leave our story – and the story of the Gospel – unfinished?

Well, yes…and no.

If I might paraphrase the angels’ message in Acts 1 as the title of my sermon, here it is:

“It’s finished! So, get to work!”

And here’s my main point:

The Ascension completes the Gospel and compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPLETE THE GOSPEL?

How does the Ascension complete the Gospel?

Well, that requires knowing what the Gospel is, so here goes:

THE GOSPEL

In the beginning, God created the entire universe to be his temple, his kingdom – the place where he would dwell and rule.

And he created human beings – his image-bearers, his ambassadors, his “middle-management” – to extend his rule and reign throughout creation.

Instead of doing this, however, human beings rebelled against God.

Instead of bowing the knee to the King, they tried to steal his throne.

And this rebellion brought Sin and Death into the kingdom – breaking the relationships

  • between God and humanity,
  • between humanity and itself,
  • and between humanity and the rest of creation.

Where once there was perfect fellowship and communion, there was now distance and Exile.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, God was not going to let Sin, Death, and Exile have the final word! No!

He would pursue his people, he would buy them back from their slavery to Sin and Death, he would cleanse them from the inside out, and he would – one day – bring them back home.

The story of God’s rescue mission, then, is the Good News – it’s the Gospel.

In the Old Testament, the story of Israel is the beginning of this rescue mission.

In the Old Testament, God draws a people back into covenant relationship with himself.

And yet, the story of the Old Testament is left hanging on a tragic note.

Despite God’s continuing goodness, faithfulness, and salvation, his people prove stubbornly faithless.

And, even though they technically dwell in the geographical Promised Land, they are still in Exile.

They are still ruled, in the halls of power, by their political enemies. And they are still ruled, in their hearts, by Sin and Death.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, in the New Testament, God HIMSELF goes into Exile INSTEAD OF his people, in order to bring them back home.

I’d like you to picture this as a capital letter “V”.

Up here, you’ve got the eternal Son of God – fully divine.

Down here, is us. Drowning, as it were, in a cesspool of Sin and Death.

And instead of abandoning us…

(Heck, even instead of somehow saving us at an arm’s distance, after we start to clean up and get our act together.)

…Christ dives headfirst into the muck – into the cesspool of sin-stained human existence.

We call this the Incarnation.

So, great! God’s with us! In..this…cesspool! …Great?

At the Crucifixion, Jesus goes all the way to the very bottom point of that capital V.

He goes all the way into the furthest, farthest Exile – Death.

So, great! God’s dead.

How is this good news?!

Well, the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, he went into the farthest Exile, so that we wouldn’t have to.

And he didn’t stay in the grave. No no no!

There’s another side to the capital V!

We can’t forget the Resurrection!

Jesus arose from the grave – he walked out of that tomb on Easter morning AAAAANNNNND…..

Well, we don’t know.

He appeared to some people. And then, well, we’re not really sure what happened to him.

We’re not really sure what it all meant.

The story would have ended there, left hanging between tragedy and triumph, were it not for the Ascension.

HOW THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL

Brothers and sisters, we can’t forget the Ascension!

The Ascension COMPLETES the Gospel!

The Ascension is the final step in Christ’s return from Exile.

And, if we are united with Christ as a part of his body, the Church, the Ascension is the completion of OUR return from Exile as well!

The Ascension demonstrates that the Crucifixion and Resurrection were the final victory over Sin and Death.

Furthermore, the fact that Christ is not only crucified, and not only risen, but also ascended, and glorified, and seated on his heavenly throne means that he is the LORD.

Jesus Christ, though still fully human, though still fully acquainted with our many griefs, is not your buddy.

He’s not your pal that you can ignore at your convenience.

No, the Ascension reminds us that Christ is our King.

He is our Lord. And he is to be obeyed.

But, hey, since the capital V is finished, and Christ is on the throne, that means that we can all just sit around and do nothing, right?!

As long as we’re not doing something horrible?

I mean, the story’s OVER! I thought that’s what you just said, Josh.

No, not quite!

The Ascension does complete the Gospel – as its goal and culmination.

We will all one day be with Christ at the Father’s right hand in glory.

But the story’s not over, because the Ascension also compels the Church.

The Ascension completes the Gospel, and it also compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPEL THE CHURCH?

How does the Ascension compel the Church?

Well, the Ascension gives the Church

  • its global mission,
  • its enduring hope,
  • and its enabling power.

Everyone with me so far?

We’ve talked about the Ascension’s theological significance, how the Ascension completes the Gospel.

Now let’s talk about the Ascension’s application to our lives – how the Ascension should both challenge us and encourage us.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS GLOBAL MISSION

Here’s the challenge of the Ascension: it gives the Church its global mission.

As Luke told us twice today – in the book of Acts and the Gospel which bears his name – Jesus commissioned his followers as witnesses who were to proclaim the Good News across cultural and ethnic boundaries.

“to all nations” – that word, “nations,” ethnoi, more properly refers to people groups, to cultural and ethnic groups of people, than to modern nation states.

That is, there are plenty of ethnoi represented right here in the United States – including those that haven’t yet heard the gospel!

You remember what I said a minute ago about Jesus not being our buddy?

He’s our King! He’s to be obeyed!

And he wants us to proclaim the gospel to the entire world.

Which, let’s be honest, is easier said than done.

Why?

Because God’s global gospel runs counter to the nationalistic, tribalistic, and individualistic “gospels” of this earth.

The Good News of God’s global kingdom – won not through self-promotion or military conquest but through self-sacrifice and loving one’s enemies – this gospel runs counter to the false gospels of this world, including the false gospel of the American Dream.

And that cuts right across the grain of the entire political landscape – red state and blue state.

Now to be sure, hear me!, there is a difference between globalism and God’s global gospel.

But there is also a stark difference between the United States of America and the Kingdom of God – between American culture and Kingdom culture.

Let us, then, take heed, lest we American Christians make assimilation to American culture an unofficial prerequisite for the nations of the world.

There is no prerequisite.

There is no response of the world that gives the Church an excuse to abandon its global mission.

In light of the Ascension, the Church’s global mission is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ across all cultural and ethnic boundaries – obeying its Ascended Lord, who once said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” [Matt. 5:43-44].

OK, so this transcultural, enemy-loving gospel stuff sounds great hypothetically, but

  • what about when people blow themselves up to kill children at a concert in Manchester?
  • What about when people open fire on a bus full of Coptic Christians on their way to pray?
  • What about when they go on shooting sprees in shopping malls, movie theaters, schools, and churches?
  • Or what about when people are just so different, so unfamiliar, so awkward, that we just don’t know what to say?

What then?

Do we throw up our hands in despair?

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENDURING HOPE

Here’s the encouragement of the Ascension: it gives the Church its enduring hope.

Without the Ascension, we are left wondering whether the good news of Christ’s resurrection will extend to us.

We are left wondering whether the chaos in the world around us will ever cease.

How long, O Lord? How long before you stay the hand of the wicked?

How long before you destroy the earthly powers and dominions and authorities that divide us and destroy us?

Friends, we can still ask these questions today, but it makes all the difference in the world that Christ has ascended.

It makes all the difference in the world that Christ has been enthroned over all earthly powers and dominions and authorities.

Why?

Because the Ascension shows that Christ has triumphed over his enemies.

The way of the Cross has won out over the sinful ways of this world.

And the Ascension also anticipates the second coming of Christ.

Just like Jesus did not stay in the grave, he will not stay at a distance upon his heavenly throne – present in the Church only sacramentally.

No!

And just like he did not let Sin and Death have the final word, he will not let the servants of Sin and Death have the final word, either.

Instead, he will one day stay the hand of the wicked.

He will one day disarm and destroy those who have decided to persist in rebellion against him.

Christ is enthroned over all earthly powers! This is our enduring hope!

There’s no reason for us to hedge our bets, as it were, by bending the knee to any earthly power – friend or foe.

Instead, the Church can freely exist for the sake of the world, because we know that the world is in the hands of our ascended King.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENABLING POWER: THE HOLY SPIRIT

So, you know, just get out there and try harder to love people and let them know about Jesus, no matter how different they are!

Right?!

Wrong.

We’re not fooling anyone. We can’t do this on our own.

Sure, we’ve got a global mission. And sure, we’ve got an enduring hope.

But we still need enabling power.

And the Ascension gives the Church its enabling power: the Holy Spirit.

At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples:

“And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” [Luke 24:53].

And, at the beginning of Acts, Jesus

“ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” [Acts 1:4-5].

A few verses later, Jesus says:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” [Acts 1:8].

Now, I know I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

After all, it’s still a week until Pentecost!

But, brothers and sisters, we can’t make it, not even for a week, without the Holy Spirit!

We are only gathered here this morning, some two thousand years since the Ascension, on the other side of the world, because the Holy Spirit has empowered the Church to fulfill its global mission.

And, even though we live in a divided, divisive, and terrifying world, the Holy Spirit can empower the Church today.

So, thanks be to God that the Ascension and Pentecost go hand in hand!

THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL AND COMPELS THE CHURCH TO FULFILL ITS GLOBAL MISSION, CLINGING TO ITS ENDURING HOPE, EMPOWERED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.

So, Father, we thank you for your persistence and patience to rescue us from Sin and Death.

Jesus, we bow the knee and worship you, our Ascended Lord. And we ask you to come again soon and make all things new.

And Holy Spirit, we ask you come. Give us the strength to love our neighbors and our enemies by proclaiming and living the gospel.

Amen.

Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:

  • promote your justice
  • embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and humbly obey Your will,

even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Introduction

I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?

Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?

I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?

I know I do.

In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!

Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.

Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.

Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.

ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?

But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?

I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?

Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!

Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.

Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.

In order to get ahead,

  • you have to know the context,
  • you have to know the rules,
  • you have to know the goal.

Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.

So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.

The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.

The Main Point

In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)

1 Corinthians 1:18 says:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.

You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!

I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.

However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.

Sounds great, right?

So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?

Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!

This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”

In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.

The world expects

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.

Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.

You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.

You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!

For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!

  • Climb the ladder!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!

That’s where the world’s ways get us.

Where every human is

  • an egotistical island,
  • competing with God,
  • alienating other humans,
  • and abusing creation.

Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],

the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.

Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”

Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.

Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12

And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.

(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)

Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.

But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!

That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”

But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”

These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].

Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”

  • To the poor in spirit
  • Those who mourn
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • And the reviled

And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.

Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.

That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”

Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.

The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation

Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.

Jesus is saying:

  • (1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
  • (2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
  • (3) Take heart! If you humbly and gently refuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
  • (4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
  • (5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
  • (6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
  • (8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.

God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.

However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?

What if we’re NOT

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

How should we respond to the Beatitudes?

While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,

I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructive challenge to followers of Jesus.

There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.

It’s almost like Jesus is saying,

“OK, you want to follow me?

You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.

It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.

You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.

Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.

SO,

  • if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
  • if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
  • then you better show concrete concern for
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • and the weak!

And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”

Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse

Brothers and sisters, remember:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!

That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.

  • Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
  • Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
  • Because you’re scared of losing your job,
  • Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.

But let’s not kid ourselves!

FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!

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Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees

So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?

We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.

Abortion

First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.

Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.

As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.

Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.

Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.

Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.

Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.

I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.

However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.

We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.

I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.

Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.

Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?

We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.

However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would humbly obey Your will,
  • even if it costs us our reputations,
  • and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Christians and Wealth

(The following post originally appeared on May 08, 2011.)

In our current context of wealth and poverty existing side by side in a milieu of materialistic consumerism, the Christian gospel of denying ourselves and making much of God is being abandoned for the American gospel of denying others and making much of ourselves.

American Christians have become content to live a baptized version of the American dream, a hollow faith that is about maximizing your earthly portfolio once your salvation is secured.

My main contention is that Christians in the United States should lower their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor. In doing so, they will remain faithful to Scripture and discover a more satisfactory way of life.

Isn’t That Asceticism?

At this point some may claim that I am trying to advocate for a form of asceticism. Continue reading “Christians and Wealth”

Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon

(A chapel message in a Christian school.)

There are a few things you should know about me:

  • I am a student at a Christian seminary.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian college.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian high school, and a Christian middle school.
  • Before that, I was home-schooled, and I grew up in a Christian home.

Oh, also: I’m the world’s worst sports fan.

I’m serious. The students in my youth group give me a hard time about it. Every week, they’re like, “Josh, did you see the game?!” “Josh, are you going to watch the game?”

And I’m like, “Game? What game? I don’t even know which sport’s season it is!”

World’s. worst. sports fan. I’m telling you.

The one redeeming quality about my sports fandom is that I’ve stuck with one team through thick and thin: the University of Michigan Wolverines. Go Blue!

Now, I know that the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes is but a pale imitation of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn down here. But up North, this rivalry was and is a big deal.

And it was really interesting, back when I was in middle school and high school, to observe what would happen each year in November when the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went at it.

I’m from Toledo, OH, which is on the border with Michigan, so the fan split was about 50/50 – Wolverines on one side, Buckeyes on the other.

And each year, on the day after the big game, you could tell who the true fans were…

It was the people still cheering for the team that lost. Continue reading “Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon”

The Feast of St. James the Apostle: A Homily for Ministers

Readings: Psalm 34; Jeremiah 16:14-21; Mark 1:14-20

Like so many other feast days – scheduled, as they are, on the days of the namesakes’ deaths – the feast day of St. James the Apostle is a strong rebuke to our aspirations. To our aspirations as human beings, and especially to our aspirations as ministers of Christ’s Church.

Saint James the Greater *oil on canvas *92.1 x 74.9 cm *signed b.r.: Rembrandt f. 1661
Saint James the Greater, by Rembrandt

James & John: Fishermen No More?

You see, James started off as a mere fisherman. An admirable one, to be sure, because he and his brother John answered Jesus’ call in Mark 1. They left behind their father, their family, and – they grew to hope! – their family’s fishing profession.

James was off on a new adventure, hopeful and headstrong. So much so that, along with his brother John, he earned the nickname “Son of Thunder”! Coming from the Son of Man, that’s no small compliment!

But their headstrong passion proved to be a weakness as well. In Luke 9, after getting rejected in Samaria, the Sons of Thunder offer to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan village! This earns them a stern rebuke from Jesus.

And, even more famously, they approached Jesus with the following request in Mark 10:37:

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

Princes? Or Fishermen?

Now, their request is, in effect: “O King Jesus, would you please make us princes?”

And, granted, this is Apocryphal, but I imagine Jesus putting his arms around them and saying the following:

“Princes? Princes?! Boys, if I had wanted princes, I would have called princes! But, I don’t need princes!

No, no, no. What I need are new fishermen! And that’s why I’ve called you!”

You see, James had been hoping for a new position. And instead he received his old professiontransformed!

James was no longer to be a mere fisherman, but a fisher of men.

And not even just a fisher of men like Jeremiah 16 spoke of – for there the fishermen and hunters are instruments of judgment and exile.

No! Instead, James was to go fishing with, go fishing for Jesus, to bring people back from exile.

Now, undoubtedly, this is a step up from fishing for literal fish.

Or is it?

Not necessarily. At least, not in the world’s eyes.

The Death of St. James the Apostle

Here’s Jesus’ actual answer to the “prince” request:

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

And they said to him, “We are able.”

And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Now, granted, this isn’t one of the assigned lectionary passages for today, but I’d like us to look at the beginning of Acts 12:

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.

Swept aside, in just one verse! I doubt that sort of an abrupt, violent end awaited most of the fishermen working for Zebedee’s family business.

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it? Did James receive any sort of a promotion, after all?

Of course, we know the right answer. But do we live it out?

Are we thankful, are we satisfied with our roles as servants within Christ’s Church?

Are we willing to be “just” fishermen, even if it costs us our ambitions? Even if it costs us our lives?

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_James_the_Greater_-_Google_Art_ProjectBy God’s grace, I hope so.

By God’s grace, may we – with the Apostle James – be able to confess the final words of Psalm 34 with open eyes, and open hearts. Perhaps it will help to imagine the following words on the dying Apostle’s lips:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Amen.

Concerning Romans

Well, judging by my blog stats for the past 48 hours — as compared with the past few months — I’d get many more views on this post if it concerned the chaos at Cedarville University!

However, my schedule and blood pressure won’t allow me to devote any more time to my shameful alma mater at the moment. I’ve got a presentation at the 2014 Southeast Regional Meeting of ETS tomorrow (see my previous post, and come to my presentation at 5:00pm in room S009!), and even though Beeson Divinity School’s Spring Break is right around the corner, I’ve still got a fair share of reading to get done. 

Nevertheless, given the current discussion in my New Testament Theology — two classes on Romans — I thought I might re-post two of my previous works: 

  1. Romans. Revisited. (or “The Argument-Story of Romans”): my final write-up for Dr. Chris Miller’s course on Romans and Galatians at Cedarville University. We were due to have an oral exam on the last day of class, in which we talked-through the logic of the epistle. I wrote this summary the night before the exam, and was given the opportunity to present it to the class. I now present it to you! Feel free to give me some push-back! 
  2. Romans 13:1-7 — A Contextually-Appropriate Reading: a paper I wrote for the same course as mentioned above, in which I defend the following thesis: “Far from being a comprehensive condensation of the apostle’s beliefs regarding any and all governments past and present, [Romans 13:1-7] is a specific and historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, discouraging them from political unrest, disobedience, and rebellion in order to protect their testimony and the effectiveness of the Roman church in the gospel mission.”

That’s all for now. Grace and Peace. 

~Josh

My Regional ETS Presentation: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re in the Birmingham area from March 21-22, 2014, and you’re interested in evangelical theology, please consider attending the Evangelical Theological Society’s Southeastern Regional Meeting at Beeson Divinity School! This year’s theme is “the theological interpretation of Scripture,” and the plenary speaker is Wheaton’s Daniel J. Treier (incidentally, Dr. Treier and I are both alumni of Cedarville…go figure). 

Furthermore, if you’re free from 5:00-5:30pm on Friday, March 21, consider swinging by room S009 to hear me present “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God.” The atonement and the unity of the Church are topics that I’m passionate about, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to give my first ever conference paper. Here’s the abstract: 

This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. Given Adam Johnson’s thesis regarding God’s triune being-in-act, the fullness of the divine perfections, and the unity and diversity of Christ’s saving work, I draw upon the theology of Karl Barth and pertinent biblical data to frame a theory of the atonement based on the unity of God. Although the lack of ecclesiological unity is the impetus for my study, I choose primarily to emphasize the synthesis of God’s unity and the doctrine of reconciliation. That is, I focus on the theological explanations within the atonement of why the church is to be unified. However, after framing a unity-based theory of the atonement, I conclude this study by casting a vision for the ecclesiological implications of such a theory.

If you can’t make it to my presentation, but you’re interested in the topic, check out my previous series of posts and the undergraduate thesis paper from which this conference paper is drawn. Also, consider buying the new paperback edition of Adam J. Johnson’s God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology). It’s much cheaper than the previous hardcover edition, and without his fresh insights into the doctrine of the atonement and Barthian theology, my paper would not have been possible. 

Finally, please attend the entire conference at Beeson if possible! Here’s the full schedule.

Grace and Peace

~Josh

 

Silence and Violence

Silent Cross by Margot Krebs Neale

 

“Violence is not human destiny because the God of peace is the beginning and the end of human history…

“Granted, pushing the stone of peace up the steep hill of violence … is hard. It is easier, however, than carrying one’s own cross in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah. This is what Jesus Christ asks Christians to do. Assured of God’s justice and undergirded by God’s presence, they are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be caught in the automatism of revenge.” (Volf, E&E, 306)

“Silence,” a sonnet for Remembrance Day written by Malcolm Guite:

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seeths instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are singing as we sing our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

Then, Volf on violence:

“Religions advocate nonviolence in general, while at the same time finding ways to legitimate violence in specific situations; their representatives both preach against war and bless the weapons of their nation’s troops. And so the deep religious wisdom about nonviolence boils down to a principle that no self-respecting war-lord will deny, namely that you can be violent whenever you cannot be nonviolent, provided your goals are just (which they usually are for the simple reason that they are yours). Religious dialogue or no religious dialogue, without the principled assertion that it is never appropriate to use religion to give moral sanction to the use of violence, religious images and religious leaders will continue to be exploited by politicians and generals engaged in violence.” (Volf, E&E, 286).

Finally, Volf’s conclusion (E&E, 306):

It may be that consistent nonretaliation and nonviolence will be impossible in the world of violence. Tyrants may need to be taken down from their thrones and the madmen stopped from sowing desolation. […] It may also be that measure which involve preparation for the use of violent means will have to be taken to prevent tyrants and madmen from ascending to power in the first place or to keep the plethora of ordinary kinds of perpetrators that walk our streets from doing their violent work. It may be that in a world suffused with violence the issue is not simply “violence versus peace” but rather “what forms of violence could be tolerated to overcome a social ‘peace’ that coercively maintained itself through the condoned violence of injustice” (Suchocki 1995, 117). But if one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one’s cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah. For there, the blessing is given not to the violent but to the meek (Matthew 5:5).

There are Christians who have a hard time resisting the temptation to seek religious legitimation for their (understandable) need to take up the sword. If they give in to this temptation, they should forego all attempts to exonerate their vision of Christian faith from complicity in fomenting violence. Of course, they can specify that religious symbols should be used to legitimate and inspire only just wars. But show me one warring party that does not think its wars is just! Simple logic tells us that at least half of them must be wrong. It could be, however, that simple logic does not apply the chaotic world of wars. Then all would be right, which is to say that all would be wrong, which is to say that terror would reign — in the name of gods who can no longer be distinguished from the devils.

Volf on Gender

Re: “The Hole in Our Complementarianism*,” discussions on gender roles and the sacraments, and this piece by C.S. Lewis (Priestesses in the Church?) — I’ve gone back to Miroslav Volf’s indispensable chapter on “Gender Identity,” pp. 167-190 of Exclusion and Embrace. Everyone should drop what they’re doing and go read the chapter in its entirety as soon as possible. But, in the meantime, consider the following:

“The only way the gender of God language can provide guidance for construction of gender identity is if we first ontologize gender in God, that is, if we take a particular understanding of femininity or masculinity, project it onto God, and then let that projection shape our social practice. Irigaray is able to avoid such ontologization only by a sleight of hand. She postulates a female God but claims that this God holds no other obligation and gives no other task to women except to help them “become divine, become perfect” (Irigaray 1986, 9). The femininity of God is asserted in order to connect God with women, but God’s femininity does no real work because it has no concrete content. There are good reasons for the vacuity of divine femininity. For if we were to give it concrete content, we could not avoid freezing a particular cultural construction of gender and then infusing it with divine powers and claims. The same holds true, of course, of the postulated divine masculinity which Irigaray affirms as a complement to divine femininity.

The ontologization of gender would ill serve both the notion of God and the understanding of gender. Nothing in God is specifically feminine; nothing in God is specifically masculine; therefore nothing in our notions of God entails duties or prerogatives specific to one gender; all duties and prerogatives entailed in our notions of God are duties and prerogatives of both genders. This, I think, is the significance of the fact that, as Phyllis Bird has shown, gender distinctions are unrelated to the image of God according to Genesis 1 (Bird 1981; Bird 1991). Men and women share maleness and femaleness not with God but with animals. They image God in their common humanity. Hence we ought to resist every construction of the relation between God and femininity or masculinity that privileges one gender, say by claiming that men on account of their maleness represent God more adequately than women (with LaCugna 1993, 94ff.) or by insisting that women, being by nature more relational, are closer to the divine as the power of connectedness and love.

(Volf 1996, 173-4; emphasis added).

De Trinitate

BY: JOSHUA P. STEELE // NOVEMBER 4, 2013. Click here for PDF.

INTRODUCTION: THE NATURE OF THE TRINITY

One God. Three persons. The orthodox paradox of this Christian confession confounds many, due to its apparent contradictions, abstractions, and absence from Scripture. From Arius to Augustine and beyond, trinitarian debates have raged even among those who agree that God exists, that the Bible is true, and that it is therefore worthwhile to consider what the Bible says because it reveals the existent God. Although the best discussions of the Trinity begin with an acknowledgment of its inscrutable mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach, a sober analysis of the doctrine’s canonical presence and historical outworking may help to answer the charges that the Trinity is a nonsensical, unbiblical abstraction worthy of abandonment. 

Although it is precisely the Trinity’s classical formulation that receives the criticisms just noted, it is important to begin at the end, so to speak, by introducing the operative terms before analyzing the scriptural context out of which and the historical context in which these trinitarian terms grew. The definitive statement of trinitarian belief is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, discussed below.1 In brief, however, Christians confess belief in one God who eternally and only exists in one divine substance, essence, or ousia, and in three divine subsistences, Persons, or hypostases.2 One in three, three in one: Father, Son, and Spirit – each Person equally and essentially God, and yet each distinct from the other two.

CANONICAL PRESENCE

A common objection to the doctrine of the Trinity as just stated is that it nowhere appears within the pages of Scripture. And indeed, despite the favorite trinitarian proof-texts in which Father, Son, and Spirit appear together, “no doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene sense is present in [even] the New Testament.”3 However, as Jenson persuasively argues, “the doctrine of the Trinity is indeed in Scripture, if one abandons modernity’s notion that statement in so many words as formulated is the only way that a doctrine can appear there.”4 Instead, the narrative of Scripture portrays the Trinity “by telling a history of God with us that displays three enactors of that history, each of which is indeed other than the other two and yet is at the same time the same God as the other two.”5

These three dramatis personae Dei, or “persons of the divine drama,” appear throughout Scripture as God – “as a persona in Israel’s story – of which he is simultaneously the author.”6 YHWH – the God of Israel who created the world and delivered through the Exodus – is the Father by virtue of Jesus’ address of him as such.7 The Son is Jesus of Nazareth by virtue of this same address, but also in light of passages such as Psalm 2, appropriated in Hebrews 1 to identify Jesus as the divine Son.8 Finally, the Spirit appears as a persona of the story, first in the OT as the Spirit of YHWH which gives life and “keeps the creation moving toward its fulfillment,” and then in the NT as the one in relationship between the Father and the Son, who is poured out upon the Church.9

The significance of trinitarian “proof-texts” mentioned above is that they portray the three persons of the divine drama in close proximity. Most significant of these is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, spoken by the Son himself: “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Although the earliest Christians used poignant trinitarian phrases before the full implications of such had been thoroughly considered, these biblical patterns provided “the raw data from which the more developed descriptions of the Christian doctrine of God [would] come.”10 The classical formulation of the Trinity did not arise from a scriptural vacuum.

HISTORICAL OUTWORKING

Neither was the doctrine formed in a historical vacuum. Instead, as Wainwright notes: “the classic creeds were being formulated at the same time as the canon of the Scriptures was being recognized and determined; there was interaction between the two processes, and the Scriptures and the creeds continue to function reciprocally.”11 The ecumenical creeds – such as the Apostles’, Niceno-Constantinopolitan (381), and the Chalcedonian Definitio Fidei (451) – serve as an interpretive key to the complex Scriptures, and yet also distill the divine drama of the Bible into a concise summary.12

A crucial facet of trinitarian doctrine in which this dialectic took place was the distinction between the immanent and the economic Trinity – the former referring to the Trinity within itself, and the latter referring to the Trinity’s external relationship to the universe. While the majority of Scripture provides portrayals of the economic Trinity interacting with creation, it also offers enticing glimpses into the immanent relationships between the persons of the divine drama.13 The doctrine that developed from such glimpses offered a way of distinguishing between how God relates to himself and to everything else, but also concluded that “the immanent Trinity lives no other plot than that displayed in the economic Trinity, that when you are taken into the story told in Scripture, you are taken into God himself.”14 In other words, “there is no deeper reality of God lurking in the background” behind the three Persons of the Godhead.15 Although many of the disagreements took place before the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity was formalized, the contours of the historical trinitarian debates revolve around where the conceptual boundary lies between the two.16

A concern for the preservation of God’s unity motivated many of the early controversies. For example, Paul of Samosata collapsed the immanent Trinity to the Father alone, pushing the Son and Spirit into the economy, in their respective relations to the human being Jesus and the apostles – the view known as adoptionism.17 Similarly, Sabellius pushed all three divine Persons into the economy, positing that the immanent Godhead was one God who exists in three modes or roles of being to the external creation – the view known as modalism.18 Finally, it was Arius’s commitment to monotheism that led him to shrink the immanent Trinity down to the Father alone – concluding that, because God is the indivisible cause of all that exists, he must have existed prior to the Son, who is “not everlasting or co-everlasting or unbegotten with the Father.”19

Although each of these views would ultimately find condemnation in the creeds of the Church, it was Arius’s conception of a created Son that ignited the controversy that led to the Council of Nicaea (325), which refuted Arianism by declaring that the Son is “begotten, not made, being of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.”20 However, the trinitarian debates continued, in part because of the relative ambiguity of the term homoousios and the ability of different factions to interpret it as they wished.21 The years between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople (381) were theologically chaotic as Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) fought for the Nicene view of the Trinity against its detractors, Arian and otherwise.22

However, along the lines of Arius’s original concerns, if the Son and the Spirit are granted full divinity along with the Father (as they are in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), why do Christians confess one God and not three? Gregory of Nyssa addressed these concerns first by appealing to the differences between the trinitarian terms ousia (common essence) and hypostasis (distinct personal subsistence). Belonging to the category of collective or common nouns – which unite by referring to the common nature shared by diverse members of the same category – ousia refers to the divine essence or substance, shared equally by the three hypostases of the Godhead so that they are properly homoousioi, or of the same substance, with one another.23 However, belonging to the category of individual or proper nouns – which distinguish by referring to only one member of a particular category – hypostasis refers to the individual identity or subsistence of each divine Person which demarcates it from the other two.24 The divine hypostases are distinguishable in that “the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in all things save in the being unbegotten [Father], the being begotten [Son], and the procession [Spirit].”25

The distinction between a common ousia and distinct hypostases therefore prevents the collapse of the Trinity, yet through a crucial difference between the distinction-in-unity with regard to humanity and with regard to the divine. After all, it is difficult to ascertain the unifying ousia of humanity because the distinct hypostases both appear and behave in such discordant ways. Due to their myriad differences and a merely conceptual unity, humans are not properly referred to as one human but many. In contrast, the unity of the three divine hypostases is actual, by virtue of the trinitarian rule opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.26 As Gregory of Nyssa notes, “every activity which pervades from God to creation and is named according to our manifold design starts off from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed by the Holy Spirit.”27 Christians worship one God, because although each divine Person is God, “by the same proclamation God is one, because neither in regard to nature [or ousia] nor activity is any difference viewed.”28 Unlike the diverse and discordant human hypostases, the divine persons are completely unified in their will and operations. Therefore, in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: “the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided.”29

CONCLUSION

To return to what was mentioned at the outset, the best discussions of the Trinity also end with an acknowledgment of its inherent mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach. Theological modesty is always in order, in part because of the unavoidable limitations of finite human speech about anything, much less about the infinite God. Granted, certain ways of framing how God can be one and yet three are better than others, not only based upon their coherence with the traditions of orthodoxy, but also with regard to their impact on other areas of theological concern – such as the atonement and interpersonal relationships.30 And yet, because true theology is not learning how to speak about God in order to master him intellectually, but in order to worship him faithfully, a persistent lacuna in trinitarian understanding is surely acceptable. For, although the gracious condescension of the triune God enables our faith to seek understanding successfully, the inscrutable mysteries of the same triune God ensure that some understandings will ever transcend our faith’s reach.

======== NOTES =========

1 All dates CE, unless otherwise noted. Wainwright notes that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed “has remained the most widely affirmed statement of trinitarian faith in both East and West.” Geoffrey Wainwright, “Trinity” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 815.

2 The three terms in each of these two sets will be used synonymously throughout, unless otherwise noted. Substance = essence = ousia. Subsistence = person = hypostasis. Capitalized “Person” will refer to divine, and not human, personality.

3 Rusch notes that the binitarian NT formulas are: Rom. 8:11; 2 Cor. 4:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:21; and 2 John 1:13. The trinitarian NT formulas are: Matt 28:19; 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:4ff.; Gal. 3:11-14; Heb. 10:29; 1 Pet. 1:2. William G. Rusch, trans./ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 2. Without denying the importance of such passages, Jenson rightly laments those who “scrabble around in the Bible for bits and pieces of language to cobble together into a sort of Trinity-doctrine – usually with intellectually lamentable and indeed sometimes heretical results.” Robert W. Jenson, “The Trinity in the Bible,” CTQ 68 (2004): 196.

4 Jenson, 197. Emphasis original.

5 Jenson, 199. The divinity of the Father is perhaps the easiest to note throughout the Bible. On the divinity of the Son, see John 1, 10; Col. 2; Phil. 2; and Heb. 1. On the divinity of the Spirit, see 1 Cor. 2:11; Heb. 3:7-10; and 10:15-17. I have here stuck to the contours of Jenson’s argument in lieu of the common arguments for the divinity of Son and Spirit, e.g.

6 Jenson, 198-202. The phrase “dramatis personae Dei” is Jenson’s adaptation of Tertullian’s verbiage.

7Cf. John 5:16-23; Jenson, 199. Although this is almost assuredly an oversimplification, cf. Marshall’s claim that “the Father is the God of Israel, the Son is the God of Israel, and the Holy Spirit is the God of Israel, yet they are not three Gods of Israel, but one God of Israel.” B. Marshall, “Do Christians Worship the God of Israel” in Knowing the Triune God (ed. J. Buckley and D. Yeago; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 258; quoted by Wainwright, 817. However, Jenson’s main point still stands, by virtue of Jesus’ address to the Father establishing both Fatherhood and Sonship within the Trinity.

8 Cf. Ps. 2:7; Heb. 1:1-14. In addition, Jenson (200-3) focuses on showing the presence of the Trinity in the OT, where it is so often neglected, by positing that the Son shows up via the themes of the angel of the Lord, the name of the Lord, and the glory of the Lord..

9Jenson, 199, 204; cf. Gen. 1:2; Ps. 51:11; Isa. 11:2; Ezek. 37:1-14; John 14:15-31; Acts 1:7-8; 2:1-41; Rom. 1:4; 8:11.

10 Rusch, 2. Gregory of Nazianzus captures the progressive nature of this scriptural trinitarian revelation well: “the old covenant made clear proclamation of the Father, a less definite one of the Son. The new covenant made the Son manifest, and gave us a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead. At the present time, the Spirit resides amongst us, giving us a clearer manifestation of himself than before.” See Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration (Oration 31): On the Holy Spirit, 14, in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Popular Patristics Series 23; trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 26.

11 Wainwright, 815.

12 Jenson, 205; Wainwright, 815.

13 Cf. Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” of John 17 and the glimpse of the relationship between Father and Son.

14 Jenson, 206.

15 Jenson, 205.

16 That is, while the debates did not originally or chronologically take place in terms of “immanent/economic Trinity,” the concept provides a helpful analytical framework when considering the trinitarian controversies. .

17 Adoptionism is also known as “dynamic monarchianism.” Rusch, 8.

18 Modalism is also known as “modalist monarchianism.” Rusch, 9.

19 Arius’s “Letter to Alexander of Alexandria,” §4, in Rusch, 32.

20 “The Creed of the Synod of Nicaea (June 19, 325)” in Rusch, 49.

21 Rusch, 20.

22 Rusch, 22.

23 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter his own brother on the divine ousia and hypostasis,” 2a-c. in Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters (Boston: Brill, 2007), 250-1; “Concerning that We Should Think of Saying That There Are Not Three Gods to Ablabius” in The Trinitarian Controversy (trans./ed. William G. Rusch; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 149-51.

24 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter,” 3a, 4d-f in Silvas, 251,3.

25 John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” I.2, in Saint John of Damascus: Writings (trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr.; Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America, 1958), 167.

26 “The external operations of the Trinity are indivisible.”

27 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 155.

28 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 159

29 Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration,127.

30 In fact, feminist critiques have helped to address trinitarian sloppiness in theological explorations of the atonement and interpersonal relationships. See Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 40-3 and Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 27, 167-190.