Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Trinity and Community: Some Thoughts at an Ordination

I had the pleasure today to attend the ordination of one of my former students, Adam Quine.  I met Adam almost three years ago shortly after he began his M.Div at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  Adam became my student when he decided to complete an M.A. in Spirituality at Bellarmine University, where I teach, concurrently with his studies at LPTS.

Adam graduated with his M.Div and his M.A. in Spirituality in May of this year, and very quickly prepared for the transition to parish ministry.  First Presbyterian Church of Lincoln, IL saw in Adam precisely the candidate for which they were looking, and three weeks ago he began as their pastor.  Today Adam was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA), and he asked me to deliver the 'charge to the congregation' as part of the service.

I've had the privilege to teach some amazing students over the past five years, and Adam was one student who became a friend very quickly.  In addition to sharing a love of baseball, Adam is enthralled with Thomas Merton and Wendell Berry, and has an insatiable theological appetite.  Most importantly, Adam is someone with immense depth spiritually who longs to grow ever deeper in his relationship with God.  Might I suggest that you take a look at his blog called "Taking a Break from Civilization as We Know it"?

I was honoured that Adam asked me to deliver the 'charge to the congregation' at his ordination, a beautiful feature of Presbyterian ordination services.  Because the Presbyterian ordination service revolves around baptism, I chose to focus my 'charge to the congregation' on the ecclesiological implications of God as Trinity.

Loving with a Love that is Yours because it includes You:
On the Occasion of Adam Quine's Ordination and Installation
First Presbyterian Church - Lincoln, IL

I was honoured to be asked by Adam to provide the ‘charge’ to the congregation at his ordination, but I had to admit that I didn’t really know what the ‘charge’ was, not having previously participated in a Presbyterian ordination (I'm Roman Catholic).  I learned from my colleagues at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary that the charge to the congregation is, in fact, a central part of this service, for it is in the ‘charge’ that I am to create a vision that gives an outline of that which should govern the life together that you as a congregation and you, Adam, will share with each other in the months and years to come.

Now, I don't know you and I'm not even Presbyterian.  Nor am I a pastor.  But I do share with you a common baptism in the name of the Trinity.  And I'm a theologian who believes that theology, done well, has something pivotal to tell us about what pastoral care should look like and about how we as Christians are to exist and live together in communities of generous love.  The vision I am about to lay before you demands a great deal of you as a congregation and of you, Adam, as the pastor of this people of God.  Indeed, it demands nothing less than your very selves.  But I think you’ll agree that it is a vision that is as beautiful as it is demanding, for it is a vision based on nothing less than the beauty and love that is God in God’s very essence.

It is a vision, in short, that begins with what it means for God to exist as Trinity, and it is on the implications of God’s existence as Trinity that I want to speak in this charge; a fitting topic for an ordination in the Presbyterian church given that at this service all of us are called to remember our baptisms, baptisms that took place in the name of the Trinity.  But despite the fact that we are all baptized in the name of the Trinity, we as Christians, in our various traditions, don’t always know what to make of the doctrine of the Trinity.  The first Sunday after Pentecost is always called Trinity Sunday, a day on which Christians are supposed to come together to praise God’s triune existence and on which the priest and/or pastor comes before her/his congregation and explains the depths of meaning to be found in the idea that God exists as three-in-one.  But, as Adam has heard me often say in class, some of the worst sermons I’ve ever heard have occurred on Trinity Sunday.  Such sermons usually amount to the preacher stating that she/he wishing she/he didn’t have to preach on Trinity Sunday and that all that could really be said about the doctrine is that it is a mystery.

A mystery the Trinity surely is, and I won’t here pretend that I comprehend this mystery fully.  ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly,’ as St Paul reminds us (1 Cor 13:12).  But our ancestors in the faith didn’t formulate the doctrine of the Trinity because they wanted to be intentionally difficult, as if they wanted to play a grand theological joke for posterity.  Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity formed out of concrete experiences of the Divine, experiences that shaped the kind of language our ancestors used to express their understanding of God.  And throughout the centuries, great theologians like Augustine, Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, and John Calvin have endeavoured to come to terms with the implications of God’s triune existence not only for our understanding of God and our relationship with God, but for our understanding of how we are to exist one with another.

Peel back all the complicated Trinitarian language of persons and essence, hypostases and ousia, important though that language is.  To say that God is Trinity is simply to say that God exists, eternally, as a community of love.  It is to say that God exists eternally giving Godself within Godself, that God exists as an eternal embrace of self-giving and generous love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so profound, so complete, so generous, and so unifying, that threeness comes to equal oneness.  This is what it means to believe that, as St. John says in his first epistle, ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8).  God is love.  God exists as love.  God, in God’s very essence, exists and has always existed as an eternal community of love, and it is God’s very existence as eternally loving that explains why the created order came to be, and particularly, why God gave the gift of God’s very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human.  We know that God exists as love because that is how God lived on earth.  Jesus’ example of a totally generous and self-giving love, a love that led him to the cross, reveals to us that love is at the heart of who God is.

Why give you this mini lecture in theology?  This understanding of God as a community as generous love is vitally important for understanding what kind of community First Presbyterian Church of Lincoln, IL is called to be, and is equally important for understanding your role as a leader of this community, Adam.  The Trinity, I want to suggest, not only shows what it means to say God is love.  The Trinity also provides an icon that vividly shows us how we are to live in community.  If God in God's essence exists in community, and if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we too are created to exist in community with one another.  We were not created to live lives of isolation, focused solely on our own well-being to the neglect of the welfare of others.  We were created for one another, to exist relationally just as God exists relationally.  We are, in other words, most fully ourselves, most fully human, when we exist in the kind of community that God is as Trinity.

I don't want to speak here only in terms of abstracts, however.  I want also to paint a picture of what the concrete implications are of God's Trinitarian life for this community of First Presbyterian Church and for you, Adam Quine, its new teaching elder.  A community that imitates God's Trinitarian life is a community characterized by unity in multiplicity, in which people of various life experiences, perspectives, and temperaments love and embrace one another regardless of the differences that may exist.  It is a community in which each person becomes fully known by the others, in which each person - including your new teaching elder - makes her/himself fully open to becoming known, in which each person is willing to be totally vulnerable and open.  It is a community in which each person knows their own and each other's strengths and weaknesses, joys and hardships, character qualities as well as character foibles, and is fully - fully - embraced and accepted and helped and cherished and loved as they are.  It is a community of radical equality in which, regardless of wealth, expertise, abilities, gender, orientation, or race, each person is understood to be absolutely pivotal to the community's life.

You should know that your new teaching elder has been profoundly formed by just this vision of a community that imitates God's Trinitarian life.  One of Adam's favourite books, a book I'm happy to say I introduced him to, is Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow.  This book, it seems to me, is a parable that beautifully expresses what a Trinitarian community could look like.  It is a novel told from the viewpoint of an unmarried barber in a fictional Kentucky town called Port William.  And the account Jayber gives of the community of Port William is one of the most beautiful accounts of the meaning and purpose of community I’ve ever read.  Not everyone in the community was loving or even lovely.  Some, like Cecelia Overhold, actually refuse to accept the generosity and openness of the town.  But the community itself held together because, whether you wanted it or not, you became known.  Jayber describes Port William as a place where your business simply is the business of everyone else, with the result that the community shares in your gains as well as in your losses.  It’s a community in which a crop is harvested for a sick farmer, where cooked food goes where it is needed, where fuel is provided to those who need it, where toys go to kids who wouldn’t have any otherwise.  And it is this community that teaches Jayber to love all in the community with, he writes, "a love that was mine merely because it included me" (165).

This is the kind of community that Adam saw made manifest at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where another one of his favourite writers, Thomas Merton, lived his monastic life.  You need only read Merton's journals, or speak to any of the monks at the monastery, to know that the monastic community at the Abbey does not consist of a homogenous group of men, but consists of men with vastly different temperaments and viewpoints who, despite their differences - some of them profound - choose to live with and embrace one another.  And in the process they model to the rest of us what kind of community we can be.

This is the kind of community Adam witnessed when I took him in one class to The Healing Place, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in the heart of Louisville.  From the outside The Healing Place looks run down and dingy, but the profound beauty of this place is located in the people themselves.  The Healing Place is focused on the idea of recovering in community with the recognition that, for us to be fully human, we absolutely need the support and love of our brothers and sisters.  To be part of the community of The Healing Place, you have to be absolutely honest and vulnerable with others.  You have to be willing to have all your faults laid before the entire community and also willing to accept the faults of others in that community.  You have to be brutally honest and to allow others to be brutally honest with you.  But above all, you have to be willing to accept the utterly generous love of the community for you and to learn to love yourself and others in return with the same generous love.  Merton wrote often about how we wear masks that prevent ourselves and others from coming to full self-knowledge.  The Healing Place is a community where all the masks are stripped away, and yet, where you are fully embraced and loved anyway.

On this day of Adam's ordination and installation, a day on which we remember our baptismal calling - a baptism into the Trinitarian life of God - I charge this congregation of First Presbyterian Church and you Adam, its new teacher elder, to become a truly radical community characterized by the self-giving and generous love of God, a community that exists by the standards of Trinitarian love and not by the standards of the individualism that characterizes so much of human existence and is at the heart of the conflict that so often tears us apart.  Become known in this city of Lincoln as a community of radical love, a community of limitless generosity one to another, and a community that manifests the love of God to all.  Become a community in which each of you loves one another "with a love that is [yours] merely because it includes [you]."  Amen. 

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