No Easy Answers

I want to toss a couple of sentences your way and see if you can tell me where in the Bible they come from:

“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void…”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”

“Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

How did you do?

If you know your stuff, you might have raised an eyebrow at those last two. They’re not actually from the Bible. The first is a line from the third verse of the most famous Christian hymn: Amazing Grace. The second is from the Nicene Creed, the most widely acknowledged statement of Christian faith, written in the early 4th century. Neither of them comes from the Bible itself, but most of us in this room would almost certainly honor these statements as true, maybe even sacred.

We Protestants in the Reformed tradition pride ourselves on having a biblical faith, but the fact of the matter is that the content of our faith goes beyond the Bible itself to include several golden nuggets of sacred tradition that were mined from the mountain of history and refined in the furnace of the Church universal.

This might sound like a shock at first, but it shouldn’t. Jesus told his disciples, quite explicitly, that this would be the case. Christ says, in today’s gospel, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Jesus seems to have recognized that his Church would still have work to do when it came to hashing out the particulars of Christian doctrine after he was gone. He also recognized that we would need help in this process, which is why he promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide us in the direction of truth.

We Presbyterians, who form part of the Reformed Protestant tradition, believe this is exactly what happened, but we also realize that being led by the Spirit often turns out to be much messier than we expected at first.

Take, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, which we are celebrating today. The Trinity is the Christian’s core concept of God. We believe in one God who exists as three distinct persons (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Each person is divine, yet they are not three Gods, but one. How does that work? We have no idea. We call it a ‘mystery’, which is just a fancy way of saying we don’t know. The Church has decided she would prefer to stand in awe before the open question, rather than answer it with some kind of simplistic formula. We affirm that there is only one God, but this single Deity is also a Community: a Divine Ecosystem.

How did we come up with this idea? It is never explicitly laid out this way in the Bible. Nor was there ever an angel who floated down from heaven with the word ‘Trinity’ engraved on a stone tablet. We got this idea from the bishops of the early Church, who met together in community and debated the issue over a very long period of time (several hundred years, in fact).

It all came to a head in the 4th century at a meeting called the Council of Nicaea, presided over by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. The debate was fierce. On one side was Bishop Nicholas from the town of Myra, who supported the doctrine of the Trinity: that Christ was fully divine and co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. Later history would call him “St. Nicholas” and develop all kinds of legends that connect him to the holiday of Christmas. He didn’t actually live at the North Pole or fly around with reindeer, but he was based on a real person: St. Nicholas of Myra, who took part in the Council of Nicaea.

On the other side was the very popular priest Arius, who believed that Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creations, existing even before the universe itself, but not entirely equal with God.

When Nicholas decided he had heard enough of his opponent’s arguments, he walked right up to Arius and slapped him clear across the face. When the other bishops immediately confronted Nicholas about this outburst, he replied that he saw the devil sitting on Arius’ shoulder and was simply trying to shoo him off. Unfortunately, they didn’t buy his excuse and Nicholas was ejected from the meeting.

Now, I’ve sat through some really tense church meetings, but I’ve never seen anything so bad as somebody getting cold-cocked by Santa Claus!

Most Christians today forget that there was a time when beliefs about the Trinity were divisive and controversial. They were unsure of what to believe. The heated arguments of bishops threatened to tear the Church apart. What kind of a future would there be for the Church if they couldn’t reach a conclusion about their most central beliefs? People were justifiably frightened.

But you know what? The Council of Nicaea eventually came to a resolution on that contentious issue. They produced a document outlining their position. As a result, we now have the doctrine of the Trinity permanently enshrined in the Nicene Creed, which we will recite later in this service. The Trinity has become so central to our faith, most Christians take it for granted.

Jesus was right: the Holy Spirit spoke through the Council of Nicaea and guided the Church “into all the truth,” but it wasn’t pretty. It was messy. It got ugly. It was difficult. But God still worked with it.

People tend to have this romanticized idea of divine guidance being like a light that shines down from heaven while choirs of angels sing, but most of the time, it’s not like that at all. Most of the time, people don’t know what God’s will is for sure until after the fact (sometimes centuries after). We get to look back and see how God led our ancestors in the faith. It all looks so clear and obvious for us, but we forget that it wasn’t so clear for them. These imperfect Christians had to do the best they could with what they had at the time. They thought about it. They prayed about it. They disagreed with each other. They fought about it. And in the end, they made a decision and took a step together, hoping it was the right decision and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide their feet while they ran this race. And today we call them saints.

The life of faith is no different for us today from what it was for those who lived long ago. We have no guiding light or heavenly voices to make life’s decisions easy for us. We do the best we can with what we have. We think. We pray. We argue. We act. Repeat.

Over the past year, this congregation has faced a series of difficult problems, for which there are no easy answers. We engaged in the New Beginnings assessment process that led us to face some uncomfortable facts about our congregation’s financial state. We reflected on our deepest beliefs about what we believe church is at its heart: that the Church is a community with a mission before it is a building. We made the bold decision to relocate in light of those deep beliefs, held up next to the facts of our current situation. And now, the time is approaching for us to act on this decision that was made by our members who participated in New Beginnings.

Over the next few weeks, leading up to our 152nd anniversary Sunday on June 12, we will be breaking camp here at 603 N Burdick Street and pitching our tent a few blocks away from here in the chapel of First Congregational Church on Bronson Park.

The session decided to pursue this space-sharing relationship with this congregation after a careful consideration of three potential sites in the North Side and Downtown neighborhoods. First Congregational Church seemed to us to be the best available option for partnership, based on practical concerns for space and money, but more importantly because it is a community that practices its ministry with a set of values that is remarkably similar to our own. Moreover, the people of First Congregational Church have treated the people of North Presbyterian Church with the utmost respect, as equal partners in ministry, throughout this process.

Many of you have asked me whether we will be accepted and treated kindly by this new host community. I can tell you now, with a very high degree of confidence, based on our interactions with them so far, that we will.

After much questioning, deliberation, prayer, listening to the members of this church, and consideration of available options, we, the members of session, are unanimous in our belief that this relocation to First Congregational Church is the call of the Holy Spirit for North Presbyterian Church at this time.

This has been a difficult decision for all of us. I dare not tell you that I know exactly how you feel, especially those of you who have worshiped in this space for many decades. Obviously, I do not feel that pain in the same way or to the same degree that you do. But as your pastor, I do feel it. I feel it because I care about you and your well-being matters to me. I have seen the pain in your eyes and heard it in your voices.

I have felt the pain of this transition in my own way as the work I am doing with you now has become very different from the work you called me here to do two and a half years ago. In addition to orchestrating this relocation and caring for grieving people in the midst of congregational redevelopment, I have also taken on responsibility for coordinating the Togetherness Group since late last fall. And, beginning last month, these increased responsibilities have come with a significant reduction in my work hours and salary.

I tell you this, not to arouse your pity, but to show you how I am feeling the pain of this transition with you, in my own way. My family and I are choosing to sacrifice for North Church because we believe the ministry we get to do here is worthwhile. We believe in you and this church, but even more, we believe in the Holy Spirit, who has called us to minister together in this place at this time.

I know that we will have much grieving and healing to do in the coming season; I plan to be here so that we can do that work together. I won’t give up on you and I pray you won’t give up on me either. I implore you not to give up on one another. And I charge you not to give up on the Holy Spirit, who “draws straight with crooked lines” and “guides you into all the truth.”

Our ancestors in the faith had no idea where or how the Spirit was leading them in their lives, just as we have no idea where or how the Spirit is leading us today. But we can look back and see how God was faithful to them then, so we can trust that God will be faithful to us now.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
to guide the future surely as the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Do you believe that today? If so, that’s a good start.
Let’s see where it goes from here.

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