May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some of you know that I am a historian and a huge proponent of lifelong learning. In fact, tomorrow I will begin a series of yearly summer classes at the University of the South because I just can’t say “no” to a good class or seminar. When I was in seminary the first go around at the Interdenominational Theological Center, one of my favorite classes was apparently everyone else’s least favorite – Church History. Dr. Mark Ellingson, our church history professor, played no games when it came to reading and coming to class prepared. He set up his class in a such a way that you had to come prepared to debate one side or another of any number of the church’s ecumenical councils and synods: First Council of Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Ephesus, Trent – these spaces the Church set up to wrestle with theological concepts regarding everything from Mary as Theotokos (or “God-bearer”) to how many bishops it takes to ordain a priest (which sounds a bit like how much bishops it takes to screw in a lightbulb).
I love Church History not only because I love the councils themselves, but I also love the process of debating, reasoning, and learning from one another. It is also true that Church councils were often replete with scandal and drama, not unlike a scintillating Netflix series, like the time Saint Nicholas (think Santa Claus) “allegedly” punched Arius in the face for suggesting that Christ was created by God and was not, in fact, himself God.
After the cessation of a series of persecutions and policies which forced the early church underground and out-of-sight, the early church became obsessed with what this whole “Trinity” business was all about. While it might be suggested that there were purely religious motives behind this question, I wonder if the question didn’t also have a practical dimension as well. The persecutions that the Early Church endured did not stem the flow of new converts; in fact, the result was quite the opposite. The heroic testimonies of brave women, men, and children going to their deaths singing the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms drew many others into the rapidly expanding fold of Christian faith. But the persecutions had also made many people afraid and ashamed to be Christian. Many Christians, seeking to save their own lives or the lives of their families, denounced Christ. When these persecutions came to an end – when it became legal and increasingly more popular to be a Christian – the Church had to wrestle with how they were called to relate to one another including those who had fallen away. I wonder if an underlying question around how God related to God’s self wasn’t also a question of how Christians are called to relate to one another?
Our Gospel today is often held up as proof of Jesus’ affirmation of the existence of the Holy Trinity. Baptize “them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the Evangelist has Jesus say. But I want to draw our attention to this idea of baptism, this induction into the abundant life of God as the main point of the Great Commission – the job description that Jesus gives his followers right before his ascension. The whole point of the Church is to continue the fundamental work of Christ – to gather the whole world into the blessed community of God. Among other things, the Holy Trinity is an icon of how that community is supposed to operate.
Around the same time that Christianity came out of the shadows, many women and men decided to leave the cities and journey into the Egyptian desert to live either in semi-isolation or in intentional communities. These desert monastics were experimenting with radical concepts of Christian community and vocation. One such man, a monk named Pachomius, established a religious order in Upper Egypt that had at its heart the New Testament idea of koinonia, or fellowship. Relationships were to be mutual, hierarchy was meant to be practical and as flat as possible, and in all things God was to be centered, to the end that human beings would rediscover the image of God the each of them possessed. Horsiesius, who led Pachomius’ movement for a short time, encouraged his fellow monks with these words:
Therefore, brothers, let us be equal, from the least to the greatest, whether rich or poor, perfect in harmony and humility… Let no one look after his own pleasure when he sees a brother living in poverty and hardship… Our Lord and Savior gave his apostles this precept, “I gave you a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. By this you shall truly be known as my disciples” (John 13:34-35). We should, therefore, love one another and show that we are truly the servants of our Lord Jesus Christ and sons of Pachomius and disciples of the Koinonia.
Early monasticism sought to reestablish the harmony that existed before sin corrupted and twisted human relationships.
Early church disputes over theology and orthodoxy can often be dismissed as irrelevant arguments over inane theological minutia; but, I believe the conversations were really about relationships – how God relates to God’s self, how we relate to God, how we relate to one another, how we relate to those who are not Christian, and how we related to those who have fallen away from the faith. I am not suggesting that we got it right. Rightness and wrongness are words that are often too small to capture the fullness of human contact and conversation. What I am suggesting is that there was, and still remains, a desire to understand more deeply how we are called to be with one another in the increasingly small and fragile world.
As an icon of perfected community, I believe that the Holy Trinity has much to teach us in this regard. Perfect, theocentric or “God-centered”, loving community is not defined by the space we take up, but in the space we give up. The three persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dance around one another, giving and filling space. It’s hard to describe and simply must just be experienced and savored. The heart of our God is one of hospitality – radically open space of welcome.
Remarking on the amazing depth of need for true hospitality in our contemporary world, Roman Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen writes this:
Like the Semitic nomads, we live in a desert with many lonely travelers who are looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink, and for a sign of encouragement so that they can continue their mysterious search for freedom.
At its heart, Christian faith is about throwing open our doors to our weary world and inviting folks to drink from the fountain of eternal life.
Baptism, our waterborne new birth into the dynamic life of Christ, inducts us into that relationship. It’s more than celestial fire insurance; it’s is being conscripted into the saving community of Jesus, called to bear Christ out into the world through the currency of everyday relationships. Everything from how we say our prayers to how we disagree is meant to point beyond ourselves to a God who exists in such perfect harmony with God’s self that we are still struggling to put that relationship into words.
In trying to understand the intricacies of the interrelation between the persons of the Holy Trinity, it might be that the early Church made the perfect the enemy of the good, violently persecuting those who disagreed or deviated from the standard of orthodoxy. It might be that in their zeal to get it right, they missed the whole point of relationship to God: relationship, unity, love, koinonia, fellowship.
Last week I said that I do not believe that Jesus came into the world to give us one more thing to argue about, that we have more than enough. I deeply believe that. It’s not that our differences are inconsequential, but I believe we can learn far more from one another when we engage in mutually-affirming and compassionate conversations than when we throw people away as trash.
Before he was the leader of a monastic order, Pachomius was a conscript in the Roman army. During a stint in prison, Pachomius and a few of his friends were visited by some strangers who brought them food and drink. When Pachomius asked why these people showed kindness to those whom they did now know, one of his friends replied, “They are Christians, and Christians are merciful to everyone including strangers.”
The best work we can do as a church actually costs us nothing but mindfulness and intentionality – it is simple kindness and mercy. It isn’t proving our rightness or someone else’s wrongness. It is about creating space for people to enter and to experience what the Church holds to be true – that despite the scarcity and anxiety around us, the abundant fountain of God’s grace still flows down like waters, and God’s love like an ever-flowing stream.
 Horsiesius, “The Testament of Horsiesius” in Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, William Harmless (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 158-159.
 Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Random House, 1972), 95.
 Harmless, Desert Christians, 118.