Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Trinity and Church Unity

Here's the text for a sermon I gave earlier this month on the subject of the Trinity and church unity. It was inspired by pastor Rich Lusk's sermon, 'Justification, Trinity and Catholicity.'

‘That They May Be One’

’Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are…. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.’”

- John 17:11 & 20-23
When we say the Nicene Creed, we affirm that “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Catholic means ‘universal.’ The universal church is simply the one church. It is a unity. All Christians belong to the catholic church. The universal church is made up of all believers everywhere, wherever they may exist in any age, within every tribe, nation and Christian denomination.

As soon as we say that the universal church is one, we must ask, how is it one? In John’s gospel Jesus prayed that the church may be one as He and the Father are one. Notice He did not simply pray that His people would be one: He prayed that they would be one in a certain way. The church is to be one in the way Christ and His Father are one.

Because we know from elsewhere in scripture that the unity between father and son is part of a Trinitarian community, we can add that the church is to be one as the Trinity is one.

The Trinitarian model for unity has enormous practical implications. One of the most basic things it shows us is that diversity is at the centre of Biblical unity.

The Father is not the same as the Son or the Holy Spirit; neither is the Son the same as the Father or Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit the same person as the Father or the Son. They are three distinct persons and yet, at the same time, they are one God. Thus, the Lord says, ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord your God is one.’ (Deut. 6:4) It is interesting that in this verse the Hebrew word for ‘one’ is the same word that is used in Genesis for ‘the two will become one flesh’, referring to marriage. Just as the two members of a marriage are both one and two, so the members of the Trinity are both three and one.

‘The divine family is the archetype for the church family.’ (Pastor Rich Lusk) Like the Trinity, we are one even though we are many. Just as all three members of the Godhead share in the same common life, so Christians all share in the common life of Christ.

This Trinitarian unity is only for those who confess Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Jesus prayed that those who will believe in Him might be one. This shows that unity is not a free standing concept that can be invoked without qualification; rather, it must be based on the common affirmation of Jesus. If Jesus is not at the centre, then unity will turn into idolatry. As Andre Dumas pointed out, every proposal for the unity of humankind, unless it explicitly specifies the centre of that unity, has the self of the proposer as its implicit centre.

It is easy to think there is unity when there is nothing more than shared interest. We Rene Girard said, “Individuals who desire the same thing are united by something so powerful that, as long as they can share whatever they desire, they remain the best of friends; as soon as they cannot, they become the worst of enemies.” An example of this would be the Orks in Lord of the Rings. The Orcs could be gathered into a monolithic unity by the pursuit of a common goal. But because they were essentially individualistic - concerned primarily with themselves - that unity could very easily break down in quarrels as each sought to defend his own interests.

Similarly, Church unity based on anything other than the affirmation of Jesus, is unsustainable. The New Testament shows what this affirmation means in practice, and it will require another meeting to explore this. For example, we would need to consider the church discipline verses, and how these passages show that anti-thesis preserves Christ-centred unity. The church discipline injunctions are not just so that specific individuals can be corrected, but so that the unity of the church as a whole can remain rooted in Jesus’ Lordship. Those who rebel against Christ’s Lordship are not allowed to be part of that unified community.

Even in the church, it is sad that unity is often based on factors other than Jesus Christ. That is why many Christians cannot debate issues, for they immediately take any disagreement as a signal that there is division. Because Jesus is not the centre of their unity, enormous premium has to be placed on agreement. On the other hand, those who understand that all are one in Christ Jesus should experience a freedom to debate theological issues because we know our unity is based on something more solid than whether or not we happen to agree.

Using the Trinitarian paradigm, we are able to refute unbiblical patterns of unity. While God’s unity is based on the three in one, the unity Satan tries to achieve works on the principle of sameness. It should come as no surprise that in non-Trinitarian deviations of Christianity, such as the J.W’s, everyone walks in lockstep. Without the understanding of the Trinity, unity is always in danger of giving way to something monolithic. When that happens, it is technically not even accurate to speak of unity. The very term unity implies some degree of separateness. Two things cannot be united if those two things are the same, just as you cannot have harmony if two instruments are playing the same pitch.

This is why those without a Biblical worldview are always swinging between the extremes of division and sameness. Caesars and Hitler’s come along and bring sameness out of division, and then after a while their empire is divided or it is splintered into hundreds of little parts. This progression is inevitable for those who do not have a Trinitarian outlook. Because human beings long to reverse the effects of the fall, they inevitably long to be put back together in one peace – they long to exist as a whole, as a community. Consequently, there will always be the temptation to try to achieve this in the wrong way (the tower of Babel comes immediately to mind). The result is sameness rather than Trinitarian unity, which is intrinsically unsustainable and ends in division, factions and infighting. All secular attempts to achieve what only the church can be and do are bound for failure. We will look at this further when I give a talk on Babel vs. Pentecost.

The Trinity is also the foundation of Christian culture. It allows us to celebrate our diversity as a means to achieve unity and community. It allows us to rejoice in the fact that we all have different functions, strengths and callings that contribute to the whole, just as each member of the Godhead has special strengths.

We don’t normally think of each member of the Godhead having special strengths and talents, but it’s true. To give just a few scriptural examples: the Father’s strength is His Fatherhood and also wisdom. Jesus’ strength is that He can identify with us in our humanity. The Holy Spirit’s strength is to lead us into all truth and to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement. You could go on and on and make quite a long list of the different vocations that each member of the Godhead has according to scripture. But although the different members of the Trinity are distinguishable, they are not divisible. Jesus said that those who had seen Him had seen the Father. This is the mystery of the Godhead. However, the point is that in the Trinity, as much as in the church, each part works together in harmony and cannot be fully functioning on its own. The Trinity is, therefore, the basis for Christian culture. Such culture can only properly function to the degree that God’s people are integrated one with another, just as the Trinity is an integrated whole.

Some people are beginning to speak about ‘social Trinitarianism’ to convey this perspective. The Trinity is a social doctrine and should be celebrated at the heart of the Christian community. The church should be infused with the doctrine of the Trinity. We should seek ways to bring this doctrine into our prayers and worship. Even our daily lives should be intentionally structured around patterns of three, just to remind ourselves about the centrality of the Trinity. (I thought about putting that into practice by giving this talk three different times, but I decided against that since, by the third talk, it would probably be only the Trinity who would be listening.)

I believe that one of the reasons England doesn’t have interconnected Christian communities forging a distinctly Christian counter culture is because we have failed to put into practice the doctrine of the Trinity. We believe it with our minds but have failed to let the doctrine flow out of our fingertips.

A large part of the problem is that Christians have gone along with the world’s way of thinking. For example, the church was significantly influenced by the Enlightenment idea of individualism. In the 18th century, people like Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume taught that religion should be privatised, that the external world of public society was outside the sphere of faith. Religion, they taught, should occupy itself with the private world of the individual. Of course, one of the first casualties of this kind of thinking was the Christian community. Individualism has meant that the church can have a lot of redeemed eggs and still not have a redeemed omelette.

If you go into England’s Islamic communities you will find that the Muslims put Christians to shame. They understand the importance of community, and they don’t even have the Trinity! Of course, they can’t get community right, and if they had their way all the women would look the same and everyone would walk in lockstep. But nevertheless, they do understand something that Christians have missed. So do the homosexuals, whom everyone now refers to as a community. That should put Christians to shame. The Jews also understand the importance of community. Consider the following quote from Pastor Steve Schlissel (taken from his article Body Mod):

voluntary tattooing is non-existent among observant Jews, and almost non-existent among practicing Jews of most varieties. How do we explain this state of affairs, especially in view of the fact that nearly all Western Jews live in largely Gentile urban areas, where tattooing has not been unknown, and is sometimes not uncommon? There is a reason to explain this, and it is brimming with instruction.

Ironically, the reason can be traced to what is actually a myth: that if you have a tattoo, you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery….

Virtually every Jew I've ever known believes the myth to be true. And that belief alone was enough to utterly banish any thought of tattooing from our minds. We would never even for a moment entertain the thought of tattooing ourselves.

But this fear of being excluded in death from Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, is itself predicated upon a profoundly deep-seated understanding of oneself as a Jew. This, in turn, is built upon an understanding of Jewishness which utterly transcends the individual.

This- may I say?- is precisely where American Christianity has failed, pathetically and tragically failed... Yet, be that as it may, the fact remains that the consciousness of a Jew regarding his being a Jew has value only as part of a called people. The suggestion that a certain behavior will disqualify him from being buried with his people is enough to banish any thought of that behavior.

Now try that with a typical American Christian youth who is contemplating body modification: tell him he won't be allowed to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Oh, wow! Can't you see him shaking in his boots?

Hardly. The fact is that we do not even approach (except among the Dutch Reformed) the Jewish sense of peoplehood. No matter that the Holy Spirit tells us that we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2:9), we can't help but think of ourselves as merely a collection of individuals who have made choices to become Christian. But this is precisely what the truth of the covenant, particularly as it is seen in infant baptism, is so-well fitted to overcome: we were appointed, designated and constituted a people by the one and only God! It is He who made us a people and not we ourselves!

Individualism encourages pride by fostering the illusion that I do not need anyone else, that I can make it on my own. Even the members of the Godhead cannot do that.

If the church had properly realised the implications of Trinitarian theology, she would not have been so drastically affected by Enlightenment individualism.

I believe the Trinity will be at the heart of the church recovering its corporate witness. The church must begin to take seriously its vocation to image the Trinitarian God. This is part of our witness to the world. Remember that Jesus prayed that His people would be one ‘that the world may believe that You sent Me.’ Unity proclaims that the Father sent the son and it also proclaims the existence of the Trinitarian God. We are required to witness the Trinity so the world can say, ‘This must be what their God is like.’

Division and individualism among Christians not only fails our calling to image the Trinitarian God, but we are actually imaging a false God. We are imaging a God who doesn’t exist. When Christians bicker and fight amongst themselves, emphasising their differences over and above the things they share in common, we are giving the message that the Trinity is like the Greek pantheon of gods who are always fighting amongst themselves. This preaches a false gospel – a polytheistic gospel.

Many of God’s people don’t fight with other brothers and sisters simply because they have nothing to do with other Christians. This individualism preaches an Arian or Unitarian gospel.

It is equally wrong to say there is an invisible bond among Christians or that it’s just a given, and then leave it at that. That gives people an excuse to be divisive or individualistic without consequences. The unity between the father and the son became visible in the life of Jesus. Similarly, the unity among believers should be visible in the church for the world to see. Invisible unity is meaningless if it does not result in a tangible way and if it is not actively pursued in our relations with other believers. Something can never be a given if it doesn’t come out the fingertips and effect the way we live. In fact, what we do shows what we really believe far more clearly than what we say (James chapters 1 and 2).

Trinity-based unity among believers acknowledges our differences, even our disagreements (because, unlike the Trinity, we are fallen), while affirming that we are all one in Jesus, and then letting that affirmation flow out of our fingertips in our fellowship and our lives together. This means that there has to be a profound consciousness that we belong to the church community. This sense of belonging to a whole is necessary for us to function properly as individuals. Our individuality is fully realised only when we see ourselves as part of the whole, just like the members of the Trinity are a whole. Each member of the Trinity has strengths that compliment each other and are distinguishable but not divisible, so our sense of identity should also be corporately understood. The church, the community of believers, is our new home. We are not individuals who make up the church; rather, we are the church which is made up of individuals.

If everything we do is not understood in this corporate sense, we can never fully understand what it means to live out Trinitarian life as a company. We can never understand the context behind authority, accountability, love and numerous other Christian virtues. Without this understanding, we cannot operate as a witness to the world of the nature and character of the Triune God. Without this witness, we fail as a people to be a witness and a light.

I’m going to close by reading Jesus’ prayer again. And as I read it, I want us to claim it as our prayer also. I want us to believe in faith that this prayer will be, and is in the process of being, fully answered.

“’Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are…. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.’”

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