I was blessed with a friend in college named Jim. He had a dry sense of humor and often made laugh out loud. We spent a great deal of time together and I came to see his deep hunger and thirst for God. But for some reason many people often overlooked him. Sadly, as the years went by some folks from our college days would run into Jim and ask, “How’s Doug?” This always made me feel bad for him. Jim and I have stayed friends for all these years, and I’ve had the joy of watching his children grow up and get married and even begin having children.
A few years ago, Jim joined with me and a few other men to go to a conference in North Carolina. We stayed at an inn on Black Mtn instead of staying at the conference center. This inn had a large lobby with all kinds of old couches and comfortable spots to sit. One night after the conference, we stayed down in the lobby talking deep into the night.
In the middle of the night, a young couple walked through the lobby. A young, hippie-looking couple. Suddenly they walked over toward us and said, “Are you all talking about Jesus?” The next thing we knew that had joined our little circle. Then the girl started speaking a word to each one of us that was deeply encouraging. She said an encouraging word to everyone but my friend Jim. Once again he was overlooked. I was feeling so bad for him that I don’t even remember what she said to me.
I thought they were though and getting ready to leave, then she turned back to my friend Jim. She said, I didn’t hear anything for you. Let me pray for you. As she prayed she said, “Jim, I don’t think you’ve ever been properly welcomed into the family of God. You are welcomed and we’re glad you’re here.” Tears came down Jim’s face for she spoke deep into the pain of his heart.
As I think about Trinity Sunday, I am thinking about this kind of welcome into the Koinonia of God, the fellowship of God. Our Lord has come seeking after us in the far country when we could not find our way home, He embraces us, welcomes us, and says, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Last week we reflected on Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit of God and Isaac reminded that we are “Declaring by our words and our actions to all the world that Act 3 is the destruction of all evil, of all death, of all things that separate us from God, that resurrection is not simply the dead coming to life but the re-creation of all things, all earth all the seas all the skies all the planets and all the stars and all the suns.”
We are commissioned to make known the astounding hospitality of God where he comes to the stranger and says, “It’s so good to see you. I’ve been looking forward to you coming. I want you to meet some of my friends that will really enjoy getting to know you.” He leads the outsider into a family. We go out on his behalf by his leading with his welcome to the stranger.
If we look at the Gospels, we see Jesus welcoming Nicodemus and the woman at the well. He is welcoming the faithful Nathanael and the unfaithful Zacchaeus. Then after Pentecost, we see the Spirit welcoming Paul the Pharisees and the Ethiopian eunuch. These people are being invited into a family, a community, a fellowship.
This ecclesia, this called out family takes shape in a local gathering, but it is also part of a larger family that stretches across the time and nations to include a vast communion of God’s people from age to age. By God’s grace, we have the privilege of experiencing glimpses of the grand communion in various ways throughout our lives.
It can be easy for me to think about all the ways churches have wounded and failed to live into the Great Commission, but I could easily tell a different story by thinking about all the surprises of love I’ve experienced among God’s people. I would hope that you also might remember with me some of the great blessings you’ve enjoyed across the years from the surprise of love among God’s people.
When I entered college, my sister and I decided to visit a big college church. The first day we arrived, the college students met in the church gym. About 150 to 200 college students attended the class.
The moment we arrived, we felt at home. A couple folks walked us around the room and introduced us to a few other people. Several weeks later, we ended up going out of town with a group from the church to Six Flags. I spent the trip talking with a guy named Carlos Ritchie about Simon & Garfunkel, poetry, music, art, and faith. Suddenly I was part of a family of friends where I was welcome to be myself and not simply try to act “spiritual” all the time. This was the first hint of a faith that touched every aspect of life.
I eventually started a little drama team at that church, and we made up silly skits to perform in the college class each week. We even performed some skits on college campuses in the middle of the cafeterias, on the street, and other places. At the time, I was reading a bunch of absurd literature, so these skits took that shape. They were bizarre and funny and usually offered a provocative question.
During my years at this church, I experienced a dramatic revival that led to me to enter the ministry. While the preaching and prayer ministries deeply touched me, the real revival was rooted in hospitality. Before entering that church, I thought the worst thing that could ever happen would be to serve as a pastor. In that place of deep friendship and rich prayer, I was changed. I experienced a revival that went far deeper than walking forward at a meeting. My life from that time on was dedicated to serving the Lord wherever and however He led.
After college, I went to a black Pentecostal church because I wanted to learn about mission to the needy in our culture. I met Kelly there and we both worked with the children’s ministries. Kelly went into the housing developments in Knoxville and spent time with children each week. We were married in 1988 and those children sang at our wedding.
Two weeks later, we moved out into Walland to a place called Restoration Ranch, a rehabilitation ministry that the church owned. I worked with men who were struggling with addictions. Kelly and I had all sorts of adventures there. We ate with the folks living there, and we the food ran low we all experienced it. One day, Kelly was eating cereal when she saw all these black dots in her cereal. She asked the cook, and he thought it was part of the cereal. But then the black dots started moving. They were ants.
One time when we were low on food, the only meat we had was frozen pork. For several months, we ate pork for every meal. Needless to say, I’ve never fixed much pork since then. During the days, I led a Bible study with the guys and then we would work on the property, cutting food, feeding the animals, or other chores. They taught me about the grace and love of God as much or more than I ever taught them. Now it seems like a brief moment, but during that moment I tasted something of church life and koinonia that gave me a glimpse of how in Acts, a group of strangers could become a family almost overnight.
After those years, I’ve was asking the question, how do you encourage a place where that kind of vital life can thrive? When I went back to school, this was my driving question. My graduate school allowed me to develop my own program that utilized professors and courses from the seminary and the communication school. We asked these questions together.
In a Theology of Communication course, we were asked to write up a personal statement of faith. One guy in the class simply read the Nicene creed. I was barely familiar with the creeds at that point or I would have joined him. But I did make the Trinity the focal point of my statement. I had come to see that the only way I could begin to think and study about community would be in light of the Triune God. The writing of the Eastern Orthodox theologian Boris Bobrinsky introduced me to the Fathers and to the rich tradition of discussion on the Triune God. He referred to the Holy Spirit as the Fellowship of God, or more specifically as the Koinonia of God. He not only altered my understanding of church, he altered my understanding of all human communication as rooted in breath and word.
Bobrinksy and Dmitrue Staniloae helped me to see how all our communal joy is an anticipation of the perfect communion between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Staniloae invites us to imagine attending a concert where we are deeply moved and respond with joyous applause. He suggests this is but a tiny glimpse of the deep love and celebration within the Triune God. Chesterton continues this theme when he suggests that we have sinned and grown old and God is younger than we. He is suggesting that we can barely handle joy and love and delight because our sin limits our capacity to be fully human.
Our Gospel reading today ends with the familiar promise of John 3:16,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If you’ll remember, Jesus prays that we might have eternal life, and then he says, “this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3).
Jesus leads us into this communion that we may know the joy he shares with the Father. He prays, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 1721-24). He prays two times in a row that we would be one even as he and the Father are one. This deep communion with the people of God is a communion rooted in the communion of the Triune God. And this communion is a sign to the world that the world might believe.
Our communion, our koinonia is rooted in the love of the Triune God and is modeled in the mutual loving reciprocation of Father, Son and Spirit. As we live into the reality of this divine communion, we become living icons of the love of God. How do we do this? I don’t know that there is an easy technique or method given to us in Scripture.
It is clear that all community is bound up with our redemption in Christ. Ephesians 2 shows us that we are raised together in Christ, forming one new man. Paul’s letter also teaches us that our allegiance is not rooted in race, gender, class status, or any other earthly distinction but it is bound in Christ and made known by His Spirit of Love.
Over the years, I’ve come to think our experiences in vital communities are glimpses of this Triune life of God. And these experiences are gifts. Gifts of God. All through life, we are learning and relearning what it means to love one another, to share life together, to pour out our lives for one another, to rest in the grace of one another. We are learning how to tell our stories and how to be a community of memory.
We are learning and practicing how to be a grateful people who thank God for the gift of other people in our lives and we follow him into the communities where he calls us. Sometimes we are being welcomed and sometimes we are the ones welcoming.
As we celebrate Trinity Sunday, I think we would do well to simply remember and give thanks for the times in our lives when we have been welcomed into God’s family.