18th JUNE 2000

Immanuel Presbyterian Church

Rev. Dianne OíConnell
Isaiah 6:1-8
John 3:1-17

"Believe in Him!"

Good Morning. And Happy Fatherís Day. You know, years ago, I had to take an aptitude test Ė or suitability test -- in order to get into seminary. I can only remember two of the questions.

The first went something like, "Do you believe you possess the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

And the second question was, "Do you like to wear a lot of black?"

Well, they let me in with a 50 percent score.

But back to Fatherís Day. May each of us take a moment to remember our own fathers this morning and those among us who are fathers, may you feel a sense of love and appreciation throughout this day and in the days to come.

My son is the father of a little girl, my four-year-old granddaughter. With his re-marriage a year ago, he also became the father to five boys, ages five to 16. It has been interesting during the past year, watching him grow into fatherhood. Heís developed a new empathy for my husband, his stepfather of the past 23 years. Wow. It is different being a father and being a stepfather, isnít it? he asks us. My husband just smiles.

The importance of both roles Ė that of father, and that of stepfather, the incredible importance of both roles has become vividly apparent to him. And furthermore, it is not always easy to develop the required diplomacy to communicate with a former wifeís current husband or the former husband of your current wife Ė as you all try to be a viable extended family to children you all love and wish to see prosper. It is quite a challenge.

I mention this because being a father has never been easy Ė but it certainly seems to get more and more complicated as time goes on. But never, ever, under estimate the importance of fatherhood.

Iím reminded of a little newspaper article I read several years back. Iíve always wished Iíd clipped it out, but I didnít, so I have to go by memory. Itís my "importance of fathers" story. I also preach at several different churches throughout the year, and I may have already told you this story. If so, Iím sorry, but it is still a good story.

The newspaper article dealt with, would you believe, a series of murdered young rhinoceroses. It seems as though the game wardens were discovering young rhinoceroses, which had been killed with what appeared to be a single, deep stab wound. Poachers were ruled out because nothing was taken. Other than being killed, the rhinoceroses were left in tact.

What was finally discovered was that a small gang of young male elephants was responsible for the deaths. They apparently were killing the rhinoceroses strictly "for fun" whenever they ran across one.

What was further discovered was that these young elephants came from a herd which had been decimated several years back by poachers who had killed off all the older, male elephants for their ivory. There were no older males left in the herd as these youngsters grew up.

The animal anthropologists hypothesized that without the influence of the old males, with the cooler heads, and sense of propriety, these young males had gone, if you will, haywire. The only hope for bringing them around was to transplant them into another herd Ė one with a bunch of old stepfathers, if you will. Some male elephant role models. Time would tell if the youngsters could be re-programmed into being acceptable jungle elephants, ones that could be left in the same jungle with a rhinoceros, but there was a definite sense of hope.

So, ever so often I tell my husband and my son, and my stepson, and now my step-grandsons, the elephant story. Iím not sure I have all my anthropological facts right, but I tell the story in the hope that it brings a little understand between fathers and sons, adds support to the idea that it indeed, "takes a whole village to raise a child," -- and teaches them all to be respectful to rhinoceroses.

But back to church here. Today is Trinity Sunday. The Father with we are concerned today is the Heavenly Father, known to most as GOD, and some as "Abba".

The Lenten and Easter seasons are now over. Today, we begin the remaining long period of "Ordinary Sundays of the Year" with the celebration of Trinity Sunday. It is on this Sunday that we are urged to contemplate the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

From about Advent to Easter, we focus our meditation mostly on the Second Person, the Son, Jesus Christ. The "person" within the Trinity, who became a human person, lived among us, died, and was resurrected. We think and pray about his origins, his life, his purpose, the meaning of his life for us, and our salvation.

From about Easter until now, we often focus on the Holy Spirit, that person within the Trinity, who moves within and among us, as a comforter, exhorter, as advocate.

So, as most of us have been taught, in the triune God, there are three distinct roles: that of Father, of Son and of Holy Spirit. We may not be able to penetrate the inner reality of these roles but we can be helped in our understanding when we look at how each Person carries out his role:

The Father is the Creator, the Conserver, the source of all life and being and the final end of all things.

The Son is the Word, by whom and through whom the nature of God is communicated to us. The Son assumed a fully human personality and lived among us. As the Word of God, the self-communication of God, he helps us to understand, by his words and actions and by his whole way of living and his humanity, what our God is like. Even then, we still only see God "in a clouded mirror"; we have some idea of what He is like, through our understanding of Jesus. Jesus' love reached the very limits possible to a human being but is still only a pale shadow of the limitless love that is in God.

The Spirit is the presence of God in us as individuals, the whole world and hopefully, in the Christian church. It is through the Spirit that we, the world, and the Church are led and guided into truth. The Spirit is, as it were, the very soul of the Church.

Today the assignment is to consider the first persona in the Trinity: God the Father, and Godís nature. St. Paul tells us that, in the light of reason and even common sense, any person can come to an awareness of a creator God as the source and cause of all that is. There is no way, however, by which we could come to know the inner nature of God in the way it has been laid open to us in the pages of the bible and from the words of Jesus himself.

That is not to say that, as a result of this revelation, we have a perfect understanding of God. We will never, in this world, even have more than the dimmest understanding of what God is really like. God, being God, is beyond all knowing and we only begin to know him when we accept that.

It is with that understanding of God, that Paul speaks to the Romans. All who are moved by the Spirit are children of God. And it is not the spirit of subservient slaves filled with fear. It is the spirit of sons and daughters who can call out with a daring intimacy, "Abba!" As children and not slaves, we are therefore heirs as well: heirs of God and co-heirs with Jesus Christ, sharing his sufferings as well as sharing his glory.

So today's celebration on the one hand leads us to reflect on the incomprehensible greatness of our God and at the same time helps us to be aware just how close that "Abba" (Papa) God is to us. A God so far above us that he remains forever in a "Cloud of Unknowing" and yet who is, as St. Augustine said, closer to us than our very breathing.

This is a good beginning, but I come from a fundamentalist background where there were certain things one must believe wholeheartedly before becoming acceptable to God. What is it that we MUST BELIEVE to become a Child of God?

The passage from the Gospel of John this morning is very familiar. It speaks of the necessity of being "born again" and "believing in Jesus". If we are "born again" and "believe in Him", we shall not perish, but have ever-lasting life.

It seems so simple. Yet, I will tell you that this passage has been one of the more difficult ones for me to come to terms with in the Scriptures, ever since childhood.

Am I a "born again" Christian?, my godly neighbors may ask. I often bristle at the question. What it means for them, again may or may not be what it means for me. Of course, I am a Christian. Of course, I seek to follow the will of Jesus Christ for my life. My life has changed as a result of this commitment to the Way of Jesus Christ. It has changed dramatically.

As far as my sins, my failings, and my shortcomings are concerned, I truly believe that my God understands and forgives me for the vast majority of them Ė as long as I donít go about "goring the forest animals". In other words, I take very seriously the commandment to do unto others and I would have done unto me. To love, protect, even advocate for my neighbor. To go out of my way to do good and avoid evil.

But what does the Lord my God demand of me, not only to do or not do, but to BELIEVE? What must I believe?

What must I believe about God? What must I believe about the Holy Spirit? What must I believe about Jesus, the man, and Jesus, the Christ?

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.

I bet I was six-years-old when I first memorized that verse, and many other verses, at the Lansing, Illinois, Community Bible Church. I know I was six years old. In the Sunday School program there, every time a kid memorized a verse or series of verses, he or she received a little paper award to paste to this ribbon at the front of the room. The Sunday School teacherís daughter was my best friend.

She and I had the most paper awards and the longest ribbons in the church. We were in a competition with each other. Every Sunday morning, one or the other of us got up before the group, recited the Bible verses of the week, and surged ahead. Our ribbons got longer and longer.

So, I remember John 3:16. It was the first Bible verse I ever learned and it was at the top of my ribbon. And it, and the 23 Psalm, are the only verses, I really can remember without any prompting, even today as a Presbyterian minister. The others have faded, but John 3:16 is right there.

Every person who "believes in" Jesus will be "saved" and will have "ever-lasting life." Great. Good News. The Best News.

But BELIEVE WHAT? What do we have to believe? That Jesus was the Son of God?

Thatís not a problem for me. Of course, he was the Son of God. Just like I am the daughter of God. And each of you are Children of God.

Some of us are older children. Some of us are middle children. Some of us are ornery children. Some of us are respectful children. And most of us are neglectful children. But we are all Children of God.

Iím not certain thatís what the folks at the Lansing Bible Church really meant. Perhaps, Jesus was the Only Son of God Ė and the rest of us are Adopted Children of God. There is Scriptural basis for that understanding, as well. But the bond between God and us is every bit as strong as between biological father and child Ė stronger, much stronger. The difference between being a Child of God and an Adopted Child of God, is not a significant difference for me.

What else MUST we believe about Jesus, about God? The Virgin birth used to be right up near the top of my list. Had to believe in the virgin birth. Believing in the miracle of EVERY birth, I no longer believe that "belief in the virgin" birth is required for "Child of God" status. Besides, my science reading tells me that, while virgin births do occur in nature, they result in the birth of a girl child.

Belief in the resurrection? I tell you, the resurrection is an important part of my personal spirituality. An existence after this life, is something for which I deeply hope and in which I deeply believe. How it all works, I really have no idea. Pearly gates, and streets of gold may have been the vision of our forefathers and foremothers. My vision is different, covered in a pleasant mist. I canít see the details, but I sense and believe in the reality, nonetheless.

What are other possibly essential beliefs to be considered a "Child of God" by God Himself? Atonement? Forgiveness of sins? That Jesus himself paid the price, heavy as it was, for whatever sins of omission and/or commission that I Ė and you -- may have and still will commit?

Well, first of all, one has to believe in SIN. And then one has to believe in FORGIVENESS.

"Sin", we are told in seminary, really means "missing the mark" Ė similar to missing the bullís eye all together in archery. We try, we aim, we miss.

"Sin" also has been defined as a "separation from God", a spiritual separation from each other, but most assuredly a spiritual separation from God. We donít even try, we donít aim, weíve forgotten about the bullís eye all together. We may even claim we donít believe a bullís eye exists.

Others have developed a laundry list of To Doís, and an even longer list of Do Not Doís. The Ten Commandments are a good start. The Great Commandment: Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments, Jesus tells us.

There are sins of commission, and sins of omission. Each of us, through Biblical reading, the teachings of our families and cultures, through our own life experiences, develop an internal outline of how we should and should not live our lives, and what we should and should not do in various circumstances. And then, we go about trying to live by this life plan.

Most of us miss the mark on a regular basis. Sometimes, we forget about the plan all together until disaster strikes. And sometimes we review our plan in light of what Jesus taught us that our plan should include. And most frequently, we are found wanting there, too.

So, it comes down to the irrefutable fact that we are all, indeed, sinners. That is part of the human condition. We can, and must, continue to work at it Ė but with the knowledge that we will always fall short. Truly depressing.

Well, sort of depressing, until you read the Scripture for Trinity Sunday. And we begin to reflect on the nature of God, the Father.

Yes, God has high expectations for us, just as our earthly fathers had and have for us. And God knows we are going to fail on occasion Ė just as our earthly fathers know. Sometimes, we can push our earthly fathers to the very limits, where love is battered and frazzled Ė and we can do the same thing to God, I suspect.

But tell me, earthly fathers, will you always love your children, no matter what they do, or who they become? You may be frightened for them, you may get terribly hurt along the way, your love may take different forms and different shapes through the years, but will you always love them?

I hope so. And I bet so. Because the earthly love we have for one another, is one way of beginning to understand the limitless love of God.

Last night, I took out some time to watch an action adventure movie with my daughter and her fiancť. Action-adventure movies are really not my style Ė but I was trying to be a good parent. Perhaps, there is a spiritual reason for everything.

After the kids left, I had to go back to writing this sermon. And there was John 3:16. I read the verse again, but because I had just seen this movie, I read it with different eyes. You will have to forgive me, but these are the images that floated through my poor brain as I went to sleep last night.

I pictured God and his Son Jesus in Heaven, looking at earth Ė at all us brothers and sisters. We were in real trouble, held captive by some really, really BAD robots from a different planet. We were being tortured and were in mortal danger.

God says to the Son, "We gotta go in after them."

Jesus says, "Send me."

God says, "Itís a dangerous assignment, Son. Youíll have to become one of them, hurt like them, live like them, die like them."

"But they will die unless I go," says the Son.

"Then you must go," says the Father.

"Iíll go with Him," says the Spirit.

And the rest is history. Brothers and Sisters, we ARE saved. All we have to do is reach for the rope and hang on. If we should falter, our Lord will reach down, grab us and hang on for us. All we have to do is believe it. All we have to do is believe in Him and we will be saved. In Christís name, AMEN.

Click to Return to Sermon Index