Bruce Benke, Lay Speaker
Mark 10:17-18; John 14:15-17, 26; 16:7-9
THE MISSING LEG
Whenever we share Communion in our worship services, we often follow one of the first three of the four liturgies outlined in our UMC Hymnal. When we follow one of these three liturgies, there’s a certain phrase that reaches out to me every time. That phrase ends by saying, “… as we proclaim the mystery of faith”. That phrase sums up in a nut shell my journey with Christ because, to me, Christianity itself is one big mystery. Sometimes Christians are asked to explain what and why we believe in certain tenets of our faith, and I’m comfortable in explaining why I am certain that most aspects of my faith are viable and true. But there’s one aspect of Christianity that, frankly, befuddles me, and I have never been convinced that I truly understand it, nor could I explain it satisfactorily to someone else. That aspect is the Holy Trinity, namely the idea of one God constituted from three different personalities or beings.
I’m comfortable that I understand two of the three aspects of the Trinity, and that’s God as the Father and Jesus as the Son. Those two concepts are fully explained in both the old and new testaments, and, as I am a son and also a father, I get that much. But just who and/or what the Holy Spirit is, I haven’t a clue. I must say, respectfully, that I can picture the Holy Trinity as a farmer’s three-legged milking stool with one leg missing I can’t milk a cow on a two-legged stool! But the other day, I was re-reading “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis, and a concept jumped out at me about humanity’s place in the universe that got me thinking about the Holy Spirit in a whole new way. I must add that the clarity and excitement I experienced does not qualify for a true “epiphany”, as described in Acts, but it does earn a place in my list of Christian “Ah-ha” moments, and I’d like to share what I learned so far about the Holy Spirit and His place in the Trinity with you this morning.
One thing we celebrate about our relationship with God is the fact that He gave us free will. We can choose what path we take on our faith journey, and each journey is unique. But when we take a closer look at man’s place in the universe, we’re not as free as we may think. There are many laws that govern our behavior on earth that we simply must obey; we simply cannot break the laws of nature. For example, gravity is a law we cannot break; centrifugal force is another one, as we learned in February from the train wreck north of Philadelphia. We obey heat and cold; when the temperature drops, we put on more clothing; when it rises, we take off clothing (hopefully it doesn’t get too hot because, on balance, that could be an unpleasant sight). We must have food, water and air to live. We need rest. There are many laws of nature that we must obey, and, if we don’t, we will suffer consequences. Now, mankind has throughout history shown marvelous ingenuity in coping with natural laws by learning how to manipulate and use these laws to our advantage. Hoover Dam is an example where man has harnessed a raging river to generate hydroelectric power and eliminate flooding. Man was not given wings to fly, but we fly anyway. We travel using automobiles powered by fossil fuels laid down millennia ago. You get the idea. God has given man intelligence with which to cope with the natural laws around us. While man has found ingenious ways to live in concert with the natural laws, the laws themselves do not change. They behave a certain way unique to themselves every time. If we go so far as to outright break a natural law, as I said before, then we will suffer immediate consequences.
But there is another law that presses down on us just as firmly as the natural laws and is just as absolute. No living person in the world escapes this law, and, like the natural laws, it has governed every human being since the beginning of time; it also governs the higher forms of animals, e.g. lions, elephants bears wolves, etc.
There is one thing different about this law than the natural laws; we are free to break it if we want (sometimes we break it accidentally), and if we don’t break the law too severely, we probably won’t suffer the consequences or, at least, we won’t be punished too severely or absolutely. C.S. Lewis names this law the law of “right and wrong”. This law also forms the basis for all of the world’s jurisprudence systems and religious canon. So where does that leave us? We have free will as long as we obey the natural laws and, with respect to the law of “right and wrong”, all of the ensuing laws and statutes of our systems of jurisprudence and religion. In short, we spend a great deal of our time trying to obey the laws that govern us. You might look at it this way: we spend a great portion of our lives running through the rain drops trying not to get wet. After that, we’re free to do anything we want. So what does all of this have to do with the Trinity and the mystery of the Holy Spirit?
If, as I said earlier, this law of “right and wrong” has been governing human beings on this earth since the beginning of time, what do I mean by that? Let me answer by asking you this question: where did you learn this law? If you’re like me, you’d probably say “…Well, I learned it from my parents and elders in my family (aunts, uncles, et. al.), as well as the ‘village’ itself, e.g. school, church, boy/girl scouts, etc.” My next question will be, “where’d they learn it from?” And if you follow the logic, let me suggest that we are comfortable in believing that the law of “right and wrong” has been passed down from generation to generation. It has been learned over time. But that still doesn’t answer the question: “where did the law of ‘right and wrong’ come from?” Let me advance one more example: If we believe that the law of “right and wrong” is learned from the previous generation, we can follow that chain of logic back to the cave – before language – day one. And even back at the beginning, if you took another man’s kill for your dinner, there was going to be trouble! That’s also true in the higher form of animals. So I believe the question remains: Where did the law of right and wrong come from?
The Genesis story gives us a simple and perhaps comprehendible answer: until Eve plucked the forbidden fruit from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, there was no need for right and wrong. There was God, who is only “good”, and, by default, “right”. When Eve plucked that fruit, Satan, who was anti-God and anti-good and therefore evil, caused Eve to disobey God and go“wrong” – to make the “evil” choice. The result was Eve and Adam were then exiled into the natural domain (or universe, as we know it). So “right and wrong” has its roots in good and evil which originates from the Spiritual domain – not the Natural domain as the natural laws do. So, if we accept the idea that the law of right and wrong did not originate from our universe, then how does it sustain itself through natural time? How does the law of “right and wrong” justify itself and continue to influence and govern all human behavior throughout every generation? I believe there is an answer to this question which also leads me to a comprehensible concept of the Holy Spirit itself which then offers a Trinity solution for me that I can share with others.
As young humans become aware of themselves (or the “self”, as psychoanalysts describe it), they are taught “right” and “wrong” behavior, as I mentioned before, from elders, peers and the village. These lessons “stick” with them and they themselves interpret expanded concepts of “right” and “wrong” behavior as they grow and interact with nature, their systems of jurisprudence and, hopefully, Sunday sermons. My point is this: These and other influences of the maturing process develop in each person a notion of a personal “right” and “wrong”. Then, somewhere along our maturation curve, we take over responsibility of managing that notion. We want control of how we navigate through those “right” or “wrong” raindrops that come our way throughout our lives. We don’t want anyone else to run this gamut for us. Here’s an important thought about that notion: The notion itself is neither part of “right” or “wrong” behavior. The notion stands alone as an influence, or referee, unique to each and every person throughout time. While we eventually assume responsibility for the notion of “right” or “wrong”, as we grow, the notion itself does not belong to us. It belongs to God. And this idea leads me to my, ah-ha moment:
This notion, unique to ourselves – but not ours, is God’s Holy Spirit within us!
Scripture teaches us that the Holy Spirit is at work in many more ways than being itself the notion of “right” and “wrong”. But, in my experience, scripture limits its description of the Holy Spirit to what He does, not by what He is. And that’s where I’ve always been hung-up and regarded the Holy Spirit as an unsolvable mystery of my faith. But if my “Ah-Ha” moment is right, then the verses are true that we heard earlier in scripture where Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit, or the Advocate, the notion, will condemn the world’s sin (“…prove the world wrong about sin….” ). The law of “right and wrong” exposes sin as “wrong” – inexhaustibly throughout our lives. We cannot get away from being reminded that sin is wrong because the Holy Spirit, that notion, in us constantly condemns it. In short: God condemns evil every time it occurs! The Holy Spirit, then, is God’s referee or Advocate for Eternal Truth, whether we like it or not.
Now you may be thinking, “Your ‘ah-ha’ moment, Bruce, is a noble view, but life isn’t as simple as ‘right or wrong’ – or ‘black or white’. Life is more complex than that. Real life is made up of ‘shades of gray’”. If you’re thinking something like that, you’d be right. Gray is a mix of black and white, and in my life experience, if you take the time, absolute “right or wrong”, in any given life situation of gray is, at bottom known. That’s why God gave us a conscience; it’s a part of the notion. We need our conscience to help us to discern right from wrong in a world of gray and steeped in sin.
Here’s the bottom line: God gave us the freedom to choose right from wrong in our own way. But the question is: why would God, who loves us, place such a burden of choice on us in a world beset by such a powerful influence as sin? The answer is He didn’t. He gave us a partner, a guide. God’s Holy Spirit is our guide to navigate through our world of right or wrong, or simply, to avoid sin. For me the Holy Spirit as my guide represents the third leg on that stool I’ve been searching for. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is, to me, now comprehendible: Father, Son and Holy Guide. For me, my Holy Guide is the missing third leg of the Trinity. So now, I’ve got to wrap this conversation up because I have a cow to milk. AMEN.