Knowing Faith, Experiencing Faith

This sermon was delivered by the Rev. Kyle Seibert at Our Savior Lutheran Church & Campus Ministry on Sunday, May 27,2018, Holy Trinity Sunday. The readings and Psalm were Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17.

Grace and peace to you from the Triune God.

When I was in college, I was introduced to the concept of a spiritual director. These are people who specialize in walking with another person as they grow in their own spirituality. A spiritual director helps their directee identify and listen to the activity of God in their life, and then helps their directee respond to God’s presence in their life. Those seeking spiritual direction often meet with their director regularly to talk, discern, pray, and be challenged to grow in their faith. I’m not sure if a spiritual director would like me to say this, but I often categorize spiritual direction as a sort of “spiritual therapy.” Spiritual direction is often a strong presence in Roman Catholic communities, so it is no surprise that I found myself engaged with my first spiritual director when I was a student at Boston College, a Jesuit Roman Catholic institution.

When I moved to Chicago, I knew that I wanted to find a spiritual director for myself. I knew that it was important to my spiritual health and it held me accountable to be aware of the presence of God in my life. I did my research, shot off a few emails, and made a few phone calls. Eventually, I was speaking on the phone with a woman who would be my spiritual director for my three years in Chicago. Sister Jane was a Dominican nun and we chatted on the phone about myself, about her style, and tried to see if we might be a good match for one another. It felt oddly like a first date over the phone. But then, Sister Jane said something to me that sticks with me to this day, and cuts like a knife. She said, “It sounds like you know quite an awful lot about God, but maybe what you really need is to know God.”… I knew a lot about God, but what I needed was to know God. Sister Jane hit the nail on the head. I mean, my call to ordained ministry is deeply rooted in the academic study of theology, doctrine, ecclesiology, etc. I made my decision to pursue ordained ministry sitting in a classroom talking about soteriology with Professor Jason Donnelly, who preached at my installation. But what I really needed was to know God, not to know more about God.

If you have ever fallen in love, you know that your love was not merely the sum total of different facts about your lover. Knowing everything about the one you love is not the same thing as actually loving that person. In fact, some of those things you know about that person might make other people run away. And yet, somehow, your love for them remains strong. I often find this same thing to be true as I sit with families in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death. There are certain facts about that person that are important, and these things are often listed in one’s obituary, but these facts are not why the family loved that person. Instead, it was the other, unspoken things that are not even noteworthy. It was the experience and relationship with that person that fostered their love, not mere knowledge about that person.

Sometimes, we can all get stuck in that knowledge about our faith instead of experiencing our faith- our relationship with God. These are two radically different things. We might have the prayers memorized. We might know when to sit, when to stand, and when to kneel within the liturgy. We might have the words to the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed written on our hearts. We may be able to sing hundreds of hymns. We may even have Luther’s explanations in the Small Catechism memorized from some traumatic childhood confirmation class experiences. We might have well formulated theologies and be able to defend the most sacred of church doctrines. These things are important. I love these things. I try to cultivate these things among communities of Christians. And yet, all of these things are knowing about faith; they are relegated to the category of knowing about God. However, they are not knowing God. The sum total of these things do not add up to a vibrant relationship with a God who liberates and blows opens our expectations. Knowing God is quite different. It is a dynamic relationship in which we begin to realize that God is all around us. The church today is at serious risk for knowing about God but not for knowing God- and many would argue that the church doesn’t even really know very much about God, either!

Today is Trinity Sunday- this is why my stole is white and the paraments are white. Today is a day in the church year where we celebrate the Trinity. Many preachers will try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity from the pulpit today; carefully tip toeing around the heresies of modalism, trithesism, arianism, docetism, adoptionism, and many other -isms to try to teach their people about the Trinity. This has its proper place. But today, instead of preaching about the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- I want to challenge us to move towards not just knowing about God, but knowing God.

And this is the same challenge that Jesus poses to Nicodemus in our Gospel text today. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark cover of night and presents Jesus with a conundrum. Nicodemus says to Jesus- “Jesus, we know all these things about you and intellectually we know you come from God, but something doesn’t add up. How can people be transformed and born again and be given new life by this knowledge if we have it and aren’t transformed?” “Ah,” Jesus replied, “it is through a relationship with the Holy Spirit that people are transformed.” In other words- Nicodemus knew plenty about God, but didn’t know God. And Jesus points to the central experience of faith that Nicodemus missed that was right in front of him: relationship with God.

This Trinity Sunday is not about an antiquated doctrine that gives us the “right answers” in our lives of faith. Instead, this Trinity Sunday points to a God that exists in relationship to us. Surely there is a relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Within Godself, there is a divine relationship that invites us in to dwell in that relationship. Not just to know about the relationship, but to be a part of it. Today, Jesus invites not only Nicodemus, but also us, into a relationship with the Triune God. To totally give of ourselves to this God who loves us so much, that the Father sent his Son to die for us, and sent the Spirit to dwell with us. Not to condemn us, but instead to give us new life. To birth us by water and the spirit again and again so that we might be transformed by God’s love. And there is the promise. That an encounter with God is not merely an intellectual encounter, but rather an encounter that fills us with a love so potent, so powerful, so contagious, that the world just might be saved by it. Thanks be to God.

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