Sunday, June 16, 2019

Phil Kniss: The aesthetics of the Gospel

Trinity Sunday: Beauty & Faith
Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

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God speaks to us in beauty.
God shows up for us in beauty.
Or, to say it another way,
beauty is God’s love language.

If you want biblical evidence,
it’s all through the Psalms.

We read one of many creation psalms this morning,
“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”
Just the sight of natural beauty and grandeur,
make the psalmist contemplate the most existential question,
and pose that question to God.
“Who are we? that you love and care for us so much?”

Part of this sermon I happened to write sitting outdoors in the shade,
breeze blowing,
by Cooks Creek, a pair of mallards swimming by.
I didn’t set out to do that because of the topic.
It’s just where I found myself working.
Maybe the Spirit drew me there.

How many times have you heard someone say,
or have you yourself said,
the place where I experience God’s presence most closely,
where I hear the voice of God most clearly,
is watching a sunset,
or gazing on purple mountains,
or listening to the roar of the ocean,
or deep in the quiet of a forest.

And last night I was in the Bach Festival choir
and we sang Haydn’s great oratorio, the Creation.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
with wonders of his work resounds the firmament.
In every land is known the Word,
every ear will hearken; never tongue be dumb.”
I was overwhelmed by that experience of majesty last night,
and the divine voice still echoing.

God speaks to us in creation, in nature.
And I believe that not just because it’s usually quiet out in the woods,
so we can hear our thoughts better,
although that’s part of the equation.
It’s the actual aesthetics.
It’s the beauty.
It’s the wondrous order of the created world.
The symmetry, or asymmetry, of a leaf, or flower, or butterfly.
It’s the grace of a deer, or a hummingbird.

Now, I say all this
about beauty, and aesthetics, and existential mysteries,
because I am preaching on a topic
that usually uses the other side of our brain—the Trinity.
A topic known mostly by the rational, philosophical,
and intellectual arguments it has produced.

Throughout church history,
when the Trinity is spoken of, usually,
it’s someone trying to explain it in words or analogies,
trying to put it into some intelligible rational framework,
trying to say it in a way we can get our heads around it—
at least, the left side of our heads,
our left-brain, logical ways of thinking.

It has been this way for eons.
Back in the fourth century—the mid 300s—
common people on the streets
were getting into arguments with their neighbors over the Trinity.
It was a big deal.
And that’s an understatement.
There was a huge theological controversy at the time,
between Arius and Athanasius,
and Arius decided to put his radical ideas to music,
so they could spread more easily
among the common people in the streets.
The conflict was most heated in Alexandria, Egypt,
where these two theologians lived,
but it spread throughout the Roman Empire.
People on the streets were singing ditties, based on popular tunes,
the words claiming the Father alone was true God,
but that the Son was neither co-eternal nor uncreated,
since he proceeded from the Father.
One vegetable seller, I read,
when giving his customers what they ordered,
would throw in, for free, an unsolicited theological discourse,
on whether the Father was greater than the Son.

So heated was the public debate
that Emperor Constantine summoned a council to Nicaea,
in modern-day Turkey,
to settle these questions.
After months of negotiations,
they came up with the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D.
That settled some basics, about the divinity of the Son,
but it didn’t settle all questions about the Trinity.

There was another council in 381, and 451, and 589,
held in Constantinople, Chalcedon, and Toledo, respectively.
Every generation or so, they had to go through the arguments again.
Popes and kings and emperors got into the fight.
And they still didn’t get it all figured out.
So in 1054, the whole Christian world split in two, east and west.

Clearly, there was something important at stake.
Maybe to us, some arguments sound like
parsing a word or two in a creed.
But the arguments meant something to those arguing them.

Now today,
it’s not my intent to sort out the substance of all those arguments.
I don’t have enough time in a 20-minute sermon
to outline all the fine points.
And I have a basic commitment in my preaching,
not to bore you to tears.

So, I’m not dismissing the significance of theological arguments,
because I think theological debate is important,
But I want to speak of the Trinity
with a language other than logic and rationality.
I want to speak of the beauty of the Trinity.

We opened this worship service with a hymn
you may or may not have paid much attention to,
since we were still in the gathering mode,
still getting settled into our space.
So turn again to #2 in the blue hymnal.
This is an old Mennonite hymn,
that borrows heavily from the aesthetic sensibilities
of high church liturgies.
Notice all the phrases that sound like it could have been written
by a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox hymn writer.
Starting with the phrase, “holy place,”
and then “perfumes sweet”
“golden censers”
“fire of sacrifice”
“saints bending”
“holy light”
“holy bread”
and other words and metaphors that conjure up
the pure sensory experience of worship.
“Smells and bells” if you will.
Now for the real surprise, look at the date and author of the text.
1901, S. F. Coffman.
S. F. Coffman was born at Dale Enterprise, a few miles out Rt. 33,
although he grew up mostly in Elkhart, Indiana,
and raised his family in Ontario.

It was in 1901, the year he wrote this hymn,
that back here in his home community
Virginia Mennonites divided
over several issues of worship order—
like Sunday School, ordination by lot, and revival meetings.
Coffman’s father was a famous revival preacher.
That division formed the Old Order Mennonite group in this area,
which continues to worship, to this day,
using the same old order of things,
same worship practices,
same hymnal,
same unadorned meetinghouses.

If you’ve ever been inside Pleasant View O.O. Mennonite Church
just west of Dayton, built in 1902,
then you know exactly
what all Mennonite worship spaces in our area
looked like in the year this hymn was written.
There were no golden censers to be found.
No incense.
No holy fire or holy light or holy bread.
They were, and are, plain spaces.
White walls.
Wooden benches.
Only a few cushions.
No pictures on the wall.
No crosses.
No religious symbols of any kind.

Yet, S. F. Coffman, whose faith took shape
in a stark and stripped down worship space like that,
was able to write this hymn.
With highly sensory metaphors, he could conjure up
the visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile experience of beauty,
in the worship of the Triune God.
That’s a paradox that strikes me every time we sing this hymn.

Someday I want to ask some of my Old Order friends
if they know this hymn,
and what the words conjure up for them.
I know they appreciate beauty.
But it is certainly expressed differently.

But back to the aesthetics of the Trinity.
Why focus on beauty?

Brian Zahnd is a pastor, author, and speaker I respect.
I’ve heard him in person several times and been inspired by him.
The pastor of a large non-denominational church in Missouri,
he preaches a biblical Gospel of peace,
and has a passion for Christ-centered social justice.
Kind of an outlier among evangelical preachers,
a friend of Anabaptists,
and making an impact in the Christian world.

He’s written a book entitled, Beauty Will Save The World:
Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity

He draws on the ancient tradition of artists, sages, and theologians
who connect the beautiful with the sacred,
who see in our art our longing for God.

He suggests we live in a day when pragmatism
and utilitarian “morals”
have largely displaced beauty as a value.

Here’s part of what he wrote,
“We are generally more accustomed to defend Christianity
in terms of its truth and goodness.
But beauty also belongs to the Christian faith.
And beauty has a way of sneaking past our defenses
and speaking to us in unique ways . . .
Everything about Jesus Christ is beautiful!
His life, his miracles, his grace, his teaching—
even his death, and certainly his resurrection—
they are all inimitably beautiful.

A Christianity enchanted by this beauty,
formed by this beauty,
and reflecting this beauty,
has the opportunity to present to a skeptical and jaded world
an aspect of the gospel that has been too rare for far too long.
Where truth and goodness fail to win an audience,
beauty may once again captivate and draw those it enchants
into the kingdom of saving grace.

He adds,
“Our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity,
but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ.
We do this best . . . by enacting a beautiful presence
within the world.
The Western church has had four centuries
of viewing salvation in a mechanistic manner,
presenting it as a plan, system or formula.
It would be much better if we would return
to viewing salvation as a [beautiful] song we sing.”

I think the same thing could be said about the doctrine of the Trinity.
It’s something of beauty,
to take in,
to contemplate with wonder and awe.
It’s not something to win a rational argument about.

The doctrine of the Trinity
is simply a way for us to describe in words,
what we experience when we start to inhabit the Gospel story,
when we dwell in the scriptures,
and start to grasp the story of God and God’s people.

What is more beautiful than the affirmation of faith
we heard from Romans 5 this morning?
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access
to this grace in which we stand;
and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us,
because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

There . . . is the Trinity—
not in a wordy rational proposition,
but in sublime words of exaltation.
This is not a triangular flow-chart for the Godhead,
showing how neatly it fits together,
and how Jesus Christ and the Spirit proceed from the Father,
or is it that begotten?
No, the apostle Paul,
who can get pretty dense and wordy other places,
here is just overflowing with giddy praise
for the God who shows up, in grace and glory, everywhere.
It’s like he’s standing at the edge of the canyon,
pointing to the west, and saying,
Would you look at that sunset??
It’s just gorgeous!

And Jesus himself spoke of the coming of the Spirit,
as a wonderful treasure to marvel over,
not a new plan or formula to memorize.
In fact, in our reading from John 16 this morning,
it was almost like Jesus was warning us
not to get caught in the weeds,
but to enjoy the big picture.
He said, in v. 12,
“I still have many things to say to you,
but you cannot bear them now.”
In other words, don’t worry about it!
“When the Spirit of truth comes,
he will guide you into all the truth;
for he will not speak on his own,
but will speak whatever he hears,
and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
He will glorify me,
because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Holy Trinity is a thing of beauty.
It’s a beautiful thing to discover a God
that meets us wherever we need to be met.
God is the all-powerful and just creator of the infinite universe.
And God also comes and lives among us,
moves into the neighborhood,
shares our humanity,
shares even our suffering and brokenness.
And God is present with us by the Spirit, in our very breath,
God’s Spirit shows up and does not leave us bereft,
always and ever available to us.

This, our one Holy God
is both power and presence
shows justice and mercy
inhabits the material and spiritual.

That is beautiful.
It’s just beautiful.
It draws us in.
It is alluring, in the best sense of the word.

Contemplating the Trinity,
is like examining a multi-faceted gemstone that reflects the light
in different colors and intensities,
depending on the angle from which we’re viewing it.
The Trinity helps us see God from different angles,
all beautiful in their own way.

Speaking of aesthetics,
just for the joy of it,
we are going to sing a song we sang last Sunday,
on Pentecost Sunday.
It worked for that Sunday.
It works for this one.

Because it exults in the delight of a multi-faceted God,
who shimmers like light shining through a prism.
Sing the Journey 16 – Praise with joy the world’s Creator

—Phil Kniss, June 16, 2019

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