The Holy Catholic Church: Thoughts on what it means to believe in that.

Religious but not Spiritual?

If you read my Sunshine piece this week, you know that I like to play golf.

I am not a very good golfer, but I still like to play.

A couple of weeks ago, I played in a golf outing that benefited the Baptist Homes Foundation, a part of Baptist Senior Services where I serve as Board Chair.

The golf outing was at Southpointe Golf Club.

It is a beautiful golf course.

But for my meager skills it is virtually unplayable.

The fairways are narrow, the greens are uneven and fast, the rough is deep and if the ball goes beyond the rough, it will never be seen again.

Many of the holes have blind approaches to the greens.

Most have hazards between the tee box and the fairway and the fairway and the green.

Basically, you must hit the ball accurately in both direction and distance.

I have trouble with both of those.

So, unless the Foundation has their outing there again, I never intend to play that course again.

It’s just too hard.

Golf is hard enough to play, so why would someone design a course that only a select few could play with any hope of success?

Or fun.

Or joy.

I mean, what is the point of it?

Just 18 holes of frustration and lost balls.

Not much fun.

I prefer a more genteel form of golf.

It took me a while to figure it out.

Play easier courses.

Play the gold (senior) tees.

Use mulligans (do-overs for you non golfers).

And most importantly:

Don’t keep score.

Then golf is not “a good walk spoiled” as it has been referred to by many over the years.

It is a chance to get outside, walk around some pretty scenery, hang out with a couple friends, and occasionally get the swing right so you hit a great shot or long put.

Much more fun.

All these things are what bring me back to play again.

What does this have to do with the Apostles’ Creed?

If we take the Creed to be a list of things we must believe in order to be “Christian”, it might look to some to be just too hard.

That’s why we have been talking about the Creed for the last few weeks.

This is particularly true when we affirm our belief in the “holy catholic church”.

A lot of people find that too hard.

What does it mean to believe in that?

What if that is one of the holes on the course that makes Christianity too hard to play?

Well, while we might think it’s too hard, it really isn’t.

And once we understand that, we might keep coming back.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

Acts 11: 1-18Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem

11Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me [by Cornelius] from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.* These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

We need a bit of background on this passage.

Our text is Peter’s description to the Apostles in Jerusalem of his visit with a fellow named Cornelius.

This is the second time Luke tells this story.

The full story takes all of chapter 10 of Acts.

This second telling takes up the first half of chapter 11.

This must be a very important story!

And it is.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of Peter’s visit with Cornelius on the spread of Christianity.

It resulted in the transformation of a small local Jewish sect into the Christian faith community we see today.

Peter followed the leading of the Holy Spirit and did something profoundly against everything he had been taught as a Jew.

He visited a gentile.

And Cornelius was not just any gentile.

He was a Roman Soldier from Italy.

He was a foreign enemy conqueror.

He had large family and household in what was once Israel.

He had been there for a while and planed on staying for some time.

To Jews, Cornelius was unclean and profane.

But there is a nugget about Cornelius that should not be ignored.

Luke describes him as a God-fearer.

What is a God-fearer?

Today we might call such person a “seeker”.

Or maybe “spiritual but not religious”.

Someone who is looking for an encounter with God.

Not looking for a set of religious tenets.

So, Peter goes to him, says a few words to Cornelius and his household and then … the Holy Spirit lights up their heads with fire.

Just like the Apostles at Pentecost.

Peter didn’t see that coming!

And when Peter sees what the Spirit does, he remembers something Jesus said.

16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’

Cornelius and his household had been touched by the Holy Spirit.

Just like the Apostles at Pentecost!

So, Peter understands for the first time that God sends the Holy Spirit all humanity, not just the Jews.

What does this have to do with the Apostles’ Creed affirmation that we believe in the “holy catholic church”?

We know that the Apostles’ Creed is written in three sections.

Father – creator.

Son – redeemer.

Holy Spirit – sustainer.

Each stanza has a few items in it that describe what we are to believe about that particular subject.

The third section is about the Holy Spirit.

We believe in the Holy Spirit.

And immediately after that, we say we believe in the “holy catholic church”.

This means we believe that the holy catholic church is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Which makes sense because the church was born on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the heads of the disciples.

They spoke in tongues and 3,000 people became disciples that day.

So, that was the church that was “born” on Pentecost.

It was the Apostles and 3,000 new disciples.

Not a building.

The Greek word we translate as “church” is ekklesia.

Ekklesia simply means a gathering of people assembled for a particular purpose.

The purpose of the Christian ekklesia is to worship God.

What do we need to believe about that?

That the Holy Spirit inspires the assembly.

In the context of the Creed, it means an assembly of Christians gathered for worship with the expectation that the Holy Spirit is present and active.

This is one of the ways we commune with God.

That is what the early church thought the Holy Spirit did when the people gathered.

And it added to the ekklesia.

But that thinking did not last.

It seemed the Spirit was pushed to the sidelines of the church.

As Reeves and Chester say in their book, “Why the Reformation Still Matters”:

Where did the Spirit go in late medieval Roman Catholicism? That is no easy question to answer, since for most of the Roman Church the sacramental system and the clergy seemed effectively to replace the Spirit. God’s grace was a blessing accessed through the … seven sacraments … . And the clergy were the ones who turned those taps on and off. With such a hermetically sealed plumbing system for grace, the Spirit was left with nothing to do.

Is that the church we claim to believe in when we recite the Creed?

Well, no.

Sure, we say we believe in the holy catholic ekklesia, but we don’t mean the Roman Catholic Church.

The Greek word we translate as “catholic” is katholikos which means universal or whole.

So, we are actually saying we believe in the universal or whole assembly of Christians.

Why is it holy?

Because that assembly is a product of the Holy Spirit.

So, what does this have to do with our text?

The Holy Spirit gave birth to the universal assembly of disciples of Jesus and is inspired by the actions of the Holy Spirit.

That is what we believe.

3,000 members on Pentecost.

Why did those folks sign up?

They witnessed the actions of the Holy Spirit.

They, themselves, experienced the divine.

They all had an encounter with God.

It was spiritual.

But the spirituality of the event was sidelined pretty quickly.

Because the Apostles were Jews.

And the Jews were a people of the Law.

The Law of Moses.

The Torah.

They took the position that to be a Christian, one must first become a Jew and follow the Law.

They were religious, but not spiritual.

Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with religious tenets or polity.

Remember, I was the Stated Clerk of Pittsburgh Presbytery and responsible for the interpretation of our Book of Order.

All part of that “religion” thing.

But we have to be careful when we lean too far into religiosity.

When we do that, we tend to push the Holy Spirit to the sideline.

That is the challenge the Apostles had.

They were “religious”.

You want to be part of the assembly of disciples?

Follow the law.

But then something happened that changed all that.

Peter’s baptism of Cornelius.

Entirely a spiritual thing.

Yet, Peter is scolded.

You did what?

You ate with the unclean?

You baptized them?

Then Peter told the story.

About his meeting with Cornelius.

And the fact that the Holy Spirit was who did the baptizing.

The power of the story silenced Peter’s critics.

They stopped scolding Peter and praised God.

They praised God because God turned out to be more merciful than they could ever have imagined.

Even gentiles were welcome.

Why is this important?

It’s important because churches sometimes tend to focus on the religious but not spiritual.

We list tenets of the faith and tell people that they must believe them to be part of the ekklesia.

That is what happened in Rome.

And for some affirming all that becomes really hard.

They want to be spiritual.

And they miss the experience of the divine because they are worrying about what they have to believe.

And maybe they don’t come back.

That was not happening when the ekklesia was growing in the first century.

People were not showing up to be circumcised.

They were showing up to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

They were showing up to encounter God!

That is what they found.

We need to find that, too.

So, when we say we believe in the holy catholic church, we are talking about the ekklesia of the Holy Spirit!

A place where we expect to experience the divine and encounter God!

So, what might it look like to have an encounter with God.

Such experiences are different for everyone.

I’ve had a couple.

I would guess many here have, too.

Some have had them right here at JMPC.

It might surprise you.

It might happen in the music.

It might happen in the liturgy.

It might happen in the prayers.

It might even happen in the sermon!

It’s a spiritual thing.

Not a religious thing.

When you become spiritual, not just religious, you will most definitely come back.

Jesus in Hell? Thoughts on why we say Jesus went there in the Apostles’ Creed.

Jesus in Hell?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of a reunion with some college friends, Jim, Bill and Mike.

We have stayed in touch over the years and get together for long walks and talks from time to time.

Mike told us this entertaining story.

When he was in high school, his dad let him use the family car to go out with his friends.

One winter evening Mike took the car went with a bunch of kids to a snow and ice covered grocery store parking lot.

They were there to “bumper surf”.

The idea is that you wear slippery shoes and then hang onto the bumper of a car as it drives over the parking lot snow and ice.

One person holds onto the bumper and then the rest form a sort of conga line as the car does donuts on the parking lot.

The “surfers” slide around like water skiers at the end of a rope.

This is, of course, unsafe.

When a passerby saw what was going on, the police were called

They came and put an end to the fun.

Meanwhile, Mike’s dad was listening to his police scanner at home and heard the report of the call to the parking lot.

The license number of the offending car was announced on the radio.

It was his.

When Mike got home that evening, his dad had two questions.

“Mike, where were you this evening and what were you doing?”

Mike knew immediately that his dad knew exactly where Mike had been and what Mike had been doing.


How many of us have similar stories?

Parents want to know where their children have been and what they have been doing.

And unlike Mike’s dad, those questions are asked because parents just don’t know.

This story comes to mind with Jesus, believe it or not.

If you were a disciple, knew that Jesus was crucified, died and buried on Friday, then was alive again on Sunday, wouldn’t you be tempted to ask, “Where were you and what were you doing on Saturday, Jesus?”

It turns out that Peter might have done something like that.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

1 Peter 3: 18-22

18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Before I get down to Jesus “descent into hell” I need to say that our scripture passage today is packed with difficult theology that is far from clearly understood.

This passage, and much of 1 Peter needs a lot more time than I have this morning and so will be the subject of our first Bible study this fall.

Today we focus on one particular point that is associated with the Apostles’ Creed.

Do we believe that Jesus descended into hell?

One of the requirements to graduate from seminary is that you have to do what is called “field education”.

For most people this is a yearlong internship at a local church.

I spent mine at Bethany Presbyterian Church over in Bridgeville.

On my first Sunday there, we recited the Apostles’ Creed.

When we got to the Jesus stanza, we said this:

“And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead …”

 Wait … what?

Something was missing from the Creed.

We did not say Jesus “descended into hell”.

After church I went up to the pastor and asked about that.

His response was, “Yeah, Jesus doesn’t go to hell at Bethany.”

Wait a minute!

Isn’t that a central tenet of the faith?

It’s part of the Apostles’ Creed!

How can a church just drop that?

Well, it turns out we can, because it isn’t really a tenet of the faith.

There’s virtually no scriptural support for it, and it is a poor translation of the original Greek version of the Creed.

Now would be a good time to review a bit of Apostles’’ Creed history.

Tradition has it that the creed was developed by the Apostles after Pentecost and before they went out on the Great Commission.

Each Apostle added one phrase.

There is no evidence that the Creed was written by the Apostles, though it is based on apostolic traditions handed down through the early church.

Its origins are obscure.

The Creed we recite today seems to have been developed over many years as a Q&A catechism for folks who were seeking baptism.

“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”

“I do.”

And so on.

Kind of like the questions we ask parents when we baptize their children.

The earliest evidence of this is in Rome around 200AD.

One question was not asked in those days.

“Do you believe that Jesus descended into hell?”

That was not part of the creed until the 4th Century when a popular tract called the Gospel of Nicodemus was going around.

One part of that tract describes what came to be know as the “harrowing of hell”.

For some reason the author tried to explain where Jesus was and what he was doing on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Briefly, Jesus is said to have descended to hell to deliver the Old Testament patriarchs from imprisonment there.

Is there scriptural support for this?

Not in anything Peter wrote.

Anyway, the Creed reached its final form in the late 6th or early 7th century and was accepted as a sort of official statement of faith in the western churches by the 12th century, though the Methodists and other individual churches reject the phrase “he descended into hell”.

The Apostles’ Creed is not accepted in any of the eastern orthodox churches.

Focusing in on the word “hell” is worth a moment.

The Creed was originally written in Greek.

In Biblical Greek it said Jesus descended to Hades.

This was a place the Jews called Sheol.

It is the place of the dead.

Hades is not the eternal inferno.

It’s a place where the souls of the dead just sort exist in a sort of meaninglessness.

Unfortunately, the Latin word used for Hades was hell, which became confused with the endless inferno.

Jesus’ descent into Hades is something we can believe because we know Jesus died.

So, where was Jesus on Saturday?

Where the dead were, because he was dead.

This is all important, because we would never understand this from 1 Peter.

1 Peter is hard!

Jesus is dead … bodily.

He is alive … spiritually.

What does that mean?

Who are the “spirits in prison”?

That is where things get really confusing.

They were, according to Peter, the ones “who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark …”

So, taken literally, they were the Sons of God who conceived children with the human women in disobedience to God.

Because of that they were wiped out in the flood and their spirits were imprisoned.

Does all this help?


Where is the “prison”?

Peter does not say.

What did Jesus proclaim?

Peter is silent.

What Peter does talk about is the meaning of the crucifixion.

Christ … suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.

This is not limiting to the living.

Particularly when we read what Peter says later in the letter.

1 Peter 4: 6

6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

Was Jesus preaching the Gospel to the “spirits in prison”?

Is that what Jesus told Peter?

Who can say?

And what do we make of this?

Here are two interpretations of all this passage from Peter.

The prisoners are the troublemakers from Noah’s time.

They are imprisoned someplace away form God.

Jesus went to them to show them that their disobedience to God and the attempt to the death of all humanity was in fact unsuccessful.

Jesus’ resurrection proved these folks lost that battle.

The other is that Jesus went to the place of the dead to proclaim the Gospel to those who died before Jesus lived and gave them the opportunity to accept Jesus and rise with him to God’s kingdom.

That is what these pictures describe.

Jesus is ascending and taking the patriarchs and all the people out of eternal Sheol.

So, what about the folks who lived and died after Noah and before Jesus?

Did Jesus come for them, too?

And what about the folks who never heard of Jesus?

Peter seems to suggest the answer is that Jesus did come and comes for them, too, though not in our text today.

That is a happy sort of interpretation.

It’s all just supposition.

A mystery.

Alister McGrath says this:

[Jesus’] sufferings on the cross were not pointless or accidental, but the mysterious and wonderful means by which God was working out the salvation of the world.

Maybe that is why we just say Jesus went to hell and leave out all that other stuff because we just don’t know.

So, what do we say we are believing if we say Jesus died, went to the dead, arose on the third day and then ascended into heaven?

I like this:

Here is where we begin to see theology.

Why does God become incarnate?

Because God is love and wants to rescue God’s loved ones.

God descends.

It starts with Jesus’ birth.

Jesus is God.

He is born of Mary.

He is moving further and further from his home.

To those further and further from their creator.

He suffers.

He dies.

He is buried.

Now that he is dead, he must go to where the dead go.

He is moving to where death reigns.

It is as far from God as can be.

Jesus went there.

Why did Jesus go there?

To get those who had died before he came.

Jesus informs the citizens of Hades that this thing called death is no more.

Death is where they are.

Life is where Jesus is.

Then I have an image of Jesus surveying all those there and saying:

“Who wants to come with me?”

Jesus then starts his ascent back to his home and takes them with him.

This makes sense to me if we believe God is love.

If God is love, why would god allow God’s loved ones to be excluded from God eternally.

I believe God would go get them.

That’s what Jesus was doing there.

A rescue.

And in some ways, that Jesus suffered, died, was buried and descended to the dead is why we look on Jesus as a worthy savior.

He knew what it was like to be one of us.

He knew pain.

He knew suffering.

He knew death.

Why is that important?

I would be hard pressed to trust in a savior who could not be sympathetic to me because he had never experienced what I have experienced.

How could such a person understand my circumstances?

And that is important.

Jesus does understand my circumstances.

The one who stands beside us when we are in pain has been in pain.

The one who is present at our death, has himself died.

Jesus has been there and done that.

He did not get a t-shirt, but he did get the scars.

He is the wounded healer.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung first used the term wounded healer in his book: Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy which was published in 1951.

He believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer.

Jung held that only a wounded physician could heal effectively.

Jesus is truly that.

He is with us.

He knows us.

Jesus was the divine man who experienced the ultimate distance from God.

An brings us back to God regardless of how far away we might go.

I believe Jesus descended – and rose again.

So can you.

Born or the Virgin Mary: Thoughts on what we believe when we say we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus.

Born of the Virgin Mary

My brother became a grandfather for the second time this week when Mason Andrew D’Adamo was born.

The story of his birth is circulating.

Many days late.


Wailing away as soon as he entered the world.

Beautiful, as all babies are.

It made me think that one of Karen’s and my favorite things to share with our children is their birth stories.

Most often we do that when we are with them on their birthdays.

We would tell the story of Karen’s three days of induction because AJ was two weeks late.

“We thought you would never come out!”

“But you did and we brought you home on our first anniversary!”

But the better story is about Julz.

Julz was early.

We went to a neighbor’s Christmas party, Karen had an eggnog then we went home early.

At around three in the morning, I woke up and saw Karen looking at her watch.

“What’s up?”, I asked.

“I’m timing my contractions.”

“Oh? How far apart are they?”

“Ninety seconds.”

“Oh? Shouldn’t we be at the hospital?”

“Maybe …”

I won’t go into the rest, it is a long story about a quick delivery, and it ends with my comment, “I think she has red hair!”

Every time we tell the stories, the kids are attentive.

They like to hear their birth stories.

They like knowing their roots.

Their origins.

Their identities.

We love to tell the stories, too.

And the details are important.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

It, too, is a story about a birth that is yet to come.

Luke 1: 26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary.”

This passage from Luke is the source of that creedal statement.

It is the story of the beginning of Mary’s pregnancy.

We have heard it over and over and over.

Every Christmas Eve during Lessons and Carols at least.

For as long as any of us have been able to comprehend this story, the focus has been centered on what follows Gabriel’s announcement that Mary is going to have a baby:

“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

And Gabriel’s response:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

Our interpretation of those words is what we say in the Apostles’ Creed.

Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary.

The virgin birth.

And when we hear the story read to us, as soon as it starts, our minds jump to that point, and we don’t hear the rest.

But the story has a bit more complexity.

So, let’s listen to the story with fresh attention.

This story is our introduction to Mary in scripture.

Who is she?

We are burdened by theological hindsight.

One author describes our preconceived notions about Mary this way:

[W]e’ve buried her under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. Some call her a victim of divine coercion. Others, “Theotokos,” the Mother of God. For some, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. For still others, she is child prophet extraordinaire — a young girl who fearlessly announced the arrival of God’s kingdom to earth.

Why pray to her?

She is “full of grace”.

According to Roman Catholic theology, and I am no expert, Mary has grace to give, and we all need it.

So, we ask her for it.

Why ignore her?

That’s kind of what we do in the reformed tradition.

Mary is just a vessel for the Messiah.

Some say she is the victim of divine coercion.

God forces Godself on a young girl for God’s own purposes.

Is Mary the “Mother of God”?

Well, she gave birth to one member of the triune God, right?

Is Mary the eternal virgin?

That s the Roman Catholic point of view, but the Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.

Is Mary a prophet?

You bet!

Her call from Gabriel and their conversation looks like a pretty typical prophet call story.

And soon after we get the Magnificat, Mary’s prophetic announcement.

Others simply read this passage with skepticism and believe Luke is using Old Testament like metaphor.

But we are not told any of that here by Luke.

And we certainly don’t hear any of that in the Apostles’ Creed.

Luke’s depiction of Mary is that she was mostly an ordinary young woman who reacts to this visitation in an extraordinary way.

We have before us a brief ordered, factual narrative that cites no source.

Mary herself maybe?

Kind of like a mother recounting her pregnancy.

Maybe this is how she talked about it with Jesus.

“Where do I come from Mom?”

“From God, son.”

So, let’s look at the story for the details that might tell us what we can believe about it.

When the story opens, we are given background by the narrator, Luke.

Mary is a teenaged girl of marriage age who lives in Nazareth and is engaged to a fellow named Joseph.

Her father has arranged for her to be married to Joseph.

The marriage will be consummated when she moves in with Joseph.

That has not happened yet.

Now the action begins.

Mary is occupied in her normal life.

Then enter Gabriel!

We know who he is.

He’s one of God’s Archangels.

Gabriel calls prophets and is the protector of Israel in the Old Testament.

Mary’s reaction to this unexpected and no doubt terrifying visit evolves over the course of the encounter.

At first Mary is afraid.

It is the rare exception in the Bible that on finding oneself in the presence of an angel one is not absolutely terrified!

I have an image that she is cowering behind whatever she can find to cower behind with wide eyes and gaping mouth.

And we know Mary was afraid because the angel tells her not to be.

Then she is mystified.

One writer describes her response this way:

Me? Who am I? Why am I favored? How can the Lord be with me? She knows her place. She knows who she is. And this should not be happening. She’s a teenager, and from the wrong side of the tracks. 

Why does Mary get a visit from Gabriel?

Does God even know she exists?

I have an image of her dropping her chin to her chest, shaking her head – No, no, no …

“I think you have the wrong Mary, Gabriel.”

Then the big reveal!

She’s going to have a son.

Gabriel says the boy will be great, called the son of the Most High, will sit on the throne of David reigning over the hose of David forever!

Mary does not seem to have heard who the boy will be.

She is more concerned about how that is going to happen?

How is it she is going to have a baby?

Then the next big reveal.

This is going to be God’s doing.

Gabriel says this:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Elizabeth, too?

There it is.

What exactly does that mean?

The translation might best be put, the Holy Spirit will make this happen!

Mary just needs to agree.

Which brings us to how Mary might have responded.

She is still skeptical!

So, Gabriel offers Elizabeth’s pregnancy as proof.

If Elizabeth can be pregnant, nothing is impossible with God.

Even a virgin birth.

If you want to get an image of what Mary’s reaction might look like, take a look at some annunciation artwork.

Depictions of what people thought it might have been like.

Particularly Sandro Botticelli’s painting, “The Cestello Annunciation”.

In it, Botticelli portrays Mary as withdrawing from Gabriel.

Creating distance between them as if she might flee.

Her hand is out in a “keep your distance from me” gesture.

Mary is looking down, averting her eyes.

Mary’s expression is not particularly joyful.

More ambivalent.

Is Mary telling Gabriel, “I need to think about his.”

Gabriel is on his knee, looking up into Mary’s face, as if trying to get her to look at him.

Is he afraid Mary is about to say no?

Is he begging her to say yes?

How long does this all go on?

Gabriel must be relieved when Mary utters her famous phrase:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

He departs.

Mary has said all the right words, but then does something interesting.

She runs off to see Elizabeth.

Why would she do that?

Maybe to see if Gabriel was telling the truth?

Is Elizabeth really pregnant?

Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth suggests a certain skepticism and pause before Mary believes it all.

Mary sees that Elizabeth is in fact pregnant and hears Elizabeth cry out that Mary is pregnant, too.

Mary then sings her famous song:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.

Mary believes.

Do we?

What does the story of Gabriel and Mary ask us to believe?

Something like this, I think.

Mary was called by God for a particular task.

She was the human being through whom God became incarnate.

She brought the Son into the world from her womb.

At God’s request.

By way of the Holy Spirit.

And Mary agreed to do it.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, this is what we claim to believe.

That God became one of us through Mary.

Like the Trinity, how exactly that happened is a mystery.

But there is a meaning beyond how Jesus was conceived.

For God nothing is impossible.

If, like Mary, we believe that nothing is impossible to God, we can believe that we, like her, are the human beings through whom God acts in the world.

We too can give birth to the holy!

Are we willing to let God intrude into our lives and, despite the cost and discomfort, emulate Mary’s “yes” to God with our own “yes”?

Can we as a church respond like Mary?

So here is my image of what that might look like:

Me: “Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.”

Congregation: “How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people.”

Me: “Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.

Congregation: “Here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.”

So may it be.

Three in One? Thoughts on how we understand the Trinity.

Three in One

One of the most interesting things about going to many sporting events in the United States is that before the event begins, we are asked to stand, remove our hats, and sing the national anthem.

The Star-Spangled Banner.

That tradition is so ingrained in me that whenever I hear the Star-Spangled Banner, I want to cry out, “play ball!” when it ends.

And when someone does not stand, remove their hat and sing, many lay the stink-eye on them and might want to say something like, “What’s your problem?”

And God forbid that the person singing the anthem forgets the words!

They are ridiculed and mocked.

And now recently, there have been a lot of folks, athletes in particular, who “take a knee” during the national anthem in protest of some perceived, and often real, injustice.

They are often derided and scorned by those who believe such a protest is inappropriate.

Then there is the other end of the national anthem spectrum.

Many Americans who win the gold medal at the Olympics literally weep as soon at the Star-Spangled Banner starts to play as the Star-Spangled banner is raised.

We take our national anthem seriously!

And so, most of us do stand, remove our hats, and sing the national anthem whenever we are asked to do so.

And hopefully we remember the words.

But why?

What I find interesting is that our national anthem is about the “Star Spangled-Banner” not the United States of America.

The flag, not the country.

America the Beautiful might be a better anthem, in my opinion.

But most don’t really care about what the anthem is about, because the words of the anthem are not so much a statement of what we believe but are a statement of who we are.

We are Americans!

And that is our national anthem!

We have an anthem of sorts in the church.

Most Sundays in church, we recite an “affirmation of faith”.

It is a statement of what we claim to believe that is central to our faith.

The one we recite most often is the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed is a brief three stanza declaration of several things we hold to be true.

The first stanza is about God the Father.

The second stanza is about Jesus Christ.

The Third stanza is about the Holy Spirit.

Overall, the entirely of the Creed proclaims our belief in what we refer to as the Trinity.

One God in three persons.

That is a hard sell.

It is a hard sell because we can’t visualize it and don’t really understand it.

But we say we believe it because it declares who we are.

We are Christians.

We believe in the Trinity.

So, where do we find the trinity in scripture?

In fact, the word “trinity” does not even appear in the New Testament anywhere.

So where does it come from?

Let’s have a listen to today’s scripture.

John 15:26 – 16:15

26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

16”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When 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. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

If you are scratching your head right now, you are not alone.

At our Wednesday staff meeting, we talked about this passage and there was a good bit of confusion.

It’s hard to understand.

And John is quoting Jesus!

Jesus is talking about God, himself and this “Advocate” who will come only after Jesus leaves.

Can you imagine being one of the disciples when Jesus tells them about this?

They have been following Jesus for three years and have just started to understand that Jesus was sent, not by God, but from God, as a part of God.

Now Jesus is saying that the “Advocate”, the Spirit of God, will be coming next.

And this Advocate or Spirit is also sent not by God, but from God, as part of God.

I have this image of the disciples looking at Jesus with their mouths open in confusion.

We just got used to two and now you tell us there are three?

One God.

Three … what?

Parts, persons, manifestations, presentations?

Christians have been asking those same questions for 2000 years.

The Trinity is one of the great mysteries of our faith.

And mysteries cannot be described, explained or depicted.

At times they are just to be accepted.

As Augustine pointed out back in the 4th century:

If you can comprehend it, it is not God.

 The Trinity is a good mystery.

A mystery that preserves God’s majesty and holiness.

And this is a mystery that goes back to the beginning.


The first 5 verses of the Bible.

The creation.

God. The Word. The Spirit.

All three were there.

We need to know that.

But there is only one God.

God is all three.

How do we explain that?

One of early explanations of the Trinity went this way.

It’s called the Creed of Athanasius and was written in the 5th or 6th century:

[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the persons … The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. … And yet there are not three incomprehensibilites, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.

Got it?

Good because there will be a quiz.

Many different depictions of the Trinity have been offered over the centuries and most have been labeled heretical.

Meister Eckhart, a 14th century German mystic who described the trinity this way.

God the Father laughed, and the Son came forth. God the Father and the Son laughed together, and the Holy Spirit came forth.

When all three laughed, humanity came forth.

Thus, the universe at its center is a joyful community.

And then there is a modern fanciful depiction the Trinity.

It comes in the book, “The Shack”.

In this short book, William P. Young writes about Mack, someone whose daughter was murdered some time back.

He is drawn to a shack near the site of the murder.

He enters the shack and encounters manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity.

God the Father takes the form of an African American woman who calls herself Elouisa and Papa.

Jesus Christ is a Middle Eastern carpenter.

The Holy Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman named Sarayu.

Athanasius is now twirling in his grave.

But for some, perhaps many, and certainly for those who have experienced trauma and loss, the Trinity depicted in The Shack might be a spiritual balm.

I like what Oxford theologian Alister McGrath says about the Trinity:

“The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t invented—it was uncovered. The doctrine of the Trinity…is not some arbitrary and outdated dictate handed down by some confused council—it is the inevitable result of wrestling with the richness and complexity of the Christian experience of God.”

We discover the Trinity by looking at what God has done.

 We first experience God who created the world and continues to do so and whose glory can be seen reflected in the wonder of nature.

We next experience God who saves us from ultimate darkness and death, and whose love is depicted in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Last, we experience God who is present and active in our lives.

These experiences lead to the conclusion that God has revealed his one being in these three unique ways.




God created us.

Jesus redeemed us.

The Holy Spirit.

These are not different forms of God.

These are different acts of God.

God creates.

God redeems.

God sustains.


So what do we do with all this?

What does it all really mean?

What is it we believe?

Brian McLaren puts it this way:

If …there’s only one God but not three Persons within the one God, then we would expect that the ultimate reality behind the universe could be silence. It could be power. It could be peace. It could be domination. It could be any of those things. But there’s one thing that it could not be. The ultimate reality could not be love. Because for love to exist, there has to be a sharing, and there has to be a communication, and there has to be a self-giving. But if there’s only one, there’s nothing to give the self to.

We believe that for love to exist, it must be in community.

If God is love, God is somehow a community.

And if we are to love the way God loves, we must also be in community.

I think the Trinity we believe in teaches us that because God acts as a community, we, if we are to be his followers, must also act as a community. 

We must worship in community.

We must do mission in community.

We must do fellowship in community.

We must do stewardship in community.

We must do leadership in community.

We must teach and nurture our children in community.

We must get in community and stay in community.

The Trinity asks us, “How can anyone draw closer to God without being in some kind of community?”

I might not understand how God can be three in one, but I am glad God is.

And if God loves us, we are invited into that triune community.

Listen to the story I read this week.

Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic priest and theologian was depressed for a long time.

As part of his own therapy, he meditated on an icon that depicted the Trinity as three persons sitting around a square table.

One on each side.

His interpretation of the image was that the three stared at each other in a manner where there was no fear, no greed, no anger, no violence, no anxiety, no pain, no suffering, not need for words.

All that was present was love and trust.

The fourth side was empty.

It was where he was.

He felt he was invited to be the fourth at that table, and to participate in the divine community.

That makes me think of the communion table.

Jesus invites us there to join him in the community of the Trinity.

That is what communion is.

We join the triune God at the table in community.