Sunday, June 11, 2017

One New People Under One Eternal God: Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2017

The weary denizens of the Til Abubi refugee camp thought they'd seen everything. They thought they were familiar with all his antics. But they were wrong. And they had learned by now that it never paid to ignore him. So when they saw him standing there, theatrically lofting something in each hand, they stopped to watch, as they meandered home from a back-breaking day's labor hauling silt out of the irrigation canal. He was just standing there, and it was mighty trying to the patience, some of them surely thought, but they were curious and didn't want to miss this if it turned out to be important. Only once he felt enough of them had gathered did the prophet begin his performance. In each hand, he had a... well, our English Bibles usually say 'stick,' and maybe it was just a stick or a branch, but the Hebrew is vague, and there's a decent chance they were improvised wooden tablets, maybe made from driftwood or discarded planks, I imagine.

And Ezekiel had painstakingly etched writing onto them. The heading on one read, “For Judah and for the children of Israel, his companions.” And on the other, the heading read, “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel, his companions.” If they were tablets, and if those were the headings, in smaller print he might have filled the tablets with a register of where refugees had been settled – on the one, where the Babylonians had dispersed the children of the southern kingdom in living memory; on the other, the little clusters where the Assyrians had dispersed the children of the northern kingdom, the so-called “lost tribes,” a century and a half before.

But the crowd couldn't see that. They could maybe make out the headings – the ones who could read, at least, and who were close enough to the elevated clump of silt where Ezekiel was standing. Before their eyes, as they fidgeted, the prophet slowly, methodically took a hinge or a piece of cloth and tied the tablets together into a diptych – like the icon of the Lord sitting here on the altar. And when he was finished, he held the finished product up over his head for all to see. But he was as silent as a mime, and so it wasn't long before someone in the crowd called out for an explanation. And that, you see, was exactly the request Ezekiel was waiting for (Ezekiel 37:15-18).

He explained to them that he was acting on God's behalf, and that the two tablets represented a problem centuries in the making: that God's one holy nation had been ripped in two, subjected to a lousy string of kings who, in the end, had gotten both nations broken up until they were nations no longer. There shouldn't even have been two of them in the first place, but their bickering, their division, their pride, their disagreements, their lovelessness, had ruptured God's plan for them and torn asunder what God had so gracefully joined. And now they were scattered to the winds, dispersed and functionally dead, neither a nation at all any longer, only stubborn pockets of local communities far from home.

But, the prophet said, God was not content with that kind of situation. He was going to reverse it – to reverse it all. And not just for them, the exiles of Judah, but even for their long-lost brothers and sisters from the north whom even their grandparents had never met. Just as Ezekiel put the tablets or sticks together and made a single item out of them in his hand, so God would take the two former nations in his hand and work the same kind of craftsmanship – he would take the remnants of the north and the remnants of the south, and make a single thing out of them in his hand (Ezekiel 37:19). “This is what the Lord Yahweh says,” Ezekiel announced, “Behold: I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall no longer be two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms” (Ezekiel 37:21-22).

The prophet went on to explain, as we've heard here this morning, that this promise would come true along with their cleansing from idolatry, and the establishment of a new David as their king and shepherd, and the gift of the new heart that would let them do God's will, and the presence of God with his people, and the new and everlasting covenant of peace between him and them – all these prophecies we've been studying would fit together as one (Ezekiel 37:23-28). That's what life in the everlasting covenant would look like – it wasn't just for the Judean exiles, the refugees of this camp and all their friends and relatives. It wasn't just a revival of the Judah they'd known for the past four hundred years. It was something bigger, something grander, something that would include the northerners on equal terms, as one people again, with all their history of division, all their civil war and all their strife, put behind them.

It's a bold and daring promise – bolder even than if you heard that North and South Korea were going to reunite and revive the Korean Empire of old, and the centuries of division would be forgotten and give way to love and harmony between the people, without difference between what once was north and what once was south. Or imagine, if you will, that the Confederates had won the Civil War. And imagine that the nations had existed, side by side, for hundreds of years, each generation in each nation raised with distrust and suspicion and even hatred of the other. And imagine both nations had been broken up and scattered, over a hundred years apart, with most of the people of the Confederate States and the United States dispersed in labor camps throughout South America, not even knowing, barely even caring where the others are, but still each nursed on their own history, barely even recalling to mind that history so long ago before the secession. Can you imagine the shock of a prophecy that, not only would we go back home, but the exiled Confederates and exiled Unionists, after hundreds of years, would be one nation again, like in the days of Washington, and would be more united than ever, with all the old disputes and divisions forgotten and overcome? That's how Ezekiel must have sounded.

And it almost makes you wonder... why? Why is it so important that they be one nation? Why was it ever a problem that they were divided in two? What did it matter if they were split in three, or four, or twelve, or a thousand little principalities, so long as they were safe and happy and holy? I mean, in this refugee camp where he preaches, probably not one of Ezekiel's neighbors has ever given the fate of the northerners, the Ephraimites and their kin, much thought – other than as an ironic parallel to their own plight, maybe. And certainly, whenever they've imagined returning from their exile in Babylon, none of them have ever thought of the northerners coming back, too. And even if they did, wouldn't that be an awkward reunion – bringing their very different histories, their very different experiences, their very different selves, practically strangers, even if in some sense they're long-lost brothers and sisters? Who cares? Why bother?

So really... why bother? Why does it seem to matter so much to Ezekiel? Why does it seem to matter so much to God? What's the point of all this fuss? It seems pointless, awkward, inconvenient. But look at it through another angle. Later Jewish writers made the logic more explicit. See, in later Jewish thought, their teaching of only one true God had a lot of important implications. If there's only one God, you see, there should only be one temple where his presence lives and where his centralized worship takes place. And that's why they didn't go around building replicas of the Jerusalem temple everywhere – although a few groups did try, later on. But if there were two or three valid temples, it would send the message that the LORD our God, the LORD isn't one after all – that maybe the Israelites have multiple gods, and that's why they need the extra temples. And so one Jewish writer writes, “Let there be neither an altar nor a temple in any other city, because God is one.” He said there “ought to be only one temple for one God.”

Or here's another implication they saw: If there's only one God, there should only be one Law, one Torah, one constitution. That's why they didn't go around inventing more of them – one set of laws for the tribe of Judah, another set of laws for the tribe of Manasseh, another set of laws specifically to govern life in Jerusalem. No, they all lived under the same constitution, the Torah, the Law of Moses. If they invented more of them, if they could have all sorts of different laws and different torahs all functioning side-by-side for different cities or tribes or regions, it would send the message that the LORD our God, the LORD is not one. And so one Jewish writer writes, “We received one Torah from one Lord.” Another one writes that the best relationship for the nation was “one constitution, one law, one God whose chosen nation is a peculiar people.”

And there's one other big implication they saw: If there's only one God, there should only be one chosen people, one holy nation. If there's one God, there ought to be one people of God, without division. And that's why they looked back on the era of the divided monarchy as being such a problem. That's why the prophets often treated it with a sense of awkwardness, like when Ezekiel himself, using the age-old image of Israel as the Bride of the LORD, had to picture God as having married a pair of sisters – check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.

See, divided nationhood and the truth of God don't fit together well. They point in totally opposite directions. That's the problem. Later Jewish writers projected back into their early history this sense that the people always belonged to one nation, one community, because they belonged to one God. One writes, “God is only one, and the nation of the Hebrews is only one.” Another writer imagined the Midianites in the days of Moses saying that the Hebrews were so invincible because of their “unanimity and agreement; and the greatest and most powerful cause of this unanimity is the idea which they entertain of the one God, from which, as from a fountain, they derive a united and indissoluble affection for one another.” And that's exactly what the nation of Israel was meant to portray: their oneness was a living parable of God's oneness. Those two things go together.

But in actual history, the nation, through sin, fell apart – first into two divided and sometimes even warring nations, and then into bunches of far-flung enclaves with no relation to each other besides conflicting histories. And in the eyes of the nations, everything about that legacy suggested that the LORD their God, the LORD was not one. With their lips, they recited the orthodoxy of the Shema, that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). But with their lives, with their national existence, they preached a pagan heresy instead. Their whole history of division preached a lie about God. And that's why God wasn't content with anything less than reunion, anything less than one Israel restored from what once was north and what once was south.

Maybe you're sitting here, though, and you're asking, “What does that have to do with us? What does that have to do with today?” And I'll answer that question. See, for the past couple months, we've been looking at these prophecies of Ezekiel, piecing together why it matters that Jesus Christ is risen, what difference it makes in our lives today. We've talked about a new Shepherd for God's flock, about the gift of a new heart that obeys God's will, about the risen and ascended Jesus' prayer ministry at God's throne, about the descent of the Holy Spirit that brings our dry bones back to life again and guarantees we will never be a hopeless case. And all of these things, if you were here on Easter, we introduced under one heading: the new covenant, what Ezekiel in today's passage calls “the covenant of peace..., an everlasting covenant” (Ezekiel 37:26).

And when we turn to the writings of the New Covenant, the New Testament, we get to encounter the oneness of God all over again – but we see it in a radically new light. Jesus addresses his Father as “the only true God” – there's the oneness (John 17:3) – but he expands on that truth so that we catch glimpses that the oneness of God means the oneness he and his Father share, and the Spirit who flows from their love. The oneness of God turns out to mean the love and life shared eternally between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who all belong to one another, who relate to each other, interact with each other – but that interaction is all internal to the life of the one true God. That interaction, that life, that love, is what it means for God to be one. And that paradox is what Christians have taken to summing up in one word: 'Trinity.' It's not just some abstract teaching for nerds and bookworms. It's also not some bizarre idea the church got that's foreign to the New Testament or irrelevant to Christian life. It's actually the heart of everything, because it's what identifies the shared life and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the oneness of God.

And so Jesus prays for us, his new Israel, “that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). Where any other Jewish teacher would always have said, “As God is one,” Jesus turns to his Father and says, “As we are one” – that's Trinity talk. But look how Jesus uses it. He prays “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Around the one eternal God, Jesus is forming one new people. And if God is one, the people have to be one. And when God's oneness means the shared life and love of Father and Son and Spirit who all find their source of identity in each other, the people's oneness means a shared life and love where we all find our source of identity in the God who is Father and Son and Spirit.

That sounds complicated, I know, but it's how Ezekiel's promise gets fulfilled. And it's way bigger than Ezekiel said. Because not only are the stick of Judah and stick of Joseph being tied together in Jesus, but so are many nations who never belonged before. Because, as Paul saw, if there's only one God, then there can't be one church of Jews and another church of Gentiles, or one path of salvation for Jews and another path of salvation for Gentiles – no, because one and the same God is the God “of Gentiles also, since God is one, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Romans 3:29-30). Jesus' prayer expands the circle of Ezekiel's prophecy to all who would believe his disciples' testimony, creating “in himself one new humanity in place of the two, [to] reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross … He himself is our peace, who has made us both one” (Ephesians 2:14-16). The life of love that believers share in God, when they come from many backgrounds, many divided histories, and set those aside and live as one people under God, is a witness to all nations that God is one, which we see on display in the Trinity.

Here, though, is the problem. To look at the church today, 'one' is not the first word that comes to mind. In the creed, we proclaim as an article of faith that “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” That's the essence of the church we believe in. And yet in practice, the church often fails to be apostolic – fails to act like we've been sent to reach out and touch the world with the gospel. In practice, the church often fails to be catholic – fails to proclaim the whole truth, the whole faith, and not just some limited or jumbled version of it. In practice, the church often fails to be holy – fails to live according to the character formed by God's Spirit, who sets us apart from our past worldly ways for a new way of navigating life. And in practice, the church often fails to be one – fails to be a fitting mirror of the united life and love we see on display in the Trinity.

Instead, we divide, we splinter, we bicker. We've fractured the church along confessional and denominational lines, of course – pitting Lutherans against Methodists, Mennonites against Presbyterians, Roman Catholics against Baptists, Amish against Pentecostals, Orthodox against Evangelicals. We no longer live as one body from many tribes. We've been invited to the promised land, but we're unsure we're ready to live alongside these professing brothers and sisters who live different, look different, speak different, narrate history different.

It's not just confessional and denominational lines. It's the generation gap of the worship wars. It's gathering under this or that preferred teacher. It's speaking different languages, coming from different countries or ethnicities or political tribes. It's personal feuds and disputes within the church. And sometimes, it's the fact that, even when we aren't fighting, we're still so dispersed in our day-to-day life, still so individualistic in how we approach life, that 'church' looks an awful lot like a weekly social club where we touch base and then go our separate ways. Maybe it looks like that because that's how we tend to treat it. But one thing a Sunday morning social club can't do is testify to the world that God is one. And neither can our feuding, our segregation, our division, of any sort or stripe.

See, whenever we fail to live as one people – whenever the church fails to be indivisible, one church under God – whenever we fall short of trinitarian love as God's one new people of love, then no matter what our mouths say, our lives are preaching heresy that may well lead the world straight to hell. Only when we do live like the Trinity – only when we live as one people of love under one God of love – do we preach the truth with our lives and give the world a real window into the life of a God who bears a name like “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” one “God in three persons,” the blessed Trinity.

Look around you in your pews this morning. The only identity you have in Christ is one that the people near you have, too – it's the same source, it's the same one God. Think of our friends at Mt. Airy, our friends at Pequea Presbyterian and Limeville United Methodist. Think of your believing Amish and Mennonite neighbors and of Christians far and wide, in the heart of New York City or on the savannah in Kenya or meeting secretly in Iran. The only identity you have in Christ is the same one they have; you are what they are, they are what you are, and the other details are irrelevant.

Any division of them from you or you from them is an offense against the one God in whom we have life and love, and our lying lives will deceive the world. But they will know we are one God's one people by our love. That's the message of Trinity Sunday. Jesus prayed for us to be one. He will get what he prayed for. But we could stand to put up less resistance. It would do us, and our witness, a great deal of good to give in now and live it out. May we live it out indeed – starting right here and right now. Amen.

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