06/11/17 – Who’s the Authority?

Who’s the Authority?

June 11, 2017
Trinity Sunday
Sermon: Genesis 1:1-2:3; Psalm 8; Corinthians 13:11-13
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

We are gearing up for our third summer choir camp. Our music director returns as does her son who is the visual arts instructor. Our art instructor returns for his second year. He is a local artist and sculptor who has his own gallery in Peoria. One of our returning campers is a son. One day this spring, his son came home from school excitedly waving the camp brochure, of which he had only read the first page. The boy cried: “Guess what, Dad? This year there is going to be a professional artist teaching me art!” His father replied: “You know who that professional artist is? Me.” He detected a little disappointment on his son’s face. I guess, just like a prophet is not accepted in his own hometown, artists are sometimes not appreciated by their own families.

It all comes down to who we accept as an authority. Jesus explained to his disciples that his authority came from God. His disciples doubted. The religious leaders denied it. The people in his hometown were angered by his claim of having it. King Herod had feared it might be so. Those he healed were awed by it.

Each of the four scriptural texts assigned for this day, Trinity Sunday, speak to the issue of identity and authority. The identity issue poses the questions: Who is God, who is Jesus, and what is the Holy Spirit and from whom does it come? These are questions that the early Church wrestled with and fought over. The earliest theological debates centered around the divinity and humanity of Christ. Was he completely God or all human or, in some unfathomable way, both. The “both” crowd won, but they just couldn’t deal with the ambiguity and came up with the theoretical construct of the Trinity.

The earliest official statement of faith is the Nicene Creed. It is here we hear the Church’s first official statement of belief in the Trinity. When we say this creed later in the service, notice how Jesus is described: “the only-begotten Son of God … begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” It took years of debate, some of it violent, to reach an agreement on that wording. The ones that didn’t agree were banished from the fold. Notice that in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from both the Father and the Son;” and is, therefore, worshiped with the Father and Son.

The Nicene Creed is the only creed that is shared by each of the major branches of Christianity – Roman Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox. An early form of what became the Apostles’ Creed is believed to have been used earlier for the purpose of baptism but did not become an official creed of the Church until after the Nicene Creed had been adopted. By the time the Apostles’ Creed was being debated, the Eastern Church had split from the Roman Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church also believes in the Trinity, but their construct of the relationship between the three persons of God is a circle rather than the line created triangle. To the Eastern Church, the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is like that of divine dancers dancing in a circle. The idea that two human theoretical constructs might both be good did not have much support. We just love to judge and elevate ourselves as being the authority on any subject.

The doctrine of the Trinity is simply an attempt to explain the inexplicable: how do we define God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit?  We, alone among God’s creatures, have the ability to think about God and therefore have recognition and understanding of God’s revelations to and interventions within the world. Our understanding is limited so we use intellectual constructs, such as the Trinity, to give form and order to our thoughts about God and to share our understanding with others. The Trinity points to something that is beyond the full grasp of our senses.

We like order, there is nothing we fear more than chaos. I think the creation story we read today has such elevated status among all the scriptures about the earth’s creation because it appeals to our need for order. God created the world out of chaos. In the Genesis creation story, at first, the world had only darkness and deep, formless water — and that was not good. But then God begins to create and the dark and formless takes shape. The process is so neat and tidy: “on the first day… on the second day, we could make a chart of creation with the temporal order corresponding to the created entity. But, as much as we’d like to, we can’t “graph” God.

Over the course of human history, our desire for order and predictability have led us down some destructive, even deadly, paths. We have been willing to give authority to people who promise order, even when the order they try to impose is in direct conflict with what the Bible tells us about God’s will and Christ’s teaching.

The Psalm for today is a beautiful ode to God’s power and authority. Because God created the world and everything in it, God is in charge. The creation of humankind is God’s crowning glory, but not to be placed on a pedestal and adored. We are created in God’s own image for the purpose of working for God’s kingdom. We are given the task of being stewards of God’s world to ensure its growth and survival. As stewards of the earth, we are God’s partners in creation. No other creature has that exalted a position.

God structures the life-bearing and life-giving water and land so that plants and animals can be nourished and sustained for all generations. If we disrupt that order we take away life now or for future generations. All parts of the earth are interdependent, but not interchangeable. When we interfere with this design we set off a chain reaction of death. We can debate the Paris Agreement endlessly, but there is no denying we are using up and polluting the earth at an unsustainable rate. Does our desire for profit, whether in terms of money or convenience, give us the authority to destroy the God-created world? We may not experience the consequences ourselves, but our less privileged brothers and sisters do and our sons and daughters will in the near future.

We have been created to be in a loving relationship with God and with the whole family of God. We alone among God’s creatures have the ability to have an intentional, conscious, communicative relationship with God. Ultimately, what we glean from the creation story is not just who God is, but who we are in relationship to God. Whenever we stray from God’s authority and follow another authority – most often our own egos – we become frighteningly lonely and destructive.

In our epistle reading, the Apostle Paul speaks to the value of relationships within the church and admonishes a congregation in conflict to submit to God’s authority.  Paul says: “10So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.” In essence, Paul is reminding the congregation that God is the ultimate authority from whom Christ received his authority and passed on to his disciples. Once we misuse that authority, it no longer comes from God and is therefore no longer authority at all, but willful destruction of the relationships in which God created us to participate.

Our gospel reading from Matthew today gives us Christ’s last words to his disciples. In a few short verses, Matthew gives us a condensed version of his gospel: First the risen Christ tells his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Let’s stop right there. This is the important part, all that comes after flows from that powerful statement.

When we give the world the authority to tell us who we are, we believe the lie that who we are is determined by societal and cultural opinion. This imbalance of power leads to death, not life. The world tells us who we are is: what we do for a living, how old we are, what we look like, how much money or stuff we have. So then, what is left of human dignity for the retired, the out of work, the over fifty, the adolescent girls and boys who are trying to figure out who they are but who don’t look like the air-brushed photo-shopped media pictures of teens, the ethnic minority whose skin color or physical features don’t look like the majority, the folks that can’t afford to buy the latest electronic gadget because they are struggling for the necessities of life?

But, if our identity is shaped by our understanding of who our Creator is, why we were created, and for what purpose, then no earthly power can assume authority over us. We know who we are and to whom we belong. With God, revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and sustained in a relationship with by the power of the Holy Spirit, our intrinsic value cannot be diminished. By the authority of the Holy Trinity, we are enabled to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission. The Great Commission also comes with the Great Promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is an authority in whom we can put our trust. That’s the grace, the truth, and the mystery of our faith in One God in three persons.

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God.



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois