Archive for the ‘’ Category

re: A question about repentance

April 8, 2017

I preached a sermon on Sunday, March 19, 2017 (Lent 3A), in which I offered an interpretation of St. Paul’s understanding of the “Wrath (of God)” (Romans 5:1-11), and the kind of forgiveness that Jesus promises us in the example of the Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42).

Later that day I received a question by email asking about the role of repentance. The person asking was taught that forgiveness follows repentance. This is the way most people think about God’s forgiveness. Basically, that it is a transaction. I’m not so sure.

I responded pretty much like the following and I have permission to publish it.

St. Paul recognizes the problem of human sin and self-deception (Rom 7:15), but he struggles to come up with a way to reconcile the consequences of sin (misery), God’s anger, and God’s mercy and love.

The Johannine texts (those books attributed to John the Apostle) seem to be a later stage in the development of a more nuanced understanding of the causes of hatred, scapegoating, and violence. For instance, in the case of the story of the Samaritan women at the well (John 4) we have a situation in which Jesus is handling what looks like a pastoral problem.

The woman seems to be held in general disrepute, and Jesus offers her living water. This living water will sustain and preserve her forever. This is a reference to the Holy Spirit. The work of the Spirit directs people to live lives according to the will of God. The Holy Spirit affirms people in their status as beloved children of God. The Holy Spirit guides people toward honest self assessment. The Holy Spirit provides healing and upholds people in their faith in the Lord.

The living water is nourishing to the point of creating in us proper desires that are completely satisfying, and it open us up to the recognition of our deepest and worst sinful desires (without falling into despair or resorting to denial).

Repentance is crucial to moral and spiritual health. In the past it was generally assumed that a person only needed to do some basic self-reflection to arrive at what exactly is in need of repentance. With the knowledge we have now about unconscious motivation, I would suggest that experiences of God’s Grace and the promise of forgiveness tend to produce gratitude and repentance. This is more in line with the way Jesus deals with the woman caught in adultery and the woman at the well.

My own experience in talking with people confirms this. Remorse (not true repentance – “a turning around,” but regret and self-loathing) is late in coming, and often provoked by the experience of unpleasant events or circumstances. This dynamic gives support to the false notion that God actively punishes people by bringing misfortune.

So, finally I come down on the side (mostly) of reminding people they are forgiven, and trusting true repentance will follow.

2016 Lenten Reflection

March 24, 2016

Lenten Reflection by Fr. Michael Gorchov

During Lent I’ve been giving talks on Wednesday nights at St. Anthony’s Church. This is part of a series of events that is designed to draw three Troy churches (St. Anthony’s [Roman Catholic], St. John’s and St. Paul’s [Episcopal]) closer together. The initiative is called the Fellowship of St. Francis.

The Lenten presentations are on the Nature of the Church as represented in agreed documents that have come out of dialogues between Anglicans and Roman Catholics that started in 1967, and became known as the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Committee (ARCIC).

One of the most helpful aspects of doing research on the ARCIC agreements is finding that both sides in the discussions have had to admit that certain terms have separated, rather than united, each other. And that these terms have often been used by each side to mean different things.

The following two words are good examples: Sanctification and Justification.

Some of the difficulty is that Anglicans did adopt principles expressed in two (gasp!) Lutheran Confessions (Augsburg and Württemberg), and that Anglicans have tended to believe that Roman Catholics intentionally repudiated these positions at the Council of Trent. In fact, the Anglican formularies had not even been compiled when the Decree on Justification from the Council of Trent was promulgated.

During the ARCIC discussions it was agreed that the New Testament employs a wide variety of language concerning salvation, and that there is no single controlling term or concept. All the terms (including deliverance, forgiveness, redemption, liberation, adoption, regeneration, rebirth, new creation, sanctification, and justification) complement each other.

Protestants have suspected that Catholics try to “buy” their way into heaven through prayer and good works (sanctification). Catholics tended to believe that Protestants felt so assured of their salvation (justification) that there was nothing left in this life for them to do.

Through the ARCIC talks it was agreed that justification and sanctification are actually two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11).
1. Sanctification is that work of God which actualizes in believers the righteousness and holiness without which no one may see the Lord, and
2. the term justification speaks of a divine declaration of acquittal.

What this means for me is that God’s merciful “acquittal” (justification) is not at all the same as being judged “innocent.” Far from it. It just means that I have another opportunity to get closer to Jesus (sanctification).

A Lenten Collect

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and, finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Thomas Aquinas on mirth (and wet blankets)

September 29, 2014

Words or actions where nothing else but fun is sought, are called playful or humorous [ludicra vel jocosa]. It is necessary at times to make use of them, in order to give rest, as it were, to the soul.1

Everything, in human affairs, that is contrary to reason is sinful. Now it is against reason for a person to be burdensome to others, for instance, by offering no enjoyment to others, and even by impeding the fun of others.2

1. Summa Theologiae. IIa-IIae, 168, 2
2. Summa Theologiae. IIa-IIae, 168, 4

A Meditation on the Parable of the Wicked Tenants

April 2, 2014

Matthew 21: 33-45
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants presents many interpretive difficulties. Is the story about the promises God made to ancient Israel? Is it about Jesus and his conflict with the Jewish religious leaders? Or is it about the futility of violence?

My short answer is “Yes!” The parable is all about that and much more. People have been listening to this parable for close to 2000 years, and many different meanings and points of view have been offered. How then, do we apply such a complicated parable to our own lives?

My approach is guided by two rules. First, is to be faithful to Christ, making sure that other Scripture does not deny what Scripture specifically says about Jesus. Second, is to be faithful to the unity of the Bible, so that the whole combined story of both the Old and New Testaments is congruent with what Scripture says about Jesus.

The other thing that guides me is less of a rule, and more just a way of picturing things. The Biblical past shows a way to understand my own particular circumstances. It is helpful to see my own struggles and blessings mirrored in the Bible, all the while knowing there is built-in to the story of my life (and the Bible) a promise of a glorious future.

When we do this, we are simply following in the footsteps of Jesus’ first disciples. As Jesus steps up to tell a story about someone who planted a vineyard, his listeners immediately hear a similar story that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah told about a vineyard.

“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. [H]e looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” (Isaiah 5: 2, 7b RSV).

The situation that Jesus describes is exactly the same! Certainly, Jesus is telling a story that provokes the “chief priests and the Pharisees,” but at the very same time he is re-telling a very old and continuing story of God’s faithfulness, and humanity’s corresponding unfaithfulness.

Some will not be persuaded. They want historical evidence and documentation. They want the story authenticated. In fact, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (told in all the synoptic Gospels) actually provides a solid Jewish interpretation of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. It also shows Jesus to be controversial, and having deeply offended the very people who finally plot his death.

But, in the end Jesus is speaking through the Bible not to detached readers, but to faithful readers. And much the same way as I read a letter from my spouse, to read faithfully is to read carefully and to respond appropriately. How then, do we, as Christians in loving relationship with our Lord, tend the vineyard in such a manner that the resulting harvest is bountiful and worthy of praise?


A Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Bestow upon me, O Lord my God, an understanding that knows thee, wisdom in finding thee, a way of life that is pleasing to thee, perseverance that faithfully waits for thee, and confidence that I shall embrace thee at the last. Amen.


Matthew 21: 33-45 Revised Standard Version
33 ¶ “Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.
34 When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit;
35 and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them.
37 Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’
39 And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.

Review of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition by Alasdair MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991)

February 13, 2012

This is a great book. The crucial thing to keep in mind while reading the book is that this is a book about method. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry concerns how to go about finding out who is in the right. MacIntyre offers three approaches.

When I was a kid we had a long row of big books on the floor in the corner of the living room. If we had an argument about something, somebody would always go to the encyclopedia to find out who was right. MacIntyre says, in effect, that the perspective of the writers who submitted articles to the encyclopedia, along with the subsequent editorial smoothing, produced a sort of god-like voice that dispensed disembodied pseudo-objective knowledge talk. This is the Enlightenment voice of reason, a “view from nowhere” (TNagel), invented when the best minds became convinced there finally was hope for agreement in all disciplines regarding
1. a universal standard for rationality,
2. a conceptual scheme for a single cosmos governed by uniform physical laws, and
3. inevitable progress.

During the 20th century a number of catastrophic events (wars, genocide and failed economies) eroded the confidence of the experts, and a movement inspired by Nietzsche set out to uncover the deceptions (and use of power) hidden in the history leading to the modern era. MacIntyre thinks the methods used by people like Foucault to “unmask” power rely on a non-stable conception of the self, while they use language in their arguments that “presuppose ascriptions of both identity and continuity to persons.” Presumably, for all their subversive posturing, they still copyright their books and accept tenured positions. The genealogist owes (but doesn’t give) the same suspicion of himself that he heaps on others.

MacIntyre presents Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae as a systematic method of inquiry that has never been equaled. The biggest mistake one could make reading Three Rival Versions is to assume that the answers given in the Summa are in some way like the information one gets from the Encyclopedia Britannica. People have used Aquinas this way, but Thomas’ intention was always to demonstrate a method of learning (and debate) that moves through at least four stages:
1. By apprenticeship: “What is my good?” This stage assumes the presence of a teacher who will guide the learner from an understanding of “basic moral apprehensions,” and then on to the cultivation of the more advanced skills (virtues) that are required to become a teachable student.
2. As members of a community of learners: “What are our goods?” How members of a community who at least agree on first principles (logic, do good, avoid evil), conduct debate centered on resolving the “precise formulations” of rational inquiry.
3. Engaging opponents one-on-one: In the third level of debate about who is in the right, the student learns to confront serious problems of incommensurability with opponents, with the goal of identifying the “limitations, defects, and errors” of the opposing view, while affirming and appropriating what is “cogent, insightful and true.”
4. Critique: Finally, a general account (or explanation) of ideological blindness, which represents a will to power and has its roots in the corruption of the will. Throughout the Summa Thomas demonstrates a painstaking approach that he uses to expose error. He provides provisional answers to a whole host of questions, while maintaining an astonishing level of generosity and humility in entertaining as many objections to his points of view as he can find.

Again, the main thing this book offers is a comparison of methods of moral inquiry. I find MacIntyre’s (and Thomas’) conclusions persuasive.

Rector’s Newsletter Article for January, 2012

January 7, 2012

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

There is much rejoicing here at the Gorchovs’ house! Marianne’s back surgery has healed wonderfully, and she is doing things she was unable to do before the surgery. In addition, her eye operation was also successful. I had hand surgery in October and have recovered full use. Many great blessings!

In December I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. We had a wonderful worship service, with three bishops in attendance, and the choir offering their lovely voices. A great friend, Laurel Masse, honored us with a performance of Schubert’s Ave Maria, which she also sang at my ordination. I was very pleased that Anna Plumey was Confirmed in the Faith at the same service. The evening was capped by a wonderful dinner in the parish hall. What a great way to celebrate the beginning of my second decade as a priest in God’s one holy catholic and apostolic Church!

The theme of my sermon at the Eucharist was Christian vocation. Since my ordination anniversary falls on the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I took the opportunity to advance the idea that when God first conceived of Our Lady, God had in mind a person who would bear His incarnate Son. Still, it seems that Mary had the freedom to opt out – but thanks be to God – she said yes!

In the same way, Anna Plumey, has always been included in God’s plan as a person with a vocation (a calling) to God’s service. I, myself, was called to serve too. The time and place in which each person stands up to answer a call from God differs according to each person’s particular faith journey and circumstances. I am most grateful that God has been so patient and kind to me.

I pray that, as we move into Epiphany and then on to the season of Lent, you will take the time to seriously reflect on your own vocation. You may have been conceived by God to a life of service to the poor. You may have been called to offer your talents in other ways. But, I’m sure you have been called in some way. It is your task, if you choose to take it on, to discover what your vocation is, and then say yes!

Blessings, Michael+

Rector’s Newsletter Article for November, 2011

November 10, 2011

“For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”  2 Corinthians 1:5

Marianne is home! Thanks be to God! Many of you know that my wife Marianne recently had lower back surgery to restore lost function to her legs. This operation came just weeks after she had cataract surgery. In between these surgeries I had surgery on my left hand. When we made the arrangements earlier in the year, our thinking was that we would like to be fully operational by the time the weather is really cold and nasty. The jury is still out on whether we made the right calculation. Marianne’s eye is almost completely healed, and my hand is proceeding apace.

But, the surgery on Marianne’s back is of a wholly different nature and scope. Her level of pain, and the expected recovery time, is much greater. The surgeon told me in the waiting room afterward that the operation went well, but that Marianne would experience a very high degree of pain in the coming days. According to Marianne, he wasn’t exaggerating!

The new patient pavilion at St. Peter’s Hospital includes a very large surgical waiting area. Usually patients spend about two hours in “recovery” before being transferred to a hospital room. For some reason Marianne didn’t get to her room in the main hospital building for over four hours! By the time she was moved, the waiting area had cleared out and there were only two people left – myself, and a woman waiting for her husband.

The next day I ran into the same woman again in the hallway outside Marianne’s room. After exchanging pleasantries, she shared with me that her husband had decided to come in to have a quick “in-and-out” hip replacement. During his recovery something went wrong with the new hip and because of the excruciating pain, he began to put so much weight on his other “good” hip that he managed to break that one. So, here he was now back in the hospital getting the first hip replacement repaired, but also having an entire replacement of his other hip! The woman standing before me, shaking her head really didn’t think it was funny – it was more that the situation was so absurd that she couldn’t believe it was all actually happening.

I saw the woman one more time in the hospital that week. She was at a table with a friend, on the far side of the food court. We waved to each other as people who had shared a common experience. We both had sat for hours in the same waiting room while our loved ones underwent surgery. We both were now attending to our spouses at the beginning of a long recovery. With a simple wave of a hand we were acknowledging each to the other that even though we can’t always make sense of what life dishes out, we still want more of it. We still want to go forward with our lives – she, to walk again with her husband; me, to walk with Marianne.

I have struggled, as do most people who have lived a bit, with the meaning of suffering.  I have come to an understanding (and in trusting to a loving God) that evil, pain, and suffering are simply facts of life. I trust that God knows best. But I do notice now how precious the good times are, especially as I become more and more aware of how little we can count on a safe and pain-free existence. I feel somewhat foolish thinking back on how much of my life I spent expecting, and counting on, things to go well. Oh well, as Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

I was driving today to one more medical appointment while listening to the country music station. The song I heard lifted my spirits. Here it is. It’s about a man who just learned he had a terminal illness.

How’s it hit you when you get that kind of news?

Man whatcha do?

An’ he said: “I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,

“I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.

“And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,

“And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”

An’ he said: “Some day, I hope you get the chance,

“To live like you were dyin’.”

He said “I was finally the husband,

“That most the time I wasn’t.

“An’ I became a friend a friend would like to have.

“And all of a sudden goin’ fishin’,

“Wasn’t such an imposition,

“And I went three times that year I lost my Dad.

“Well, I finally read the Good Book,

“And I took a good long hard look,

“At what I’d do if I could do it all again,

“And then:

“I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,

“I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.

“And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,

“And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”

An’ he said: “Some day, I hope you get the chance,

“To live like you were dyin’.”

Like tomorrow was a gift,

And you got eternity,

To think about what you’d do with it.

An’ what did you do with it?

An’ what can I do with it?

An’ what would I do with it?

Blessings, Michael+

*Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying

My Moka Coffee Pots

October 14, 2011

The Moka Coffee Pot was first patented by Luigi De Ponti, an Italian inventor, for Alfonso Bialetti in 1933.

My new coffee pots.

A moka pot is a type of coffee maker ubiquitous in Italy, but not very popular in the U.S.. Mostly called a macchinetta (little machine) by Italians, this stovetop device makes a very strong brew somewhat akin to espresso. A moka pot works by the same principle as an espresso machine – pressure builds up to push water through a compact “puck” of coffee – the resulting coffee has its own distinctive qualities.

A few months ago I purchased my first moka pot. It’s a nice 6 cup size that I found at Marshall’s on clearance for $7.50. For an aluminum pot the casting and finishing is very good. It says “Hotel Diamond Collection” on a band around the middle.

It took me a little practice to make good coffee with it, but now I know how to control the heat toward the end of the brew so I don’t have it spitting clear boiling water (and ruining it). Aside from the need to maintain a patina of coffee residue in the upper chamber, the big drawback of aluminum pots is the deterioration of the surface of the inside of the lower chamber because it’s so hard to keep that part dry. Many of the knock-off Bialetti types have really rough casting pits in the bottom chamber. The major benefit of the stainless pots is that they don’t get so cruddy from moisture left in them between uses. It probably makes sense to get an aluminum pot if you know you’re going to use it every day. They are so much cheaper. But if the pot will see more infrequent use, then it would be better to spring for a stainless model.

A couple of weeks ago I found a vintage stainless Guido Bergna 6 cup pot on ebay that I scooped up for $13.25 (+ $6.70 s&h). One of the photos of the pot on ebay gave the impression that there was serious heat-related damage to the bottom. But when I received the item it was actually in pristine condition, and a little Bar Keepers Friend polished it up like new. What a find!

The pot also makes good coffee. With this pot, since there is only one little opening on the stem for the coffee to exit, it is important that I turn the pot around so I can watch the progress as the coffee dribbles out.

There was a time (almost twenty years ago) that I routinely roasted my own green coffee beans. I used an old hot-air popcorn popper, and rigged up an exhaust fan system to cool the beans, and vent most of the smoke. I did my coffee roasting in my woodworking workshop so that the acrid smoke wouldn’t stink up our home. In recent years I have been able to get freshly roasted coffee so I haven’t bothered roasting.

My stomach is pretty sensitive to stale coffee. I can tell immediately that I’m drinking canned coffee; it begins to burn even as I drink it. There is a kind of dull thud that lets me know I better get out the Rolaids. Coffee that’s been roasted within a couple of weeks doesn’t bother me at all. And good freshly brewed coffee from say, Costa Rican beans roasted in the past couple of days, almost rings a bell as it goes down.

Now that I have the moka pots I’ve begun roasting again. I have a small Precision brand roaster, which I take out on the back porch.

Mostly I roast just enough to carry me through to when I can buy more freshly roasted coffee.

Back in the days when I was roasting coffee in my hot-air popper, I had a Gran Gaggia espresso machine. This was a pretty low end device, and it took forever to produce even a couple of espresso drinks of middling quality. Right now I am quite satisfied with my moka pot coffee. My wife drinks her coffee black also, but she prefers drip coffee. She finds the coffee from a moka pot too strong. It works out fine actually. I have one moka pot at my office and the other at home. A 6 cup moka pot really only produces one big U.S. mug-full anyway. So, in the morning I make coffee for myself in my pot, and my wife has auto-drip for herself.

Some people – usually espresso snobs – turn their noses up at moka pot coffee. I have developed a taste for it; mostly because I can’t afford good espresso. Decent home espresso machines cost over 600 dollars, with commercial models costing over 10K. These machines easily maintain a constant pressure of 9 bars (or nine times earth’s atmosphere) during the twenty-five seconds it takes to “pull” a shot of espresso. In order to pay for the machine, good quality coffee, and a competent barista, coffee bars need to charge upwards of $3 for a demitasse of espresso.

A good cup of espresso is covered with a light brown layer of emulsified oils called “crema.” This is a feature of true espresso that can’t be produced by any other brewing method. Now, I like good espresso. I really do. But it’s not something I can have on a daily basis. A single shot isn’t enough for me, so I want a double. That’s going to cost $5 easy. Instead, almost all of the time I order a cup of auto-drip house blend. But then I have a grilled muffin with it. And that will run me something like $6. I’ve decided to cut way down on going out for coffee, and instead enjoy moka pot coffee, and without the muffins!

In the past, when in an expansive mood I’d impulsively order an espresso. That is, if I was sitting in a real coffee bar with a barista, and I can see the shots (s)he’s pulling. Even so, I’ve been disappointed. I never have espresso in a restaurant. There are just too many things that go into making good espresso: The expensive espresso machine. The freshly roasted coffee. The heavy conical burr grinder adjusted properly. The correct amount of coffee tamped down and “polished” with the right amount of pressure. And on and on.

The whole thing is too much like fine wine. I do appreciate the cultivation of a high level of connoisseurship, but at a certain point I just throw up my hands and say it’s not worth all the trouble and expense. I’m just a moka pot kind of guy.

Rector’s Newsletter Article for September, 2011

September 11, 2011


In this issue of the parish newsletter I offer a quick peak into our recent vacation, and a couple of more comments about doctrine.

1. Marianne and I had great time in Rangeley, Maine on our vacation. We again took along our Field Spaniels, Oscar and Babette – and our Maine Coon Cat, Kirby. The dogs had a very good time swimming in Dodge Pond! They were really good about swimming out to get a toy and coming right back (for a treat). There was only one time when things got out of hand. We were down by the dock and the dogs were still on their leashes, when a female Mallard duck flew in, plopped down, and started paddling around about ten feet away. The dogs started barking and became just a tad excited. Oscar slipped his collar, but I was able to hold him by the scruff of his neck. Babette got loose and ran to the end of the dock, but didn’t jump in because her leash was caught on a nail. Marianne quickly got to her and grabbed the leash, and we decided that was enough excitement for the afternoon! We didn’t see the duck again, and the dogs went swimming a few more times before our vacation was over. Kirby declined our offers to take him swimming. And now on to the other topics.

2. I was reminded recently about something that seems on first glance a bit odd: Down to this day the Latin and Greek titles for the Nicene Creed are Symbolum Nicaenum (Nicene Symbol) and symbolon tes pistews (Symbol of Faith). In the ancient Greek world a symbolon was half of a broken object, which when joined to the other half, became proof of the bearer’s identity. So, by extension, the Creed became the symbol of Christian identity by which Christians could recognize each other.

3. In my last newsletter article I wrote about an ecumenical approach to achieving agreement on doctrine advanced by George Lindbeck in the 1980s. In his groundbreaking book, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Post-liberal Age, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), Lindbeck proposed that by treating doctrinal statements as rules by which we speak about God, we might be able to discuss with other Christians the way church teachings are internally coherent, without getting bogged down in endless circular arguments about how something we say is true, is true, because we have always said it is true. Lindbeck uses the secular example of how Brits drive their cars on the left side of the road, and North Americans drive on the right. It would be fruitless indeed to spend much time arguing about who is right on that topic!

But there are many things that various Christians can agree on, and they can agree not primarily because these are things that each group has always said they believed, but because they represent core truths about Christian Faith. Often, these are things that we can all agree should not be said about God.

Here is an example of how this approach might work:

The doctrine of the Trinity says that the Father and Son are co-eternal, and therefore the Church has insisted that the Creator of the universe is essentially loving, forgiving, and merciful. But the violence attributed to God in parts of the Old Testament seems inconsistent with the Christian belief in a loving Creator. In this case the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that the Bible is a divinely inspired document that has been written and handed down through the generations by fallible human authors, and that the actions and motives attributed to God by these authors must always be interpreted through the offering of God Himself in the Life, Suffering, and Death of our Lord Jesus.

“He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” 1 John 4:8, RSV.

Therefore, we must not say that God is violent or actively encourages violence.

I pray that you would take from these comments about the Nicene Creed, that
a. by calling the Creed a symbol (or sign), the Church has never said that it should be received symbolically, but instead, truthfully as “statements of our basic beliefs about God.” (BCP, p. 851)
b. by seeking agreement between Christian churches through dialogue, we all might learn more of what is essential to Christian faith and belief, so that we “may all be one.” (John 17:21)

May God bless you, Michael+

On the Trinity

August 14, 2011

From the Rector’s Desk . . .

Continuing a discourse on the Trinity from a recent sermon:

I have heard people say that that they have trouble reciting the Nicene Creed. The most common objection is that the Creed is an ancient formula that attempts to define God in ways that do not reflect modern categories of thought. In effect, that the Creed is irrelevant to modern life and experience. I have also been told that the Creed represents an attempt by leaders of the Church to impose standardized teaching on debatable matters, and so perpetuates paternalism and clericalism. Finally, I hear that the Apostles’ Creed is more ancient, less legalistic, and will do fine thank you if we need a creed at all.

My own view is that the Apostles Creed is indeed quite old, and that there is evidence that in the early Church a rudimentary version was used as part of the rite of Baptism. Since this particular confession of faith begins “I believe,” there is good reason to reserve this form for Baptisms and personal reaffirmations of the Baptismal Covenant.

On the other hand, the Nicene Creed begins “We believe,” and therefore is intended to express the agreed Faith of the Church, even if individual Christians may experience doubt or reservations on occasion. This “We” formula seems quite appropriate for the corporate nature of the weekly parish Sunday Eucharist.

In the past it was assumed that the Creeds express “propositional” truth. That is to say, that they make statements that refer to objective reality. This “orthodox” perspective bothers liberals, who tend to think of church doctrine (and the Bible) as relating to religious experience rather than objective truth.

There is a third way to understand the Creeds[1], in which they function as a kind of symbolic system, or “language”, for expressing the rules by which we talk about God. In my recent sermon on Trinity Sunday, I held up a diagram of the Trinity. For those who could not see the drawing I have reproduced it below.

I do not think the drawing adequately represents God, or even begins to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity. But I will say that at least we can derive some lessons from the drawing regarding what not to say about God.

Here are some examples of how this approach to the Creeds could apply:

1. The doctrine of the Trinity says that the Father and Son are co-eternal, and therefore the Church has insisted that the Creator of the universe is essentially loving, forgiving, and merciful. But the violence attributed to God in parts of the Old Testament seems inconsistent with the Christian belief in a loving Creator. In this case the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that the Bible is a divinely inspired document that has been written and handed down through the generations by fallible human authors, and that the actions and motives attributed to God by these authors must always be interpreted through the offering of God Himself in the Life, Suffering, and Death of our Lord Jesus.

“He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” 1 John 4:8, RSV.

Therefore, we must not say that God is violent or actively encourages violence.

2. In his First Letter to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul chides the members for a number of failures. Each of these errors could be described as a mistake in understanding God by appropriating one Person of the Trinity, while ignoring another Person. “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” 1 Corinthians 11:17, RSV.

a. The wealthier, presumably non-working, members of the church assembled earlier in the day and held meetings, while consuming all the best food and wine. Later, after a hard day at work, the poorer members would come to the meeting and were offered the leftovers. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that no one should think that the Holy Spirit would benefit one person (or a special group) with wealth, leisure, or spiritual gifts, at the expense of other Christians. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1Cor 12:7)

Therefore, the Church gathers together as the Body of Christ, and we must not say that the Holy Spirit operates alone, and only for the benefit of a select few.

b. In addition, some of the Corinthians thought they were spiritually superior, and lorded this over the others. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2, RSV.)

Even when a particular Christian leader is blessed with immense spiritual gifts, we hold that the Holy Spirit gives the gifts through the co-operation of the Father and Son, and therefore, we must not say that he or she is permitted to treat others with disrespect. 

3.  It is not uncommon for Christians to grow up learning to associate the Persons of the Holy Trinity with a specific divine activity:

a. God the Father, in Creation.

b. God the Son, in Salvation.

c. God the Holy Spirit, in Wisdom.

As we mature we should be mindful that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that each of the Persons of the Trinity is at “work” co-equally and co-eternally. The Gospel According to John goes as far as to say that the Son was with the Father “in the beginning.” And if we believe that God is “still” sustaining and creating the universe, we should also be confident that Jesus is “still” active in the deliverance of the world from futility and chaos. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul uses the language of childbirth to describe the way that God in Christ is “still” making the world. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.” (Rom 8:22 RSV)

How else can we say the Son of God is working in creation even today? The most important way is through the Cross. The death of Jesus on the Cross sets up the conditions for how all Christians are able to understand themselves – even now – as being created in the image of the Living God, entirely caught up in God’s Love, Forgiveness, and Hope.

Jesus’ own disciples betrayed and deserted him. “All of them deserted him and fled.” Mark 14:50, NRSV. The religious and civil authorities persecuted him, and conspired to put Jesus to death. Even so, Jesus forgave them. “And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34, RSV.

When Jesus later appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room, he did not condemn them, but graciously offered his love and forgiveness. He also shared with them the blessing of the Father, and the life-giving encouragement of the Holy Spirit. “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21, 22, RSV.

Therefore, we must not say (even by implication) that long-ago the Father created a defective world, and that the Son later came to repair it. Instead, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God has been, and continues to be, with us for the “long-haul,” Even when we go our own way (and after other gods), our loving God is still with us, calling us to faithfulness and holiness of life.

Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace to continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 251)

[1] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Westminster John Knox Press, 1984.